Friday, 30 August 2013

A Good Gastro-pub: Do They Exist?

Recently, I went out with some friends over Bristol way for a bite to eat. Ordinarily, I would be happy with a few pints and a cheese roll in my local, but on occasion I do enjoy a good feed around and about. One bright spark suggested a local pub known for its food. Now, I treat any dining experience in a pub with due suspicion. Food in pubs is not something I am against per-se, but more often than not when entering a food focused pub, I am greeted with the sight of a disembowelled hulk of a once promising looking local, bedecked in a clumsy faux-rustic fashion, and served platefuls of ‘matter and chips’ prepared in industrial microwaves by an unenthused youth in stupid trousers. My rules for pub food (or more exactly, a pub which serves food) are simple - do it well or not at all, and never let the dry trade impinge on or drive away a pub’s mainstay of drinkers. After all, a pub without drinkers is...a restaurant.

 Suitably guarded, the party pulled up outside the Forage Inns group Bird In Hand of Long Ashton. We enter into the large public bar. There is a lively drinking session already well underway, every bar stool is occupied, every table filled and every glass making regular trips toward a mouth. Bath Ales Gem, Butcombe Bitter, the ubiquitous but still excellent Doom Bar and the justly prized St Austell Tribute are offered from hand-pull, the first and last are sampled and both are in truly fine form. The bar is bright and lively, the custom friendly and enthused and the décor pleasingly contemporary, white walls and scrub top tables - none of that faded half attempted pastiche tat which I so detest. We are even spared the usual hateful enquiry as to our gastronomic intentions as soon as the drinks order is lodged, which usually elicits a violent reaction from your correspondent - ‘and are you dining with us this evening?’ Indeed, it is up to us to disclose that one of the more organised members of the party has reserved a table in advance, just as it ought to be.

 We were then shown through into the considerably quieter eating area to the right, with places set, candles and small floral displays. The tempo here is calmer and refined, dimly lit and elegant. It is at this moment when I start to think, this is a pub out of the ordinary. The Bird in Hand just about defines what I expect from a really good food pub, dare I even say, gastro-pub. A proper bar area filled to the rafters with waifs and strays all carrying on in traditional riotous pub form, then separated off, a purpose built dining area for those interested in enjoying a good meal away from the frenzy of the boozy play-room - giving each set of clientele space to be.

Fish and Chips - and Pint.
 Menus are presented; a little typed piece of paper with a reassuringly small selection of changing dishes. Everything is made on site - ‘from the bread to the black pudding’ - while the fish is delivered daily, meat sourced locally and much of the herbs, mushrooms and such foraged from the surrounding country by the chef and his staff. I opt for the Provençal Fish Soup, followed by posh Fish and Chips (battered hake, celeriac chips and pea puree). It is, quite simply, one of the very finest meals I have had in a long time. Everything is delicious. I am reliably informed that the Brazed Lamb teamed with a powerful Sicilian red by the glass, was also excellent. We finished the meal replete and suitably merry, basking in the warm glow of a very rare and fine pub operation - someone in the set up genuinely understand what customers want, and how to accommodate it comfortably and considerately. We departed around 11pm, when the bar trade was still going strong, though perhaps lapsing into the dispassionate drinking phase as the toll of the evenings enjoyment began to be felt. I then spotted that the kitchen provides home made scotch eggs, sausage rolls and crispy pigs ears to the bar trade, for those who simply wish to line the stomach.

 The Bird in Hand is pub truly befitting the title of gastro-pub. It is a venue which places as much emphasis on the ‘pub’ part of that phrase as the ‘gastro’. The wet trade of the operation is a buzzing public bar selling good quality beer and cider to an appreciative audience. The dry trade manages to neatly avoid straying into the realms of an over-blown, expensive restaurant with rural pretense, though is able to provide a sophisticated and deeply impressive dining experience when required. It is heartening for this jaded hack, to find that such places exist among the mire of disappointing eating houses - both pompous and just plain crap - and that some people in the trade know how to use food correctly as a diversification of a pub's offering, while never forgetting the reality of what a pub fundamentally is for. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Notes From Home - Part II

- The Seymour Arms

Main Street, Witham Friary, Somerset, BA11 5HF.

