Ramblings: Sundays in Derby

One of my regular rambles is around my home city of Derby on a Sunday afternoon. usually on a wet, cold, miserably grey day when my 'reluctant rambling' results in nothing more than a potter around the local pubs.

Well, it beats lunch with my wife, her godmother, her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law talking about recent bereavements and strangers with wonky wombs.

Actually, the session can start in the morning - the Babington Arms opens at 9am and I'm not averse to popping in for breakfast. Nothing overly exciting about their fry-ups; at least for a McSpoons the food is hot and served quickly. Unless a dozen labourers have just ordered every possible curry combination to go with their vat of Wifebeater.

I try to resist a drunky with breakfast and usually manage a black coffee first before succumbing to the Bab's beer range. And why not give into temptation; 17 beers listed on the widescreen TV/beer board, always something local (Derby Brewing Co or Falstaff) and often something from far-flungerer parts.

Then it's off to the rest of the city for a few hours of exhausting coffee-drinking and newspaper-reading. Which builds up a good thirst that requires slaking at perhaps Derby's finest pub, the Flowerpot.

No slouch for beer variety during the week, the 'Pot still ups the ante at the weekend at often offers in excess of 20 beers of various styles and strengths. I set myself up in the cellar bar, near to the superb glass-fronted stillage, which is a little less busy than the main room. The jukebox in there lurches into life with a random track about every fifteen minutes but it's got a great selection so I rather enjoy the odd choon.

This is a day for really reluctant scooping - I have a beer agenda at every pub I visit on this Sunday sloucharound. Here I'm looking for one of three things: a Derbyshire beer as first choice (last weekend that was Amber Ales Imperial Pale and the First Brew from newcomers Wirksworth); one of the regular-guest beers from Durham or Oakham if there's no notable local stuff; failing both of those (unlikely but possible) then it's one of the Headless Brewing Co. beers, brewed at the pub.

The beer here is superb in terms of quality and range - and so is the food. I'm not really one for Sunday lunch with all the trimmings, but here it's awesome. Though I usually plump for the hot beef and mushroom cob - whacking great hunks of beef and freshly fried mushrooms. In a cob the size of a side plate. Beyond yummy! Leaving the 'Pot is a hard thing to do, but there are more great beers to be drunk. Working my way down to the river, I pass two other pubs.

The Dolphin (sorry, Ye Olde Dolphin Inn) is a cracking pub; tourist-trap, Ghost Central and busy busy busy on a Sunday lunch. I pop in occasionally; beers from Milestone, Newby Wyke and Shugborough aren't unusual guests here.

I used to pop just over the road and into the Old Silk Mill. But this pub's been in a troublesome rut for a long time; licensees come and go, some really enthusiastic about cask, others not seeming to give a twisted fig about it. At the time of writing, the beer quality and range isn't great. Hopefully the place will fall back into good hands and get a bit of TLC for the medium term at least.

In happier days, it was a prime outlet for Derby Brewing Company's beers. You can get a few at the Babington, but it always surprised me that they weren't more widely available in their home city. Now that may all change - DBC are looking to take over the once-redevelopment-threatened Royal Standard by the Exeter Bridge. Here's hoping the plans work out - Derby needs a pub to showcase a brewer as good as Trevor Harris.

Following the river downstream, it's a short shuffle to the Smithfield. This is a no-nonsense pub; the jukebox seems to play and play all day with whatever the staff want to hear, the food is simple and served in shovel-sized portions, the beer range is reliable and reeks of quality. And served in outsized lined glasses. Here you'll get Oakham, a Headless beer if you didn;t get round to drinking one at the 'Pot, and a few beers from one of the shire's finest brewers, Whim.

Hartington IPA and Arbor Light are nearly always on; I could drink both in grand bladder-bursting volumes. But it's the occasional Whim beer that often grabs my attention; on my last visit it was Flower Power, a CAMRA award winning beer in 2007.

OK, the furniture is a little jaded and the gents has a fantastic crack in the tiling but I'm here for beer, not to score them on interior design.

