Saturday, 6 February 2016

Beer In Essex: Brentwood Reclaimed

Beer In Essex
Brentwood Reclaimed
A Local Odyssey

At the beginning of January I was asked if I'd like to contribute to this years #tryanuary campaign by writing a few words for the website as a guest blogger. Obviously I wanted to do something Essex-related but I also wanted to do something that I hadn't done before, something new. That is after all the essence of #tryanuary. Luckily for me my inspiration was close at hand, and I decided to revisit, rediscover and in some cases uncover some of the pubs that I had in my local town that I didn't know.

With one exception, which reveals itself instantly, I hadn't drunk in any of these pubs for at least ten years if at all. 

Unfortunately time restraints meant that they didn't all make the blog but they're all here, and for me they have become: Brentwood Reclaimed.

The Brewery Tap

Towards the bottom of King Street, less than a minute from the Brewery Tap. Once part of A. Fielder and Company, brewers, before the rest of the site was converted into shops in the late 1920s, the actual pub building and layout remain unchanged.

I used to drink in here when we first moved to the area as an old school friend used to live next door, but it’s been more than a decade since I last crossed the threshold. It’s not changed much, which is to its credit, and as I sit here on a Wednesday afternoon I reckon it’s not a bad place to be.

There’s a group of men aged 35-50 discussing the latest episode of Countdown whilst three women in the corner are gossiping about mutual friends, a half of lager each and a few empty packets of crisps sit ignored on the table in front of them.

Aside from Timothy Taylor’s Landlord there’s Fuller’s London Pride, Adnams Ghost Ship and Southwold Bitter on the bar. The beer tastes good, and as I drain my glass I wish I had more time. It’s been a while since I’ve been in here, but it won’t be too long before I’m back.

The Victoria Arms

Just around the corner from the Sainsbury’s superstore, tucked snugly into its space on the Ongar Road is the Victoria Arms.
Built in the late 1860s this Victorian boozer, a Gray & Sons tied house, could make a very good case for being the most aesthetically pleasing of all of Brentwood’s pubs. Head inside, through the unusual internal porch and you’ll discover that it’s bigger inside than it looks from the street, cleaner and brighter too.

The interior is split into two distinct sections, and although you can freely between them now it’s not difficult to spot where the central corridor once led to a Tap Room on the left and a Saloon Bar on the right. Look back from the bar and you can see the writing on the period etched windows confirms this.

Six hand pumps greet you, and I’m told that there’s a fair chance that you’ll find a beer from an Essex brewery on one of them. There’s four beers from Cornwall, two each from Sharp’s and Skinners, Greene King IPA and Maldon’s Farmers Golden Boar, on the bar when I pop in at lunchtime, and if you’re so inclined Heineken’s Meister lager provides a drinkable alternative to some of the usual brands.

A mix of ages of both sexes occupy the tables that keep to the edges of the room, eating, drinking and talking, each absorbed in their own company.

I take my pint and retreat to a table near the door to observe the comings and goings, content to watch the world go by for half an hour or so. The woman who served me comes out from behind the bar to clean the tables as soon as the patrons leave, smiling happily to herself as she does so.

I rather like the Victoria Arms and I’m guessing you will too.

The Artichoke

Standing like a guardian at the gateway to the town, The Artichoke has seen some changes in the two centuries of its existence.

Viewed from the busy crossroads that quarters Shenfield Common the uninformed visitor would never guess it’s true, older identity as, following a mysterious roof fire in July 2000, Mitchell and Butler’s reduced then removed that name from the building completely.

It’s a Toby Carvery now, Home of the Roast, it proudly proclaims, and it’s a bustling temple to the most traditional of English fare from breakfast time through to dinner and beyond. Cars pull in and cars pull out from the featureless car park behind the pub disgorging their passengers before waiting silently for them to return on this asphalt wasteland where, a mere stone’s throw away, 19 year old William Hunter was burnt at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary for refusing to retract his Protestant beliefs.

Brentwood school is just next door, counting Douglas Adams, Hardy Amies, Robin Day, Griff Rhys Jones, Noel Edmunds and Keith Allen amongst its illustrious and not-so alumni. I’m given to wonder how many of them may have sneaked out of the dormitory for a clandestine pint or two in the later years of their attendance.

I doubt that they’d find much there to excite them today.

The polish gold metal fonts dispense Stella Artois, Carling, Carlsberg and Magners cider, Tetley Bitter and Fuller’s London Pride all on keg. I ask if they have any cask or interesting bottled beer, they don’t so I opt for a half of the latter.

It’s a soulless food factory now, designed to satisfy but not to be enjoyed as a pub should. There’s nobody waiting for anyone to arrive, no groups gathering for a drink before a night out, no clubs or associations meet here and the token bar seating area to the right of the door goes unnoticed by those waiting to be seated at the sign they must obey.

I have no reason to linger, so I drink quickly and leave. I don’t look back.

