Sunday, August 29, 2010

At Last, At Last

You're probably sick of me banging on about the dire state of beer in Bideford. I know I am. Despite the town being in part of the country studded with micro and regional breweries, it's hard to find a decent pint in the towns and villages on the Torridge Estuary. True to form, I had three miserable pints at the Kingsley, the local in the village near to where my in-laws live. Doom Bar, Bombardier and Exmoor Gold. All as dull as ditchwater, in that annoying condition where you can't quite justify returning them to the bar. The Kingsley is a Cask Marque pub, which only reinforces my opinion that the Marque can't be trusted as a badge of reliability. It was a similar story down the hill at the (un-Marque) Village Inn, Westward Ho. Another grim pint of Doom. Eggy and flat. Could it be that drinkers in Bideford forgotten what a beer in good condition tastes like, and just put up with whatever is served?

It got better, though. On the friday of our visit we had one of those nights which starts with the notion of a couple of brewskys and home for tea, but ends up with a kebab, cab, and a sore head. We were in the White Hart, a 17th century pub on a backstreet off Bideford quay. It's a tiny place that's had it's ups and downs over the years but is now seems to be back on form. The pumps usually have a couple of the local (and unexciting) Jollyboat ales and a guest, which on our visit was Hartland Forge IPA. It was without doubt the best pint I've supped in twenty years of visiting. Prime condition, fresh and bitingly hoppy - everything an IPA should be. Haven't been that surprised since I saw Bill Clinton sat in a pub in Covent Garden. So that was that, from 5 until closing. Sadly, Dexter, the ancient collie that used to loll about in front of the fire like an animated rug has passed away since our last visit. One of the Jollyboat pumps was dedicated as a memorial. Cheers, Dex.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hip To Be Square


We were in Lyme Regis on our way back from a birthday trip to Devon. We liked Lyme, despite our visit to the only restaurant run by the Keystone Kops. Don't be fooled by the pink sky in the previous post, our visit coincided with Dorset's notorious rainy season. The next night was spent at a waterlogged Corfe Castle. Good thing Mrs TIW has some experience as a sailor, as our little Ford Ka practically floated its way down the lanes to the Square And Compass at nearby Worth Matravers, where the pub suddenly appeared out of a thick sea mist like the Flying Dutchman. Everyone knows about the Square and Compass. How it's been in branches of the same family since 1907, how the chuck-it-and-skip-it refurb fads of the 60s and 70s passed it by. The beer on stillage, served through a hatch. The outside bogs. We legged it up the hill from the car, raindrops thudding against my hat like gravel. Only to find the door locked. Bugger. Oh hang on, it's just stiff. A local appeared and shouldered the door like Gene Hunt after a toerag. Ah, that hatch, with a bank of casks racked up behind the barmaid. Hot chocolate for Mrs TIW and a pint of Eddystone for me, brewed up the coast at Torcross. We took a table in the right-hand room with a group of sodden hikers. Parquet floors, wood panelling, mind your head on the beams. People were staggering in at regular intervals, as soaked and wild-eyed as shipwreck victims.


Suddenly, a wet collie arrived begging the drinkers to throw a piece of bark. We all sat there dripping, drinking, throwing bark - all of us in the knowledge that sooner or later we were going to have to go outside into that rain. And so it went on, with Mrs TIW generously watching me sink another three excellent pints of Palmers Copper Ale before we had to reluctantly leave. There should be a national day to remind us how capricious the survival of places like the Square and the Blue Bell is. As we pulled on our coats I told one of the regulars that I considered a dog the sign of a good pub. "Oh, he's not the pub's dog. He lives round the corner. He just comes in for a pint".

