Wednesday, 10 October 2018


A Bottle Conditioned Beer Event

It''s a warm Thursday afternoon in early October and I'm sitting outside The White Horse in Parsons Green with a pint of Ilkley's Mangoes Overboard, occasionally checking my watch for the six o'clock deadline. It's a deadline that I really don't want to miss as tonight beer writers and brewers are gathered together to celebrate bottle-conditioned, and as we shall see, can-conditioned beer.
Bottle conditioning, as I'm sure you are well aware, is the process of adding priming sugars into a bottle containing beer which has little or no carbon dioxide which enables refermentation in the bottle. It is this that brings the beer into condition, continuing the fermentation which produces carbon dioxide, making the beer naturally carbonated and as similar, in many cases, to the cask conditioned product. To quote The Oxford Companion to Beer, "Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in a beer with a finer, silkier texture of carbonation, superior foam retention, more complex flavo(u)rs, longer ag(e)ing ability than beers that are "force carbonated"."

Gathering in the upstairs rooms, where once I brewed a Citron Pilsener with Martyn Cornell and Andy Parker, now of Elusive Brewing renown, we are seated at tables laden with glasses, and platters of bread, meat and cheese, ready for the panel in front of us to introduce both themselves and tonight's beers.
After a brief welcome from Rupert Ponsonby from R&R Teanmwork, who have invited us here tonight, Jeff Evans, editor of eight editions of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, is ready to give us a brief history of bottle-conditioned beer.

He asks us to forget the apocryphal story of it's invention some 400 or so years ago by the Hertfordshire rector and angler, Dr Alexander Nowell who, after a fishing trip, left a full bottle of home brewed ale by the river, only returning a few days later to discover the still full bottle had continued its fermentation. "He found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at opening". (Martyn Cornell also debunks the myth in this excellent post on the subject ). 

Potentially the story of bottle (or flask, or leather bag) conditioned beer goes back millennia, but certainly goes back to the 18th century when beer was first put into bottles for sale commercially. It was the advent of pasteurisation, the process that killed bacteria, making for a consistently uninfected product that meant that bottle conditioned beer became little more than a footnote in history.

With the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in 1971 there were only 5 bottle conditioned beers available in the UK, including Spingo from The Blue Anchor in Cornwall, Worthington's White Shield, and the recently revived Thomas Hardy's Ale, produced at that time by Eldridge Pope in Dorset.

With the uplift in cask conditioned beer there was, from the early 1980s, a revival in bottle conditioned beer. By 1990 there were more and more available, so many in fact that in 1991 CAMRA passed a motion at it's AGM to actively promote these beers. 
As a result of this Jeff persuaded CAMRA to produce a book on the subject, and in 1997 the CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in a Bottle was produced. He wasn't happy with either the title or the cover, and in 1998 this was relaunched as the Good Bottled Beer Guide.

By the time of the 2009 edition there were over 1300 bottle conditioned beers in the UK alone, with foreign bottle conditioned beers, including the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, swelling that number.
There has been no new book since the 2013 edition, and there are approximately 1800 beers that meet the criteria now, but Jeff left us with the parting comment that it might be possible that an up to date edition is not too far away.

First to present their beer was Stuart Cail from Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland.

Schiehallion Lager (4.8%) came to us in a 75cl sharing bottle which Stuart informed us that they had just started producing. This bottle conditioned version started as a trial sample which was tested locally before they made the decision to expand. To my mind it tasted a bit flat, with the aroma of burnt tyres, a little maltiness with some lemon in the mix. This faded quickly and the general consensus at our table was that the beer was in poor condition.
The same couldn't be said of the next beer, Ola Dubh at 10.7%. This was the cask strength version which Stuart told us was aged in Highland Park whisky casks. There was a little of the same burnt tyre aroma as the Sciehallion initially but this was quickly overtaken by a nose full of boozy dark chocolate and coffee. It had a deep chocolate flavour and a long, lingering finish, one that completely removed all traces of the previous beer.

Pat McGinty from Marstons then spoke to us about their approach to bottle conditioned beer. For them, he said, it was all about wanting to give the consumer the experience and taste of cask conditioned Marstons Pedigree in a bottle.
The beer is brewed in the traditional way, on the Burton Union System in Burton on Trent, but the new process involved here was understanding how much yeast was needed in the bottle in order to give exactly the result they were after.

After much trial and error they hit upon the winning formula, although there was some initial confusion with consumers over the haze resulting in the yeast in the beer, and helping them understand that bottle conditioning was a continuation of the brewing process. He finished his talk with the following phrase which summed up what they are striving for: "Bottle conditioning is the way forward, it's what real beer is all about."

We were then giving some of the bottle conditioned Marstons Pedigree (4.5%) to try, and they really have done a fantastic job with it. The aroma retains that classic sulphurous 'Burton snatch', with a hint of cardboard and a little roasted malt. Quite thin, it was clean and fresh tasting, with that distinctive Pedigree malty flavour with the merest hint of berry fruits. It was astonishingly close to the cask version in great condition and I would have welcomed the opportunity to taste them side by side.

Next it was the turn of Justin Hawke from Moor Beer Co. who talked about the influence that both cask beer and the beer he had whilst stationed in Germany with the US military had on both him and the beer he now produces.

After a night out drinking they would notice that the naturally cloudy, unfiltered, naturtrub beer he and his companions had been drinking meant that they avoided hangovers the following day, but it was cask beer that he had fallen in love with and it was this that led him to come to the UK and start brewing. This was something that, once you know, is obvious to see and taste in Moor's beer, something that has made their uncompromising position on both unfiltered beer and taste in abundance both admired and respected.
When it came to canning the beer Justin was adamant that he didn't want to give up the natural conditioning of the beer, and both the sugar and yeast content was carefully measured to ensure that he was content that the same beer goes into cask, keg, bottle and can.

All three of the beers we tasted from Moor were out of the can, with Nor Hop (4.1%) with it's score of 100% for style on RateBeer being first. This has a gorgeous tropical aroma, lime mango, passion fruit and dragon fruit all inter-mingling wonderfully, and with a wonderful taste that delivers everything the nose promises.