 Some people in this word will travel to the ends of the earth to broaden their horizons, I go to Witham Friary. This pub is a glorious, unconscious snapshot of how life once was in the pleasant pastures of rural England in days long gone. It is a pub which the modern world has forgot to ruin and, apart from the occasional new light-bulb, is still as it would have been in 1959. Even the crass intrusion of a till is spared in this wonderful time capsule; the coins and notes of the day’s trade are artfully arranged in a series of small wooden pots on the back of the counter. The pub was originally built as a large Inn by the Duke of Somerset’s estate to serve the railway station at Witham, where the GWR Mid-Somerset branch to Bristol via Wells and Yatton left the mainline. Sadly, the branch line and station fell prey to Beeching’s lunatic axe of the 1960’s, leaving this stately pile suddenly marooned in a rural backwater, to begin a new life as an unpretentious local tavern. Reminders of its previous incarnation can still be seen today, from the splendid ornamental cast iron sign to the former glazed hotel reception desk, which now serves as the bar. The two public rooms either side of the main corridor servery are simply furnished with old benches and tables, the public bar has bare flagstone floors and a dart board, while the Commercial Room (another reminder from its hotel past) is carpeted - after a fashion - with old service bells let into the walls and an antique bar billiard table for entertainment. The locally renowned smoking shelter, constructed of rusty scaffold poles with an old tarpaulin lashed across, also features.

 It is, however, the wonderful mix of people from near and far that make this pub truly special. Well heeled devotees of good honest public houses rub shoulders with the cider-addled denizens of field and ditch, leading to a fascinating miss-match of accents, cultures and professions. This is a pub where all those who come are treated as equal, regardless of your wealth, education or state of sobriety, and everyone will have something to say - anecdotes regarding cider related mishaps with heavy agricultural machinery mingle with fascinating stories from ‘they outsiders’ about that exotic and distant place called London.

 The pub serves no food, save peanuts and chocolate bars, but still carried on here is the time honoured custom of food days. Unbidden by anything save tradition, every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon customers come from far and wide to line the tables in the public bar with cheeses, preserves, bread, crisps, eggs, pickled onions, pies, apples and cold meats. Everyone brings something, so everyone enjoys something; a wonderful timeless expression of egalitarian countryside communal spirit, washed down with buckets of the wonderful Rich’s cider dispended from the cellar (£1.60 a pint at my last visit). 

 Jon and Jean, the long standing Licensees, were as much an institution as their pub, but sadly since my last visit I hear that Jon passed away in the Spring, while Jean continues to decline in health. Listening to either of them recall stories from their many years at the Seymour was a lesson in living history, from tales of the old railway men who would come of a lunchtime to enjoy 6 pints of rough cider before returning to work, to descriptions of other amazing old and characterful pubs near and far, many now sadly distant memories. For posterities sake though, Jon and Jean’s son and daughter have recently agreed to run the pub between them, securing this amazing old tavern for the time being.

 A trip to the Seymour is always an experience for old hands and new comers alike - a genuine enactment of a world Hardy himself would have found familiar. Leaving the bar is always tinged with a sense of sadness, for more reasons than one. How wretched it is to live in an age where places such as the Seymour are not only rare but now seem so remote, so utterly alien to the modern, oppressive consumerist lifestyle that so many of us endure that they really seem like a place out of step with reality. England must have been a place to be envied when little taverns such as the Seymour were relatively commonplace, before the arrival of the trappings of modernity and the inevitable gentrification, sanitisation and purging of the countryside of all the character which once made it special. Fortunately though, those hateful forces are, for now, held at bay around Witham and so long as the Seymour carries on defiantly against the tide of vacuous incivility, a little corner of real rural England will always be found by those with the curiosity and imagination to seek it.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Notes From Home - Part I

 Ever since I set a tentative foot in the old county of Somerset, I have felt at home. Perhaps its something in the water of this place which serves to pull all such misaligned people down into this warm and wet part of the world. Somerset is county of eternal contrast. There is dramatic mountain crag and misty moorland, the waterlogged Levels stretching far out to the wind blasted coast, while nestling in between, a soft and fruitful land which is among the loveliest countryside in England. There is industrial gritty working town and sedate medieval city, the urbane and edgy life that surrounds Bristol and Bath and the toothless, cider damaged nonsense of her quiet villages, whom collectively ceased to progress in time around the end of 1967.

