this tame wilderness

this tame wilderness

A bus journey through Hertfordshire is a pleasure. Scaling the steps to sit at the back, you’re raised to a position where you get a better appreciation of the architecture going past the window. You even get a fresh perspective of your home town as you peer down over the walls and hedges rather than up at them and down at cars and the caricatures that drive them. You see without being a part of – it’s a detached way to observe.

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The tour can feel like you’re an ambassador being taken on a reconnaissance trip of humanity. From an exalted throne you look down at the ivy-sprawled homes of the well-off as they line up for inspection. You gaze down too at weathered grey estates that seem to weep from the breeze blocks. The country pubs display their country hours on sandwich boards – open midday to 3pm. Some of the flint-clad village stores that squat under sinking masonry are so cute you could just shit.

Hertfordshire might have the tamest landscape in Britain. The word wild or wilderness cannot be ascribed save for the microcosms in which it’s allowed to prosper: the ancient hedgerows and the cultivated shrubbery of back gardens where greenery runs riot. These are the only oases of wilderness out here. You realise just how managed the landscape is.

The slopes around this county aren’t natural – they’re the result of centuries of ploughing down towards the source of life: running water. Mountains are levelled out in this manner. You make out hillsides for what they are – scored hides from the drawing of the plough – cut marks on bone.

The abated hills descend to the threads of Hertfordshire’s rivers. Though I live in it, Hertfordshire keeps taking me by surprise at how deep some of its valleys are. The plunge down into Wheathampstead is a case in point – it’s like descending into a canyon.

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More passengers donning flat caps get on. They’re not hipsters and care nought for post modernism. Old women in floral dresses grip the rails securely as the bus lunges off. It scrapes through buildings, kisses the wing mirrors of parked cars and frolics over pot holes. When the vehicle swings around in a turn, it always looks like it’s going the collide and take the wall with it.

Branches hit the side with a sound like musket fire as the bus charges into hawthorn bushes to give a tractor room to pass. I wish this carriage came equipped with a roll top bar like a tank as I look into the eyes of rooks on the plough-lines. They bob, readying for flight in case the machine comes crashing down on them.

Skulking pheasants. Placid lakes of green crop. Trees’ stark naked outlines hug the hillsides as the Pathé film hedgerow flickers past. Dramatic fly-pasts over rivers. An airborne wood pigeon high in the blue vault beats its way from copse to holt.

You pass the ghosts of pubs reincarnated as country homes. Sometimes faded lettering or the sign brackets endure, but often it’s from a lifetime of recognising pub buildings. The hunch always turns out right in retrospect.

Onward down the hedge-flanked tarmac aisles of Hertfordshire. Ivy and holly compete to throttle the trees that line the road with the former being in the vanguard. Sunlight picks out the silver boughs of birches and dyes them violet.

Outside the Boot Inn, more white-maned travellers alight, punch their tickets and grab at the poles like liana vines. The engine whirrs again and the bus takes off into an uphill hurtle before sudden breaking causes the passengers to contract at the hinge as the bus tangoes with a lorry at a corner.

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When it’s wet, the rain striking the windows of a bus is one of the most life-affirming things to witness. The water is sentient. The runnels seem to try and work out a route across the glass, pausing to decide on an angular or curved passage towards the corner the momentum is pushing them. They can forge their own straight line, suddenly fork or go on a number of hesitant turns. When one collides with another stream it disappears – swept away by a rip tide. But there exists the loner; the introvert that maps its own way across the glass expanse full of doubt, full of lull, edging its own cautious path to the other side.

In early summer, fields of golden rapeseed are radioactive; the glow is magnified through the window and bathes the face. When you shut your eyes, the capillaries in the eyelids are etched out like a crimson relief map.

When the bus crests the hill and breaks from the uterine tree cover, the landscape rises in a standing ovation and centre stage is a titan copper beech or horse chestnut – majestic in its own field, ablaze like an open brasier casting shadows across the earth from the flames.

And as if to calm me back down, there is comfort in pylons. They’re the charming sentinels of the countryside and remind me how connected up the land is.

Sometimes our labours culminate in chance coincidences where the cosmos just seems to come together. I frequently have this experience driving up the M1 from London to St Albans and for a while, I and the train to Bedford align and travel shoulder to shoulder at the same speed in the same direction like pilgrims on a joint venture. Something inside me stirs.

On a train from Hitchin to Letchworth Garden City, it passes over another track from which a second train issues – two gleaming metal convoys radiating out, for a time tracing a diagonal cross before parting ways – the composition is sublime – somewhere between art and choreography.

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In Letchworth Garden City, I attempt its Greenway hike. With partial success, I commute back to Hitchin and am seduced by beer. I miss the last bus and decide to walk back.

I start okay but overshoot the road forking south and take a long detour to Langley before turning back. Two hours are lost and it’s now dark. However, the landscape’s just as beautiful.

Near Whitwell I hear a tawny owl call from a hillside copse to my right – if you’re not sure, it’s the to-wit-to-woo refrain used in every film. To my left, a barn owl’s shriek tears out as well. The next time it shrieks, it’s to my right in the same territory as the tawny owl. I see a shape drop from a canopy. I’d love to be able to see that scene played out in night vision. These two species are rivals and won’t suffer each other on the same hunting patch. From further on the left – out in the swampier parts of the field I also hear the kazoo-like burblings of a lapwing and a bit further on, the celestial sound of a redwing in flight – it’s the most fragile of calls: both a single note and a flourish on the brink of hearing. Manifold tiny threshold mammals make roadside nettles quiver in their scarpering. In the dead of night, life goes on.

I’m aware of an aircraft passing overhead. My time working in central London turns it into a Police helicopter by default until I start getting deja-vu. It only travels in one direction across the sky each time and discover I have an unlikely guardian: it’s an aeroplane – each a different one on the same flight path down.

I watch as the acres ahead of me give up their secrets to the soft light of its undercarriage as it makes its descent towards Luton. The darkness seeps away into the landscape’s crevices like water draining from a rock pool at low tide. It’s brought down to sit equal with me – exposed in the night. The planes arrive with a conveyor belt regularity – about every eight minutes or so.

