Ramblings: Burton Upon Trent

This was a poignant ramble - a trip to Burton to include a visit to the Bass Museum before it was closed down at the end of June 2008.

The history of Burton-upon-Trent is the history of English brewing. Sine the late 1800's, when brewers cottoned onto the fact that the local water was particularly condusive to brewing, Burton has been riven with the industry. The canals and railways provided the arterial supply routes needed to move Burton beers out across the world. Although the town is no longer crammed with thirty-plus brewers as in its heyday, the behemoth brick warehouses of old still vie with steel clad silos full of largering torpor across the Burton skyline.

And it's the recent actions of the Charybdis-like MolsonCoors that brought me to Burton on a wet Saturday in June. They decided to close the Bass Museum - let's call it what it is, it's never really been a 'Coors Visitor Centre' - and I'm not going to pop another ulcer by banging on about that here.

I popped down to Burton early; it's only a thirty minute bus trip straight down the A38 from Derby. A wander around the town led inevitably to a quick half in the nearest 'Spoons, the Lord Burton. It felt dirty to be drinking a Burton Bridge beer in here (Festival Special) but it was well served, well tasty and well cheap.

With the skies turning the wrong shade of grey, I decided to head off to the museum for another beer and wait for Steve and his wife Chrissie who were driving up from Kent.

My first impressions of 'The Brewery Tap' were - who the fuck built a hotel bar on the side of a museum!? The last time I was here, on a cold winter afternoon cradling a nip of Bass Number One, it was a bar crammed full of Bass nick-nacks and a homely feel. Now, it's all clinical chrome and white walls. And the Brewery Tap logo everywhere, even etched into the windows.

It's a bar designed to pander to the corporate hospitality and wedding crowd, those who will neither look nor seek no further than the Coors Light spout. Mind you, the White Shield I tried was still good, the taste holding its own even from within an overly showy chalice glass.

My second impression? What's to stop me waltzing into the museum, unpaid? Well, nothing... has that been the case for some time or just since closure was on the cards? If the former, is there any wonder they were losing revenue? If the latter, then how else is that lack of care going to manifest itself today?

Steve and Chrissie were still en route so I braved the rain for the short dash down the road to the Burton Bridge tap, the Burton Bridge Inn (henceforth the BBI).

This is an intriguing pub; no front door, it's down the alley at the right hand side, and once it you're treated to split level rooms served by a central bar. Narrow pews and loose cushions define the decor in the front bar, with solid tables and chairs to be found in a stouter dining area to the rear. I enjoyed a pint of Burton Porter (and an even more enjoyable corned beef and beetroot sarnie).

Having received a call to say my friends had arrived at museum, I sauntered down there and suggested that we head straight back to the pub - many still close at 2.30pm on a Saturday and the BBI is no exception. They were more than happy at the suggestion and were soon tucking into a range of BB beers - and egg butties, which Chrissie ordered in her most sumptuous accent and made it sound like the sexiest lunch in the world ever.

With lunchtime imbibation complete, it was back off to the musuem. Steve and Chrissie had money-off vouchers; I got in free as a card-carrying CAMRA member... thinks to self: why let in for free those customers who (one assumes) would glady pay to see a brewery museum?

The first section does a passable job at explaining the brewing process in general. Some rather faded figures were propped up over hops or shovelling in the tun. A couple of the exhibits had an audio commentary but I didn't see any of the portable audio guides that used to be on offer (though, truth be told, only about half of the commentary ever seemed to work on them anyway). Various machines could be cranked up (for a few seconds). The mash tun in which the fabled Kings Ale began its life was here as well - albeit only about half of it.

Lots of information boards abound, most of which were genuinely interesting, but it all looked rather outdated. Towards the end of this section, it started to feel less like a coherent exhibition telling a story and more like a random selection of artefacts.

I mooched off to see the shire horses. Here was this museum's nugget of pride; polished brasses and competition rosettes displayed proudly. They horses were still hard at work - one had just returned to the stables to be readied for a wedding party - so hopefully they'll be resettled and continue to work for a living. And, with any luck, that resettlement will allow for re-naming them - I know they're brewery horses but how the hell you could seriously call them Reef, Carling and White Shield is beyond me...

