Posts Tagged ‘real ale’

The Guardian are asking people to blog on the topic ‘Three Things I do to Enjoy England‘, and as I think enjoyment is fine in its way and do often experience it it in England, I decided to shape a post around their theme. I doubt if I’ll be able to emulate the breezy style of the Enjoy England folks (strapline: ‘enjoy every minute’) but I’ll see how far I get before it all falls apart in my hands…

1. See it on foot, up close
This whole journey is about exploring England by walking between two points that have personal meaning for me. This involves crafting a unique long-distance pathway by walking it. The intention is to see all the miles of ‘stuff’ in between the well-known places, to actually walk into the scenery glimpsed from speedy motorway and train journeys. I have found it to be often illuminating and occasionally exhilarating. It is also a kind of silent meditation. England is surprisingly quiet once you get past the dog-walk-distance fringe of towns, and I have walked scores of miles along unpeopled green lanes, field edges and canal paths, through the tame, nearby wilderness. And there is beauty – not always the spectacular kind, but beauty nonetheless. On last weekend’s 15-mile hike, for instance, I found once again the hidden hedged-in promise of obscure pathways, the painterly beauty of ageing concrete…

Walking regularly is to experience the seasons. Branches full of berries signalled Autumn, and even artificial leaves were beginning to fall.

As I rambled to a stop at Great Missenden, tourist-brochure balloons were hovering over the bypass, while time drained gently into the darkness.

2. Consuming local produce
The ever-beguiling variety of England can be experienced through local styles of food and drink such as cheese, buns, oatcakes and real beer. I knew there was a Tring Brewery and, as I was going to walk around its hometown, set myself the ask of finding and drinking one of its products. This involved visiting a few pubs, itself a pleasant way to ‘enjoy England’ as a good boozer offers a way to be part of a place temporarily, a draft of its inner psyche that can be refreshing, amusing or alarming. In a Red Lion there was no Tring but I had an Everards Equinox, an Autumn-themed beer, specific in time if not place. (Everards is brewed in Leicestershire.) The pub was a pleasant place to shelter from the sun but the experience was marred by a fitful, snipy domestic being played out by the licensees. I was tempted to go straight to the next pub for an overwrite – another Lion, this time White – but pressed on along canals, including the short dead-end Wendover Arm.

Strangely the next pub I found was also a White Lion, and I saw yet another pub of this name at the end of the walk. The latter was a wine bar affair heaving with men in suits – in the middle of a village street it looked like a piece of London somehow miraculously visible from afar. The one I actually went to was a very different affair – so fiercely local that I believe a fight (or rather ‘instant ignominious beating at the hands of a Zouave-like local fellow’) could have been mine, had I required it.

And still no Tring. For that I had to venture off my planned route into the town itself, where in a pub called the Akeman I found one of the local brews – Tring’s Doc Dimsdale. This beer had been brewed for just this month, and so was specific to time and place – result! I liked the Akeman, finding it friendly and well-stocked with food and drink. It styles itself as an ‘exciting, modern interpretation of an original Public House’ and as such it’s all steel, stone and focaccia bread. Being an ‘interpretation’ it has some nice ‘quotes’ from the universe of real pubs, like these hooks on the front of the bar, as seen in traditional bars throughout the land:

I’ve never been quite sure what function these have; I always imagine in my cliche-mind the local poacher tying his dog to them. So it seemed anomalous that these tribute-act interpreted ones were square and made of brushed steel: they had been hypermodernised under the careful eye of a designer. This detail, combined with the relaxing effect of Tring’s pleasant coppery beer, made me laugh out loud, somewhat to the consternation of a group of after-work M&S workers negotiating their wine order.

3. Share words and pictures
My personal enjoyment of my journey is greatly enhanced by being able to tell people about it, layering more stories on to a storied isle. I try and read about the places I visit, using old books that offer no practical help to the modern walker. Highways and Byways in Buckinghamshire (1910) for instance, tells tales of the ‘black cannons’ ruling the region from the original of the Abbey where I stayed; of their use of the ‘oil of black snails’; of its rebuilding by ‘an opulent ironmonger in Holborn’. In a tiny way I try to add to the store of such things. And like the creator of an illuminated manuscript, I can add pictures too:

In the Cross Keys in Great Missenden I met a man who told me some of his stories. ‘Do you mind if I sit next to you? You don’t want to catch what I’ve got. [Holds out arms of different lengths.] I was injured in the war. They picked up the wrong arm. This is a woman’s arm. When I go to the gents it won’t let go.’ Bob told me this story and eight or nine others over and over, retelling them without ceasing, sometimes repeating the same one immediately. His memory is, I suppose, mostly shot away so that only his core stories remain. He lives opposite in sheltered housing and I get the impression he comes into the pub often. The people in there are friendly to him but ration their attention. I was happy to listen and respond over and over again; I found it relaxing after a long walk. I enjoyed his company but felt sad, imagining what it would be like to be reduced to a small area and a few looping tales, to have lost so much time, so much space, to enjoy just a last few yards of England and a last few stories. I feel thankful that the tales the world is telling me remain for now expansive, far-ranging and surprising, even if I do feel adrift in them sometimes, symbols cascading in…

Bob and I talked under the sign of The Cross Keys. These are the keys of heaven, the ones given to Saint Peter, to whom Christ said ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. Are lost events and broken memories bound somehow and hardwired into an eternal space, or loosed and set free, or just dissolved? On this ramble I didn’t see gates to heaven but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. But there’s no hurry. The longest journeys end, perhaps at ‘twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl’. Could it be that if you reach such gates all you need with you are a few of your best stories?

