Ramblings: The Seven Counties

With a sunny Saturday all to myself, thoughts turned to beer hunting in places old and new. I was going to buy myself a Derbyshire Wayfarer train and bus ticket to get some Peak District pubs as well as a visit to Sheffield's finest but then had a bolder idea - rather than just two counties, could I manage a beer tour of half a dozen of them in a day?

I reckoned that with an early start, punctual trains and a speedy approach to Reluctant Scooping I could knock off six counties around the East Midlands; catching the express bus from Derby to Nottingham and then using an East Midlands Day Ranger to pick up an anti-clockwise chain of trains to take in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Rutland and Leicestershire before heading home to Derby.

So, eight-thirty saw me arrive under a white sky into Nottingham for a full English at the best cafe in the country, Bunters on Old Parliament Street. With stomach suitably lined, it was time to find a pub that opened at 9am and the Roebuck duly obliged.

It's one of the more pleasant Wetherspoon's I've visited; a tangle of rooms where a sizable building has been knocked through and up. In attempt to make this a LocAle day as well, I bought a half of Nottingham Legend and headed upstairs to catch some sun outside in the smoking garden. It's a rather sweet and creamy beer for this time of the morning, taking time for an old-school malt wash to develop.

Leaving the city of my birth behind at ten-ish, it was a half-hour trip across the splendid Vale of Belvoir to a town I've been through but never stopped off at - Grantham in Lincolnshire.

Following a path that carved through the terraced houses to the town centre and then finding back streets crammed with interesting architecture I made my way to the Blue Pig. This is a 16th century building that was turned into a pub in the 1800's and ticks all the boxes; slate floors, wooden settles, pewter mugs and china plates hang around the impressive mirror-backed bar. A multiplicity of rooms on different levels make the Blue Pig a subtle hybrid of back street boozer and tourist's wet dream.

Oldershaw of Grantham provide a house beer for the Blue Pig but, sadly, not today. I reluctantly settled for Marquis Bitter from Brewsters and wasn't disappointed; an earthy bitter that doesn't stick in your clack like Legend can.

Couldn't spend enough time here (a feeling repeated through today). Though I'd gladly pass on the Landlord and wouldn't wash my arse with Greede Kerching IPA, there were a couple of other good looking beers on offer here (Lord Marples from Thornbridge and a Milestone beer).

So, a swift yomp back up to the station for the twelve o'clock express to Peterborough. That was running late, so I took the gamble on catching the next slow train. At least that wasn't packed to the gills with giddy tourists; there were plenty of seats and someone had left a stack of newspapers behind to keep me entertained. And that express only overtook us about five minutes away from the city.

If it's 1230, it must be Cambridgeshire. First stop was to be the Oakham's Brewery Tap, under threat of closure due to redevelopment in the Westgate area of the city. And from the opposite side of the dual carriageway, it looked very closed indeed. With time here short, I decided to cut my losses and hotfoot it straight down to the river and visit Charters Bar.

This is a place I've heard great things said about it, but my previous trips to Peterborough have been only to the beer festival and never the pubs. Boy, was I glad I came here! A converted continental barge, the Leendert-R had that 'North European' feel to it with one long wooden bar, subdued lighting and a motley collections of plush stools and wonky tables. There was a great selection of Oakham beers amongst the twelve on offer (of which I thoroughly unreluctantly tried White Dwarf and Inferno), Thai food available from the restaurant on the top deck ; no bands playing this lunchtime but the easy-going background music (R&B, Levellers, Sinatra) was playing to plenty of punters enjoying a cracking pint or three whilst reading the papers.

Outside was a real bonus - a tent hosting the bar's beer festival! The vicious wind tested the guy ropes and slammed gravel against the awnings. Inside were some unusual beers for this neck of the woods, including a superb Okells Eastern Spice that put a warm ticklish heat into the back of your throat and gums. Deep spices rose to itch in the way the phlegm after a cough scratches its way round your mouth.

This was the place I could have stopped for the rest of the day. With the time now past two in the afternoon, I'd not left myself long enough to try the door of the Brewery Tap - which, it turns out, was still open- as I'd got to catch my next train for the short hop to Oakham.

My target here in Rutland was the Grainstore brewery tap next door to the railway station. I know it's next door, but I fought against innate geography and set off down the high street instead. I fancied some fish 'n chips but needed the loo first - and failing to find one, ended up trogging back to the station to find the pub instead. It's an impressive building from the outside and smart inside with exposed brickwork, breweriania, fairy lights and some of the best 'clean wood' tables and chairs I've seen in a pub (if only I could have smuggled a chair back home with me...). The CAMRA award certificates going back to 1998 either suggest pride in their heritage or a tendency to trade in on past glories, though.