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I used to spend a lot of time on the ridgeway – the prehistoric spine running across Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I’d gaze down at the A34 road at night and it was gorgeous. From that elevated aspect, sunk in the distant man-made valley – an incandescent necklace of constant motion.

I could’ve been air-dropped anywhere on the downs and found my way home as I could piece together the land. I now need to rekindle this skill in Hertfordshire just two counties east.

I see a tree in the dark that has been toppled – probably by storm Doris. It’s leaning against a naked older tree that supports it in the nook of its branches like a crutch. It reminds me of an elderly veteran cradling the body of a young soldier but it worries me because there is absolutely no way I wouldn’t have noticed this pair from the bus on the way to Hitchin. This means I’m not walking along the same road back.

Oddly, walking along unlit rural roads at night carries with it a safety: you can both hear and see a car coming from a long distance before it catches up with you and climb up onto the bank or make love to the hedge as required. As the headlights make my shadow spill out like fluid on the tarmac before me, I usually just stand but occasionally like to splay out my fingers as my hands hang at my sides. This gives the effect of Nosferatu’s silhouette.

I haven’t flown in a few years but recall looking out of the window on the descent into Luton. Underneath is the black carpet of England in slumber with only the roads and villages picked out in dots of light. Now I’m in that inky realm looking back up.

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Even I’ve come to accept I’m lost and it’s the middle of the night. Home is maybe fifteen miles away but I don’t actually know because I don’t know where I am. Google maps hasn’t loaded on the phone the entire day. There is a single bar of charge left.

The road opens out and there is civilisation and a sign: Peter’s Green. Where the hell’s that? I strike out towards it. It’s a quaint manicured triangle acting as a roundabout with rows of houses describing each side. On the far side is a large building which is illuminated. It’s a pub. I approach and make out the name: the Bright Star. Fittingly, it’s my saviour. On the green itself is a stooped bus stop. I plonk myself down on it the same time the lights go off in the pub but that’s okay – it’s fulfilled its role. It has just gone eleven o clock.

Using the light from my mobile phone, I discern that this bus stop is for Stevenage. I don’t want to go there. Even in a time of crisis.

It’s still warm and I lie on the seat which is a real luxury – one of the sloping wooden ones. No part of the inside has yet been vandalised. I’m not even wearing my coat yet. There could be worse places to spend the night than this…..

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postscript:

I’m actually missing the stench and comfort of my own nest. It’s been a quarter of a century since I last slept rough in a bus shelter. The experience took the lucre off the romance of sleeping under the stars. I remember vividly shivering in the early hours, not sleeping but pacing up and down the seafront in Dover to stay warm. This night ended differently. With the last bar on my mobile phone, I ring my wife who is sat at home with the internet. I have a place name and a landmark and make sure she listens carefully. She books me a taxi and rings me back after a couple of minutes. She’s googled Peter’s Green. The world has changed, 2017, technology and all that.
“you’re in bloody Luton!” This is an exaggeration. It’s a fair way out.
“Oh. Thought I might be. I could see the runway.”

I cross the green to sit on one of the outside tables of the Bright Star. The taxi arrives within ten minutes and edges along cautiously. His passenger could be a total drunk but the driver sees in my gait I’m sober and I get in. He keeps his car tidy. It honks of pine. Our faces are lit up green by the animated fuel hybrid graphics on the console. The night countryside glides past. After a while we come to a roundabout, turn right and suddenly I know the area again as I descend for the second time that day into Wheathampstead.

As we pass the Wicked Lady pub some mischief grips me.
“Don’t let the wicked lady get you on the way back” The driver looks at me horrified. “you know this is the most haunted road in England, don’t you?” He starts freaking out and I try and assuage him by saying I’m massively overstating things which I am. Safely back in St Albans I get him to park on the main drag so he can just do a u-turn rather than join the traffic system.

temperate intentions

temperate intentions

Letchworth Garden City is an odd place but well worth a visit. Its oddness is the attraction.

Around a dot on a map – the old village of Letchworth – a new garden city was envisaged by quaker Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s. The idea was for social reform – for people to live in a community where they could breathe fresh air, reconnect with a countryside idyll and escape the smog of industrial Britain.

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The new garden city was designed and laid out by urban planners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and went on to inspire garden cities the world over. Its success was possibly because it was devised without the central diktat that often accompanies new age projects. It left its denizens or “pioneers” to decide matters rather than a preacher.

I came here to complete the Letchworth Garden City Greenway – a thirteen and a bit mile path that circles the town, but also to check out its beer culture.

Tracing the circuit has twice defeated me now. Even the woman in Tourist Information who gave me the map – a native since birth – admitted she got lost when she tried to follow it.

Within minutes of leaving the town centre, I find my first marker badges at the entrance to Standalone Farm and I’m soon exploring rolling crop fields. Church spires and water towers appear in the distance like the masts of ships on the heaving sea. The landscape sits somewhere between rural and urban. The soundtrack is a combination of roads rumbling and the celestial symphony of skylarks.

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this is a peeking black squirrel and the inspiration behind Letchworth Gardens City’s first town centre pub in the 1970s

I get lost pretty quickly. I negotiate my way though wave after legion of tidy closes and crescents. Communal greens here are huge. Last week I was ejected from the Greenway into an industrial estate. You feel like a bit of a prat finding yourself on a building site with binoculars and camera. The builders probably thought I was a niche pervert. The week after my trail goes dead and I trudge along the main road from Baldock. The binoculars do lend an advantage here: you can read roundabout signs a long way in advance and decide whether or not to swim through the blue exhaust fumes in that direction or turn back.

Back in the town proper, walking around Letchworth Garden City is a bit like wandering around an elaborate film set. The buildings are faithful reproductions from around the Tudor age – old enough for lichen to have accumulated on the pitched roofs but too young for any subsidence or warp. Historical buildings minus the history. These green streets of tidy period cottages look ideal – but it also makes them creepy.

The Spirella building – what used to be a clothing factory – is so vast that to get it all in one photo, you’d have to take it from satellite. It earned itself the moniker Castle Corset. It just seems too big for a British venture and in fact this is the case – the company was from the US.