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Whilst walking through Wordsley earlier this week, I noticed a new Mad O’Rourke pub, specifically Mad O’Rourke’s Pie and Grill Factory. There used to be a chain of Mad O’Rourke establishments, and (in an earlier journey, similar the the Shepherd Neame passport recounted earlier) I once visited most of them collecting a set of coffee mugs. (A set of mugs seemed like a good excuse for a pub crawl spanning the Black Country and beyond, at least in those days.)

The pubs, then and now, were famous for serving a re-creation of the Cow Pies from Desperate Dan, huge things filled with steak, kidney and vegetables, with pastry horns projecting from the top. They also had quirky decor, such as the model carcasses hanging from the Ur-Factory in Tipton, or the bar made from an actual canal barge at the Little Dry Dock in Netherton. Foreshadowing the arrival of Wetherspoons, some of the pubs were sited in premises converted from other types of building. Different ones had different culinary themes, with the Cow Pie as the ever-present staple: sausages, chops, or fish for instance. I forget which was the fish one, but I recall it offering Black County Sushi which, unlike the effete portions served in lightweight places like Japan or London, consisted of huge thick slabs of raw fish…

In the middle of the trip around the Mad O’Rourke empire, I dreamed one night that the electricity substation opposite our flat in Wolverhampton had been converted to a Mad O’Rourke pub based on an electric eel theme. I wrote to Mr. Mad, telling him of the dream/business idea, and he replied with a strange rant about Anneka Rice, typed on a manual typewriter with a violet ribbon. And a free mug.

It’s good to see them back – full story of the resurrection here.

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Continuing my journey from Southport (in the North West) to Brighton (on the South coast), I walked from Stafford station to Wolverhampton – the town where I lived between 1986 and 1999. On the way I saw a sinister picture of a dog-like creature, sunk beneath the River Sow; had an Alice-like glimpse of the M54 from the other side of the fence; and found some beat-generation-style graffiti.


As the train approached Stafford, a recorded voice advised ‘Please make sure you take everything with you.’ I couldn’t obey as I didn’t have everything – just some things. (Even so, my daysack was heavy – probably heavier than some people carry for a camping trip .) Carrying all possible things around could be handy- think how useful MP3 players are – we would never need to struggle to describe something, just whip out the actual object. But then, maybe we do have everything – if the present moment is all there is, then it contains everything, or at least as much as we’re going to get. Each of us is a kind of mobile everything. I stepped off the train.

Actually walking
I set off along the river. I always seem to be leaving and entering places alongside water. It’s like sneaking out of a place, through the ‘ripped backsides’…

These bits of Stafford seemed lush and overgrown – with something of the science fiction ruin about them.

I had planned to walk over Cannock Chase and end up in Penkridge. However, just outside Stafford I decided to change tack and head for Wolverhampton, which I calculated would be about 16 miles away (in practice it was 20).The rationale was that heading south on a route interwoven with the M6 was truer to the purpose of the journey, walking a journey usually made in cars and trains. I left the Sow and joined the Staffs and Worcester Canal for many miles of waterside walking in an increasingly hot day. (Had a brief stop at Penkridge, for a rather chilly pint of Banks’s – a beer last sampled on a February leg of this walk.)

Under the M6

Staffordshire have provided some good signs explaining the wildlife of the Radford Meadows. These have their own poetics, for instance inscribing the idea of a ‘Winter Wonderland’ on the baking landscape. Helpful though this is, I’m thinking I should get myself into some real wilderness soon, where the viewpoints remain unwritten.

I left the canal to walk a few hundred yards along the A5 (the famous Roman road Watling Street and an earlier Celtic trackway) to Gailey Island. My sole motivation was to visit a shop, often seen from the car, which is festooned a vast profusion of signs.

If I expected a phantasmagoric emporium, a shop selling everything, I was disappointed. But it was a nice shop selling many things, from vintage brandy to logs.

From there I walked a few miles on the A449, a dual carriageway helpfully supplied with pavement. However I doubted that pavement was supplied to cross the M54, so rejoined the canal (thus adding miles to the journey.) More miles, more canalside architecture, eventually approaching Wolverhampton via a spectacular avenue of poplars. (At this point a boat went past, piloted by a skinny guy sporting a magnificent tattoo of Conan the Barbarian, based if I wasn’t mistaken on a John Buscema drawing from the 1970s.)

Weary and aching, I was glad to reach a bridge with a name I recognised. I left the canal at Hordern Road, and let the autopilot take me to the Newhampton
I must have been here hundreds of times and always admired its happy mixture of clientele – bikers, bowlers, CAMRA members, locals, students – I’ve seen bishops, prostitutes, and artists in here through a real-ale fug. A pub as a place with everything. From my brief visit on an blazing afternoon I couldn’t tell if it is still like that, but I can vouch for the quality of the beer based on a pint of Landlord.

I crossed the ring road – home of the much-mourned ‘ring road tramp‘ and, once, resting place of the remains of a murdered woman, undiscovered for some weeks. Back in the present, a young woman came at me and asked for ‘something…anything’ while I was taking a picture. In the heat of the moment, defensive, I gave her nothing – not my finest moment.

I walked through the city to the station. The route was lousy with memories, too many – everywhere I looked was somewhere I had lived, worked, played, laughed, cried or got married. All the good stuff – my personal everything – has come with me up to the North West, so there’s no point reminiscing. Next time, I will try to revisit this town with fresh eyes, as a visitor – maybe make some new memories.

One thing I did enjoy seeing was the regenerated Low Level Station. When I lived in Wolves it was an empty shell, and the route to the Great Western Pub was through picturesque desolation. It seems to be on an up, vast schemes unfolding. A mashup of the station building with a new Premier Inn seems to be the first step.

All photos from this trip…bostin’! Gi’t some ‘ommer

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