The Robin

There’s been a beer house on this site for at least the last three hundred years, and in a survey of businesses in 1788 it was notable for being the only one of eleven public house not on the High Street. It was known as the Robin Hood then, and more recently the Robin Hood and Little John, however a makeover and a change of name from legendary benevolent outlaw to red-breasted Christmas bird has given the building a different feel.

I recall the Robin Hood and Little John having a dubious reputation, but recent refurbishments have transformed the place I’m told by Tara who works behind the bar and is happy to chat and extol its virtues.

It’s a Heineken pub, not a temple of beer with Heineken, Amstel and Moretti on keg, and Deuchars IPA and Old Speckled Hen are the only cask beers (“because they sell well” I’m told) although they are occasionally replaced with seasonal variations.

A television opposite the bar shows Sky Sports, but it’s unobtrusive and I barely notice the sound coming from it despite me being the only customer. The interior is smart, light, clean and spacious, and the central bar is accessible from two of the three distinct areas that were once separate rooms. That was several alterations ago and you can walk between them easily now.

Situated on the main Ongar to Tilbury road along which once timber from Epping Forest was taken down to the docks, it’s taken me ten minutes to walk here from the centre of town so I’m in need of a drink. The Caledonian Deuchars IPA is the only sensible choice as far as I’m concerned and I’m delighted to find that it’s well kept and sparklingly bight.

The menu is American inspired; burgers hot dogs, pulled pork and chilli, but a packet of Monster Munch is enough for me today, and I make my way to a table near the door to devour them hungrily. After taking a delivery Tara returns and engages me if conversation once more and we happily put the world to rights chatting about local pubs, many of which she’s worked in, until it’s time for me to leave.

The Robin is the furthest pub in Brentwood from where I live and the beer range isn’t exciting enough to entice me across town often, but if I’m passing and want a place to rest and chat then I just might pop in.

The Gardeners Arms

In the oldest part of Brentwood, just behind the High Street, you’ll find the Gardeners Arms.

Built in the early eighteenth century as a workhouse for the poor of the parish, it fell under the ownership of the Billericay Union Workhouse in 1835 before being sold as an inn two years later.

It stood on Back Street in those days and overlooked fields leading to Thorndon Woods, but times change and so did the name of the road and it now stands stoically on Hart Street whilst giggling day trippers on their TOWIE tour scuttle briskly past on their way to the Crown Street boutiques.

The first thing I notice on entering is how dingy the place is.

I cross to the bar and have a choice of Greene King IPA or Sharp’s Doom Bar so I opt for a half of the latter. It’s poured in silence, the barman only speaking to tell me the price, and he takes my money and retreats to a stool on the other side of the counter.

Two men who look to be in their early sixties sitting adjacent to where I stand stop talking whilst I’m at the bar, only resuming their conversation when I’ve taken my beer to a far table.

The horseshoe shaped seating area was clearly once two separate bars, lit only by eight dim lamps, a fruit machine, five keg founts and two large televisions showing an R&B music channel. The barman is listening to talk radio from a old transistor and it sounds as if it’s coming from the inside of a wet cardboard box.

The beer is passable if unremarkable so I quickly finish the last third and head out into the rain.

The Rising Sun

It’s unusual for a pub to open in the middle of the afternoon these days. Three o’clock used to be the time when last orders were called not so long ago, but from Monday to Friday this is the time that the first pint of the day is pulled in the Rising Sun.

Noted as a “beer shop” in an Essex Chronicle report of 1851 and a quarter of a century later as a “beer house”, the current building dates from 1912 when the original was demolished and rebuilt in what was its own garden to accommodate the widening of the Ongar to Tilbury road on which it stands.

It is currently the only pub in Brentwood to feature in the Good Beer Guide and consists of two rooms with very separate uses. One is the lounge with a scattering of tables and chairs as well as some stools at the bar, whilst just beyond a smaller brighter space has two dart boards and a fruit machine.

Five hand pumps are arrayed in front of me as I enter, with Timmy Taylor’s Landlord, Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s Cornish Coaster permanent fixtures with the other two usually featuring a local beer, at least one of which is from the nearby Brentwood Brewery.

It’s obviously a regulars pub as everybody seems to know everyone who comes and goes, and although I don’t fall into that category they’re friendly enough and don’t seem bothered that I have entered their midst. It’s relaxed, and I feel comfortable taking my pint to a nearby table to watch the evening unfold.

It’s fairly busy, not overly so but steady enough and I find myself wishing this pub was on my walk home rather than being in completely the opposite direction.

I can’t think why I’ve never been in here before and order myself another pint. I could be here a while.

The Nags Head

Although technically in the parish of South Weald, the Nags Head is the first pub that you pass should you pull off the M25 at junction 28 and head towards Brentwood itself.
Originally a rural public house on the main route from London to Colchester, ownership can be traced back to 1826, it stands close to the crossing of two major roads, the M25 and the A12.