In a way, the pioneers that came to settle here were proto-hipsters. They were generally middle class and associated with the arts and crafts movement. They were big on theosophy, vegetarianism and ascetic clothing – namely smocks made from Ruskin flannel from the Isle of Man and sandals even the middle ages wouldn’t touch.

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the Settlement used to be the Skittles Inn. In summer locals would line along the long seated stoop with glasses of Cydrax

Apart from some private clubs and hotels, Letchworth Garden City didn’t have an actual beer pub until the early 1970s when the Black Squirrel (no longer there) was included in a new town centre redevelopment. In fairness though, up until that point the temperate intentions – from families who witnessed the capital’s gin melancholy – were democratically instituted each time through local vote. They opted against for most of a century though there was friction amongst some men that the vote kept not going their way because the women’s vote (mostly nays) was included here before the Suffragettes gained it nationally.

There was a public house instituted by the First Garden City L.t.d called the Skittles Inn that served food, had a skittles alley, a library and sold absolutely no alcohol. Instead, the staples were Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and Cydrax – a non-alcoholic apple wine. Lover of beer though I am, I can appreciate a public house that kept men sober – especially with the high rate of what we’d now deem violent alcoholism in many working families.

But let’s never forget that it was this vision of Ebenezer Howard’s that also inspired prince Charles to cough up the hideous settlement of Poundbury; a village that sounds like a discount home store but has less class.

The early citizens employed the word temperance correctly – to temper something is to moderate, not to forbid. The First Garden City L.t.d also ran two more pubs about a mile from the town centre: the Fox at Willian and the Three Horseshoes in Norton. Both were allowed to serve alcohol. So if you wanted a pint, you simply girded your smock and went for a stroll in those sandals to get it.

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the Fox at Willian with All Saints church peering over its shoulder

The local Wetherspoons is called the Three Magnets and is a decent gallery in itself showcasing the garden city’s history. Wetherspoons pubs are good at gathering local curiae and being museum-lites. There are, for instance, paintings of Ebenezer Howard and information plaques about Spirella corsets that changed the manufacture away from whale bone.

But maybe what’s most interesting is the reason behind its name: the Three Magnets is based on one of Mr Howard’s diagrams about the formation of society. The first two magnets are the town and the country – the pros and cons for people living there listed for both. The third magnet – representing the garden city – is attributed with the amalgam of the pros for the first two but none of the cons. Idealist? certainly. If the pub’s name used current jargon, it might be called Ye Three Socioeconomic Pull Factors

If our boy Howard were alive today he’d absolutely love Powerpoint.

But the jewel in the crown here isn’t the Wetherspoons, courteous as it is to its host, but a newcomer: the Garden City Brewery down the picturesque shopping lane called the Wynd (as in WIND-up toy).

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Every Thursday some cask ale in stellar condition is tapped and served from gravity along with some guest beer engines. If you’re lucky, you might also get your chops around a Bedfordshire Clanger – a home counties take on the Cornish pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other. The pudding side has score marks in the pastry so you know which end to devour first.

Spring Saison is the perfect thirst quencher. A 5.3 ABV spritz of a beer; it leaps over the gullet and fizzles on the roof of the mouth. Then the glass is empty. To CAMRA members, £3 a pint. Proof that a trip to Letchworth Garden City is good for you.

The venue is filled with light. It’s airy, colourful and tidy. Donations are made from some of the beers to local charities so even in its own way, Garden City Brewery keeps the local legacy of community and betterment alive.

You can still get a feel for Letchworth’s new life roots: it’s to be seen in adult education centres, urban farms, an NHS clinic calling itself a wellness centre and the International Garden Cities Institute.

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a pint of the brewery’s own Armitage ale and a Bedfordshire clanger. Neither lasted long.

For its size, Letchworth now has at least the national average of pubs. So what caused the city to abandon its spirit of temperance? Well the context that spawned its necessity faded. Britain’s industrial age passed away so the very thing the garden city was set up to escape – the drudgery of the factories, mills and pits – disappeared from Britain.

During the queen’s coronation, members of the first migration celebrated together and reminisced about the difficult first few years while the town was being shaped. Many people that left for this corner of Hertfordshire really did find a better life in the long run. This re-imagining is what makes Letchworth Garden City’s odd outlook so unaligned with the rest of Britain.

 

Fancy Dress Beer

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The creatures in this image wouldn’t have been conceivable a year ago, but might only seem tentative twelve months from now. We have an imperial Gose made with beetroot, lemon peel, coriander and black salt. We then have an ale suffused with lobsters, cockles, seaweed and “sea herbs”, and finally a kaffir lime Saison blended with a coconut stout.

So to recap, beer with taproots, crustaceans, molluscs, coconut, salt, fruit, algae and plants.

How should we define brews like these when they stray so far from the traditional four ingredients? Beer in its glad rags? Masquerade ale? Bière de grand guignol? I settled for fancy dress and what we’re here to ascertain is whether they wear these garbs proudly or just got changed in the dark.

Is there anything in this qualified experimentation? Are these three concoctions still actually beer?

And so to the fancy dress ball…..

Beerbliotek is a Swedish brewery from Gothenburg. For this venture, they’ve teamed up with A F Brew from St Petersburg. This is the beetroot, lemon peel, coriander and black sea salt candidate. The name of this beer is as abundantly Craft as the brewery itself:

Alternative Fact 1984: Beetroot Is The New Hops (can 6.6 abv):

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It pours an ectoplasmic pink like the brightest flush of rhubarb. The short-stay head is fluffy and as flamboyant a hue as candy floss. I notice small particles swirling in the vortex. There’s no mention of can-conditioning so this might be beetroot pulp.

On the nose, it smells like a well-used flannel; soaking wet and sweaty – this will no doubt be the salt that represents a Gose. The divisive Gose – I don’t think I’ll ever get used to sipping a beer and licking the salt from my lips. There’s also a tart citrus rind note in there.

I swig it. I’m happy to report it’s not only carbonated but refreshing too. The first taste I pick up is bittersweet like a blood orange but then the beetroot starts to come through loud and clear. Think of the sweet cytoplasm you get pooling on the chopping board when you grate the imperial purple one.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s like drinking a beetroot salad. If you enjoy Pimms, you might be cool with this. I could imagine drinking something like this in summer, and not just because the colour makes me nostalgic for cherry Slush Puppies (do they still exist?).