Do It Together is a Mango Tea Pale Ale at 5.2% abv, with a slightly musty green tea and passion fruit aroma. It glides over the tongue elegantly before delivering those flavours all over again for maximum impact.

The final beer from Moor was Old Freddy Walker Strong Old Ale (7.3%) which had a strong chocolate malt aroma, like a chocolatey horlicks. It was thinner than I remembered but the chocolate malt punch was swift and welcome, the taste fading wonderfully slowly leaving a subtle reminder of the beer before.

Roger Ryman of St. Austell Brewery spoke of how a trip to Marstons to see what they were brewing led him to set up his own version of the Union System to experiment with. We were told that St. Austell are possibly the biggest producer of bottle conditioned beer in the UK, with Proper Job IPA (5.5%) taking up a third of that production.
We were then given bottles of Proper Job to try. First brewed in 2006, the bottle conditioned version is filtered then re-seeded with yeast and when it was tested against a 'bright' filtered version with consumers there was no comparison; the bottle conditioned beer "absolutely smashed it".

The initial aroma reminded me a little of 'cheesy' feet, although that may have been down to the brie I had just consumed, but there was more of that burnt tyre aroma I experienced with the Harviestoun beers (which I am inclined to believe may be down to the carbon dioxide produced in re-fermentation) before a wave of lemon hit my senses. The beer itself was clean and fresh tasting, with some biscuity malt accentuated by the lemon notes from the hops. It finished clean and succintly on that same biscuity lemon note, a beautiful beer by all accounts. I can't remember the last time I had some Proper Job but I'll be making a point of having at least one next time I do.

The Bad Habit Abbey Tripel (8.2%) was the second and final beer from St.Austell, one that Roger confessed was a bit of an indulgence as he wanted to explore the flavours of the Belgian beers he loves so much. This had a sharp, sweet aroma, with that classic Belgian yeast note reminding me quite considerably of Chimay Blue. There were some dark fruit notes in the flavour and it tasted quite sweet, however we all noted that it didn't linger on the palate as you may expect a Belgian beer of this strength to do, rather it rinsed itself away, the flavours all collapsing in on themselves before seemingly disappearring down a drain in the middle of the tongue. None of us found this unwelcome just unusual, and it's certainly a beer I'd like to try again.

Our final speaker of the evening was John Keeling of Fullers someone who is never short of an opinion. He also had two bottles of their Vintage Ale with him which I will come to in a moment, but before that I want to start with three direct quotes that I noted down from what he said which seemed to sum up what this whole evening was about. They were:

"Bottle conditioned beers are never the same as cask beers."

"Bottle conditioned beers are the supreme example of small package beers."

and lastly,

"Bottle conditioned beers exist in their own right."

The first Vintage Ale was the most recent, the 2017 (8.5%) which was relatively light tasting. It positively glowed in the glass with a distinct raisin and biscuit aroma. I last had this beer shortly after it's release and someone remarked after their first sip how it had changed in the last 9 months. The slight bitterness I remember had faded away and this was a more complex beer, the raisin notes accentuated, hinting at plums and damsons, but that malty biscuit backbone was still very defined.
The next bottle was the Vintage Ale 2010 (8.5%) and this was an altogether different affair. Noticeably darker in the glass, it had a more complex raisin and fudge aroma with flashes of madeira and whisky coming through as well. It was also fuller over the tongue, with a big burst of raisin, date and dark fudge, none of the biscuit to support it either, rather the malts were chewy like burnt toffee, it was absolutely stunning. These flavours stayed with me after I'd drunk it, building with each sip, a truly beautiful experience.

Fortunately I have a bottle of this, and many other years of the Vintage Ale at home, although when asked about tasting this at the right time John suggested we should,
"Buy 64 bottles of each vintage on release and try it every three months or so."

He went on to explain the method they use at Fullers for the Vintage Ale where they chill the beer at one fifth gravity, although I missed the next part as I was rather distracted by the sublime beer in the glass in front of me.

When asked about the changes in the beer and how to account for them he replied in a phrase that was honest and summed up my experience and the science of ageing beer for me:

"Changes are so difficult to predict so you just have to enjoy the ride as it goes on."

After thanking the speakers and respectfully applauding it was revealed that there was one more treat in store for us that evening.
When we had arrived a line of vintage Bass ales was pointed out to us along the shelf at the back of one of the rooms. A beautiful display of bottle conditioned beer I thought at the time, and took an appropriate picture as it wasn't too crowded in the area at that point.

When the noise of applause had died down it was revealed that they were opening a bottle of the Bass & Co. Ratcliff Strong Ale, brewed on the 16th December 1869, for us to try.

We were all given thimble-fulls of this beer which, considering it's age I tasted with some trepidation. It poured a murky brown colour, and the aroma had a touch of dusty port about it. Initially muddy and musty it quickly changed character and became a deep rich madeira flavour. Hints of raisin, not unlike the last Vintage Ale, began to appear, and it finished incredibly smooth and complex. At nearly 150 years old this was certainly a beer to savour but my small pour was finished far too quickly for my liking. Luckily there was still plenty left so I managed to grab another so that I could enjoy this rare and wonderful experience all over again.
Tonight had truly shown what a wonderful thing bottle conditioned beer made by people that really care about the beer they produce and the taste the consumer enjoys, can be. As a prelude to the launch of Bottle Conditioned Beer Week in 2019 (see the flyer at the top of this post if you missed that bit) it couldn't have been much better.
I'd like to thank Marstons for organising the event, R&R Teanwork for the invite, the speakers for their informative and enjoyable words, particularly for humouring me and fielding my additional questions afterwards, and to The White Horse on Parsons Green for such a wonderful evening. I had an amazing time and am extremely grateful to everyone involved. It was also great to catch up with so many of my fellow writers and beer lovers too, cheers to all.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

The clouds gathered in judgement above me, dark and brooding with the occasional patch of grey-blue revealing itself at brief and surprising moments. The summer would bring a heatwave that nobody had predicted, but this springtime afternoon was like an uncertain and fickle child, changing its mind on a whim.