As for the beer, the Ten Fifty was excellent (chewy malts, vanilla edge, fruity nose) but two criticims, one flippant and one serious. I'm drinking a brewer's beer in their brewery tap. Why not serve it in a glass with the beer/brewery logo on? And the all-too-serious criticism; £2.90 is way too much for a 5% beer brewed in the room next door.

At these prices, I might as well be drinking in the city, so I skipped back over to the station and moved down the line to Leicester.

Four-ish by the time I arrived, and almost impossible for me to not partake in a mini-crawl. First stop, a short stagger from the station, was Out Of The Vaults, excellent as always. A superb choice of a dozen beers here and a no-brainer for me as a Reluctant Scooper - Beowulf Finns Hall Porter is a regular beer here and I'm always more than happy to enjoy a pint whilst sitting in the window, letting the Leicester sun shine on a righteous scooper...

More pubs to do, though; driven onwards by the awful metal covers music playing here, it was only a few minutes round the corner to the Swan and Rushes. Really quiet in here - me and three others including the staff. A continental bottle from their enviable range is always tempting, but if I started down that route it would inevitably end in Cantillon and stomachache.
So, a mild it was to be, Scattor Rock Rock Steady Mild to be precise. And it was... stunning. Surprisingly fruity with a lactic chocolate smack.

The Criterion was much busier with the live music on in the lounge. I don't know if the Crit were in the midst of one of their regional mini-fests as there was a fair range of West Country beers hre (including Teign Valley, Sharps and Coastal). For some reason, I ignored them all and went for a brewer local-ish to me, Spire, and their Twist 'n Stout. Which was damn fine, superbly smooth with just enough dry coffee notes.

Having avoided any local beer whilst in Leicester, it was time to find an Everards pub. I'd usually end up in the Globe but I fancied a change. OK, I couldn't actually find it; despite being a frequent Leicester imbiber, my beer-fuelled prat-nav was starting to run flat.

Fortunately, I'd just past the Rutland & Derby, another Everards establishment so I thought I'd give it a whirl. It's one of those strange beasts, a smart bar with real ale. It actually felt like the kind of small bar attached to a restaurant, high chrome stools and low leather chairs. Not a place to relax with a pint and the paper- well, certainly not at 7pm on a Saturday night. A glass of Sunchaser was polished off - served in a smart chalice glass with the Sunchaser logo on. And the beer was surprisingly refreshing - perhaps because my palate was starting to feel slightly jaded by now.

Plenty of time before the next train, so I took a gentle amble back to the station with five counties down and just the homeward bound leg left. And then... as I got into the station I noticed a Derby-bound departure that didn't exist on my timetable so I ran - well, wobbled quickly - to give myself a half-hour advantage. As the train pulled into Derby, a wicked thought came to my head that I might be able to fit in a bonus county...

Just about to pull out the station was a Birmingham-bound train, first stop Burton-on-Trent! My all-day ticket was valid into Staffordshire so I grabbed the chance. Ten minutes later, I was in the spiritual home of English brewing and ready to have a drink in my sixth county that day.

But I was starting to tire now.... perhaps it was because I'd made it here and knew that I had time for a long, last pint at Derby in about an hour's time. But an hour's a long time when you're knackered, even longer when it's a busy Saturday night in Burton. So, time for a 'splash and dash'. Arrived into Burton, 20008. Next train to Derby, 2020. Walked to Devonshire Arms, arrived 2012. Bought half a Burton Bridge Golden Delicious at 2014. Drank it by 2015. Back onto the station platform at 2019 just as the train pulled in. Having budgeted on spending an hour in each county, I'd been in Staffordshire for twelve minutes!

Back on the train, I reflected on that very swift half - certainly some sweet crunch and slight bitterness. I'd have liked to have stayed in Burton longer but I needed three things; chips, White Feather and sleep in precisely that order. The chips did what chips should - warm you through and stuff you up. And, the seventh county delivered my twelfth beer in my tenth pub of the day - and it's the finest beer county providing easily the best beer in the best brewpub I've ever been to. Brunswick White Feather is a beer that I have come to adore - soft malts, grassy notes, flowery hops.... it's the pint that slakes my thirst after a long day at work, rewards my return to the city after a day walking in the Peaks, consoles me after hacking round town doing the shopping, oils the catch-up conversation with friends seldom seen nowadays. .. no matter where I've been and what I've been up to, there's always the time and passion for a pint of Feather.

Dragging my weary bones back to the bus, I reflected on a long, long beery day. It had been fantastic to put the miles in - about 150 - and be rewarded with decent beers, great pubs and plenty of places that I'm eager to return to and explore more. I'll certainly be going back to Grantham and Peterborough again, a mosey around the other pubs in the former and a whizz around the cathedral in the latter is definitely on the cards.

I can heartily recommend this kind of ramble - check out the deals in your area here and then make sure that engineering works aren't going to scupper a vital leg of the trip.