It contains corn, wheat and rye malt in the grain bill so this kind of fills the role of the yoghurt in a smoothie.

Out of this trio, Wild Beer Co is the producer I know most and hold in high esteem. Even given their infamous creative wont, this beer just seems mad with the addition of lobster, cockles, seaweed, sea salt and star anise.

Of The Sea (bottle 7 abv):

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Emptying into the glass, the liquid is a gorgeous glowing straw gold and is crystal clear. A huge lily rocky head lunges up and it sticks around. It looks like a Pilsner but that’s as far as the comparison can be pushed.

The aroma is elusive. It takes me a lot of swirling, cupping, inhaling etc to get any handle on it. My first approximation is strawberries and cracked pepper but then this ripens and I get a facial tan of sweet rich crab meat like unscrewing the top off a jar of Prince’s crab paste. I should say at this point that I’ve never had lobster so don’t recognise it. I’ve had langoustines/Dublin bay prawns but remember little of their taste or fragrance.

I take my first mouthful. I’ve never tasted a beer like this before and I’m afraid it’s simply my previous analogy writ large: I’m eating crab paste sandwiches on white bread – this beer is the sludge I chew it into. What you get on both on the nose and the palate is a complete side swipe to what your eyes tell you. Blindfold, this would be murky. Instead, the beer looks like clarified honey.

I get a touch of heat – a little spice that might derive from the star anise also used in the brew.

It impresses me by dutifully fulfilling Wild Beer Co’s mission statement to create a beer based on a lobster bisque. That’s been achieved.

It has carbonation and malt but in no way is it refreshing.

Wild Weather Ales have collaborated with Weird Beard Brew Co to pull off what’s possibly the whackiest offering so far by blending a kaffir lime Saison with a coconut stout:

Such A Bohr (can-conditioned 7.3 abv):

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It decants a dark treacle brown but this turns immediately to a foam that fills the glass. It’s one of those beers that you glaze over watching to settle but eventually it does. The expanded head is toasted, velvety and stubborn.

It smells like sweet coffee or coffee cake with a sprinkling of Demerera sugar.

I sip it. I get the levity – the fluorescent green of the limes followed by a full roast coffee nebula. I then get the stringy gnashy coconut too.

This is everything in all directions at once. Each of the disparate and contradictory characters seem to survive with their identities intact in this maelstrom. This is a blend – they can so often be like mixing paints on a canvas and ending up with a muddy brown. This beer isn’t like that, it’s like the individual colours in refracted light.

No ingredient overpowers the others; this beer is a perfect socialist state.

Conclusion:

These chimeras each made me sit up in some way. None of them is horrible but each is trying to get its foot onto the same stage as beer and so should be judged accordingly. I’ll be curt: If I had to vote one out, with regret due to my adoration of the brewery, it would be Wild Beer Co’s Of The Sea. It tasted like something I want to eat. I love sausages but I don’t want my beer to taste the same as them.

I’d next drop Such A Bohr. Why? Because even though it demonstrates brewing craft, it’s just too busy. Less is more but does make me reflect on a lot of people’s reason for disliking black IPAs – a style I love. They don’t like the sensory contradiction of the verdant citrussy hops paired with the unction of roast coffee. This beer is almost a caricature of that – the style taken to its logical conclusion and where some draw that line at black IPAs, I draw it here. I think many would love this beer.

And so back to the beetroot. If I was going to drink any of these beers again it would be this one. Despite the shopping list of ingredients, it’s actually the simplest one in this line-up and remembers that one of beer’s strong suits is that it should be refreshing (not an absolute rule – an imperial stout certainly isn’t) and it hits that spot. The beetroot doesn’t replace the hops in their aroma and bittering capacity. One thing a great Lager will always have over this is the dry aftertaste that sends you diving back in for more. So no – beetroot is not the new hops it’s still just beetroot. This is a refreshing low-alcohol cocktail and about three of your five a day.

the Six Bells, St Albans

the Six Bells, St Albans

Going into night shifts is a brutal process but a staple of my life. It starts with enforced narcolepsy as you bludgeon your circadian rhythm into submission. Only four shifts in a row means you don’t fully adapt before wrenching yourself back into day mode. It’s like having the bends, hypoxia, being on the edge of sleep and feeling vibrations from caffeine in your veins all at once – something I drink plenty of in the middle of the night to stay awake. I worry about the cumulative effect this is having on me. Coming off the last night shift always feels like ending a tour of duty.

Is going to the pub for a pint a good idea? I don’t know but the desire for a bit of bleary-eyed people-watching on a Sunday afternoon out of the four walls of my home is vital.

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Previous posts have been about social intercourse. This one’s more about another pub potential: a bit of solitude when you need it.

This afternoon is my zombie time and people who know me are starting to recognise it – it’s the worst possible time to expect witty repartee from me. You might as well expect somebody on a drip waking from surgery to get up and start boxing. Not going to happen.

The gods measure us humans by set square and plumb to determine that exactly two pints of session strength cask ale is the right amount for a weekend afternoon. I take my time with them during the lull after the Sunday roast crowds have trickled away. Any more than two pints risks summoning Morpheus and slumber – the compulsion I’m trying to resist.

On the surface, I’m brittle, unable and even unwilling to socialise. Underwater, I watch the surroundings around me with detachment like I’m drifting around a fish tank. But something to do with body and mind trying to re-align makes me privy to nebulous thoughts played out across time. It’s not something I try and do but something that lies in wait for me.

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The Six Bells is a good pub to have these reflections in. On this occasion, it turns out to be more busy than I’d anticipated. I stand for a while before a small table becomes free under a TV screen. I have ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring – it’s refreshing like a blend of mineral water and honeysuckle. I land on the chair with gravity.

When I entered, there was a large group around one of the tables with about seven children. The kids soon zipped up and left. In their wake, they left behind reams of paper, felt tips, the smell of glue and two lovers whose faces were festooned with glitter and spangles. The couple look relieved to have weathered it and proceed to get into each other. It’s the man’s birthday. I spy the cards.

