Sunday, 4 November 2018

Our Friends in the North East


Our Friends in the North East
                      or
Why I didn't make it to Wylam

Driving north from my native Essex there are a series of landmarks that trigger a feeling that I'm moving in the right direction: the will it / won't it congestion gamble where the end of the M11 meets the A14, the bushes that signify the end of the motorway section of the A1 at Peterborough, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3 outside RAF Wittering, and the now sadly closed and boarded up Ram Jams public house. Next comes Stamford, then Grantham, then Doncaster, the cooling towers at Ferrybridge, the run to Scotch Corner, before we finally get somewhere that we always feel compelled to stop, get out of the car and marvel at its iconic majesty.

Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North never ceases to make me feel that arrived somewhere, and on this occasion that somewhere is a few days in Newcastle.
Newcastle is somewhere, to my shame, I've only been once before. That was four years ago almost to the day where it provided a welcome overnight stop on a drive to a holiday in Edinburgh. The briefest taste of the place and the friendliness of the people we met meant it was always somewhere I'd wanted to return to, so when a suitable opportunity presented itself we did.

After settling in and unwinding a while at the quayside apartment we'd booked our first destination was, as it had been four years previously, The Bridge Tavern.

Situated between the stanchions of the famous Tyne Bridge, there's been an ale house on this site for around two hundred years. This was demolished when the bridge was built then rebuilt in its shadow, although if I hadn't been absolutely certain of where it had been last time we were there I'd have thought that I was in the wrong spot because, as the picture below shows, its former name of the Newcastle Arms is still proudly displayed on the stonework.
Making our way upstairs we found that the tables we had occupied all those years before were free once more, as if awaiting our return. I also remembered two of the things that made my previous visit so memorable. The first was the friendliness of the people, willing to engage in conversation about absolutely anything. To be fair most of my conversations in pubs involve beer, and those that don't have often started that way, but rather than a short answer or a "sorry mate, cheers", there seems to be a genuine interest in both the beer and you. The second, remember I am from Essex, is sparklers. That's all I'm saying.
My first beer was the Tavern Inn Midnight Oats. Brewed on the premises its light roasty chocolate taste perfectly setting up my appetite for both beer and food for the evening. The food would be haggis toasties with quails eggs accompanied by pigs head croquettes alongside Wylam Brewery's hazy, juicy DDH IPA The Shape.
There was time for one more before we moved on, so I opted for Almasty's Chocolate and Caramel Stout, which delivered every flavour it promised, a wonderful beer, and its taste was still lingering tantalisingly on my tongue as we walked along the banks of the Tyne.
We took pictures, you have too, the Tyne bridge, Baltic Flour Mill, Gateshead Millennium Bridge and The Sage centre, look so beautiful with their lights reflecting off the water, but in reality my mind had already drifted a little further down the river, just beyond the mouth of the Ouseburn.
The Free Trade Inn had, over many years, taken on an almost mythical status for me. It had become the pub that I never quite made it to, fate intervening on every previous attempt. Tonight I was determined to make it.

As I got closer I could feel the anticipation building. They do say that you should never meet your idols, and was beginning to hope that this didn't apply to pubs as well. I needn't have worried. The Free Trade Inn was everything I'd hoped and more.
This white-banded island of a building, like the prow of a ship gazing out over the Tyne, stands alone, silent and majestic. Inside it's warm, both in temperature and greeting, the yellowing walls and stripped wooden counter full to bursting with hand pumps and keg fonts. I walk its length and back again contemplating my first beer, Mordue's A'l Wheat Pet, before taking a seat at one of the lower level tables, it's blue star still blazing beneath the patina of years of spilled beer. I don't think I've ever felt so at home in a pub straight away. I may have even let out an audible sigh.
My wife and children relaxed into their seats and started a conversation, it had been a long day, but I found myself captivated by my surroundings, hardly able to believe that I'd actually made it. Time for more beer.

There'd been a Left Handed Giant tap takeover the previous weekend and quite a few of the beers were still on so, despite being warned by the attentive bar staff that they were pricier than some of the other beers I opted for a dry and bitter Cycle City IPA on keg which disappeared in no time at all.
Almasty's excellent Echelon Pale was followed by Beavertown's Grateful Bread Breakfast Kvass, one of their Tempus Project beers, by which time the day was starting to catch up with me at last and it was time to go back.
Visiting the gents at The Free Trade Inn is a feast for the eyes, with years of graffiti overlapping and interweaving with no inch of wall uncovered. There's humour, insults, pathos and pictures, all human life displayed in pen and ink. I lingered a little longer than I perhaps should have taking it in.
There was something else that needed doing as we made our way outside, and, like hundreds of drinkers before me, took a picture back up the Tyne towards the lights of city.
Wednesday dawned and after an amazing breakfast at Quay Ingredient (thank you for the tip Mr Vane) we headed out of town to the edge of the Roman Empire.

