Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly
Ongar is only twenty minutes on the bus from my hometown of Brentwood, fifteen minutes on a clear run and with a driver who wants to maximise their turnaround time, but from the image obsessed high street I had left behind it seems half a world away.
The word "Ongar" means grassland, and it is home to the remains of a Norman fort. Only the earthworks remain and they are overgrown and dismal, preserved only by a crude wooden fence. The Central Line used to come out this far until 1994, but the trains now terminate at Epping and Ongar feels as if it it's resigned to the fact that they will never come back despite the occasional petition requesting its return.
The number 21 bus drops me at the top of the High Street and I cross the road and head into The Cock Tavern.
It's a white weather-boarded building, a Good Beer Guide regular and always has a good selection of well kept cask beer. Today they have Otter Brewery Springfest, Mighty Oak The Joy Of Six, Harveys IPA and Red Fox Black Fox Porter. The latter is my choice and it has a medium bodied, pleasant coffee finish, a is a good start to the afternoon.
A central brick fireplace dominates the room with a television on it that thankfully is not on, and this would seem to indicate that it once had two bars. A door, no longer in use confirms this. There are a selection of newspapers, leather easy chairs, and tables with menus looking redundant as no-one is eating because, apart from those at the bar I'm the only one in there.
Crossing the road and heading down the hill I go into The Kings Head. This is the most central pub in the town and a plaque above its central arch proclaiming the date 1697, which is presumably the year it was built.
Entering the bar through the open doorway to my left I immediately get the sense that this is a pub for diners not drinkers. The cramped bar area displays mainly keg beer, Kozel and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (off at time of visit - a not-so-subtle glass placed over the taps a clear indication). This is confirmed when a group of three come in and enquire about lunch. "Straight down to the restaurant area and they'll take care of you there", the barman tells them, and they walk the length of the bar, disappearing down some steps and out of sight.
Further along the bar, nearer the restaurant end I spy three hand pumps, two of which have London Pride and a third that has George Gale's Seafarer. This is the one I go for, its honey and lemon hop character cutting through the lingering taste of the Porter I finished in The Cock not five minutes earlier.
It's pleasant enough in here at this time of day, relatively quiet, with the piped music at just the right level so as not to be intrusive.
The beer and the signage make it clear that this is a Fullers pub, or at least pub-cum-restaurant affair, my glass carries their branding, and I recall hearing good things about the food here so its good to see a reasonable beer selection. It seems a very organised and efficient place despite the barman disappearing for fairly lengthy intervals, although it is quiet, and nobody who arrives is kept waiting.
The building itself retains many of its original Georgian features and, even without the research that confirms it, it's plain to se that this was a coaching inn at some point. Once there must have been two separate bars here considering that there are two separate entrances and fireplaces, and it's good to see that they've kept some of the original features, although it's the cast iron radiators (a Victorian addition) that supplies the heating now.
I'm surprised to find that I feel far more relaxed here than at The Cock, and this is despite the hubbub and banter of a group of workmen near me who are making a little too much fuss as they leave.
Finishing my drink I decide to have a quick look around and notice a separate room across the archway from the main part of the pub and head inside. Crossing the courtyard I can see the restaurant sprawling languidly at the rear of the building, it's white weather boarded exterior looking rather inviting. The room I enter is intriguing and surprising, and may have been a waiting room for the coaches, although now it looks rather plush, decorated as it is with skulls, horns and antlers and though I'd love to linger here a while, it's time to move on.
As I continue my journey down the hill, I'm caught behind a middle-aged man in a grey tracksuit taking his squat overweight dog for a walk, constantly drawing aggressively at a greasy roll-up between his lips. I manage to get around him and his noxious fog just as I pass the beautiful half-timbered building that was once The Bell. The support strut for its sign still points towards the high street, lonely and redundant as this is now a private dwelling although flashes of its former glory are still evident. It's the kind of building that will always say "Pub" what ever its use in later years, one that you feel is still rather proud that it was a lively social hub of the community even if its glory days are now passed.
Presently I arrive at The Royal Oak.
The Royal Oak is a strange pub, and it's very quiet at this time of day. So quiet in fact that I stand at the empty bar for almost five minutes before anyone realises that I'm there at all. "It's very quiet in here", I say to the lady who appears from what appears to be the door to the toilets and asks if she can help me,
"It always is until about half two", comes the reply.
The beer selection holds nothing of interest for me, but out of politeness I order a half of Kronenberg (I can't remember the last time I did that) as it's the best of a bad bunch. Fosters, Carling and Stella Artois are my other options, although I do notice some bottles of Old Speckled Hen in the fridge.