I take in the surroundings anew. I think of the lives gone before, the permanence of this bastion, springtime, ageing, renewal, death.

One of the four pines in the park was toppled by storm Doris a couple of weeks ago. The locals congregated around the recumbent bough. Kids crawled over it like bluebottles. There was a feeling that the exposed wound – the fatal breach – needed to be witnessed while fresh. Gathering around it constituted a wake of sorts. We needed to see the body for ourselves to actualise it; confirmation of the new reality without pine three. It’s the act of witnessing that makes it official. Only after that can you move on.

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The tree’s roots remained steadfast in the earth when its spine broke at the small of the back. This demonstrated that it had in fact been ailing.

Standing at the bar, I see someone I know and acknowledge them by lifting my index finger and raising my eyebrows. These signals also mean please move on.

This pub’s name references the parish church that stands two hundred feet away. It was renamed from the Bell (or even Le Bell) in 1739 to make it more modern when the church upscaled to incorporate six bells in its belfry. Another two were cast in 1953 to celebrate our own Liz’ coronation so this should actually be the Eight Bells now.

This village was once home to the working poor. So was Hampstead. If you can get a property here now you’ve done very well for yourself. There was a time before this pub was here. But there was also a time when the English channel was a stream. The flagstones of this floor might as well be bedrock.

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Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring

Before the road it’s on was ever tarmac’d it sold ale to the farming public. Before the nearby bridge that straddles the river Ver was built, it was drawing punters. Back before the grazing pastures became the landscaped Verulamium Park, it was already here. In fact, it’s been trading here since before the Reformation. The Six Bells predates the landscape of St Michaels around it but is still just a sprat to its wider Roman environs.

This pub is full of curios. Milk jugs and horse brass line the brickwork and window sills. Tokens from the agricultural and brewing past are lined up along beams and behind glass cases. Copper pans adorn the open hearth. Two guns are mounted above it. The ceiling undulates gently from age. The scattered lamps cast a light brighter than the sky outside.

But now I’m absolutely fascinated by a man standing over by the coat hooks staring at the television screen above my head. I can actually see the blank screen in stereo – a reflection in both lenses of his spectacles; two black rectangles. Pointlessly, I crane around to look behind my shoulder to confirm something I already know: the television is off. Yet he’s mesmerised by it. What a soul sees with his eyes might not compare to with what he’s witnessing in his mind. I wish I could see his thoughts played out in those frames.

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the drinks list in the Six Bells in the run-up to the Second World War

Lurking under the table of the spangled lovers (whose faces are reddening from booze and libido), is a french bulldog who emerges and starts masturbating using his paw – I’ve seen this behaviour before with the same breed. Because of their large heads and barrel bodies, they can’t bend to lick their genitals like most dogs. Their paws don’t have opposable digits either so they don’t get the best of either world. He takes on almost human form like a mini wanking Buddha on the floor. Round bloodshot eyes implore the room and its inhabitants as he tries to bring himself to climax. He looks like a little busker strumming an invisible banjo and the couple notice me snort my beer as, in my head, I overlay their pet’s labours with the voice of George Formby.

By current averages of longevity, I’m equidistant between the teat and the grave. I want a home from home where I can become a fixture. I fancy being an octogenarian or older and cranking my hearing aid up to listen to the increasingly alien and unknowable views of pub goers in their teens.

I’d like to be able to come to pubs like this for as long as I can. It’s something I want to have in my life for as long as I’m able to get myself (or for as long as someone can help me) into one.

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I try to take a shot of the self-pleasuring hound with my phone and this puts him off. He looks at me with disgust. Rude. I feel guilty now. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even have a quiet knee-trembler down your local without drinkers capturing it on their devices?

A few days after the fall, guys with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws came for the stricken corpse of the pine. They tore through it and stacked the giant’s vertebrae in the back of a trailer as neatly as cheese rounds in a dairy. I hope the pine is reincarnated through some skilled carpentry rather than burned.

On the walls, black and white prints from yesteryear of men staring back at the box brownie with stage fright have one connection to you: they once came here to unwind too. The closest I can get to knowing these people and their social mores is by tracing their outlines with my finger. They wouldn’t have recognised our morals, atheism or our liberal mindsets. Our converging gender roles wouldn’t have made sense in their world. If they could come back, they might even have trouble telling the men from the women.

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the remains of pine three

How can the British pub be so permanently here? Generation after generation, why do we keep returning? It’s like it’s a point of reference through time. Dependable – a stout bannister flanking life’s upward climb. As folk, we change out of all recognition but the Six Bells endures.

This pub has been here for about half a millennium. The local history extends way beyond that but I think of this: the Six Bells has existed as a public house for longer than the Roman empire ruled England and Wales. This pub has outlasted that empire and even watched while the British one rose and sank too. Within that flowing timeline, I want nothing more than to be depicted in a tapestry panel with pint in hand, raising it at the viewer.

There’s a quote by George Orwell:

“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

tradition and craft

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Over the weekend, I noticed that Chiltern Brewery had a stall in the Sunday market with a couple of beers I’ve been aware of but never tried: their Black IPA and White IPA. I’ve always been a fan of their cask beer but it’s rarely seen in St Albans despite the brewery being considered “local” in a broad sense.

En route to visiting my parents, Chiltern Brewery is somewhere I occasionally haunt. I go on a small detour off the M4 into the Buckinghamshire landscape to pick up some bottles or fresh beer.

The countryside motif replete with fox appeals to the British fetish for bucolic nostalgia but in Chiltern’s case, it’s simply a point of fact: it’s very rural, very traditional and it’s situated on an old working farm so it’s a badge it can wear without being contrived.

Chiltern Brewery was founded in 1980 making it a really old new trad brewery or a very young old one. Here though, a traditional brewery gets craft right. There are no skulls, no living dead mammals, no split personality, no psychosis. Just well crafted beer.

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The Black IPA (bottle conditioned 7.8) pours a dark tan with a fluffy beige head and lilts of earthy British hops. There’s less of the Opal Fruit fluorescent green coming through on the aroma compared to other Black IPAs. It’s more grassy and finishes dry.