I didn't expect Vindolanda to offer much in the way of beer, however I was surprised to see that there were references to it on some of the tablets that had been discovered preserved in the mud there.
Not far away is the Twice Brewed Inn and Brewery which depending on which direction you're coming from is either in Once Brewed (East) or Twice Brewed (west). Dating from at least the 18th Century, this solid stone building is warm and inviting, standing up to the elements in this desolate part of Northumberland.
The beers, either cask or bottle are available on the bar to drink on the premises or take away. They all, usurprisingly have Roman-inspired names, and I went for the Ceres Dunkelweizen which had a light, prickly chocolate flavour and slid down very easily.
The brewery itself is in an adjoining building although we were more captivated by the 'Weather Forecasting Stone', although it was far windier than it was indicating.
Visits to the Roman Army Museum and Housesteads Roman Fort high up on the remains of Hadrians Wall, completed our day although, back in Newcastle that evening we did find a rather good Sardinian restaurant to have dinner.

Thursday was our last full day in Newcastle and we were going to use it to explore the city properly at last.

We'd only booked our visit a couple of days before we went, and after I tweeted that I was finally going to do the city justice I was inundated with suggestions of places to go for both food, and of course drink. There were so many we couldn't hope to visit them all, and there were a few sights we wanted to see too, we tried to do our best.
Breakfast was again taken at Quay Ingredient, bacon and maple syrup on french toast if you ask, before we headed uphill to the Castle and on to the Discovery Centre where the children could play at being children and let their hair down a bit.
Just on the Gateshead side of the river is the container community that is home to the By The River Brew Co., a brewery that is as much on the river as it is by it. Opened in the summer of 2017, it was perfectly placed to take advantage of the magnificent weather, becoming the hottest spot on the Tyne in more ways than one. If you had any beery folk on your Twitter or Instagram feed from the Newcastle area then you will have most likely read or seen the buzz around this place.
There was a chilly wind blowing along the river when we arrived so, although it was bright we made our way inside and made ourselves comfortable at the most central table in the place, one where we could soak up the atmosphere inside while still being able to look out over the Tyne.
The beer menu had plenty of interesting beer on offer but whenever you're at a brewery it makes obvious sense to order at least one that was brewed on the premises which is why Sarah and I both went for the Proto Banger IPA,  hoping that it would live up to it's name. We certainly weren't disappointed as it was indeed exactly as promised, a hazy, juicy IPA with soft dry finish.
The interior of the bar extends into a restaurant at the far end, and space is limited due to the nature of the place. Even though we hadn't realised it when we arrived it became clear that the tables around us, despite being unoccupied, were all reserved for lunch and we were lucky to actually get a seat inside. We were close to the wood burner too, providing welcoming warmth and despite there being plenty of outdoor seating no-one was prepared to brave the elements when room could be found inside.
I'd wanted to get to quite a few places today but one beer had caught my attention that I wanted to have before leaving. It's Not Mike Porter, a collaboration between By The River and Northern Monk, is big cherry vanilla coffee porter with the vanilla and chocolate flavours very clean and defined and the cherry lending an over-arching tartness. The finish was long, deep and lingering and stayed with me long after we'd left the bar and made our way back over the Tyne bridge into the heart of the city.
After spending the afternoon walking around the shops and markets clustered around the Grey's Monument, commemorating Charles, the second Earl Grey, the local-ish boy who became Prime Minister and under whose government slavery was abolished in the British Empire before having a tea named after him, we were in need of a drink and respite. We'd passed dAt bAr a on our way here, it's literally just around the corner, so that seemed as good a place as any.
A pizza and burger restaurant, I remember the buzz on social media when dAt bAr opened its door in early 2014 mainly due to its beer range. Now four years old, the decor is starting to show its age, unless of course it was originally designed to look a little tired in which case it's rather good.

As a first time visitor walking in I was confronted by a host of individual keg fonts with no obvious beer list or numbering system. Looking perplexed I asked what beer was on only to be pointed to the large chalk board to my right. Choosing Almasty's Breakfast IPA I was equally surprised when a seemingly unmarked font was approached and the beer poured. Spotting my expression the silver numbers on the bar top relating to the numbers on the board were pointed out to me by the man serving me, admitting that it had been a mystery to him too before he was shown.
The Breakfast IPA was big and hazy, the grapefruit and orange flavours very pronounced really like the breakfast juice it was attempting to mimic. Big juicy bitterness and a dry grapefruit flavour led it by the hand to the finish, the perfect after-shopping refresher.
Despite burgers for dinner being the order of the day we weren't going to eat here, I been advised by Emma Mitchell (@minkewales on twitter) to try nearby Meat:Stack who'd catered at her wedding, but looking at the list again we decided we wanted another drink here first.

We went for Summer Wine's Ripple Heights with its sweet aroma of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. This is a beer that would probably be too sweet for many and although I'd consider myself to have a relatively sweet tooth it was right on the borderline for me. This beer has a particularly good finish akin to a lingering frozen raspberry death rattle.
Meat:Stack didn't disappoint. We chose the upstairs bar in preference to the noisier, darker bar downstairs mainly because we all preferred it, and we did have the place to ourselves for most of our dinner.
The cheeseburgers were amazing. I went for the Yellowstone, a double cheeseburger with baconnaise, hash browns, fried onions and American cheese, we all had the beef dripping fries, and this was all washed down with Brewdog's Lost Lager. This was one of the best burgers I've had and we'll be heading here again next time we're back in town.

