Thursday, 18 July 2019

Wheel Inn, Ashbourne, Derbyshire

I think it's safe to say that Ashbourne, along with near neighbours Bakewell and Buxton, is one of the Derbyshire Peaks and Dales more upmarket destinations. A thriving market town that has commanded a position of importance for local traders and travellers for hundreds of years, the towns modern-day prosperity can be attributed in the main to its appeal as a tourist destination, because it goes without saying that this is a particularly beautiful part of the English countryside. A compact market town in an area of outstanding natural beauty, littered with historic buildings, smart tea shops and cafes, and some surprisingly high-end shopping. All this, and a very good town for pubs and drinking too...

Alongside the hugely popular 'Beer Town' that Buxton has developed into in recent years, Ashbourne has also become something of a destination for beer and cider enthusiasts. The town punches well above its weight in terms of speciality beer pubs, bars and micropubs, with numerous outlets for locally produced beer and cider, all within easy walking distance of the central market place.

So Ashbourne comes highly recommended for a boozy day out in the Dales, but one possible drawback when visiting a place as touristy as this is the likelihood that the more traditional pubs and community locals, the ones that are of particular interest to me, may be in short supply. Thankfully this is not the case in Ashbourne, although it certainly is the case that the direction of travel for most of the towns pubs is toward a more upmarket food and drink offering than the traditional staples of Darts, Dominoes, and a few pints.

The direction of travel at the Wheel Inn remains pretty-much the same as it's always been, a seriously traditional locals pub on the fringe of the town centre. No food, just drinks, and the serious business of conversation and competition in all its myriad forms.

Landlord Steve Bull has been at the Wheel for over 25 years now, which is a rare and very welcome example of continuity in a trade which seems hell-bent on constant, often unnecessary change. Promoted as the towns premier sport and games venue, the Wheel covers pretty-much all bases in this regard. When I popped in on a warm Summer Sunday afternoon, the main focus in the bar was on what would prove to be a very successful innings by the England Cricket team in their World Cup match against India. If there's a major sporting event on the telly, chances are it'll be on here, and I doubt there's a better place to watch a sporting occasion than in the bar of the Wheel, chewing the fat with the locals over a pint or two of the excellent Draught Bass.

So sport is taken very seriously at the Wheel, and none more so than during the two days of a unique local football game for which the town has become internationally famous.

The Royal Shrovetide Football match is an ancient tradition that engulfs the town of Ashbourne on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. A massive scrum between the towns Up'ards (those born North of Henmore Brook) and Down'ards (those to the south), the aim being to touch a stitched leather ball to your own sides goal post. The position of the two scoring points is a mere three miles apart, and a ball can only be 'goaled' by standing in the river!

The large leather balls used in the game are traditionally decorated ahead of being 'turned-up' for a game, and can often be seen displayed in prominent positions around the town. Indeed one can be seen hanging above the bar of the Wheel Inn in the photo above. Crucially, the pub is located to the south of the brook, and it's therefore no surprise that the Wheel is regarded as the spiritual home of the towns Down'ards. The 2019 match finished 1-0 to the Down'ards, an appropriate scoreline for a game of 'football', where a whole days play can finish without a hint of a ball being 'goaled' by either side, such is the passion that locals bring to the game. It must have been quite a night in the Wheel when victory was finally secured on the second day of the event.

When not involved in the push and shove of ancient football games, locals at the Wheel are busy competing at Darts, Dominoes, Long Alley Skittles, and Pool in their respective leagues. Sunday is presumably a day of rest at the pub as there can't be many gaps in the weekly schedule to squeeze this level of competitive games play in.

The Long Alley Skittles team compete a little further afield than most, playing in the Second Division of the Belper & District Skittles League. The Wheel is something of an outlier to the core of venues in the Belper league, and this means an away match can involve a 25-30 mile round-trip, which represents quite a commitment to the game at what is currently the only venue for skittles in the town. The alley is a pretty basic outdoor affair at the rear of the pub, albeit with one of the most robust horseshoe 'chock holes' I've come across (above), and an increasingly rare uncovered alley at that. I've noticed that over the last few years, more and more alleys are being partially or fully covered against the weather, yet oddly enough, most of those which remain uncovered tend to be located in the Peaks and Dales, an area noted for its higher than average rainfall!