I was most looking forward to the Black IPA as I love the style, but it’s actually the White IPA I enjoyed the most.

The White IPA (bottle conditioned 7.5) is so-called because Marris Otter and wheat have both been used in the grain bill. Despite the name, it actually pours darker than most IPAs. It’s racks up a big nougat head. Its bouquet is of candied oranges. There’s a musty ashen note too. Drinking it reminds me of red hedgerow berries and Braemar apples – just the fruity sweetness – there’s no tartness here. It’s an English fruit sponge take on a double-strength IPA.

The thing that these two ales share is that they completely conceal the alcohol; it doesn’t come through on the taste or nose. They’re both full-bodied but could pass as session beers. Both IPAs were matured for 18 months which helps smooth them out too.

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Some of the writing on the bottles explains the thinking behind Chiltern’s releases. This for the Black IPA: “dark ruby and full bodied this is a smooth roast black IPA – a new style of beer that is fast gaining popularity”. I like it. It’s straightforward, honest and unpatronising.

In the smaller bottle range, Chiltern also have their fulsome Lord Lieutenant’s Porter (6 abv) and their longstanding Bodgers Barley Wine (8.5 abv) – a beer I’ve had many times. It’s an unctuous sweet ale like liquid macadamia nuts – perfect for ageing. All these beers are in 330ml bottles which makes perfect sense for the more boozy sipping beers they all are. So they fit in neatly with other craft brands.

When it comes to diversifying into new beer styles from the craft cannon, traditional breweries can be a bit like a dad trying to dance at a party – Batemans or Marstons come to mind. They can also implode into a steam punk schizophrenia whereby they change their name and identity, get tats done and invest in piercings. You know the ones I mean. Maybe it’s a form of mid-life crisis.

Version 2Here is a photo of a pump clip I took a while back. This brewery is actually Northumberland’s Mordue Brewery but as you can see, it’s taken on an alter ego: The Panda Frog Project. I did have a pint of this but can’t remember much other than it was quite hoppy. I’ve got nothing against the lively artwork I’m just puzzled by it.

I can’t reconcile a pale beer with the nightmare scenario depicted. It didn’t make me hallucinate any more than a bitter or a stout would. So what exactly makes it insane? And that’s my point. I think breweries are feeling compelled to follow this vogue.

These two new beers by Chiltern haven’t required that the brewery go on an acid trip to release them. What comes across is simply a brewery confident in its own brewing ability releasing a couple of limited edition beers.

pride and prejudice

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In June of last year, I got back from a day at work and walked into a pub in St Albans. Standing at the bar was a friend of mine I’ll call Keith. As I approached, I heard doleful murmurs of consolation between him and the barman. Despite the glaring sun, he seemed to stand in shade. We greeted each other. I asked how he was doing. It went something like this:

“Weeell. Alright, I suppose, despite the obvious.”
“The referendum?”
He gestured with his hands, indicating the world in general, and then let them drop to his sides.
I told him I’d voted to leave the EU and he groaned like he’d just been winded.
“You as well?” he sighed. He turned away theatrically for a moment but then rose back up to his full height and we resumed. He told me he was worried about the border in Ireland. He had family ties there and talked of his memories of the troubles – something I have only vague and uninvolved recollections of. It’s a matter I hadn’t much considered.

And that was that. We accepted our differences. The referendum ended up just serving as a springboard for conversation. We improved each others’ evenings – me by letting him get his worries off his chest and him by the telling of first hand accounts to fifteen years of history (our rough age gap) I hadn’t been around in.

The crux of this post is this:

GOING TO THE PUB AND TALKING TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE IS GOOD FOR YOU.

Why did I capitalise those words? I think it was just to ensure that if you don’t read the whole post you at least get the point of it. Talking freely in a public place isn’t a given.

And don’t worry – I won’t try to persuade you to adopt any political position.

I’m not trying to make out that pubs are perfect vessels for debate. They’re only pubs. A book could be written about the history of pub violence (and if it were, I’d wager that for most of the UK, the catalyst would be football rather than politics).

The public obviously speak to each other in other locations like at the newsagent till (while I stand waiting to pay for a newspaper wondering whether to do the quiet cough). But the pub is where we stand or sit for a time without being in transit. The pub’s only equal in this respect might be the hairdresser where conversation is even more compulsory.

I’ve never been a university student so have no personal insight. This isn’t a kind of reverse snobbery boast but some context for my own impressions of students. I can be influenced by what I read about them. But the pub comes to my rescue in this matter too.

There is a young barman in one of my favourite pubs who challenges how I view a lot of people his age (nineteen) and younger, and their limited experience of the world. He is recently out of university. He got disillusioned by the same referendum. It was the first thing he ever had a vote in and he’s now of the opinion that it’s not worth voting. I really hope he changes his mind about that. At the bar – in fact – often running the pub when it’s crowded, he displays greater confidence and more advanced social skills and emotional intelligence than I did when I was his age. I was always chewing my lip and removing myself to the periphery of events. I still do a bit – but not as painfully so.

Despite his disillusionment, he hosts customers of all views – some have politicky nicknames (let’s say Brexit Bob, Tory Tom, Green Greg. You get the idea). But these monikers in the pub are used endearingly as he spends time in deep banter with them and gets on really well. When you converse with people in the flesh, respect comes as standard.

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In the context of university debating societies “no platforming” speakers as they might espouse opinions anathema to the student body, you wonder about the word debate and what happened to it.

I like social media such as Twitter and it goes with me to the pub. The smart phone can be a replacement for a lot of things but it’s actually a new limb.

I don’t think smart phones have killed the art of conversation. You can converse with others, and in the lulls, go back to the scroll. You can be unsocial if you want (sometimes you just want to be by yourself), but you can equally cut out the world with a newspaper.

If pub life followed the rules of social media, punters would come in to the Red Lion and interject into other groups’ conversations with aggression. They wouldn’t last long. Customers that slammed down others’ opinions as a matter of course would be at best ignored, at worst barred.

Imagine one little huddle’s member listening closely to another table’s conversation. He jumps up and shouts “Oh my god! These twats are against abortion!” His group responds by shouting in unison “Oh my god! What a bunch of twats!” right in front of said table. Has anyone experienced this in a public house? No. This is how it works on Twitter and Facebook, though.