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.

The Cock Tavern is a small, one bar pub at the top of the high street, and claims to be the oldest public house in the town. It certainly dates back to before 1765 when the first reference occurs, and at one stage it most certainly brewed its own beer.

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.
Music is playing, seemingly coming from the bar and the woman behind it is having a fairly animated conversation about her up coming holidays, and in particular how the pressure  on the aeroplane will affect her ears. This holds my attention for all of five seconds so I look around at my surroundings for something more stimulating.

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.

Despite the undeniable quality of the beer there's not really any atmosphere, but I expect it gets quite lively in the evenings, live music appears to be a regular occurrence. This is a pub I know quite well and I occasionally pop in here, if time allows, when I'm in Ongar to see a client. There's nothing to hold me here today though so I finish my pint and move on.

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.

Greene King IPA beer mats hint that this may feature on the forlorn hand pumps some of the time, although today they are purely an ornamental feature. Maybe they are awaiting a delivery, but the lack of pump clips of any variety seems to indicate that cask beer may well be off the menu.

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 Stag is smaller on the inside than it appears from the road, rather cosy and manages to retain much of its character even with the modern alterations. It is exactly the kind of pub that doesn't immediately seem that inviting when you arrive but after investing some time, as I am able to today, it starts to open up and reveal itself properly. It's almost as if the building itself is as cautious of you as you are of it.

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.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Falling in love again

Falling In Love Again

If you saw the tweet that I posted when I returned from my holidays this year you may have an idea where this post is going, and if you didn't then the wording and colours above may give you an indication. This isn't a 'What I did on my holidays' blog although you will have to bear with me as it unfolds.
I expect, by the time you read this, that may already have taken your summer holiday, indeed you may be looking forward to next years. After the heatwave that was so different from our traditional experience of cloud and showers, the days are noticeably colder and the nights noticeably shorter even though we're still having the occasional warm day.

After our adventures in Budapest, Vienna and Prague last year we wanted to stay a little closer to home but still, much to the exasperation of the children, do a three city break, although not necessarily spread over three countries.

Brussels, Amsterdam and Antwerp were the three we chose. Easy to get to, we're only a half hour drive from Ebbsfleet International, and as both internal and international European train journeys are so easy to book online, one that didn't require to much effort to organise at short notice.

The day of our holiday dawned, up early we set off with the usual mix of excitement and trepidation which is customary on these occasions, and just over three and a half hours later we had checked into the Radisson Red Hotel in Brussels.

Drawers and cupboards explored, cases partially unpacked and following a quick freshen up (the children having laid on their beds and logged on to the wifi first obviously) we were down in the lobby ready to go out and explore. Well almost, we all suddenly realised that we were hungry, and the smell of food from the hotel restaurant proved too much of a draw, so we made our way to a booth and waited for the menu.

Whenever I go to a hotel, any hotel, I hope for some decent beer to be served. Belgium is the one place where this is almost guaranteed and thankfully our hotel was no exception. Ordering a glass of Mort Subite Gueuze, I marvelled at its arrival. A pale golden liquid topped with a shock of foam of the purest white served, as one would expect, in its own glass. Holding it in my hand it seemed to glow as I raised it to my lips, the faintly fruity sour aroma enticing me in. Drinking deeply I savoured its beautifully clean flavour, it had re-awoken something within me and I couldn't help but smile. I had fallen in love all over again.

My love affair with Belgian beer goes back further than I can begin to remember, and what my first beer from that country was I can only guess at. I would suspect that it was a Hoegaarden, its glass so different from those I was used to drinking from, its golden colour so beautiful in the sunshine, its cloudiness so intriguing, it may even have had a half slice of lemon on top, something I wouldn't dare consider now. Or maybe I would.

I would have been familiar with the style, having read about the delights of beer from the continent from Michael Jackson's writing and from studying Roger Protz's European Beer Almanac. I also remember ordering some of those Beers Of The World boxes from a site whose name escapes me from an advert or pamphlet in What's Brewing. The world did indeed seem a lot bigger in those days, and to be drinking beer brewed from China and Finland I felt like I was taking a leap into the unknown. I felt like I was exploring another culture, another country through their beer and I would wonder about those that had brewed it and what their lives must be like.

Another revelation. I started to find Belgian beers in off-licenses particularly Bottoms Up in Gidea Park, which was practically next door to where the Gidea Park Micropub is now (see previous post). Alongside bottles of Pete's Wicked Ale from the US and Schlenkerla from Germany were such Belgian delights as Orval and Westmalle. This was 1994. I was in heaven.

Fast forward a few  years, and my first holiday abroad with my then girlfriend (now my wife) was to Bruges, spending days exploring the city and drinking in De Halve Maan with evenings turning into morning in 't Brugs Beertje. I still have some of the beer labels from that trip in one of my scrap books although how I got them off the bottles in one piece I can't imagine. I do remember drinking an awful lot of beer, including the fabled Westvletern 12 which was appeared one evening after talking to an English chap who had settled there for a few hours. I trusted him with my francs when he said he would pop out and come back with some cigars if we wanted some, and against my normal judgement, possibly swayed by alcohol and holiday bonhomie. He was true to his word however and he returned with the cigars about twenty minutes later, producing the beer was as a repayment of our trust. He told us the story of the brewery and the beer but I confess to not really knowing much about it then, and I think that by then I had gone beyond the stage where I could appreciate it.

Returning from Belgium I became completely obsessed with the beer, buying it from online retailers, joining beer clubs where I could get it and, even though I wouldn't to back to the country for another twelve years, discovering I could get a taste of both the beer and cuisine at the various Belgo establishments across London and The Belgian Monk in Norwich, close enough to Beccles where my parents had moved a few years before.
It was the diversity and intricacy of Belgian beer that I was drawn to. Then there was the glassware, the history and the uncompromising way that the brewers ploughed their own furrow and the loyal following that some of the beers and breweries attracted both locally and internationally. There was always something different to suit my mood or the season.
Of course I still maintained a healthy interest in what was happening here in the UK and it was the explosion of what we now call craft beer here, and particularly what was happening in London, that turned my head, pick up my laptop and start writing.