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Foresters Arms, Newthorpe, Nottinghamshire

What to do on a wet Tuesday afternoon when you're free of work, and the garden is having a long luxurious soak? The pub of course! Several for preference, which is why I found myself thirsty and dripping at Langley Mill station recently, and with a bit of a walk in mind. A walk that got so wet I eventually decided the bus was the only sensible walking option, and in so doing I unwittingly joined the ranks of a growing number of pub and beer enthusiasts doing what's become known as the Rainbow One Route. And I thought I was just out for a stroll and a few pints...

Turns out the 'Rainbow One' is a bus route that runs in a north/westerly direction from Nottingham along the A610, stopping at a number of sizeable settlements before eventually depositing passengers into the Derbyshire towns of Ripley or Alfreton. What turned a standard county bus route into something of a big-day-out for those of us with an interest in beer and pubs is the transformation that the areas drinking scene has undergone in recent years, particularly with regard to those new-fangled Micropubs.

Now I couldn't begin to guess how many micropubs are trading along or near the bus route, suffice to say that just one of the stopping points, the former coal mining town of Eastwood, has no less than five of them! That's an awful lot of speciality beer venues for one small area, and a good clue as to why you'll find the area thick with beer enthusiasts whenever buses are running and pubs are open.

But I wasn't there for the micropubs, which is just as well because many of them are not open on a Tuesday afternoon! No, my interest was in the older, more traditional boozers in the area, and particularly those which maintain the traditions of games play, still relatively common despite the efforts of some of the less 'local' pub-owning companies. Because whilst enterprising individuals and imaginative local brewers are doing their best to create a thriving beer and pub scene in the area, the lumbering national brewers and pubcos seem hell-bent on doing precisely the opposite. Closing, or repurposing pubs with off-the-peg refurbishments that have little regard for individuality or local distinctiveness.

Greene King are now one of the major pub-owning concern in the area, the unfortunate result of Hardys & Hansons, the local brewery based at nearby Kimberley, selling out to them in 2006. When Greene King bought-up and subsequently closed the Kimberley Brewery, they inherited a substantial pub estate made-up predominantly of the kind of solid traditional community locals that national pub companies have little interest in these days. Since day-one of the takeover, the more traditional boozers in the area have been under threat. The New White Bull in nearby Giltbrook is a classic example, a pub that was well-loved by its locals, but despite strong opposition is now yet another pub-shaped Co-operative store. A similar fate was proposed by Greene King for the Foresters Arms in Newthorpe, but thankfully local opposition prevailed this time around, and the pub survives to take its place on the Rainbow One Route.

The Foresters Arms is tucked away in a residential area at the heart of Newthorpe village. Just a short walk from the bus route but well worth the detour (there were beers from Castle Rock, Dancing Duck, and Oakham Ales when I popped in). Under threat of demolition, villagers and locals of the pub rallied round and formed a campaigning group (Save Our Foresters Arms - SOFA), garnering 700 signatures for a petition in very short-order. Clearly Greene King had underestimated the genuine local support for the pub and promptly backed down. Since then, the Foresters has gone from strength to strength, revitalised by a community who clearly value their local pub, under new ownership, and with a much improved beer range. The pub is a smart but traditional two-room pub with a beautifully maintained garden to the rear, which is where you'll also find the pubs well-used traditional Skittle Alley.

As you can see in the images above, Long Alley Skittles in the area north of Derby and Nottingham is distinguished by alleys that are more often than not located outdoors, and sometimes entirely uncovered. The alley at the Foresters is partially covered, only the unfortunate thrower has to brave whatever the English weather is throwing at them on the evening of a match. A good compromise for venues in the local Ilkeston & District and Border Skittles Leagues where some alleys remain entirely uncovered. With skittles often a wet-weather game in the north Midlands, the pins are given a wipe-over with Linseed Oil between games (above). A full set of skittles and balls comes in at around £250, so it's important to keep them in good shape throughout the season.

A wooden return chute for the balls, like the one shown above, is becoming an increasingly rare sight at outdoor alleys now. This one is painted and well-maintained, others have been allowed to rot through neglect or lack of use. Whilst I've seen one or two steel constructions for the job in the Newark area, most have had the wood replaced with a functional, but not exactly attractive plastic pipe, so it's nice to see an older one like this still in use at the pub.

You know you're in a pub where the locals take their Darts seriously when the board comes complete with a deeply-grooved sharpening stone like the one shown above. Darts and Dominoes are played at the Foresters in the Eastwood & Distict Darts & Dominoes League, and with some success judging by the number of trophies and shields on display in the bar.