Monday, 31 August 2015

Albion Brewery Tap, Northampton

The renaissance of beer and brewing in the UK has brought with it a welcome revival of many 'gone but not forgotten' ales from the past. For the most part these are simply recreations from original brewhouse recipes, sometimes perfected with the help of former brewers, often with the help of an enthusiastic tasting panel of old-timers who can still remember how these beers used to taste.

The chance to recreate a beer in its original home is more often than not an impossible dream. Many of the breweries which were closed in the latter half of the 20th century have now been demolished to make way for commercial or municipal development, and where brewery buildings do remain, they have often been irrevocably converted to residential or retail use.

Phipps NBC of Northampton effectively ceased as a brewing concern in the early 70's following the takeover of the business by Watney Mann of London. Both the Phipps and Northampton Brewery Co premises were soon demolished, the sites redeveloped to include the huge Carlsberg Brewery which continues to dominate the south of the town to this day. So when the current team hatched plans to revive the Phipps name in Northampton, a return to the original brewing site was simply not on the cards.

Following several years contract brewing Phipps and NBC ales at a brewery in Rutland, a chance to return production to Northampton presented itself when the former Albion Brewery on Kingswell Street became available. The Albion Brewery is barely a stones-throw from the original site of brewing, and shares the same water supply which helped give their beers such a distinctive local taste. This was as close to an authentic revival of the Phipps NBC brewing heritage as anyone could have reasonably hoped for. Brewing re-commenced in Northampton in 2014, and Phipps NBC beers are now widely available throughout the county and beyond.

At the peak of their success following merger, Phipps and the Northampton Brewing Co had well over 1,000 pubs, as evidenced by the fact their logos (and the latter-day Mann's livery) can still be found on pubs throughout the county. It has always been the intention to open a pub at the Albion Brewery site, and much reclaimed Phipps and NBC memorabilia has been incorporated into the Tap at the front of the brewhouse. It's a fabulous achievement, and regarded by many as one of the most successful revivals of our British brewing heritage. You can learn much more about the history and current plans for Phipps NBC on their excellent website:

Don't be confused by the image above, this view into the Albion Brewery Tap from the entrance lobby has been flipped to 'correct' the writing. Through the windows can be seen the Bar Billiards Table and Northamptonshire Skittles Table. At one point, there was some uncertainty as to whether there would be space in the bar for these classic bar-room games, but I'm pleased to say that tradition has won out again, and both games are proving to be popular with customers.

The small orange label on the left-hand leg identifies this Skittles Table as having been made by G J Pepper of Wellingborough. Pepper's tables have straighter side cushions than the more common W T Black & Son models, and can usually be identified by their upright square netted 'hood' as opposed to the sloping style of a Blacks table. They are also considered by many to be the best quality tables.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

White Lion, Bridgnorth, Shropshire

If like me, you choose to stay in Bridgnorth Low Town, you'll certainly want to explore the adjacent higher version, if only because there's a fair bit more up there than below. There are a number of different routes up the hill, some a good deal easier to traverse than others, but all interesting in their own way. I'd recommend the steep but attractive Cartway, resembling a vintage Hovis advert in places, which just happens to pass recently re-opened specialist beer pub the Black Boy, which I'd also recommend. Or the longer though no less attractive Bridgnorth Park route, which passes the famous Severn Valley Railway terminus with its own highly regarded beer emporium the Railwayman's Arms.

Of course no trip to Bridgnorth would be complete without a ride up the Cliff Railway, a fully working relic of a bygone age, and a very reasonably priced alternative to the many admittedly healthier alternatives.

In a sense, all routes lead to the excellent White Lion, located as it is at the southern end of the High Street, and a mere stones-throw from the Cliff Railway top 'station'. Over the course of a long weekend, I managed to poke my nose into almost all of Bridgnorth's pubs, and I can safely say this was one of the very best, if not 'the' best in the town. In fact I almost had an Orwellian 'Moon Under Water' moment when I walked into the bar, such was the friendly welcome and all-round excellence of the pub.

The White Lion is a traditional two-roomer, immaculately maintained throughout, and with the sweetest little beer garden at the rear for sunny Shropshire days and Summer evenings. A pub that just feels 'right' as soon as you step over the threshold. A well judged range of beers, including at least one from the pubs own Hop & Stagger Brewery, and bar snacks appropriate to the business of social drinking rather than a full sit-down meal. There are games too, the rear bar featuring a red-baize'd Bar Billiards Table which is free to play on Mondays.