As an interesting aside it was actually a Brit who had moved to Belgium who encouraged me to start writing my blog. You may be aware of Rob Mitchell as the artistic director and chief photographer of Belgian Beer and Food magazine or his beautiful photographs for Duvel Moortgat. To me he is an ex-schoolmate and still a friend to whom I owe thanks.

It can reasonably be argued that the craft beer boom in the United States was, in part, inspired by brewery founders and aspiring visits to Belgium and wanting to reproduce the beer that they found on their return home. Greg Hall at Goose Island was inspired by such a visit to use Brettanomyces in Matilda, and in The Oxford Companion To Beer, Garrett Oliver opens the entry on Belgium with the sentence, "Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars and France is to wine." This is turn inspired the beer renaissance here in the UK.
What was happening all around me, particularly in London and my native Essex fired my imagination, excited my taste buds and fuelled my writing. I put Belgian beer to one side but never away. It was always there when I needed it, waiting in the background, never pushy, biding its time patiently waiting but occasionally reminding me how special it was. Highlights included many splendid appearances in various guises at the #SXBottleShare , an amazing holiday to Bruges with the children and a rather splendid stag weekend with several friends in Brussels where I returned with a bag full of as much beer as my bag could hold.

And so I come full circle to this years holiday. The delights of Brussels, introducing some of my favourite places to my family, discovering some new ones and finally making it to the Cantillon Brewery and sampling its many delights in-house with others who had made the pilgrimage for much further afield than me. Then there was Antwerp, home of the Bolleke. Discovering some fantastic places and incredibly friendly people, particularly at Billie's, and the experience that is the De Koninck brewery. Travelling back to Brussels on the train and glimpsing Mechelen, home of the Het Anker Brewery and planning a trip encompassing both there and Ghent.
Upon returning home I realised that my current feelings echoed elsewhere, with The Food Programme's The Mothership of Brewing: Beer and the Belgians striking a particular chord. It's still available on the BBC iPlayer Radio and well worth a listen.
Like I said before, I've fallen in love with Belgian beer all over again, and whilst I've found some new breweries and noticed that some of the styles are influenced by what is happening in the industry worldwide they have also been exploring their own history and resurrecting some older recipes and styles, like the Seefbier I enjoyed so much in Antwerp.
The beers of Belgium are back in my life, although they never really went away, and whilst there may be plenty more to turn my head in the years to come I'll remember, like Dobie Gray sang in The "In" Crowd, 'Other guys imitate us, but the originals are still the greatest'.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Chris "Podge" Pollard, a friend and great supporter of my writing, particularly of his adopted Essex. It is to my eternal regret that I never made it on one of his  legendary Belgium Beer Tours, and I shall miss his gruff voice, kind words, generosity and unfailing enthusiasm about beer in general and Belgian beer in particular.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Gidea Park Micropub

The Gidea Park Micropub is almost opposite The Ship in Gidea Park, just outside Romford (see my previous post) and my first visit was towards the end of the extended ramble around my past haunts that I know was a rather long read. It's the kind of place, unlike some of those I encountered, that I knew that as soon as I walked in that it wasn't going to be my only visit. It wasn't, and this post was written over the two visits so far that I've made, and my experiences of both. I  hope that it unwinds in a coherent way, let's find out.

Looking around the room as I enter I'm approached by a bearded gentleman in a CAMRA t-shirt who shakes my warmly by the hand. Enquiring as to where the bar is he informs me that there isn't one, and the beer is kept in a room within the micropub itself. Looking up at the board I opt for a pint of Tinkers Cuss from One Mile End and settle down adjacent to the dart board, which occurs to me as a rather dangerous thing to have, and not something that I remember coming across in micropub before.

When I go to a new pub on my own I like to take in the feel of the place with my first drink, and in some places I ascertain quite quickly that it will be my last, but not here. There are a group of lads occupying middle table animatedly discussing giving up smoking and running the London Marathon, but it's not threatening and I sit there contentedly with my beer, which is by far the best kept that I've had today.

Looking up I notice the bearded CAMRA man going into the 'inner sanctum', a room towards the back of the pub. Peering around the door I spy a fully stocked bar in there, with wine glasses and bottles all lit up, but he swiftly closes the door behind him before I can get a proper view.

Upon his return, and my pint finished, he asks me if I would like another. I decline ath this point as I want to go across to The Ship for a swift one, but promise that I'll be straight back. He introduces himself as Steve Powell, and I tell him that I'll be back for a chat soon.

When I get back from The Ship, I order a pint of Empire's Dangerous Dave, and slip into easy conversation with Steve.

Gidea Park Micropub was opened on the 21st of December 2017 on Main Road, it is owned by Trevor Howard who has previous experience at a number of local Wetherspoon pubs, including the Moon and Stars in Romford, The Barking Dog in Barking (a pub I didn't go in on my travels), The Lord Denman in Dagenham Heathway (now closed) and The Collie Row in Collier Row. Fed up with Wetherspoon's local management structure and internal politics he decided to leave, and when the opportunity of managing a micropub arose after conversation with Dave, he seized the opportunity.

Steve tells me that he himself still does some shifts at The Collie Row, and as we talk I forget my notes and all too quickly it's time for me to leave.

Less that a month later, on a bright Monday afternoon, I'm back in Gidea Park. It's less that half an hour away door to door, trains permitting, and as I'm at a bit of a loose end it seems silly not to.

I arrive just after midday, its normal opening time, but I'm not the first customer of the day, just. As I pause to take a picture outside, a man I'd estimate to be in his late fifties tries the door and goes in before me.

Inside I order a pint of Big Hand's Little Monkey as my first drink of the day, a pleasant chocolatey Mild, and the first I've had from this Wrexham brewery. I make myself comfortable at one of the larger tables, perfectly happy with a little solitude as I go over my previous notes and begin to write.

The first pint slips down rather easily, thirsty for another I get a pint of Maxim's 7Cs and a packet of dry roasted peanuts. Light and hoppy, it's a perfect foil to the savoury peanuts, and I'm rather pleased with my choice.A suited gentleman comes in and enquires about food, but the crisps, nuts and pork scratchings on sale here aren't enough to tempt him, so he quickly leaves in search of greater sustenance.