The people you encounter in real life haven’t just pinged up on a mobile phone screen with a singular belief as their identity. They have a past and will have a future. Their complexity, physics, contradictions and essential humanity are there – you get irradiated by them when you meet them. People aren’t just three-dimensional in a physical sense.

There’s also the submerged understanding each of us has that our opinions, over time, change and we can rotate 180 degrees and 180 degrees again and still get no closer to fully knowing.

On social media, we tend to present ourselves as more knowledgeable than we actually are as our frantic fingers rip a hole into Google by looking things up we supposedly know in real time. We get away with it because we can’t be seen doing it. Words, terms, abbreviations, techniques, history, authors, activists that we “know” we might only have looked up three seconds ago.

How do I know this? Well I do and I don’t. I’ve done this myself online – claimed to know about a subject who’s Wikipedia page is still burning my retina. I also know some people online that I knew in real life first. My family, for example. And I know for a fact that unlike their online alias, they’re at least as much of an ignoramus as I am.

In pub life, this caper doesn’t work. Instead, we present as we actually are in all our dog-eared, imperfect beauty. Above each of our heads is a quota of empty space our potential should be filling. We’re like partially empty lava lamps.

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We can’t start to speak, then delete the words, quickly look something up online, search for the meaning of a word, then re-speak, backspace again to re-edit and finally give an answer when we’re in the Victoria. We are stripped to our nucleus as unrefined and unready beings with too poor and too unorganised a memory to give a column-space verdict.

That man or woman you know from the White Swan whose beliefs would incline you to wear garlic around your neck? Well, when you meet them in the Mucky Duck, you’ll be asking after their mother.

In the Boot, I’ve watched two men with completely opposite views initially go to overwhelm the other with an assertion and realise it won’t work – the opposite party will not convert and what becomes a bottom line to agree on is re-set in order for the conversation – socialisation at close quarters with a fellow ape – to survive. They make noises a bit like ships’ horns before collapsing back into social mode in the Hygge of the Gemütlichkeit. In the pub, to be right is relegated below the warmth of connection.

Knowing how to talk together across the bar is a skill we learn. To speak to people with different views is not a burden but a privilege. To converse with folk who have had a contrasting experience to yours is enlightening – each person is like a separate piece of a jigsaw to a landscape you’re trying to put together. Also, meeting individuals and having a chinwag often deflates the stereotype you harboured of them.

As children, we develop this learning in the yard. As adults, we continue the voyage down the pub – the public space where you’re on the same level as everyone else. The students “no platforming” just want the rest of their lives to be a safe space. They would learn about their fellow humans, challenge their beliefs and expand their knowledge far more in the pub than in the closed conformity of the university commons room.

pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

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Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

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primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is click our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

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What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welling Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

vertical whimsy

vertical whimsy

Like many bloggers, vloggers, geeks and enthusiasts I have an affinity with Cloudwater Brew Co’s series of Double IPAs.

In the height of the summer in 2016, I visited the same pub several days in a row to purchase two thirds of version seven. It cost five pounds but because it requires time and rumination to consume it, the price seemed about right. Craft beer – which for this paragraph I’ll choose to mean beer from new breweries dispensed from keg – has a much lower profile in St Albans than in London. Proof of this is that the visits I made were all watered from the same single keg. I seemed to be the only one drinking it.

Lone sipping suited the experience because each time I’d contemplate what beer actually is, what it used to be and what it’s becoming. I’d watch the debate unfold in the surface of the liquid. Colourful images and recollections had their cameos and form the basis of this post. For reasons I’m still not certain about, instead of doing a vertical tasting between three DIPAs, I want to do it with two of the things version seven reminded me of.

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I’m doing a vertical tasting of Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA eleven, the syrup from a tin of Del Monte’s fruit cocktail and Libby’s Um Bongo.

This is a completely unscientific experiment. It’s based entirely on whimsy and if you’d rather more serious and informed reviews, then stop reading here. This is not a parody either. I’m a genuine fan of the beer. I want to get inside it, dismantle, label each component and put it back together again. I just want to go at it from different angles.

DIPA version 11 (ingredients on label in image):

I open the bottle and hold it under my nose. The fragrance I get is of tinned peaches. This sours up a bit when poured into the glass to become more like gin and lime or even the cleaved grapefruit some narcissists eat for breakfast.

On the eye, it’s a grimy butterscotch yellow but I can still see trills of bubbles soaring upwards. When you sip it, it’s well carbonated – different to most other high ABV beers. It really helps to slosh itself all over the palate.

I get a hit of fresh celery with a citrus background which could be unripe satsumas, lemons or limes. Through some sense you’re aware of the alcohol too but it’s not on the taste per se. It broods under the surface just out of reach from the olfactory bulb. I think of Sauron not yet able to take physical form.

The last thing to say is that the feel of the beer is “graty” – harsh like a desiccated raspberry blown in the desert. I feel it on the back of the throat.

Del Monte fruit salad syrup:

All I know about Del Monte is that there’s a man in a panama hat that visits farmsteads in tropical locations. He has the air of a Mafia don. Downtrodden peasants give him a sample of their wares, he bites into it, pauses and if it appeals, gives a nod to which the farmer shrieks “the man from Del Monte – he say yes!” Cursory research (meaning Wikipedia) reveals that Del Monte was actually the name of a hotel the fledgeling company originally blended coffee for. That’s the best I can do for something interesting.

In a glass this actually looks attractive. There’s a gleam to the liquid – almost a sparkle – a bit like pearls. Some tiny suspended fruit particles also put me in mind of things trapped in amber.

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On the nose it’s horrible. It’s like a Care Bear’s fart or one of those odd “fruit” scented rubbers we used to have at primary school (by rubber I mean eraser – the school wasn’t THAT bad). I go back to inhale from the DIPA and by comparison, the beer now has a mustard aroma.

The texture of the syrup is a pure satin gloss. It doesn’t actually taste of fruit either. It’s just sugar throughout. Returning to the glass of Cloudwater, I get more new experiences. Version eleven now tastes grassy or like straw with hints of mustard seed – cracked black pepper, even.