I get the feeling that this is a locals pub, although it's clearly an old one and has absolutely heaps of character. The building itself is around 400 years old, although for some of that time it was both a fishmongers and public house, a mix of trades that I suspect would seem very much at odds to todays drinkers.
Darts team trophies are displayed on the wall and there's a prominent dart board so it's logical to guess that this is what the pub is known for around here, and whilst there are darts behind the bar tempting me to 'throw a few arrows' they would inevitably prolong my drinking time here.
The lady who served me at the bar now has a companion and even though they occasionally look at me with slightly puzzled expressions I get the same feeling of warmth and cosiness here that I got in The Kings Head but not in The Cock. It's an oddly comfortable place, and if they had some decent beer on I'd be coming back, although as it stands this is highly unlikely.
I later discover that it's known locally as the Royal Coke, due to a past reputation, perhaps due to it serving an abundance of a certain brand of fizzy drink. Or perhaps not.
Leaving The Royal Oak and heading to the bottom of the hill I'm confronted by the broad expanse of The Two Brewers. Unfortunately for me it's closed when I arrive, although the sign outside says otherwise. This strikes me as odd for 2.00pm on a Thursday afternoon, but given that the last three pubs I visited were hardly a hive of actively it is perhaps understandable.
I remember this pub well enough, and peering through the window I see it hasn't changed much inside. I did have an amusing tale to relate which ended with a much younger, much drunker version of me slurring "...there's nothing drong with winking" at my companions and falling off my bar stool, but that can't be expanded upon sadly and I move on. I'm a little disappointed, but at least that story is safe for now and no-one need know.
Heading up hill again, away from the high street this time and into Marden Ash I take a left turn onto the Brentwood Road, taking a quick picture between the passing cars and head across the road to The Stag.
The Stag is a pub that I've often passed but never been inside. That is until now, and I'm very glad that I have.
It's a McMullens pub to my surprise, and the five hand pulls have two of their AK, which is what I order, two of Country and one of the dubiously titled Nympho from Rivertown which, I suspect, may be the craft arm of McMullens.
I'm the only customer here as well, and I settle down with my beer a little away from the bar, its light maltiness particularly welcome after the Kronenberg earlier. Countdown is starting on the television just above my head, but I'm not in the mood for word games and manage, with only a modicum of success, to block it out.
This is clearly another old pub, records show that it was built in the eighteenth century and served much of that time as a beerhouse. Similar to the other pubs I've been to today this once had two separate rooms betrayed by, as before, the two separate fire places at either end. It is now one long bar with a smart wooden floor, a green hued fish tank at one end and a rather distracting fruit machine at the other. The continued noise from Countdown combined, other music playing and the flashing fruit machine lights is an overwhelming sensory assault. Thankfully they turn the television off when asked.
A sign advertising Pie and Mash on Fridays and Saturdays would seem to mean that it picks up a bit as the weekend approaches.
The young women behind the bar, one of whom is in the process of finishing a bowl of breakfast cereal, are giggly and chatty when I go to order another drink and this puts me immediately at ease so I pull up a stool there.
The landlord arrives presently and I discover that the Rivertown beer is called Nymph is reality, some wag having added the extra "O" on the blackboard and my suspicions are confirmed as it is a brewery in which McMullens have an 'interest'. I recall having seen Rivertown beers when I visited Hertford, the home of McMullens, last year. The brewery itself is a beautiful Victorian building, part of which was very sympathetically being converted into flats.
In conversation I discover that cellar for The Stage is, in actuality a shed adjoining the property which, according to the landlord makes all the keg beers extremely lively. I fail to understand how this is so but I'm sure there's somebody out there who can enlighten me.
He takes me out and shows me the cellar and I can see that there's plenty of outdoor seating and a children's play area should you arrive with younger ones in tow. I'm told it gets quite lively in here on Friday and Saturday evenings, the bar itself holding around 100 people at a push. Given its size I'd have thought that half that number would be a tight fit, but apparently not
I order a pint of the Nymph, and make my way outside just as the brief ray of sunshine I spotted turns into a sudden downpour. Hiding from the rain in the covered area I drink my beer, finding it full-bodied and malty and this, along with the AK, are by far the two best beers I've had today.
The Stag has been a very pleasant surprise and I like it a lot. Out of all those I have been to today this will most certainly be the one I return to when I'm back this way again.
Leaving The Stag I contemplate walking back to the high street and checking if The Two Brewers has opened yet, but time has caught up with me and, after checking the bus times, I note that there's one due in five minutes. There also happens to be a bus stop right across the road which pretty much makes my mind up for me.
The rain has stopped now, and just as I board the bus the sun breaks through once more. I write up the last of my notes and look out of the window at the featureless fields. I think I might just have time for a swift half in Brentwood before I walk home.