On my first visit I noticed that there was a variety of beery reading material available, with copies of Ferment magazine and London Drinker in cardboard stands, but I pick up a copy of Mersey Ale to peruse, the Liverpool and District CAMRA magazine, and it gets me thinking that a visit to Liverpool might not be a bad thing to do sometime soon.

Pondering my next drink I spy a scrawl on the the blackboard stating that since opening that they have had 129 different beers from 66 different breweries, which strikes me as a rather respectable amount in just over 3 months.

Super Collider from Salopian is my next choice, its tangy hoppiness a real delight, and, three drinks in, I find that I'm rather enjoying my free afternoon. There's a lot to be said for killing some time people watching in a pub of any kind, and the blissful ambience of the micropub is rather relaxing.

It's a little busier now, a couple of retired gentlemen are discussing mutual friends Steve, who I met on my previous visit, is engaged in conversation with a recent arrival in an anorak who has ordered a pint of Ilkley's Hanging Stout. It looks rather tempting and I decide that this will be my next and possibly last drink here, the time having disappeared so quickly.

Hanging Stout it is, thinner in body than I was expecting but with a lovely malty chocolate finish. I have a half, and then another, followed by a third, as I pick up on the conversation with Steve and the man in the anorak, who introduces himself as Kevin. These are some of my favourite times in a pub, heated debate about dispense methods and breweries as another hour or so slips by.

Once again I have to leave, but as before I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here. The gravity dispense beer is in excellent condition, and turns over very quickly, new beers came on and old ones off in both of my recent visits. Fridays and Saturdays are rather busy I'm told, so I'll have to get back there to see what they're like, hoping that there's not a darts match in progress. That would make things rather interesting.

Gidea Park Micropub is located at 236 Main Road, Romford, RM2 5HA and is open every day of the week from 12-11pm. It's less than five minutes walk from Gidea Park station on the Cross Rail link that currently runs out of Liverpool Street. It can be found on twitter at @gideaparkmicro . Although not strictly in Essex, Havering is a London Borough and was previously a Royal Liberty, it is worthy of a mention and a visit for its accesability, friendliness and superbly kept beer. Give it a try.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Never go back? A journey through my past ...

Never go back?

A journey through my past ...

Going back to the places that you grew up, the places you used to drink in, the places that hold a degree of significance to you, no matter how trivial they may appear to others, is as much a journey of discovery as rediscovery.

Time is a strange thing. It plays tricks with your mind, clouds your memory, and can leave you doubting your judgment. 

This is a journey that I've wanted to do for some time, a journey through my past, revisiting those pubs and places that meant something to me growing up. Why it took me so long, well I don't really know. Maybe it's because I was worried that some of these places just wouldn't be there anymore, maybe because some of the places I was going to don't have the greatest reputation now, or maybe because it was so personal to me that I was frightened that it would darken the memories of those places that I've kept with me for over twenty years.

Starting out on a bright but chilly Thursday morning, as I boarded the train at Brentwood I realised that even though I knew where I wanted to go I hadn't actually planned a route to take, however as I got closer to Seven Kings station I felt an urge to visit The Cauliflower. It's a pub that was quite a walk from where I used to live but one that was always worth a visit.

The Cauliflower (553 High Road, Ilford), is an imposing late Victorian Gin Palace built in the Flemish style around the year 1900. It is on the site of a much older pub, as many are, and that was built on the site of an ancient market and cauliflower patch (so I'm told) hence the name. The rear of the property is clearly visible as you pull into Seven Kings station heading out of London, and it is though that the railway was responsible for its location and grandeur. Originally a hotel, something it may well be again if current plans become reality, it was erected on the site of two railway intersections, of which now only one remains, with the owners gambling that Ilford station would be opened there. This wasn't the case although, in the early part of the twentieth century it was indeed a very high class hotel, one which rivalled those of the West End of London for it's opulence and clientele. For those of you who like such stories, it is told that a ghostly apparition of a drowned local girl appeared at the leaving party for Mr and Mrs Hart and their daughter Eva, that was held there prior to their emigration to Canada in 1912, warning them not to take the trip. This disturbed many of the guest but Mr Hart dismissed it as nonsense. Two weeks later Mr Hart lost his life when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, although Mrs Hart and their daughter Eva, who has a Weatherspoon pub named after her in nearby Chadwell Heath, survived.

Later in its life The Cauliflower found fame as an acclaimed music venue, with bands such as the Small Faces, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the Inspiral Carpets having performed there. It was for music that we used to meet there too, and I have fond memories of time spent both inside the pub and drinking outside in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a particularly fine cover band that, in my head at least, always seemed to be playing "Big Area" by Then Jericho.

Sadly, on this particular morning I'm too early and the pub is not yet open. Peering through the window I get a sense that it hasn't changed a great deal, but I what I really wanted was a sense of what The Cauliflower was, and what it was to me. This isn't to be on this occasion, and so I make my way down South Park Drive towards Barking, and in particular Faircross, the place I was born and where I grew up.

The walk is actually shorter than I remember and the road hasn't changed much, although the old Redbridge Health Centre is now closed and derelict, a crumbling monument to NHS health cuts and centralisation. Just beyond that is the back entrance to Barking Park, and as I round the corner I see the familiar tower of The Royal Oak pub, a local landmark and one that brings on a wave of nostalgia.

The Royal Oak (201-203 Longbridge Road, Barking) known locally as the Fly House, possibly due to it's use by day-trippers visiting the nearby park by pony and trap, or flys as they were known, and in my lifetime had a large representation of a fly on its strange mediaeval fairy tale-like tower. It dates from around 1867, although some argue later, and is one of many buildings in the area listed as being of special architectural interest. It was originally a cottage that was not included in the acquisition of land by Barking Council in order to build both the park and the school, a strategic corner spot, and its conversion to a pub and subsequent rebuilding meant that it could take advantage of the passing trade.