The Hunger


Three things quicker than getting a pizza at the Lyme Bay Kitchen

1) The construction of the great European cathedrals

2) Otzi the iceman being spat out of the Schnalstal glacier

3) Walking from Fairbanks, Alaska to Cape Horn. Carrying an anvil.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mr and Mrs Storey's store


"My grandfather opened this shop. It's still doing OK. We're retired now, but we come in to keep an eye on things. When we took over from my dad there wasn't even any lighting on the top floor. Those are the original windows up there. We could have modernised and gone self service, but our customers like things the way they are. We don't owe anyone anything. We don't even have credit cards. Do you remember Russ Abbott? The Blue Bell is next door. A lot of his characters were based on the pub regulars. He was very kind to Mrs Pinder in her last days."







Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blue Bell? Would.

I'll try to get to the end of this post without using the tired old pub reviewers word 'gem'. But I'll struggle.

I first heard about the Blue Bell about three years ago, after my mum and dad found the place on one of their visits to York. IN PUB U'D RLLY LUV - came the text from my 70-year-old-dad, whose messages are apparently ghostwritten by a Walthamstow yoot - BLUE BELL INNIT.

Our visit last saturday afternoon was almost thwarted by a handwritten 'private party' sign on the front door. A bloke with a cig cupped in his palm sidled up and theatrically whispered "Go on in. Yer all right. That's to keep idiots out". So, officially recognised as not being idiots, in we went - back to 1903, the year the the pub was last given a makeover. Much has been written about the BB's untouched Edwardian interior, which has survived thanks largely to an ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach from the family who ran the pub for decades. The last family licensee, Edith Pinder (by all accounts a redoubtable character - "she used to sit here like Mrs Haversham"), retired in 1992. Doubtless it was present owners Pubmaster who stuck the godawful sign above the marvellous tiled exterior.

Everyone remarks about the size of the Blue Bell, which has a street frontage of exactly 13 feet wide. It may be small for York, but it's not a lot smaller than the Mitre in London, and it's almost cavernous compared with the pocket-sized Boltmakers in Keighley. There are two rooms, front and back, split by the bar and connected by a dark, narrow corridor with its own serving hatch, presumably once there for off-sales. There are six hand pumps and a rack of continental bottles - La Chouffe and St Bernadus among them. We settled for an excellent Roosters Leghorn and a perfect Camfell Flame, which was a new one to us. The other beers were reliables like Deuchars, Landlord and the ubiquitous Black Sheep. I suspect this is more to do with Pubmaster than the tenants, who have an obvious enthusiasm for beer - the Blue Bell hosts one of the country's smallest ale festivals. The landlady reportedly knows the names of over 200 of her regulars, who were a mix of young and old and all backgrounds and classes. We were drawn into conversations that involved the whole room, and its possibly a good thing that we we only had time for a couple of pints, otherwise we'd still be in there now. The Blue Bell is one of those things that leaves your soul singing to know it exists, like Bolton Strid or the Merlin Engine or the Polar Bear or the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a much loved, much-used boozer, welcoming to everyone. Except idiots. An almost perfect pub, then, and oh, alright - a gem.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Round Our Way

I never thought I'd say this, but Stratford is changing from the ragged patch in the torn backside of the old trousers hanging in the dilapidated shed of the East End, into somewhere fairly ... nice. The pace of change at the Olympic Park is stunning, and the neighbouring Westfield ├╝ber-development looks almost finished. It's even going to have a John Lewis, so at least the folks from Upper Leytonstone and Wanstead won't have to spend 20 minutes on the Tube to go to Oxford Street. They'll just spend 45 minutes sat in their Audis getting into Westfield's car park. The other day in Stratford's unyieldingly grim old shopping centre I heard someone say excitedly "We're going to be the Shepherd's Bush of the East". Damned with faint praise, but there's no denying that E15 is improving. It's improving from a very low base, mind.

These blokes were painting hundreds of tiny squares onto the new Angel Lane bridge. The mural is almost finished, and looks to be some sort of half-tone image, presumably celebrating 'the spirit of the East End'. Or something. I don't know what the men in hi-viz thought of the job, but one of them was whistling the Patsy Cline tune 'Crazy'.