Tuesday, 31 January 2012

My Favourite Pubs - Helgi's, Kirkwall

Window at Helgi's

How far are you willing to go for a decent pint? If the answer is a few hundred miles and a ferry or two thrown in then you might want to check out Helgi's in Kirkwall, Orkney. (Unless you're Orcadian, of course, and then it may only be a short walk/bike/bus ride.) Or - if you've got to John o'Groats and spent 15 minutes there, you'll have had enough - so why not hop on the ferry and try Orkney instead?

Kirkwall Harbour

 Helgi's is right on the harbour in Kirkwall, lovely for gazing out of the window at the fishing boats on the quay, especially on summer evenings when the days are long and the nights practically non-existent.

It majors in food and I suppose you could call it a gastro-bar which I normally hate, but this one gets the balance right. I did try the food one evening - haggis lasagne which was interesting  - and surprisingly good.

Helgi's has a Nordic feel to it, as does much of Orkney, not surprising really as for centuries Orkney was part of the Kingdom of Norway. In 2009 Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, when asked to name his nearest mainline railway station on an expenses form allegedly wrote 'Oslo'.

Orkney is also packed with megalithic monuments including the awesome Ring of Brodgar.Orkneyjar is an excellent website on the Islands and their history if you're interested in finding out more.

Beer is supplied by Rob Hill's Highland Brewing Co. at Swannay Brewery. My favourite is Scapa Special, which is bloody gorgeous. It's a Pale Ale and at 4.2% is my ideal strength. It has a hoppy flavour, and was always lovely and fresh.

I believe Helgi's has made it into the CAMRA Good Beer Guide again in 2012, if you should find yourself that far north, it's well worth a visit.

Kirkwall Harbour

Ring of Brodgar
Standing Stone - Ring of Brodgar

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Adam Henson and a lot of mud on Mendip

Digging out the map to go to Mendip. Mick, as usual, has been taking the mick and deriding my insistence that we take it. 'I know Mendip like the back of my hand!' he protested. 'We don't need a map, you just take it for comfort. I bet you even use a map to get to the kitchen in your flat! What do you do, negotiate a tight squeeze under the bed, scale TV ridge and go over table mountain to get to the kettle?'

I decided to rise above it - after all, my mother always said that sarcasm was the lowest form of wit. 'I'm taking a map,' I said haughtily. 'You don't have to look at it if you don't want to.'

Burrington Cafe - and my car
We headed off to Burrington Coombe, stopping on the way to pick up some provisions for lunch. At Burrington I faffed around for a bit getting my boots just right. I had an existing blister and didn't want to exacerbate it. Finally I was ready and we set off. After walking ten yards we reached the entrance to the Burrington Inn/cafe.

'Fancy a cuppa?' said Mick.
'Ooh, yes please,' I said. I bent down to untie my boot laces.
'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Taking my boots off.'
'But you've only just put them on.'
'Yes, but I can't wear them inside.' The boots, naturally, were still covered in mud from my previous walk. So Mick strode on in wearing his clean boots. I timed it well, he was just paying for the tea when I had shed my boots and joined him.

After half-an-hour drinking tea and watching walkers and cyclists going up and down the road we heaved ourselves up. I spent another ten minutes faffing with my boots and getting them just right, then finally, we set off up Link Lane and then turned right along the path towards Dolebury Warren, so named because in medieval times it was used to breed rabbits. After all the tea we had drunk we both frequently found that we needed to run behind a bush to have a pee but at last we reached the hillfort at the end of the Warren where we decided it was time for a snack break. Usually the views are superb from here, out into the Bristol Channel, but today a low mist hung across the horizon. It was still a lovely place to tarry for a while though, amongst ancient hawthorn trees lined with delicate pale green lichen, an indication of the clean air up on Mendip.

Descending the other side, we had a choice, left into Rowberrow woods, or right to the road.
'Fancy a pint?' said Mick hopefully.
I pretended to ponder this question for a while, stroking my chin and umming and aahing, before putting him out of his misery by saying 'Oh, go on then!'

We headed up the road to the Swan at Rowberrow. This is a fine country pub, one of my favourites.

When we got there, one of the members of staff had just lit the fire and the smoke was entering the room rather than going up the chimney. 'It'll clear in a minute,' said the woman at the bar waving a menu about her.
'It's low atmospheric pressure,' said Mick. 'No draw up the chimney.'