This was the nearest pub to me when I grew up although not one that I often frequented when I first started making my tentative forays into that world. This was mainly due to many of my friends living nearer to Romford, making the pubs of either there or Chadwell Heath preferred venues. I do however have some interesting recollections of the place.

I remember visiting there on Christmas day with local friends and family when I was old enough to do so, and on one occasion having so much to drink that I had to excuse myself from Christmas dinner and retired to my room to sleep the rest of the afternoon away. I also remember the toilets, in particular the strange off yellow of the cistern, pitted with brown stains caused by parked cigarettes or other nefarious activities. In later years, after I had moved away from the area, the bank opposite (now closed and empty) was the first branch that I actually managed. I would leave the building at lunchtime, light a cigarette in the porch and walk across the road where my pint of Castlemaine XXXX would be waiting for me on the bar, regular as clockwork. They used to have regular outing to Ascot every year too, and get dressed up in their finery ready to board the coach as I'd be opening up in the morning.

This, however is another pub that I'm not destined to get inside of today. As I pass I notice a man furtively disappearing into the side entrance, but as I try to follow the door is locked from the inside. Walking round to the front I have no joy there, and although the opening times state 11-11 and it's now half past, I have no choice but to continue my journey.

Walking into town, beyond Barking Park, I'm struck not just by how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same. The shop fronts are different of course, mobile phone stores, vape shops and fried chicken outlets have replaced the toy shops, book shops and record stores of my youth, but the streets are still familiar, and although the people are different they walk the same streets that I once did, know the same routes, the same short cuts and dead ends, and recognise the same landmarks that I now see again with my slightly jaded eyes.

Just before the station are two pubs separated by a narrow road. I'll be going in The Spotted Dog a little later, but not the Barking Dog. It's a Weatherspoons outlet, and despite being Good Beer Guide listed it didn't exist as a pub when I was living in the area so hold no interest for me.

Going past another former branch I worked in, now a large betting shop, I make my way up East Street turning before right before what used to be the The Stag pub, now an open space, and make my way along Axe Street to The Victoria.

Dating from 1871, The Victoria (Axe Street, Barking) was rebuilt in 1961 in order to modernise it for the nearby Gascoigne Estate. It's a Brakspear's pub now, a subsidiary of the Marston's estate, and this two bar local has a very successful darts and quiz team according to its website. My father used to go here on a Thursday evening after bell ringing practice at nearby St Margaret's church, and when I was old enough I would occasionally go there too, although only when my younger brother wasn't with us. I don't remember much about it, only that they used to have a seemingly endless whip, or kitty as they called it, a pouch that was brought out every Thursday with their beer money in it. It therefore wasn't a major part of my formative years, so I take picture and pass by with a nod to those who I used to my fellow campanologists who are no longer with us.

The Barge Aground (15 The Broadway, Barking) is a pub that I did want to visit and just around the corner to The Victoria, but this is now a Romanian restaurant called Tarancuta. The previous Barge Aground used to be situated on the opposite side of the road, on the approach of shops that led up to the Curfew Tower gateway to both St Margaret's church and Barking Abbey (a real abbey this time, from which the school by The Royal Oak gets its name) before being demolished in the 1960s. In his introduction to Barking Pubs Past and Present by Tony Clifford, Billy Bragg, a local lad whose family were in the licensed trade in the area for generations, claims to have proudly sunk a pint or two on its former site. The name itself comes from Barking's heritage as a fishing port, having once boasted an incredible 220 boats, or smacks as they were known, by the 1850s before falling into decline, and Captain James Cook himself was married in St Margaret's, having met a local girl in the area on a visit. His marriage certificate used to be kept in the vestry when I used to go there but I gather it's somewhere far more secure now.

Just along from the Barge Aground and opposite St Margaret's Church of England Primary, my first school, is The Bull (2 North Street, Barking) .

Always an imposing building, I used to watch men stagger out of there on a Friday afternoon while I waited for my bus home, which was also the first time I remember hearing swearing in anger for the first time rather than just naughty words to be shared in the playground. Roger Protz, the eminent beer writer, was also familiar with The Bull, and I recall him mentioning that he used to walk down there with his father from nearby East Ham where he grew up, and it was one of his earliest experiences of beer and drinking.

The Bull though is no longer a pub, and although it retains its familiar exterior it is now a nightclub called The Kings Bull. After a long look, and a quick walk around the churchyard and abbey grounds, I move on.

The town centre is now pedestrianised and hosts a market selling everything from halal meat to hair extensions. It's busy on this Thursday lunchtime but I make my way through, past the station to The Spotted Dog, and for my first beer of the day.

The Spotted Dog Hotel (15 Longbridge Road, Barking), for it was that once, was built in 1870, and modernised throughout the early 20th Century. Legend has it that during some early building work tunnels were found thought to be used by contraband smugglers, and it is another pub that is reputedly haunted. Figures of both a young girl and young boy have been reported by staff after closing time, both fading to nothing after they were approached. It was also popular with signalmenn from Barking station, possibly sneaking a quick pint between shifts.

This is where I came on my 18th birthday with my friends, the landlord congratulating me somewhat ironically as birthday cards appeared on the table as I'd been drinking here for a year or two before. There was sawdust on the floor then, and we came for the Davy's Old Wallop, which was apparently Courage Directors with some added caramel, and served in all Davy's Wine Lodges at the time, or so I'm led to believe. I also meet my wife here after work on a Friday night when I worked locally as it was a great meeting point for teachers in the Borough after a week in the classroom.

The interior hasn't changed much, but there seems to be more space as if it's been opened up a bit, with less tables and no sawdust on the floor anymore. The big barrels of Port which used to be above the bar are gone, but the landlady points out some that remain by the old clock (the original clock I'm told) and I gladly take a few pictures. There's no more Old Wallop either, and the solitary handpump dispenses Doom Bar now, but I plump for a tasty Pilsner Urquell to quench my thirst, the Kozel (my first choice) being off for the moment.