It’s a large brick building with an even larger car park, a destination for diners rather than the thirsty forest and field workers of times past.

Heading up some steps to the pub itself it has the feel of a slightly up market carvery rather than a pub and my suspicions are confirmed as I head inside.

For half past two on a Thursday afternoon it’s surprisingly busy and I have to wait a few minutes for a table as my companion and I have come down for a late lunch.

There’s a small but comfortable seating and waiting area before you get to the desk of the table manager and the bar, and it’s bright and clean inside with wooden floors and muted tones. It’s efficient but relatively informal.

A varied crowd of reasonably-dressed people have clearly made a little effort to come out to eat and chatter comfortably as they eat, office workers, two elderly ladies, young families and a group out for a birthday lunch are occupy the tables around us.

There are two hand pumps on the bar, Doom Bar and Broadside, and it’s the latter I fancy and order a pint. When it arrives it’s a little flat but palatable and not in the greatest condition. If I’d have thought about it then perhaps I should have gone for the Sharp’s beer, being the lighter of the two it probably turns over a little quicker.

The food however is good, tasty and relatively reasonably priced with the triple-cooked chunky chips in particular being very nice indeed, but we’re on limited time and we eat up hungrily and go.

I’d come back for food, but not for beer, and as it’s quite a walk from both where I live and the town centre I doubt I’ll return soon. Strangely a small part of me finds that a bit of a shame.

The Hutton Junction, Hutton

It’s Wednesday night and I’ve arrived back at Shenfield station a little earlier than I expected. Finding myself with a half hour to call my own I forgo my usual route up Mount Avenue, push on past my turning and head to the Hutton Junction.

Dating from at least the mid 1880s when the local railway station had the rather longer name of Shenfield and Hutton Junction due to the fact that it lies on the parish boundary of both, you’ll notice that it’s not actually a Brentwood pub. I’m sure you’ll forgive me this indiscretion as it’s a pub I’ve not visiting it before despite working just up the road for six years and only being a half hour walk from the centre of Brentwood itself.

It’s a Gray’s pub now, one always meant to go in but never quite made it. A ‘not quite but nearly’ pub that always fell at the final hurdle.

Tonight I bite an eighteen year bullet (I don’t live that far away either), head inside … and wonder why it’s taken me so long.

Walking up to the bar, the conversation around me is relaxed and friendly and the smile I get from the woman who serves me puts me at ease in an instant.

There are five cask beers to choose from this evening, Greene King IPA, Pendle’s Blonde Witch, Belhaven Burns Ale, Greene King XX Mild, and the beer I opt for Cottage’s Full Steam Ahead. I take my pint to the only unoccupied table and take a seat just as the bell for last orders rings.

Looking around the sounds are muted and respectful considering the late hour, and I recognise the faces of a few customers from work and one or two others who live locally. We smile and nod and carry on. No more is necessary.

I finish my pint and wind my way home just as the glasses are being collected. The perfect end to a good evening. I make a mental note to get a slightly earlier train home next time I’m in London so that I can squeeze in just one more drink at the Hutton Junction.

The Spread Eagle

All journeys, whether good or bad end with a return home. Or at least to somewhere you feel at home.

The Spread Eagle is that place for me. It’s not my closest pub, but it’s on my journey home, and in recent times and due to recent changes it has become my local.

It’s one of those pubs that, if you didn’t know it was there then you’d easily miss it. A stark white mid-Victorian building its triangular shape at a slight angle to both Queens Road and Coptfold Road at whose apex junction it sits.

Familiar places, familiar faces.

Head inside and look left to see a narrowing seating area with wooden tables of various heights, mis-matched chairs and an out-of-tune piano. Off to the right it opens out a little, and even though there’s slightly less seating it’s more comfortable and relaxed.

In front of you is the bar which has a few high stools, and on which stands three hand pumps serving draught Bass, Sharp’s Atlantic and Adnams Broadside, all kept in immaculate condition by Jack, an experienced landlord despite his relatively young years. The keg fonts have Shipyard IPA and Greene King East Coast, with Estrella, Amstel, Moretti and Staropramen the lager options, but you might see Brooklyn Lager in the place of the latter in the not-too distant future.

Bottles from Brewdog, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island and Curious Brew can be found in the fridge, offering a safe but tasty diversion if you’d like a change from the usual.

My usual is the Atlantic, at least for my first drink, and I ordered a pint when I came in. It tastes great and after a minute or replying to a work email I wander over to the bar for a chat with Jack, and we swap anecdotes whilst he expands on ideas he has for the place we’ve discussed on a few occasions.

A visit from Greene King head brewer John Bexon was well received, and the first of the brewing / home brewing club meetings due to take place of the 15th February has attracted a lot of interest from local home-brewers, commercial brewers and even further afield.

I return to my seat as there are customers requiring service, and I look around the bar with a contented sigh as soft soul music plays in the background. I finish my drink and decide whether to have another or head home. Looking at my watch it’s later than I thought. Maybe just a half.