Propped up on a window ledge you'll also find a good old Shove Ha'penny, on loan to the pub by a regular. In my view Shove Ha'penny is one of the finest accompaniment to social drinking there is, and the cause of many afternoons that got away from me! Not a problem at the White Lion though, there is after all the ever-reliable Cliff Railway to take you home.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Top House, Thurmaston, Leicester

Until the recent reopening of the Top House, pub-going in the north Leicestershire village of Thurmaston had appeared to be in freefall, such were the number of pub closures in recent years. From a choice of around half a dozen pubs in the 80's/90's, the village was down to just one survivor on the main street, former Shipstones Brewery pub the Harrow, with the Prince of Wales, Generous Britain, Manor, Lonsdale, and White Hart, all closed for good within the last two decades. Only the Everards owned Willow on the outskirts of the village offered a choice in the immediate area. The closure of the Top House was particularly sad given that it was such a busy community pub in its day, and a very fine example of a Victorian corner local.

The demise of so many of Thurmaston's pubs is perhaps hard to explain given its largely residential make-up, though being effectively isolated from much of the populace by the busy A607 probably doesn't help. One factor that will almost certainly have affected the viability of some of Thurmastons pubs is the number of thriving social clubs in the village. I've noticed on several occasions that when a community pub like the Top House closes, trade doesn't always gravitate, as you might expect, to the nearest alternative pub venue. It's often the local social, trades, and political clubs, with their cheaper drinks and strong social/gaming traditions which benefit most from the displaced custom.

The Top House has thankfully now reopened, and done so in very fine style. In fact it's a delight to the eye for pub enthusiasts like myself, as I hope you can see from the images reproduced here. I do hope it has a brighter future than many of its near neighbours, pubs like the Top House are precious survivors, and have features which when they've gone, they're gone forever.

This former Shipstones house was originally named the Unicorn & Star, but for many years was known locally as the Top House, presumably due to its location at the top of the main street through the village. It assumed this name officially in 2003 following a refurbishment.

Both the Harrow and the Top House were always firm favourites with local CAMRA members back in the day when folk seemed to appreciate traditional boozers like this a great deal more than its predominantly beer-obsessed membership do now! The pub was much as it is now, a two-room locals pub, albeit furnished in a more basic and functional style befitting the time.

CAMRA's late 70's pub guide to the county describes the Unicorn & Star as being a '...popular darting and dominoes pub', and the sizeable public bar to the left of the entrance certainly lends itself well to this kind of games play. I don't know whether the Domino players have returned yet, pub closures, however short, result in disruption to league play that can take a season or two to resolve, but Darts and Pool are played in local leagues.

To the rear of the pub is the Skittle Alley, where Long Alley and the unique Leicester version of Table Skittles is played. The Top House was an active participant in the Syston & District League right up until the recent temporary closure, and now field a team in the second division.

Cheeses for Long Alley, and a box of pins for Leicester Table Skittles below the scoreboard

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

It's been a good few years since I last visited Bridgnorth, once a regular destination in one of my favourite English counties. Returning to much-loved old haunts after a long absence carries the risk of crushing disappointment, but  I have to say that Bridgnorth and its many attractions didn't let me down.

The wholesale changes I've come to expect wherever I go these days seem curiously, and refreshingly absent in Bridgnorth. A few new restaurants to choose from, the inevitable Wetherspoon on the High Street, perhaps less independent retailers and a few more charity shops! But by and large everything seems much as I remember it, right down to a good number of very good pubs, and of course the two iconic heritage railways for which the town is best known to many visitors.

I stayed in Low Town, the smaller 'half' of Bridgnorth bisected by the wide expanse of the River Severn. There are several pubs down here, the pick of the bunch for me being the Fosters Arms, a traditional two bar boozer where the pub game staples of Darts and Dominoes rule. There's a cosy lounge to the rear, presumably the venue for league Domino action given the unusual clock behind the bar counter (below), but its the public bar at the front where you'll find the locals propping up the bar and chewing the fat.

Low Town is also home to the unique Bylet Bowls Club, located on a tree-lined island just downstream of the historic stone bridge over the Severn. Crown Green Bowls is the game here, played on two immaculately maintained greens throughout the Summer. Crown Green Bowls differs from Flat Green Bowls in that the green rises in height to a 'crown' in the centre, and play occurs from all angles rather the parallel 'rinks' of the flat game. You'll know there's a game on by the noise emanating from the club, enough to rival any Sunday League football match, and I'd highly recommend popping over to view the spectacle if time permits.

At a time when the high streets of so many towns are dominated by national and international chains and brands, it's always refreshing to find somewhere which has retained much of its individuality and local character. Pubs and bars have succumbed to this homogeneity as much as any retail sector, and even those that remain independently run have often lost much of their character through bland refurbishment.