So, yomping onwards and over the Derwent for the last pub of the day. I'd like it to be pubs plural, but the Alexandra is normally closed by the time I make it this far. Sometimes I crawl in the opposite direction (as it were) to fit in a visit here; although its bottled continental beers aren't a patch on those once on offer, it's become the most likely outlet for Thornbridge Hall beers in the city. The landlord, Alan, is doing a cracking job - either because of or in spite of the (probably unsolicited) advice of the licensee in the pub next door; his brother Graham.

And it's Graham's place that brings the afternoon to a close - the oldest brewpub in the city, the Brunswick. One of those pubs that seems to tick along nicely even on the bleakest winter Sunday afternoon. To be honest, I rarely look to see what guest beers are on, I'm here for some of the Brunnie's own finest. White Feather is one of my absolute favourite beers and I'm always keen to knock off a pint or four when I make it down here. Their Triple Hop is damn fine as well, though on a cold and now-darkening day I tend towards a roastier drop; Father Mike's Dark Rich Ruby must have been made for afternoons drying out in front of a roaring real fire.

If I've timed all this right, in a couple of pints time my wife will be driving past and so I get a lift home. I think the word I'm looking for is serendipity. But that leads me into thinking about whisky, which is another blog altogether.... (justanotherdram.blogspot.com)

Update: As if often the way, this article was written several weeks ago. Since then, I've repeated the ramble, naturally. And the beers; well, here's a random sample:

Amber Mild, Oakham Delirious, Riverhead Black Mass Stout, Harwich Lighthouse Bitter, Fernandes Centennial, Acorn Amarillo, Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, Thornbridge Kipling, Acorn Bloomfield, Acorn Kashmir, Marble Porter, Full Mash Drizzlecombe Porter....

If that sounds tempting - and ruddy hell, it should be - Derby has a regular weekend train service. Just try not to be tempted to stay on 'til Sheffield :-)


Ramblings: Stoke-On-Trent

(Only six months late with this one. Must Try harder. And Drink Less....)

My old job afforded me the unrestrained joy of infrequent trips to Stoke-On-Trent. Usually, having fixed yet another banal IT problem and scoffed a couple of almond croissants, I tend to make like a shepherd and get the flock out of there.

But there seemed to be enough pubs around the five towns to lash together a crawl of sorts, so I decided to meet up with Foggy and Clegg - I mean Brian and John - to see what Stoke had to offer the discerning beer drinker.

On the way to meet the others at the rail station, I found it hard to resist calling in the Stoke Wetherspoons, The Wheatsheaf.
Now, I remember this place from my student days of yore when it was a live band venue with wazz-weak lar-gar - most of it split on the floor. Now, it's a fairly smart McSpoons with a good half dozen guest cask beers with a number of Titanic beers on show (more about that brewery later).Half of Phoenix Thirsty Moon in great condition was swiftly dispatched.

Onto the station to meet up with the others, inlcuding a special guest appearance from Stockport Dave. With the party all gathered together, it was on to a First PMT bus (stop sniggering..) for the haul up to Hanley then on to Burslem.

The journey was a bit of a grind; the bus in front of ours had been involved in a collision leading to slow going. Changing in Hanley, the next bus went on a circumnavigation of the retail parks before deigning to drive in the approximate direction of Burslem.

But, everything comes to those who wait. With a hop, skip and stumble across the market place we reached the Bulls Head.
A welcoming two room pub with subtle breweriania, this is the brewery tap for Titanic so it would have been rude not to try some. After the long haul, a pint of their Iceberg seemed just the ticket. And it was a corking pint, cool and crisp.

More Titanic was sank by the other guys. Still in thirsty mood, I spied some draught continental taps and plumped for a Blanche de Bruxelles which was OK but not as refreshing as the Iceberg.

Bellies were starting to grumble now so it was time to hack across town to our lunch stop, The Leopard Hotel.

A fairly unassuming building from the outside, the Leopard showed its spots as soon as you walk through the door with some fine tiling.

Crammed full of brass, stained glass and more fine Stoke ceramics, its a place with a tangible sense of history - more about that later.

A good selection of beers here - I sampled Northern Blue Skies, and their 'Blakemere' Kittiwake, Derby Summer Nights and Wold Top Mars Magic. All were in great form, though Blue Skies seemed to be at the end of the barrel by the time Stockport Dave tried it.

