Enjoy Playing Away From Home . . .

Saturday 28 June 2014


Bruces Brewery and the Firkin chain of pubs came into existence in 1979, when David Bruce started brewing at his own 'brewpub', the Goose and Firkin, in one of my old stomping grounds, Southwark, London SE1.

I first contracted the Firkin 'bug' when I worked at Lewisham Hospital in the 1980s, and discovered the Fox and Firkin, which was either the second or third Firkin pub; I like to remember it as the second. As at the Goose and Firkin, the Fox and Firkin had its own brewing equipment and brewed its own ales on the premises. Indeed, when Bruce sold off his 11 Firkin pubs to Midsummer Leisure in 1988, eight of them brewed their own ales, the other three having their ales provided by a nearby brewpub in the chain.

Sadly, Punch Taverns wound up the Firkin chain in 2001, after buying the pubs in 1999. In the years since 1988, Firkin pubs had emerged all over the country, usually in 3 pub clusters, with only one brewpub in the cluster providing ales for them all. For example, the Felis and Firkin in Kenilworth had its ales supplied from one of the Derby Firkins, I believe it was the Flamingo and Firkin.

Interestingly, when I carried out some research at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University, I stayed in a B&B in Kenilworth (1996/7), and there were 4 or 5  Kenilworth pubs in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide, whilst the Felis and Firkin had not yet made the cut. However, the Firkin ales were by far superior to anything served up at any of the other pubs, in fact, the Felis appeared to have kept its beer very much better than any of the others, so you can guess where I ended up drinking!?! 

Anyway, I had previously drank quite frequently at the Fox and Firkin in the 1980s and, though they did brew other ales too, I have no memory of them, I can only remember drinking Bruce's famous 6% full-bodied Dogbolter, a better strong bitter would be difficult to find, certainly in those days!

The pub itself was quite basic, but certainly well attended, and I used to love watching the brewing process whenever possible. I certainly enjoyed the aromas, despite detesting similar smells when I was a young child and went on school swimming trips. The smell coming over the road from Youngs Brewery, blended with the heavy chlorine of Wandsworth Swimming Baths, was awful, I seem to remember (the brewery buildings still exist, but are now unused, and the baths were pulled down and built over years ago). Whatever, I now quite enjoy the aromas of the brewing process and, having worked for a brewery up in Sheffield, I can link each individual smell within the brewing sequence.  

I couldn't find any photographs of the Fox and Firkin from the 1980s, but this is what it looks like now, not too much different really. Though it is not a brewpub anymore, it appears to be thriving as an alternative music venue as well as a pub, just round the corner from Ladywell, at 316 Lewisham High Street. "For Fox Sake get me a Firkin Pint", yep, I own up, I did own a t-shirt from the Fox and Firkin with this 'motto' emblazoned on the chest, around an image of a fox and a firkin of ale, strangely enough. I wish I still had the shirt, which would have been nice, but occasionally I do still wear a Fitzooth and Firkin t-shirt acquired when I lived in Sheffield!
As I said earlier, Dogbolter was the ale of choice, always really, so I must have been challenged, merry or drunk, quite regularly after leaving work at Lewisham Hospital, and on days off too no doubt, but the good new is...

David Bruce (above) is now Chairman of West Berkshire Brewery (website), the head brewer of which, Will Twomey, has very recently reproduced Dogbolter from the original recipe, quality...

I so need to get to a pub that sells Dogbolter very soon, cheers David and Will!


Thursday 19 June 2014

Beer Festival @ Red Lion, Snargate, 20-22 June

From tomorrow for 3 days is this years beer festival at the Red Lion in Snargate, Kent TN29 9UQ, with music on Saturday afternoon and evening! 

The weather is going to be gorgeous, meaning the garden with crackin' views will be well used, and the ales will be gorgeous too! Sadly, I cannot make this years event, but see my previous reviews for my opinion of this real family-run public house, if you're nearby, it will be a worthwhile visit to make.

Enjoy the festival, you lucky peeps, cheers! 

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Battle to Hastings...

The Routemeister and I walked along the 1066 Country Walk (mostly): caught the bus to Battle, then from there to Westfield, where we stopped at The Plough (website). 

This is a new pub for me, so good to 'tick' a pub this day, and is situated at the south-eastern edge of Westfield at The Moor, and I think it is on Rock Lane, at least that is what I believe the road is called. A nice old building, haven't been able to find out about its history, sadly, that includes a large restaurant area (40+ covers), plus bare wooden boarded floor throughout the bar area, wooden panelled bar, and wooden panels up to waist high throughout. There are also 2 games tables, including pool, and television, for the conversationally challenged. Some excellent music nights too, including the local band Cushty booked for Christmas Eve night, so there's good entertainment for the locals that night then! 