I looked at him dubiously. Was he right? Or was he talking bollocks again? I decided to say nothing and studied the pumps in front of me. There was London Pride, Butcombe, usual thing. But what was this? Adam Henson's Rare Breed brewed by Butcombe. I hadn't heard of that before.
'Isn't he that handsome farmer on Countryfile?' I asked.
The barmaid nodded. She handed over a Butcombe booklet with a large picture of Adam looking very hunky.
'Yep, that's him,' I said. 'I'll have a pint of that then.'
'He came in here, you know,' she said. 'He was very nice.'
'Bet he looked lovely in his wellies,' I sighed.
Mick snorted. 'He's not handsome,' he said. 'But I'll have a pint of his beer anyway.'

It was a lovely pint so we had a couple more and then decided we had better continue our walk or we would never get back. We headed through the woods of Rowberrow Bottom to Tynings Farm and then up onto Blackdown.

We soon passed a bunker, a relic from World War Two when the authorities had attempted to fool the enemy by making a deserted hilltop look like Bristol using a few lightbulbs and some burning straw. I'm not sure how successful this was though.

On up to the trig point on Beacon Batch. I had forgotten that in the winter the top of the hill is basically one massive peaty bog and we slipped and slithered our way along the path. It's odd, but you rarely see anyone on Beacon Batch until you get to the trig point which is always packed. People huddle round the centre stone, drinking out of flasks and eating sandwiches, having a natter. I wonder where they go, because once you leave the trig point you never see anyone else until you get to the car park.

We reached the road and I was all for walking back down to the car. But Mick insisted on crossing the road to Burrington Ham. This meant another stretch of mud and then a very steep scramble down scree to get back down to the road. I sighed. Still, ten minutes later I had a good laugh when Mick indulged in a bit of serious mud sliding on his backside.
Mud Surfing - Old Man Down

Getting down the steep, wet, muddy and very slippery slope was challenging. We achieved it by means of an involuntary run from tree to tree, coming to a sudden stop each time by heading directly for the trunk and crashing into it. It became wearing after a while and I was almost relieved when we ran out of trees and tottered to the bottom of the slope. Mick finished the walk by falling over for a second time. I looked at his filthy trousers.
'You're not getting in the car like that,' I said. 'You'll have to walk.'
For a split second I think he thought I was serious. He did manage to find a plastic bag to sit on though.

Rock of Ages, Burrington
'I think,' said Mick wearily, as I dropped him off at his house, 'that I have found a cure for my insomnia.'

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A scurry around Swildons

My friend Frank is going away to do a bit of travelling down under. Before he goes we agreed we should make an effort to get down a cave. As it happened Dave-the-Cave and co (Bristol District Caving Club)  had planned a short trip around Swildons Upper Series so Frank, Sim and I decided to tag along.

It's January. It's cold. It's dark. It's raining. And Swildons happens to be at Priddy, the highest village on Mendip. So, inevitably, just before setting out I had the usual 'why the fuck am I doing this?' moment.  I forced myself to throw my kit in the car, resolutely stuck out my chin and headed off. Halfway there I realised I had forgotten my wellies and had to go back for them. Ho hum.

At least at Priddy there are changing facilities for cavers. These aren't exactly salubrious - an old cow barn full of birdshit - and the light no longer functions so you have to change by the light of your caving lamp - but it beats standing on the side of the road shivering in one's undies trying to avoid being lit up by the glare of passing headlights, which is the usual procedure. A glamorous sport, caving.

The cave entrance is three (very muddy) fields away from the road, so we slipped and slid along until we found the cave entrance.

Jack Osbourne on his trip down here was none too impressed by the entrance to Swildons, although whoever was leading him was rather meanly winding him up. Kate Humble got on rather better on her trip.

Me, inelegantly sliding in to the first chamber
There was lots of lovely water gushing through after the recent rains. This was only the second time I have been in Swildons since the entrance all moved around - the slide in is slightly more tricky now. But once into the first chamber we regrouped and then set off on a jolly nice trip down the 'dry way' up to the old 40 (another feature which has become redundant since previous cave movements changed it's layout) and down to the top of the ladder pitch before slithering up the wet way, involving  much lying around in cold water and climbs against the flow of the water. By the time we came out we were all drenched but exuberant and I had remembered why I drag myself down here on a cold night in January.

A caving trip is, of course, considered unethical if it is not followed immediately by a visit to the pub, in this case, Hunters Lodge Inn (see post dated 17 December 2011 here), also known to cavers as the Centre of the Universe. So once we had changed out of our sopping things it was a short trip down the road where I soon got stuck into a superb cauliflower cheese and a pint of Potholer. Frank, as always, went for the Butcombe.  I almost got into serious trouble as my phone rang when I was in the pub. Luckily it was very noisy in there and Roger didn't notice. Hastily put it on silent before he nailed it to the wall though.