As for the food; a great range of pub bistro meals as well as a la carte. Dave and I went for sausages on a bed of bubble & squeak (grand squeak albeit a little light on the cabbage). Brian had his trusted ham egg & chips which featured wonderfully thick carved ham. But it was John's meal that had everyone cooing - a whole ham hock slavvered in sauce.

After all that sustenance, what better than a history lesson? The hotel's owner, Neil, took us on a guided tour of the building as yet still closed up to the public. The Leopard was indeed a grand hotle of its day - - but has been closed up for many years. Neil showed us the rooms where Darwin stayed, where his Thai restaurant will be (with staff in correct dress). You can still see the bell pulls over where the bath would have been.

It was almost a shame to move on from here. But, with more pubs in the offing, it was time to catch the bus back into Hanley. Just time for the last, poignant history moment of the day; the commemorative plaque to John Baskeyfield. Stockport Dave had a train to catch, so we bode him farewell and headed to our next stop, the Coachmakers.
A multiroomed pub with a tiny front bar, this looked and sounded like a decent local's pub in the heart of the town. With the day warming up again, I plumped for a pint of William's Grozet, the gooseberry beer. And another pint of Grozet. I'd never had it on draught before, it certainly had an uncomprimising flavour in the way that I like a good ginger beer to be; no-holds-barred.

Whilst I stood outside watching the locals outwit the slow-moving traffic wombles by cruising the block and parking back up without a ticket, Brian and John were eliciting gen from a local who we'd seen a fair few times over in one of our regular Derby drinking dens, the Alex. This guy advised us of two more pubs to try; one was towards our last stop of the day and the other was only a short walk from the Coachmakers so we thought we'd give them a whirl.

The Unicorn is stuck on a semi-pedestrianised side street. With the shops closing up around it, it looked a little out of place. Inside it was rather desperate; all rather down-at-heel with clientele to match. I'd like to say the beer was worth the visit, but a rather bland Robinsons beer made it a faintly disappointing diversion.

So, back to the bus and the long road to Longton. It was one of those routes that seemed to serve every graffiti-strewn estate southward; great swathes of cheap sportswear and earwax-melting ringtones seemed to be the order of the day. And more sleeping policeman per yard than Pride Park coppers on riot watch.

Eventually we arrived at Longton (well, the bus terminated underneath a rail bridge). Just a short walk to the next pub (this was proving taxing for Brian, who rarely does buses and knows no such thing as a short walk except for the one from the Alex to his wife's waiting car).

The Potter was a pub I knew of old; hard against the Wedgwood factory, it's a two roomed wrap round bar of a boozer, with Coach House Dick Turpin on the cheap. Except today; five pulls stood bereft of clip and the only beer on (Lancaster Bomber) tasted like it had been on since the Blitz. With no other beer to swap it for, we put our glasses down and left the clueless barman to his arduous duties of serving Wifebeater to the gormless crowd congealing in front of the TV.

So, a couple of dodgy pubs but the next was sure to be Stoke's redemption. The Malt & Hops is a true free house with an established ale reputation. Another short walk (sorry, Brian) and we arrived.... to find the Baghdad-strength shutters well and truely closed on the place. They weren't due to open for another 15 minutes. With our train due in three quarters of an hour and another pub to fit in, we reluctantly jumped onto a bus headed back into the heaving metropolis of Longton town centre.

The Congress had been recommended to Brian and John back in Hanley. So, where was it? They weren't sure - after all, Longton can't be that large.... there seemed to be three main roads, we'd just travelled down one and not seen it so it was pick a route at random and give it a go. Was it on that road? Was it boggery. Three strikes and we're out of options; retreat was beat back to the railway station to wait for our Derby-bound train. And there wasn't even a chippie nearby.

At least the train was roughly on time. Just before I fell asleep, Brian put his hand in his coat pocket and pulled out... a copy of a Stoke CAMRA magazine featuring... a large advert for the Congress, with full address and phone number. My, how I laughed at the irony of it all as I nodded off and dreamt of all the ways he could be forced to drink smoothflow for all eternity...

We decided that it had been a real ale day of two halves, early glories dulled slightly by tired pubs later on and a spectacular miss just before the final whistle. The great thing about travelling back to Derby though is the chance of extra time in the Brunswick; a swift beer here topped off what had certainly proved to be an entertaining day.