The service was warm and friendly, and the barmaid was an excellent model for barmaids, she had a very husky voice too, apparently always as she wasn't suffering from a cold! 4 handpumps, though only 2 were used on this visit. Being a Shepherd Neame pub, mostly their own ales are served up, of course, though their website suggests guest ales are sometimes available. This day had their better pale bitter offering, Whitstable Bay (3.9%), featured before on this blog, and a new ale for me, Samuel Adams Blonde Ambition (4.5%). The Blonde Ambition is a collaboration with the Boston (USA) brewer, Samuel Adams, and described as an "American Craft Ale". This is a nice dry pale golden bitter, with that hint of walnut dust dryness in the aftertaste, pretty damned decent actually!  

We returned to the 1066 Country Walk (See website) and carried on to Icklesham, where we dropped into the Robin Hood on the Main Road (to the west), a 17th century inn that has been in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide for quite a few years now. I have discussed the Robin Hood before, it serves food, has a pool table etc, but also, it has an excellent very large outside area at the back, with a great view across the valley towards Hastings Country Park. Real ciders, and up to 7 real ales are served. On this day we had Potbelly Pigs Do Fly, a 4.4% golden bitter with a hint of caramel, it was OK, but the view was better!  

From Icklesham, we wandered down into the valley, and back up to Hastings Country Park, coming down into Hastings 'old town' from the East Hill. We were a trifle tired, and had little time before we ate dinner, so only popped in for one pint, this time at the First Inn Last Out (FILO) in the High Street. I am going to write a bit more about the FILO very soon, so shall just say we had a pint of their own Gold (4.8%), and it was excellent, cheers!

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Congratulations to the Dolphin!

Congratulations, once again, to the Dolphin at Rock a Nore in Hastings, for winning the CAMRA South East Sussex Pub of the Year in consecutive years!

For those who do not know the Dolphin, it has been in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide for many years now, and is a genuine family-run pub, with Mark, Mo, Laura and Louise as main participants in that success (Frazer, their son, managing to avoid getting into the photographs on this celebratory evening, though he was there somewhere!).  

The congratulations has to go to all of the family, who have their unique positions and roles within the business. Of course, this being a CAMRA award, the ales have a significant contribution to make towards receiving this award, and Mark keeps an excellent cellar, with 3 regular ales, and 3 guest ales, at any one time.  

Of course, to outdo other pubs, there also has to be other factors going toward why a pub wins the award. The Dolphin is a friendly establishment, and this is provided not just because of the warmth of the 4 family members in this photograph, but because all other staff members reflect the spirit of the family and continuity at all times the pub is open. In addition, excellent day-time food is served up by Maz and her team in the kitchen, with a special 'Fish Supper' night on Mondays, great value too, the pub is a centre for the local community, raising many thousands of £s for local charities every year, and also helping to preserve the Stacey Marie across the road from the pub, a retired fishing boat in the trust of the nearby Fishermen's Museum.

So, I'll leave with a photograph of that award, which will end up above the mantelpiece next to the 2013 award certificate, congratulations and cheers!

Monday 2 June 2014

Top 20 Pubs, The Final Part (IV)

So, to my top 5, that is, the top 5 of the pubs that I want to return to again and again, certainly at least once before I kick the proverbial hop-back...

Top of the shop, at number 1, is The Bartons Arms, 144 High Street, Birmingham Newtown B6 4UP (website), which is a fine example of late-Victorian architecture, being built in 1901 and surviving, despite young thugs trying to raze the building during riots in 2011! Putting recent trials behind us, The Bartons Arms is one of just a handful of pubs owned by Oakham Ales (website), the Peterborough-based brewery, much lauded by me, and originally set up in Oakham, Rutland, in 1993. Consequently, this is a pub that sells excellent ales: 4 regular Oakham ales, JHB, Inferno, Citra, and Bishops Farewell, plus a guest/seasonal Oakham ale and 2 guest ales from other breweries, which are, as I write this blog, Oakham Paranoid (5.2%), Landlocked Copper Bottomed (5.2%) and Firebrand Cross Pacific Pale Ale (4%). Quite a choice of gorgeous hoppy ales indeed! You can understand why I like the ales here...  

In addition, excellent Thai food is served in the fine dining room, and elsewhere in the pub, of course. Indeed, the exterior and interior are examples of how the Victorians cared about design and adornment. The interior is decorated with mahogany wood panels, beautiful engraved and stained glass windows, Minton Hollins Tiles, a fine bar, and an impressive centrally positioned wrought-iron staircase, these being just some of the features; you really need to look at the website to appreciate the full beauty of the building, better still, go and visit The Bartons Arms!  

Mostly, I've been to The Bartons Arms before going to Villa Park for footballing reasons, and the atmosphere here for home and away fans is superb. Indeed, it is a very relaxed and friendly pub that I have also visited just because I wanted to come to the pub, and I have enjoyed the excellent ales and food, and wonderful building and company, whenever I have been here! I SO need to return again asap, no wonder this is my number one of very many excellent hostelries... I need to plan a visit!