A smashing evening all round and hopefully another caving trip soon. It's been far too long...

Monday, 23 January 2012

My favourite pubs - The Angel Inn, Grosmont

Cycling from Land's End to John o'Groats a couple of years ago, my companion and I had wearly dragged our bikes up the hill to the little village of Grosmont in the Welsh Marches. (We were taking the scenic route.) I will confess that there was a modicum of bad language spilling forth as we had been unable to get into the campsite at the bottom of the hill.

But at the top of the hill we miruculously found The Angel Inn. And what a find it was.

Like The Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, The Angel is a community owned pub. When the pub was faced with closure in 2005, half-a-dozen regulars at the pub formed a consortium and bought the pub between them. It now forms part of what appears to be a thriving little village community. We were welcomed into the pub and bought pints of beer to wish us on our way. It was a most convivial evening.

The pub became The Daffodil for the 2007 film The Baker, a brilliant comedy filmed in Grosmont starring Damian Lewis as a hit man experiencing a mid-life crisis, hiding out in a small Welsh village.

There was an excellent choice of beers and I tried three delightful ones that I had not tasted before:

Cwrw Haf from Tomos Watkin in Swansea. Being English I couldn't pronounce it of course. Pointing at the pump I said: 'Erm, one of those please.' Apparently it is pronounced 'koo-roo hàrve'. Anyway, it tasted very nice and refreshing.

.410 from Golden Valley Ales in Peterchurch, Herefordshire, a golden coloured, slightly fruity beer. I just asked for four-one-oh, missing out the dot. It's called this because it's 4.1% and is also a reference to the .410 shotgun - as seen on the label.

Finally, Butty Bach (Little Friend) from the Wye Valley Brewery at Stoke Lacy in Herefordshire. I loved this beer. Golden in colour it was not too strong, either in flavour or in ABV, and went down extremely well.

The Three Castles Walk , also here, is a popular 20 mile circular route.I think I may have to make it my business to head down here pretty soon.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

To Bradford and back. (Not that one, the on-Avon one)

Since Christmas I have been suffering from an evil cough, but finally it abated enough for me to venture out on my bike for the first ride of 2012. The original plan was a loop through Radstock in east Mendip but there is a monster hill on the route so at the last minute I decided on a completely flat cycle and towpath 25 mile route from Keynsham to Bradford-on-Avon and back. As it was a little while since I last rode my bike any distance, I decided that would probably be enough for me.
My friend Adrian was accompanying me. He turned up with his bike looking very professional. Adrian cycles sportives for fun.
Uh oh. (Small internal panic.)
'Erm, Adrian, I'm not very fast,' I warned him.
'That's fine,' he said.

We shot off along the lanes to Saltford and got onto the Bristol Bath cycle path. This is also Sustrans Route 4 which starts in Fishguard and ends in London. In an effort to show I was not completely useless I set a good pace even though it was nearly killing me. I tried not to allow my gasps for breath to become audible, although he must have noticed that my face was now an interesting shade of puce.

Mercifully at Bath we joined the path alongside the River Avon for a short stretch which necessitated  slowing down and gave me a chance to catch my breath.
'I thought you said you were slow,' Adrian said.
'Well, you know, one has to try,'  I gasped, trying to sound casual.

Very soon though we were forced off onto the road as the towpath was closed. The river is also closed to boaters, I hear, because of concerns about the safety of Victoria Bridge. This bridge was the first one designed
 The Bridge of Oich -
if you look closely you can see my bike...
by James Dredge. Dredge was a brewer from Bath who designed the bridge in 1836 to a revolutionary new design, which he used in other bridges all over the country. That the bridge has been allowed to deteriorate to the stage where is it about to fall down is a disgrace. Apparently the last time it was properly looked at was in the nineteen-fifties. Dredge also built the Bridge of Oich which we passed on our Lejog a couple of years ago. In contrast, that bridge has been restored and looks fabulous. I hope the Bath one receives similar treatment in the near future.

On the road we opted for a belt down the A36 through traffic road from Twerton to Widcombe  where, with some relief, we got off the road and joined the towpath at the start of the Bath end of the Kennet and Avon Canal. This was not Route 4, as was evident when we had to haul our bikes up a flight of steps and cross the road to rejoin the towpath on the other side  
Widcombe flight, Bath
at the entrance to Sidney Gardens. Back on the towpath it was nice and quiet, although a bit puddly. Adrian had brought his mountain bike, a good choice. I only have one bike - my Dawes Horizon - but we managed to bump along ok until we reached Dundas Aqueduct and stopped for a cup of tea.