 It is also an area where people drink, and drink properly, regularly and deeply. The people of the South West in general are said to be among England’s jollier folk but Somerset takes it further, perhaps sharing more with their Celtic cousins in southern Ireland than the people further north.  Consequently, it is a rich hunting ground for real pubs and I here present a few of the choicer examples.


-  The Tucker’s Grave Inn

Wells Road, Faulkland, Somerset, BA3 5XF.

 The Tucker’s has been broodily overseeing this desolate crossroads in deepest, backwardest Somerset for as long as anyone cares to remember. Catch it on a cold wet day in January and you may be forgiven for having misgivings over the old place, especially when the iron grey render matches the leaden rainclouds, but it’s outward appearance gives little hint of the warm, gem of a pub which sits within.

 The inside of this old watering hole has not been altered from the unadorned but beautifully functional layout which would have been commonplace in countless small rural drinking houses. A central corridor runs right through the middle of the building from the large, little used front door to the dog-infested back garden, the Tap Room is on the right with a few settles and a fireplace, servery on the left with further basic seating. No bar, beer and rough cider racked in the large bay window. That’s it; perfect simplicity. The only change to upset this time honoured format was in the late 80s when devoted long-standing landlady Glenda Swift, tired of people sitting in her old adjoining living room when the pub was busy, finally wheeled her old TV and easy chairs upstairs and gave this furthest room over to regular public use. As a final sop to modernity, Glenda has also recently installed a new till.

 Historically, the really interesting bit of the pub is the Tap Room with its wonderfully undulating built-in settles, battered scrub-top tables and wood burning stove; a vision of how so many honest country drinking houses must have been before the relentless forces of modernity and heartless brewery design teams enveloped them in a tide of swirly carpet, wood chip, dralon and re-pro horse brasses. It is however, the amazing central servery which gives the Tucker’s its beating heart. One long, narrow oak table sits pride of place in the little galley like room, with more rickety built-in seating down each wall. The very construct of the place forces friends, strangers, tourists and even celebrities* to look up from their day-glow cider and talk to their fellow pub-goers; a tragically uncommon occurrence in many pubs of today who inexplicably drown conversation under a tide of ill-fitting musac and the jarring intrusion of  ItBoxes and fruit machines. However, in this quirky, unfashionable backwater of the world, the Tucker’s reverberates solely to the gentle chatter of the native custom, interspersed with the clipped accents of those from further afield out on safari. The wonderfully antiquated outside toilets also feature, especially in the depths of winter when it has been known for both water pipe and cistern to freeze solid, creating a temporary sculpture park of ice across the floor of the gents.

 There have been countless good evenings and lazy sunny afternoon sessions in this fine old tavern and in this correspondents considered opinion, such a thing as genuine contentment can be reached sat in the Tucker’s Grave with a pint of rough cider, while the lulling hubbub of conversation washes effortlessly around you. This is a place everyone should experience at least once, and which ought to be experienced often.

* The Stranglers of ‘Golden Brown’ fame take cider here, as do many of the Soho House set, most  notably a stately chap by the name of Jagger whom Glenda tells us, is rather quiet, very polite and owns a very shabby straw hat.


Monday, 19 August 2013


Before I begin proper, perhaps it is prudent to spend a moment discussing places no proud considered drinker should ever be seen.

 First to be debarred for our purposes are those common, almost aggressively average food orientated chain pubs which seem to litter the land. These oft identify themselves for you, and are loosely anywhere which would use a combination of the following words:  ‘family eating houses’, ‘2 for 1’, ‘Sunday carvery’, ‘sizzling’, ‘country dining’, ‘grill’ or ‘OAP Menu’. These mangled attempts at traditional pub hospitality are a concept dreamt up by the fevered imagination of a PR firm in the heat of 1979, yet they scandalously continue to inflict themselves on the unsuspecting general public. Their vile over-lit neon glow, their stained swirly carpets and ubiquitous presence of horse brasses, paintings of rural idylls and corporately ordained ‘quirky’ artefacts nailed to the walls, should be enough to bring the bile to the throat of any enlightened individual. If not, then stay awhile to partake in their unkempt tasteless ale, their mass produced imitation lagers and their vast plates of deep fried beige food presented by disinterested staff, who would be better suited to a career in resold debt collection.