At number 2 is a pub I regularly visit, because of work or football reasons, because I have family living close by, or just because I want to walk along the Thames Path to Hammersmith and drink at The Dove, 19 Upper Mall W6 (website). This historic pub is a grade II listed 18th century building, originally called the Dove Coffeehouse, though certainly selling ale and wine at that time, when Hammersmith was still a rural area. There are real fires, half-timbered ceilings, wooden settles, and immediately to your right as you enter, through a heavy wooden door, is a 33 square foot room accredited by the Guinness Book of Records as being the smallest bar room in the country. At the back, overlooking the River Thames, is an outside seating area where you can look downriver to Hammersmith Bridge, or upriver to countryside and to the Fullers brewery over to your right on the Middlesex bank. However, in fine weather, be warned, this can get very busy with stuck-up sticky-beaks (think Monty Python)!

Numerous famous people have enjoyed drinking and eating in The Dove, including Dylan Thomas, Alex Guinness and Ernest Hemingway, and this was also the local of one of my heroes of the past, William Morris, who used to live just a few doors away at number 26. Fullers Brewery (website) have owned The Dove since 1845, gaining a full alcohol licence for the establishment in 1911. Ale-wise, you will always find London Pride, of course, and usually Fullers ESB, sometimes Chiswick Bitter or a Fullers seasonal ale, and always a Gales beer, served from the 4 handpumps. I do love this pub, and will always remember a friend who used to manage the pub a few years ago, who sadly died in an accident in 2005 at too young an age, R.I.P. Alison.   

At number 3 is the Great Western in Sun Street, Wolverhampton WV10 0DJ, situated round the back of the new railway station, opposite the gates to the old Great Western station. This is a great pub, full of railway memorabilia, as you would expect, and with 4 distinct drinking areas, developed over the years as the building was redesigned and had extensions added. I have also been here on football match days and on non-match days, when Wolverhampton Wanderers fans have filled the pub, or just when thriving with the regular clientele and occasional visitor. On match days, ostensibly, this is a 'home fans' pub only, but I have never had a problem drinking here as an away fan, and a friend's son was positively welcomed before a match, despite being dressed in the full kit of the away team!

This is a Holdens Brewery (website) pub, but has always served beers from its major rival, Bathams; that's confidence in your own product! Of course, it serves up a good range of Holdens ales, including their Black Country Mild and excellent Black Country Bitter, and guest ales from other breweries too. This is a gem of a pub that provides very decent pub food too, notably their 'cobs' (bread rolls), and it wasn't that long ago that I bought 2 pints of bitter here and a hot pork cob, and still had change from a fiver! So, this is a good value pub, is very friendly, serves up great ales and decent food, has a crackin' atmosphere, and which I have to return to again and again...  

My favourite pub of Manchester comes in at number 4, the Marble Arch, 73 Rochdale Road M4 4HY (website), another listed building. The Marble Arch was built in 1888 and has many interesting features, not least the sloping mosaic floor; keep an eye on your drinks and personal effects, it really does slope! Not so long ago, due to bad/good luck, the plaster ceiling collapsed because of dampness, I seem to remember, but revealed a marvellous tiled ceiling, that has subsequently been preserved. The food here is very good indeed, and their own brewery (website) used to be situated at the rear of the pub, though was moved to larger premises round the corner and back a bit in 2011. Their ales are organic, no finings are used so ok for vegans, and usually 5 of their own ales are available plus guest ales served from 11 handpumps.

This is another pub I have visited quite a few times, of course, both related to football, when I have been in Manchester for work or academic study, or just visiting for fun; Manchester ain't that bad! I was there with my brother, the Routemeister and mate, Dave the Teameister, before an evening match at Old Trafford not so long ago. We spent most of the afternoon here, drinking, chatting, eating, and listening to the excellent juke box, it was very difficult to leave for the match! I have also enjoyed chewing the fat with the brewers there, usually about what hops are used in various ales, though not so easy since the brewery was moved... Great pub! 

To my fifth pub on the list, and a return to my love affair with Devon, and to the Double Locks Hotel (website) on the Exeter Ship Canal, just down from Exeter and the Countess Weir. This building was originally the lock keeper's cottage built in 1701; the canal being built 140 years earlier linking Exeter to the sea when the River Exe became less navigable. The history of the lock itself, the "Double Locks", is related to the name, not because there were 2 locks, but because it is the longest lock in the country and could take 2 ships at the same time.

I originally came here many years ago, and started frequenting the Double Locks in the 1980s when I moved to Exeter. It was then a freehouse, with very basic outside toilets, and an extension built in the 1980s meant that the loos came indoors, and also made more seating available. Ales used to be served straight from casks in those days, which were situated behind the bar, and were from local breweries and from afar. Excellent food always, barbecues in Summer, and a breakfast that couldn't be bettered was available up to 12 noon, with a pint of ale included in the reasonable price. I have been here with my ex-wife, my brother, the Routemeister, friends, and brought clients here too, when I worked in Exeter. This is now a Youngs pub, so big changes, but I still so need to return here!

Well, I've taken a while to add my top 5 to the list, and there could be so many more, meaning I'll most likely add many other pubs that I wish to return to in future blogs.

Anyway, many thanks for allowing me to share my memories, a wee bit of sentimentality on my part, but I recommend you visit any of these pubs should you be in any of their vicinities. I'd also welcome any reviews, cheers!