The pub is inhabited uniformly by middle aged white men this lunchtime, either on their own or in pairs, quietly drinking, for the most part, mainly at the bar, discussing recent events in their lives. The piped music I found intrusive, although no-one else seemed to mind it, and big screen televisions constantly advertised upcoming sporting events, but I found it both welcoming and relaxing. Well, maybe not relaxing, the music saw to that, but I was able to enjoy my pint before moving on.

As I was going I had another brief chat with the landlady who asked I remembered the Jolly Fisherman (108 North Street, Barking) on the Harts Lane estate. It wasn't a pub I used to drink in, I do recall going in there once or twice and it did used to be a Good Beer Guide pub back in 1998 (I've checked the listing and it's in there) so I decide to make a quick detour.

When I get there though windows are covered with blackout curtains, never an inviting sign, so on this occasion I decide to give it a miss.

I go back to Barking Station to catch the bus to Ilford via the old Red Lion (38 George Street, Barking) but this appears to be student accommodation now. The sky is darkening and rain threatens as I wait at the bus stop, and as I board I realise that it didn't make it to The Britannia (1 Church Road, Barking). I used to go there for a pint or two of Youngs Bitter, or Ordinary as it was known, and it used to be a popular music venue in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, but I later learn it has closed. A real shame.

The journey along Ilford Lane is long and tortuous, mainly due to the number of cars double parked but I eventually arrive at Ilford station and stop to take in my surroundings.

I used to come here a lot as a boy, my great uncle had a haberdashery and clothing shop in Manor Park and we used to meet here for lunch. I also worked here for a while, but even though there are pubs here that I went to, I don't look back on any of those visits fondly, they were just places to go and have a couple of beers after work. Nothing more than that.

Romford is only four stops on the train, so I decide to catch that as I have a very particular pub in mind to visit, and another a little further on that always felt like a home from home.

Walking along South Street in Romford, you pass all the familiar town centre drinking dens, the 'pack 'em in and get 'em hammered' places that invariably lead to trouble on a Friday and Saturday evening, earning this town a reputation as a place to avoid late at night. That they all seem to be right next to each other, inviting drinkers to move easily between them, can't help either, but this isn't the end of Romford I'm after. The market place is my destination, and more specifically the pub that sits right on its edge.

The Golden Lion (2 High Street, Romford) or more accurately, The Golden Lion Hotel, can be found in listings going back as early as 1440, although the current building dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. It used to be a coaching in, and the site of the stables can still be seen to the rear of the property.There's a connection with The Cauliflower too, as it was run by a Peter Reynolds between 1867 and 1899 while both his father and younger brother ran the Seven Kings pub at different times.

This pub holds a lot of memories for me, all of them good. As most of my school friends lived this way, from the sixth form and beyond it became a regular meeting place where those who had been away to university could return to on a Friday or Saturday evening knowing that there was a fair chance of bumping into someone you know for a pint and a catch up. There were several birthday parties held here, mainly in the upstairs function suite and bar, but it was Christmas Eve that you were guaranteed a big crowd, and a good half of the drinkers would be ex-St Edwards pupils, with a few staff too. It was on one particular Christmas Eve that I asked Sarah, the woman who would become my wife of nearly twenty years, out on a date for the first time, so you can see why it holds a very special place in my heart.

As I enter through the low doorway I'm pleased to see that things haven't really changed. The Golden Lion is still almost exactly as I remember it, albeit rather less crowded at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon than when I used to come here. I'm told that it still gets very busy in the evenings though, and particularly at the weekends. It's a Greene King pub now, with a respectable menu, and whilst there has been some modernisation, most noticeably a new bar top, and a partition may have been taken down, as well as a slight widening of an internal doorway, it's still very much as I remember it. The beer range is from Greene King of course, but seeing that they have Theakston's Old Peculiar on cask I settle down by the door with a half of that. Looking around I see that there's a very mixed crowd, usually a sign of a thriving pub, made up of people meeting for an afternoon chat away from the hustle and bustle of the market place and shopping centre, whilst young families are finishing of their lunch. The barman walks past me carrying two plates of curry for a nearby table and asks me how my beer is. "It's nice enough", I tell him, and he smiles and carries on.

There's piped music, but it's not intrusive, and I 'm reminded of the time we put the whole of Flood by They Might Be Giants on the juke box (sadly gone), which didn't go down particularly well that evening. I don't think it lasted more than three songs before being turned off. We protested, of course, but it made little difference and the landlord was unmoved by our tongue in cheek pleas for its restoration or our money back.

I find the gentle buzz of conversation around me rather soothing as I sit and write, but, pleasant as it is, there's nothing really to keep me here for another drink so, after making a pretence of going to the toilets (vastly upgraded from those I remember, but strangely with the wash hand basin in a separate room) to see if the back of the pub is still as I recall (it is), I make my way back and out through that low doorway (mind the step) and out into the sunshine.

Rather than turning left and heading off in the direction of the final pub on my journey, I decide to turn right instead, towards what is left of the old Romford Brewery.

This takes me past The Bitter End (15 High Street, Romford), almost opposite The Golden Lion. Now permanently closed after a fire on Boxing Day 2015, it has been through many incarnations, and at one time it was a pub I preferred to The Golden Lion. This was when the name changed to Clutterbuck's in the late 1990s and the range of cask beer surpassed any found in the area. Beers from the likes of Butterknowle, King and Barnes and Timothy Chudleigh, breweries that have now all closed, could be found on the hand pumps, as well as a host of others. There was a bar billiards table too, and I used to look forward to arriving there, just to see what was on.

After this it became the Ford and Firkin, brewing on the site, although it was never quite the same as Clutterbuck's it was still a destination pub for good beer. This was under the ownership of Allied Domecq, who had acquired the brand in 1991, however after a few years this was sold on, the brewing equipment was sold, the range of beer was replaced by bland national lager and its name reverted back to The Bitter End. I never went there again.

Similarly the Romford Brewery buildings that remain are a sad shadow of their former selves. Formerly The Star Brewery, founded in 1708 on what the then the main road to London, it was bought in 1799 by Edward Ind, becoming part of Ind Coope in 1845. With the coming of the railway along the rear of the site in 1839, it was able to expand considerably, covering 20 acres and employing over 1000 workers.