Um Bongo:

I have fond memories of Um Bongo. At some point in my childhood we suddenly started doing a lot of driving between Wales and England and I acquired a big red lever arch file, which to my memory, had nothing in it but it went with me everywhere. It was my fetish item. On the front was a round sticker that had probably come free with a comic. It had an elephant with eyes like whirlpools. The slogan underneath read: “Um Bongo makes you wongo”. It made me daydream about the jungle in the Congo but it was actually born and bred in Cumbria! Here are some of the finest lyrics ever penned:

“Way down deep in the middle of the Congo,
a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango.
He stuck it with the others and he danced a dainty tango.
The rhino said, “I know… we’ll call it Um Bongo!”
Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo!
The python picked the passion-fruit, the marmoset the mandarine,
the parrot painted packets that the whole caboodle landed in.
So when it comes to sun and fun and goodness in the jungle,
they all prefer the sunny, funny one they call Um Bongo!”

It actually smells of something root-like crossed with sweet orange squash. There’s a note of warm plastic too.

It’s disappointing to behold in the glass. It’s roughly the colour of lemon peel but with no depth or glow. Just a uniform colour agent I presume. It’s a bit like the water you rinse paint brushes in.

When you sip it, it’s absorbed osmotically and you feel the insides of your mouth light up. Through the sweetness, there’s a note of pineapple.

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This makes me realise the roles carbonation plays in beer. Not only does it lift the aroma towards you and make the liquid react in front of you, it helps transport the taste, feel and aftertaste. It makes beer a layered experience in comparison. I sipped the DIPA again after the notes jotted for Um Bongo and counted that the full experience lasts about seven seconds – the more complex the beer the longer this might take.

It also revealed a taste I’ve read others attribute to beer but I’ve never had: I tasted raw white onions.

Conclusion:

Drinking the beer alongside the other test subjects made me appreciate just how many depths there are to a beer – and I’ve only really covered the initial ones.

It’s strange. When I sipped the DIPA in the Craft and Cleaver last summer, Um Bongo and Fruit salad syrup were the two main tastes that played on my mind. That version of DIPA was of course different to this one. It drank more lusciously fruity. However, I don’t think that would have made a huge difference here because when you get notes of something in a complex beer and then go to that culprit itself, it doesn’t align to your memory.

Put another way, the Um Bongo refused to taste like my recollection of Um Bongo and the fruit salad syrup didn’t spark synapses into recognition either. Whatever data I keep in my head about a particular ingredient doesn’t match it in real life. Memory, or mine at least, is very fickle.

Session 120: Brown Beer

Session 120: Brown Beer

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This month, Brighton-based Joe Tindall hosts the 120th Friday Session and has chosen a topic that comes with some emotional baggage: brown beer.

He explains:

“The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.”

Joe is absolutely right. It’s time to ditch this lazy prejudice. I have ripped off my corduroy trousers and thrown them from the upstairs window.

This also gives me an opportunity to add a local slant – I want to talk about a gem little known outside its native borders: Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.

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There are only a handful of long-running cask strong ales across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. Heavy abv beers have become legion over the past few years but this ale is an old-timer by comparison. Tring Brewery was founded in 1992 and Death or Glory was first brewed in 1994, so celebrates its twenty third birthday this year. It’s a 7.2 abv beer traditionally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the Light Brigade but is now produced numerous times a year.

It’s billed as a strong ale though if you wanted to shoehorn it, you could call it a barley wine. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt.

It’s a beer that would mellow over a few days but doesn’t often get the chance; when it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire, the cask can be completely emptied by the pub-goers on the day of tapping. You usually have to be quick on your feet down to the local to score some.

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What was noteworthy when it was first made is that it was aged – a process given to few beers at the time in Britain. It’s always matured for a month before release.

It’s in the midst of modern beers going into the citrussy hop jungles that this beer stands out even more. It’s of a different time and disposition. There is fruit but it’s not the modern pale oozing tropical juices – it’s more typically British. It reflects the climate; the conserves and the pickling. This has the taste of jams and chutneys, nods to brown sauce and Worcester sauce.

When it’s dispensed from a bottle, there’s an appropriate whoosh of carbonation when you crack it open but there are no runnels charging up the inside of the glass because the beer is too rich.

On the eye it’s like dark treacle. The aroma is of tar, stewed dark fruit, polished wood and bitumen. The palate reflects notes of black cherries, dandelion and burdock, iodine, molasses or brown sugar and that funfair staple – candied apples encased in a caramel amber. It’s viscous and sticky like the thrush-strewn berries along autumn gutters.

It laminates the tongue and inner maw like a glaze. It’s everything in all directions with the fruity hops in there somewhere clinging to flotsam in the maelstrom. It goes sweet, sickly sweet then bitter and retraces this circuit.

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I wanted to give an idea of this beer on cask so I rang the brewery. I was told if it would be anywhere it would be in the Lamb in Stoke Goldington in north Buckinghamshire. I contacted this pub and found out it’s on as a permanent! At my earliest opportunity, I embarked on a quest into this exotic county that borders mine – a proper Ernest Shackleton, me.

There’s a more rounded feel to the beer when it’s dispensed from beer engine. When you swallow it, it’s vaulted from the condition in the cask – it gives it more life and at the same time spreads it out more. It feels less adhesive and carries itself more lightly.

What really completes this ale is to understand the context it’s from. Currently, we’re in the middle of winter and the tarmac and cobbles have a zinc sparkle from the frost. It’s that time of year when we have to get up earlier to defrost the car and drive slower. It’s that time when walking, you lower your centre of gravity rounding a corner to get to the village inn and this is where Death or Glory comes into its own. It’s sitting here in a rural pub with an open fire that completes it.

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You grin daftly from the warmth and morph into a happy Christmas bauble. As you sit by the crackling hearth, you wonder whether mankind built stone dwellings and harnessed fire simply to complement a beer like this rather than the other way around.

This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens.

Boring brown beer? Nope. Try endearing, satisfying, warming, luxuriant, complex, heartening, life-affirming, soothing brown beer. But like a lot of local staples the world over, you just might need to be in its land of origin at the right time to appreciate it fully.