Also outside were a motley collection of buses and delivery vans; let's not ponder too long on the merits of overpainting Bass trucks with the Coors logo. Again, it all felt a little random, no great effort made to explain what the vehicles were or to place them in context. I was getting to the stage, quite frankly, where I found every exhibit a little depressing. All that wasted opportunity - how about the heritage buses being used to take visitors on tours of the town, pointing out notable sites, giving the visitor a feel for what was the grand scale of brewing in Burton?

The next building was a bit of a hotch-potch, too. Remnants of Burton's other lost museum were crammed in for no apparent reason. Again, there were a few working machines (I'm a sucker for firing up well-lubricated pistons). Amongst the random Bass breweriana and rather pallid dioramas, there were a couple of interesting exhibits. The 'pubs through the ages' was good, giving the visitor a feel for how they have always functioned as a social hub as well as being drinking dens. Liked the idea of different pub games in each one. And Steve seemed to be right at home...

Again, though, exhibits such as this made me think how the concept had never really been exploited fully. Why have stuffed dummies behind the bar when you could have had an actor to - er- interact with the visitors? I know it all costs - but what if they'd had guided tours, part of which involved interaction with character actors, charged at a slight premium over the normal entry fee?

The other exhibit which had always attracted me was the model of Burton in 1921 with an N-gauge railway. This gave a real feel for that industrial scale of brewing that I mentioned earlier - to see the town riven with railways, the brewhouses and warehouses crammed together. Again, it's another squandered opportinity as not all the locos seemed to be working (as was ever the case from my previuous trips here). I'd have loved to see the 1921 map projected onto a wall; in fact I would have liked to have seen maps from throughout the town's history projected and overlaid to give visitors an idea of how the brewing industry affected the geography of the town through the ages. But that's the old cartography student in me...

Don't get me wrong. There were still some good exhibits here and a 'beer novice' could visit and at least learn about the rudiments of brewing, the story of beer in Burton and the impact of Bass upon the brewing world. But in many ways it's a museum that's been past its best for some time. It's a curate's egg of a place (pun fully intended); not really a brewing museum, instead a museum to celebrate (commemorate?) a once-proud brewing brand that Coors don't own and don't brew. With the owners several steps removed from true pride and association with Bass, was it any wonder that the museum floundered?

After all that, we needed a beer. It was only a few minutes down the road to the Coopers Tavern - perhaps one of the most interesting pubs I know. No bar, no pumps, beer is served straight from the barrels on a stillage in the corner of the back room. We enjoyed a few good beers here, it's a place where I could happliy spend an afternoon with half-a-dozen ales and a decent crossword. And a carry-out for when I enjoy a curry a few doors down at Balti Towers. We enjoyed some superb beers in a pub where the atmosphere wasn't painted on the walls...

It was my idea to visit the Old Cottage next - after all, they brew their own beer and have been know to serve interesting guest ales. Sadly, I'd left my navigational skills in the pocket of my other coat, and so we circled the Town Hall several times before I found the right road. I wished we'd stayed at the Coopers, though - the whole pub smelt vaguely of loo cleaner and the Old Cottage beers were a tad on the bland side.

There can be no doubt that this country deserves a National Museum of Brewing and it ought to be in Burton - it has the history and it has good transport links to the rest of the country. Incorporation of the Bass collection into a new museum is paramount, but to survive it would need a wider remit. It shouldn't be a repository of redundant brewery ephemera, it needs to tell the story of brewing and tell it well. An on-site brewer with brewery tours is a must - there's surely no better way to appreciate the process than to see it, smell it, feel it, hear it in action.

Living up the road in Derby, I'm all too aware of the Bass legacy. Michael Thomas Bass, grandson of the brewery's founder, was a generous benefactor to our city, including the provision of the 'Free Library'in the Wardwick (still used as a library today) and a recreation ground (one of the rare patches of green left in the city centre). It's about time we honoured that legacy and campaigned for the Bass collection to be a significant contributor to a national museum - one that doesn't just look back into gilded mirrors and reflect on the industry's history but actively involve us all in the joys of brewing.