I'd wanted Wylam to be my ultimate destination this evening, but as we made our way up Northumberland Street it was becoming apparent that the previous days exertions along Hadrians Wall coupled with the time we'd been out today meant that had started to look pretty unlikely.
Just around the corner on St Mary's Place, down some steps between a pub and a restaurant is The Town Mouse and, as it was close, this is where we went.

Warm and inviting, pretty much as soon as I'd walked in I found myself in conversation with the barman and another chap at the bar, I felt at home right away. There was only one table near the door, the chill of a late October evening keeping a space that we happily occupied.

One of the things that makes my heart sing most when I'm away is a beer selection full of beers and breweries I haven't tried before, and as the people of Newcastle are justifiably proud of their local beer scene and that of the North East of England, it had been my pleasure to drink beer from local breweries wherever possible. The beer list at The Town Mouse micropub was no exception.
The North Riding Brewery in Scarborough may well be just under a hundred miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne but it's still in the North East, and it was their NE Pale on cask that I opted for first, it's big juicy bitterness sliding down incredibly quickly it was immediately time for another beer.

Box Social were a brewery I'd heard  Myles Lambert sing the praises of on the North East Sippin Forecast podcast and seeing that they had their Blackcurrant Ripple on keg was a temptation I didn't have to resist. Unfortunately for me, the barman proclaimed that he wasn't happy with the way it was looking so asked my to chose something else.

Reluctantly I opted for Wilde Child and Brass Castle's Adoption Process Passion fruit IPA, however no sooner had I paid for that than another beer appeared alongside it. Looking up, I was told that although he wasn't willing to sell it he was perfectly happy to give me a half to try as there was not really anything wrong with it.
It was getting quite busy in the basement bar now, those who had lingered after work were now being joined by those out for the evening, and our table was being eyed quite hungrily by those standing. While we didn't feel under any pressure to vacate it tiredness had started to creep up on me, and I started to work out how far away from Wylam Brewery we were.  Fifteen minutes doesn't seem like a long walk, but having two tired teenagers in tow I knew it wasn't going to happen tonight.
It was my wife who came to the rescue and suggested a compromise. Although we had to leave our apartment by eleven she was perfectly happy to drive me over for a drink there when it opened at midday. Satisfied and frankly grateful for this we finished our drinks and began the anticipated half hour walk back to where we were staying.

Fortunately the Metro came to our rescue, and double-fortunately it took us directly to Newcastle Central Station, home to Centrale Beer Shop, although it did take a little while going up and down the platform until we actually found it.
Situated on platform 12, although I now only know that in hindsight, the selection of beer available was staggering. I could have spent a fortune here but showing much restraint and with the guidance of Bruce the owner I had soon amassed a fine selection of great beer from local breweries.
Bruce is very knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure talking to him about beer and the scene in Newcastle, he even gave me a tote bag to help carry them back. I promised him that it would go with me every where from now on, I'd become a walking advert for his shop, so if you see a lonely figure guarding beer in a Centrale bag in Essex, London, or further afield then that person could well be me.
A few beers back at our apartment looking out over the Tyne and it was time for bed on our last night. Still, there was Wylam tomorrow.

Except there wasn't.

Those of you who have been paying attention will have noticed that our last full day in Newcastle was a Thursday. Re-checking the brewery opening times I realised that I had my dates wrong. Today was Friday, and I'd checked the opening times for Saturday by mistake. Wylam wasn't opening until five o'clock in the evening, far too late for us. It was time to make other plans.

Turning to Twitter I needed a different plan for our journey home. Twitter responded and we were soon on our way to ...

I'll leave that one for my next post.

There are so many people I need to thank for their help and advice in making my short stay in the Toon so enjoyable. Although I didn't get to meet up with Myles, who I mentioned earlier, on this occasion the excellent North East Sippin Forecast podcast is well worth a listen and is now hopefully back on schedule. Similarly Emma @minkewales for Newcastle recommendations, and Andrew her husband (previously @sheriffmitchell on Twitter, but no more) for an amazingly helpful email pointing out the best places to visit along Hadrians wall. We almost managed them all. Whoever manages the twitter account for The Free Trade Inn @TheFreeTradeInn, I really sorry we never actually got to meet. To all the people I met along the way and told them that my family history takes me back to the North East thank you for humouring me, you listened very attentively. And lastly but definitely not least, a huge thank you to Daisy (@daisy_turnell) who was, for all intents and purposes my virtual Newcastle tour guide. Thank you so much for all your help and suggestions, and the invite to the brand new Anarchy tap room that I sadly couldn't attend. I definitely owe you a beer.

Next time I'm going to get to Wylam.

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