Brewing on the site stopped in the early 1990s, and the brewery itself was closed and mostly demolished in 1993 with the brewing equipment shipped to China, converting the site to a car park and shopping centre called The Brewery. Two large copper brewing kettles mark the entrance from the road, reminding shoppers of its heritage, and only the offices remain of the buildings where John Bull Bitter and Double Diamond (along with Castlemaine XXXX) were once brewed. Part of this is devoted to the Havering Museum, somewhere I'll visit another day, but I head back to the market place noticing a strange triangle hammered into the kerbstone (graffiti by a Bass lover perhaps), remembering the smell of brewing that used to hang in the air over the town, now just a memory but once smelled never forgotten.

The Lamb (5 Market Place, Romford) originally dates from around 1681, but was burnt down and rebuilt in 1852. Briefly renamed Mulligans in 2013 by its then owner Richard Willis, who also owned the Romford Snooker Club, hoping to capitalise on the large Irish community in the area, it was subsequently bought by Greene King and reverted to its former name. Once hosting a venue for folk music on its first floor, something I remember from my occasional visits, it's not a pub I particularly hold dear to my heart, and the crowd of leisure suit clad smokers in the doorway and weaving mobility scooters give me cause to carry on walking to the top of the market.

On my right is The Bull (74-76 Market Place, Romford), an imposing building and local landmark in the very heart of the market place. rebuilt sometime in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was once a large three storey building with an even more commanding presence that it holds now.

My particular memories of The Bull were as an occasional stop in the market place on my way through, or as a loud music venue on a Friday evening when it had a resident DJ. Neither of which cause me to linger, so I continue through and under the roundabout at the top via the subway, emerging onto Main Road heading to my final destination.

The walk up Main Road, much as the walk down South Park Drive, is shorter than I remember, and the sun comes out encouraging me to quicken my pace. Lodge Farm Park come up on my right, with the larger Raphaels Park (pronounced locally as Rayfields) across on the other side of the road. Up the slight hill and round a bend in the road and I'm in Gidea Park, greeted by three pubs; The Archers on my side, whislt opposite that The Unicorn, now known only as the Harvester, and a little further along The Ship. It's the last of these I'm aiming for so I cross the road by the newly opened Gidea Park Micropub (a post for another time) and make my way to The Ship.

From ever since I first went there I fell in love with The Ship (93 Main Road, Romford). It's the kind of pub you immediately feel at ease when you enter and even though it must be at least 15 years since I crossed its threshold, today is no exception.

The pub dates back to 1762, and it's still the original building, little changed in all that time. Once reputed to have its own brewhouse, some structural alterations were carried out in 1950 revealing an additional large brick fireplace and exposing the original structural timbers that can still be seen today. The bay windows at the front had to be removed when dry rot was found in the surrounds, but they were rebuilt in exactly the same fashion in order that their character be preserved.

Once upon a time I'd walk though the doors and Dave the barman would be pouring me a pint of Courage Best, having seen me walk past the leaded windows. This rather impressed my father the first time I brought him here, but that was many years after my first visit when Dereck, the landlord at the time used to hold court in the main bar. I'm told by the current owners, who purchased the pub in 2007, that he still comes in from time to time, but not today sadly.

I met my wife properly in this pub. I'd known her from school, she was a few years below me, but I used to come here, a 40 minute journey on the 87 bus, because it was a proper pub. It felt like home from home, and it still does.

The beer range is better now. The Courage Best and Directors are gone, replaced by 5 cask beers now, including Brentwood Gold from just up the A12, but I opt for a half of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, and it tastes great. It's a Good Beer Guide listed pub now, and has been for the last few years and rightly so, and it's something that the owners are justly proud of. It should have been when I was younger, the beer, though limited, was always impeccably kept, but I didn't care about such things then, it was always for the company and the atmosphere. There was a weekly quiz night on a Thursday, and I'm told there still is, and it was to The Ship I came after coming out of hospital after an operation for bladder stones. Though the pain was unbearable, it didn't stop me having a drink with my friends.

As I sit by the very window that Dave used to spot me through all those years ago I have to wonder why its been so long since I've been back. A dwindling fire adds a smoky smell to proceedings, and even though I can hear music playing in the background it's a local radio station, and only on the edge of my hearing. I suddenly feel that like it's twenty years ago and I know I need to bring Sarah back here very soon. She'd love it.

It is essentially a three room pub, with a portioned snug, a larger but still small bar area, and a larger main room, although this is all relative, The Ship isn't a big pub by any means. Late on a Thursday afternoon it has a mix of what appear to be locals. An elderly man opposite me nurses a bottle of Budweiser while his dry cleaning hangs from one of the large barrels that serves as a table. I can see a middle- aged couple chatting in the snug, both to each other and the bar staff, whilst in the main room I can hear, but not see, agreeable noise and chit chat. A woman pops in to enquire about drinks after a funeral, then another asks about live music, which does happen here she is told. The fire is stoked, a couple leave, and I go back to my Landlord. I'm in a good place and start wishing that I could stay here for the rest of the evening.

This is not the case though, and all too soon it's time to leave.

As I walk up to Gidea Park station and my train home I reflect on my journey, the places I've been and the emotions I've felt. Clouded by nostalgia, especially considering my final port of call, I nonetheless feel a great warmth and fortunate to have had such good friends and good memories to look back on. It's been a voyage of rediscovery rather than that of discovery though, and whilst time moves on it's comforting to know that some places remain the same.

I used various sources for my research into some of the pubs and places mentioned here, most notably Tony Clifford's Barking Pubs Past And Present published in 1995 by Barking and Dagenham Libraries Department, but also the Ilford Recorder, the Romford Recorder,, and occasionally the websites of the pubs themselves, although disappointingly the majority of them don't offer much in the way of assistance. This has been a labour of love for me, and if you've enjoyed it then perhaps you'd like to take a similar journey yourself, or, if you'd prefer to do mine then I'd be more than happy to show you around. Just make sure you have good walking shoes on.

There are many other pubs in other areas I could have visited that also hold some significance for me. Perhaps I'll do those in the not too distant future.