The Golden Lion (above) remains steadfastly traditional, and full of the essential character that sets genuine pubs apart from the characterless chain bars and foodie managed houses of the high street. It's a remarkable survivor located as it is in the very centre of town, and one of the finest and friendliest pubs I've visited in a good long while. This is an historic multi-room inn, and a genuine inn at that as it also offers accommodation. But it's the public bar (above) at the front of the pub that offers the best chance to rub shoulders with and chat with the locals. This is also the venue for Dominoes, a popular game at the Golden Lion, and with a home team who have achieved some success in the Bridgnorth & District League. Just ask at the bar and you'll be furnished with all the necessary equipment, including a baize covered table-topper which features a crib board suitable for the Shropshire giants of the game (below)!

The other traditional gaming feature of the Golden Lion is Quoits, a game once popular throughout Shropshire and well into the West Midlands, but now very much a rarity this far from the Welsh border. The traditional red and green painted board folds up from the wall, with the unique home made scorer situated adjacent to it, but sadly the rubber Quoits are no more. Apparently they were stored on a high shelf of the bar and melted during a particularly hot summer! Consequently the game is rarely if ever played now, but thankfully the board remains, and is available for play should you have a set of Quoits available. Certainly I regretted not bringing my own set for a game.

Another game which seems to have all but disappeared from this part of Shropshire is Skittles. The existence of what would have been a very well-appointed alley at the Shakespeare Inn, the only one in the town to my knowledge, suggests the game may have been more widespread in the county at one time. Hardly surprising given that the counties adjoining the southern edge of Shropshire retain a strong skittling tradition. Sadly the alley, and the pins in particular, have seen better days. But new licensees at the pub seem keen to exploit this unique facility, so lets hope a refurbishment is on the cards in the near future.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

A Miscellany of Bar Billiards Pubs

A recent informal Poll on a well known social-media platform asked what kind of things people would like to see in their ideal pub. Needless to say the top answer was a wide range of high quality beers and/or ciders, in fact for some the beer seemed to be the only thing worthy of consideration! Perhaps not too surprising given that most respondents were either CAMRA members or other non-affiliated beer geeks.

I was pleased to see that pub games featured in some of the replies, with Bar Billiards more often than not the game of choice. I did find this slightly surprising given that a Bar Billiards Table is a rare sight in a pub now, though it wasn't so long ago that the game was relatively common. I certainly recall playing it throughout the 80's, and CAMRA pub guides of the time seem to indicate that the game was much more widespread than it is now.

Perhaps it's this fond memory of a pub game from our youth that explains why Bar Billiards featured so highly in the poll, or perhaps I'm simply underestimating the popularity of the game now. Certainly there are a few areas of the country where leagues exist for the game, and tables, though not exactly common, can be found relatively easily by those in the know. In other parts of the country a Bar Billards table is a rare sight indeed. The East Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire & Rutland have to my knowledge barely a dozen pub venues for the game between them.

Not all of the tables shown below are played in league competition, but wherever a Bar Billiards table does exist in a pub, it seems to attract a great deal of attention from both curious newcomers, and those of us who remember the game from our misspent youth.

The table shown above was recently restored to the Grainstore Brewery Tap in Rutland. Fully refurbished, and a welcome sight in the hop-strewn bar of a pub which is handily placed adjacent to Oakham rail station. This is one of only two tables I'm aware of in Rutland, the other being at the Old Pheasant, Glaston.


The Bar Billiards table shown above is in the lounge of the Rose Inn, Nuneaton, a town I've struggled to find really good pubs in on recent visits. The Rose is perhaps the pick of the bunch at the moment, a good honest two-room Marston's house on the edge of the town centre, and famously the venue for the first AGM of the nascent Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA). Games are a major feature of the Rose's success, with Darts and Pool available for play in the front bar (left), and league Dominoes a feature of the plusher lounge bar.

There are several venues in Norwich with Bar Billiards tables, and a thriving league has developed for the game in recent years. League play is one of the surest way to ensure the survival of traditional pub games like Bar Billiard, and a city the size of Norwich, endowed as it is with such a healthy number of well-supported pubs, lends itself well to the development of a small league like the Norwich Bar Billiards League.

A visit to the Golden Star in Norwich is recommended if only to admire the largely unspoilt front bar of the pub which retains many heritage features, details of which can be found on CAMRA's inventory of Heritage Pubs. Tucked into the corner of the adjoining back bar is the vintage Alfred Sam's & Sons Bar Billiards table, a fine piece of gaming heritage which is in regular use at the pub.