The cafe just down the spur of the Somerset Coal Canal is nice enough, but why are the staff always so miserable? Every time I have been here it's the same, you can barely get a word or a smile out of them, it's quite noticable. I don't think I will patronise them again. Still, a nice cup of tea before the final push on to Bradford-on-Avon, a stretch along the Limpley Stoke Valley and which was pleasant and uneventful, aside from the dead badger we saw floating in the canal. Yeuch.

In contrast, the people at the Lock Inn Cafe are always friendly. I went in to order our sandwiches, and as we had forgotten bike locks Adrian stayed outside with the bikes. Oh no! On the counter was a beer pump. It was Wadworth's Boundary. I was tempted, I had not tried this one before. Such a shame not to. I ordered us a half each. It was a new barrel and needed pulling through, so I had already sat down when the proprietor brought them over.

Adrian looked at the beer in dismay. 'What's that?' he asked.
'Um, beer. Haven't tried this one before,' I said lamely.
'I didn't want to drink today,' he said.
So I had to force them both down. Which wasn't too much of a trial, admittedly.

Bradford on Avon

After we left the cafe and headed back down the towpath I told Adrian that I had detected a key difference in our cycling styles.
'What's that?' he said.
'You cycle to get fit. I cycle to get to the pub.'
Adrian agreed that this was indeed so.

It turned out Ade also had to get back home for an important phonecall so we belted back along the towpath getting pretty muddy in the process. By the time we headed back through Bath I was exhausted and my legs were aching. This was not good. I need to up my training if I'm going to cycle Ireland's End to End in April as I plan.
'Time for a cup of tea?' I asked hopefully.
'No, not really, we'd best get on,' he said.
Aaargh. We made good time though so thankfully could stop for a quick coffee at the Bird in Hand in Saltford before the last leg back to Keynsham. Twenty-five flat miles and I was done in! As soon as Adrian left I went and lay down on the bed for a jolly good nap.

Re-cycle sculpture on Kennet and Avon

Monday, 2 January 2012

My favourite pubs: The All Nations Inn, Madelely

The story of brewing in the UK in the twentieth century - or at least the first three quarters of it, was the story of increasing concentration in the hands of a few large brewers. Brewpubs - where beer is brewed on the premises were once common but by the early nineteen-seventies there were just four. Thankfully, the situation is now vastly improved, there are now well over a hundred brewpubs in the UK.

Quiz question: one of the original four was the All Nations Inn, where were the other three? Answer at the bottom of the page. :-)

The All Nations Beerhouse opened in 1831 and began brewing the following year. Except for a brief hiatus from 2001-2003 it has had a brewery on the site ever since. In 2009 the brewery was rebranded as Shires and supplies the All Nations with its house bitters, Dabley Ale and Dabley Gold and Coalport Dodger Mild. There is always at least one other guest ale on offer, usually another local beer, and a cider (not that I drink  that stuff).

The All Nations is a pub that has not been mucked about with. It's one long room with a real fire in the grate in winter and a small central bar and solid wooden tables and benches. It is, in short, a proper pub. I also like the fact it displays its prices on one of those price boards from the seventies. I always thought it was the law that pubs should display their prices clearly, but these days hardly any seem to do so.

It is the perfect place to spend a peaceful weekend afternoon, reading the papers and supping on one of the always excellent beers, with one of the pub's excellent cob rolls or toasties to soak it up. A trip to the loo involves stepping over the dogs which can almost always be found stretched out across the floor or in front of the fire and then a trot (or a sprint if it's raining) across the back courtyard to the outside toilet.  The pub is popular with locals and visitors alike, being just a step up the hill from Ironbridge Gorge and opposite the 'Victorian Town' at Blists Hill.

Its situation, on the opposite hill also makes it the perfect place to view the very popular Blists Hill firework display in November, I had a fantastic evening here watching the fireworks and enjoying the hotdogs and burgers offered by the pub, and in the summer the courtyard is used for live music entertainment.

Shropshire, in my opinion, is the best county in the country for decent pubs, and the All Nations is up there with the best of them. It came as no surprise to me that it won the local Camra pub of the year award, even with such excellent competition in the area.  As I've just bought an annual ticket for the Ironbridge Museums, I have an excuse to visit the pub a few more times over the next few months, not that any excuse is needed...

Iron bridge Ironbridge

Sign in Blists Hill

Blists Hill

Quiz Answer:

The other brewhouses still in existence in the seventies were:
The Blue Anchor, Helston
The Three Tuns, Bishops Castle
The Old Swan, Netherton

History of the All Nations and other brewpubs