 Never should any disciple of civility enter these places, there is nothing here for people such as us. A proper pub, befitting the title of an ‘all-rounder’ or even a good gastro-pub, should be able to cater for the needs of the hungry, the family inclined and the thirsty, without allowing either party to encroach upon or undermine the other. Indeed I know of many fine examples of good and imaginative landlords operating within an adaptable and well planned space, catering for all comers; no one should ever again have to suffer in a noisy overblown licensed crèche with pretensions of adequacy. 

 Also on the black list are the ever growing parade of overweening, second rate, pompous eating houses which have been forcefully imposed upon countless once perfectly adequate pubs. I deliberately avoid the word ‘gastro-pub’ here. A good gastro-pub is a fine thing, defined as somewhere which is primarily known for its excellent food offering, but which is still retains a good, lively wet trade in a decent and well presented bar area. What is objectionable though, is when a pub severs its connections to its own earthly existence, spiralling off into a hateful netherworld of bourgeois mediocrity. Greyscale paintwork, stripped brick walls, stainless steel, Gerbers and a new ‘quirky’ name are the order of the day, as a once welcoming local is painfully augmented into a dreadful highbred somewhere between high-end restaurant and clumsy continental café - a single lonely handpull left ironically on the bar. ‘This used to be a right grotty little dive’, you hear their hateful yuppie patronage spout as they devour mean little platefuls of deliberately incomprehensible food - all reassuringly expensive, of course. These places represent the worst excess of creeping middle-class social cleansing occurring across our land, taking such an inclusive and egalitarian institution as the British pub and usurping it into a restricted and select refectory for the status conscious nouveau-riche. It makes my stomach turn.

 Finally on list of avoidance, at the other end of the spectrum, are those yobby little hell holes found in the hopelessly deprived areas of our country. Such taverns were once the mainstay of so many an honest working man’s way of life, but have since become the preserve of the leary unemployable sons of better fathers, drenched in pissy lager, football played on a continuous loop and an ear-splitting jukebox to preclude any attempt conversation. This is, by no means, to say all working class rough pubs are included in this category - far from it. Indeed, some of the very best pubs this correspondent has ever had the pleasure of discovering have been proper ‘spit and sawdust’ affairs in the rough end of town, often causing sharp intakes of breath when their names are mentioned among more prudish company; ‘Oh, you don’t go in there, do you?’ The pubs debarred for our purposes are those where the old guard of real pub people have been driven out by the loutish and idiotic - people uninitiated in correct and traditional pub etiquette - enforcing a banishment of decent ale, good conversation and wider social cohesion. These places are the playgrounds of overgrown children with a pint clasped in their hand, and although the huge discrepancy in mass produced lager prices by supermarkets has done a great deal to whittle their numbers down, they should still be avoided if accidently stumbled upon.  

  Like all the pubs mentioned in this section though, they are basically too much of one particular thing - too foody, too rich, too yobbish...or just plain crap.  Balance between all and for all is the key to running a truly inspirational pub, along with a good landlord and plenty of hard work, and when such a good pub is found it must be supported and cherished by those who understand and appreciate such things.

Welcomes and Introductions

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”
Dr Johnson
~ J. Ward: An Introduction
Greetings dear reader. I humbly introduce my first foray into the world of ‘Blogging’. Some of you may be familiar with my published works in various magazines and pamphlets (though probably not). To those who do not, I would simply say myself and a group of dedicated accomplices attach a great deal of importance to the serious business of drinking, conversation and occasionally having a decent plate of something hot to prevent the onset of malnutrition. To this end, my rambling and irreverent despatches are based on the pursuit of all three, steering the reader in the direction of places which act as bastions for the above; places of excellent quality for the discerning drinker. This blog is designed as an overspill to soak up my day to day considerations and observations, allowing me to keep an active stream of comment between the sometimes yawning gaps in print publications - charting my footloose progress about the country, taking me from the soaring majesty of our urban Victorian gin-palaces to the sleepy village inn peopled by toothless, badger baiting locals. I hope you, dear reader, will enjoy what you see, and excuse any ragged edges which will doubtless exist to begin with, as I do battle with this new fangled ‘Blog’ technology.
Ps, see the Holborn online magazine (, Doghouse British Pubs magazine and Hot Rum Cow magazine for a few of my other works.