Monthly Archives: August 2015

Onwards into Devon

Saturday 29th August:

This weekend, train company First Great Western who run the trains out of Paddington were taking strike action so I was a bit concerned about whether I would be able to get myself and my bike out to Westbury. Arriving into Kings Cross, I rode along the Regents Canal (ok, along the towpath!), past Camden Lock, where stall holders were busy setting up for the day ahead, and after about half an hour I reached Paddington.
The station was packed with people who, like me, were anxious about their journey’s. But I needn’t have worried, as I was onto a rather crowded train only half an hour later than I had been due to leave.

Arriving into Westbury, I set off in a westerly direction towards today’s destination of Langport. There would be no micropubs to visit today – just a day of cycling.

I was able to take a handy shortcut through the Longleat estate, animal noises to my left (or was it the truckloads of tourists?) and stunning views of Longleat House to my right.

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Then onwards, using National Cycle Route 25 and later National Cycle Route 30.

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Approaching Somerton, I caught a glimpse of Glastonbury Tor in the distance.

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Tonight’s campsite was certainly the most “interesting” of the trip, and possibly that I have ever experienced.  Littered with fairground memorabilia, strange sculptures (“meet scary fairy”!), and populated by a feral cat, dogs with psychological issues and a territorial badger there was plenty to amuse.  On a more serious note, the site was totally off-grid:  Solar electricity, composting toilets and water drawn from a bore-hole.

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Sunday 30th August

For Sunday’s bike ride I was joined by my cycling friend Janie from Plymouth, who had cycled down from Tiverton the day before.  Originally I had two micropubs on my schedule for today:  The Woodyard Brewpub was always going to be a bit of a wildcard  – it was opened by Masters brewery back in September 2012 within the Brewery’s industrial unit on a business park in the middle of nowhere a few miles from Wellington in Somerset.  Despite being in an industrial building, the interior of the bar, by all accounts, was a re-creation of a typical Victorian pub.

However, only a week ago I had noticed a message on the Woodyard Brewpub’s facbook page dating back to April:  it said that the micropub would be closing until further notice.   It made no mention of the fate of the brewery.   I was curious to find out what had become of the micropub, and perhaps even get a look inside.  And why had it closed after getting such good reviews?   I My mind had conjured up images of landlord and punters being scared away by a mysterious swamp monster who us heroes could perhaps reveal as merely a jealous rival mega-theme–pub landlord in a mask?  Or maybe I spent too much of my childhood watching Scooby Doo!

On the way, Janie and I passed through the small town of Wellington.  I had heard good things about a pub called the Dolphin there so we pulled in for a beer and a spot of lunch.   While in the bar, we asked some of the locals if they knew what had become of the Woodyard, but none of them had even heard of the place.

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After lunch we tracked down the unit, took a peek through the letter box, but there was no sign of any recent activity there.

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We pushed a note through the letterbox and moved onwards towards Tiverton, as we knew there was a micropub open there, and some of Janie’s friends were going to meet us there.

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Approaching Tiverton, riding along the towpath of the Grand Western Canal we encountered the incredible sight from yesteryear of a horse-drawn barge.

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Finally we rode into Tiverton where we met Janie’s friends Claire and Pete in Courtenay’s micropubs (which was formerly called “Goldy’s”).  It’s  a fine micropub, which I will tell you more about when I review it.

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We enjoyed chatting to Duncan the landlord.   Duncan told us that Masters Brewery (the owners of the Woodyard) used to supply his pub, but their sales calls had stopped coming around April, the same time as the micropub’s demise.  If anybody knows what happened, and if there are any plans to re-open, please drop me a comment.

When I had visited the Tankerton Arms in Kent, back in July, the owners’ son had handed me a set of Tankerton Arms beermats featuring one of their regulars’ dogs.  As Courtenay’s was also dog-friendly and about as far West as the Tankerton is East, this seemed a suitable point to offload a few.   So here is Duncan with a Tankerton Arms beermat.

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Tiverton Parkway train station might as well be called middle-of-nowhere Parkway.   It’s certainly not in Tiverton or even very near, so Janie and I set off in good time to catch our respective trains.  But, of course, because of the strike they were not running to the timetable.  Fortunately, Janie got a train back to Plymouth quite quickly.  Thanks for your good company Janie, it was lovely to see you again!

What I had not bargained for was that, at just after 7pm, the last train to London had already departed!  To cut a long story short, I finally arrived home at 1.30 in the morning, having made a scenic detour via Birmingham!!

It had been a long, long day but luckily Monday was a Bank Holiday.  Unfortunately, there was not much opportunity for a lie-in:  at 6am, my daughter arrived home from Reading festival and proceeded to fill the living room with yet more wet camping gear!  No idea where she gets these habits from!

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Courtenay’s (formerly Goldy’s), Tiverton

At the time of writing, Courtenay’s in Tiverton is the only micropub in Devon. It is named after the Courtenay family, one time Earls of Devon, although landlord Duncan does not claim to be descended from them!

It is on a street corner in a quiet part of Tiverton in what was formerly a pet shop. It opened as a micropub (then called Goldy’s) back in August 2012, at which time there were only around 10 other micropubs on the planet!

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Outside, the side street, now called Castle Street, used to be called Frog Street and is interesting and unusual in that it has a small stream running down the middle of it dividing the roadway into two. I was told that every seven years people walk along the street and perform a ceremony that is supposed to keep the stream flowing.

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Inside, Courtenay’s is like a scaled down version of a traditional pub. To the right is a lovely wood-panelled bar, and the dark wood floored saloon is furnished with typical pub furniture.

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Behind the bar is a small metal stillage with space for 4 jacket-cooled casks, nicely integrated into the wooden bar surround. Three ales were on offer when we visited – the fourth one was still settling. As well as the cask ales, Duncan had a selection of around 3 real ciders, plus bottled and canned beers, wines and spirits.  2 pint carry-out of draft ales are also available.

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Courtenay’s is dog friendly, so, being in the Western-most micropub in England (I think!), I took the opportunity to pass Duncan some of the beermats that had been given to me a couple of months earlier by the Tankerton Arms in Whitstable (one of the Eastern-most micropubs). These beermats feature pictures of the Tankerton regulars’ dogs on the reverse side!

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Courtenay’s frequently hosts live music acts, and also open mic evenings.

As with almost every micropub I have visited, it is a great asset to the community. Tiverton and Courtenay’s, you’re lucky to have each other!

Newbury to Westbury via a rainstorm and more than one shed

I woke up at about 7am and just lay in my tent for a while, safe in the knowledge that I didn’t really need to be on the road until at least 9am. But a quick look at the weather forecast on my phone changed all that – a band of heavy rain was heading our way, due to hit in about 3 hours! I figured if I packed up right away then I might have a fighting chance of making to Pewsey before it struck.

Within half an hour my tent was packed away and I was on my way – Pewsey or bust. There was no time for a breakfast stop, but fortunately I had some flapjacks with me as ‘bonk rations’. Maybe that last term needs some explanation to non-cyclists: Bonking has a different meaning in the world of cycling and refers to when you when you totally run out of energy reserves after prolonged physical exertion – OK, so maybe the meaning’s not that different, after all (!)

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Approaching Hungerford, I rode through a field of cows  A sign proclaimed the dangers of hitting cows at high speed:

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Really? So as a nation we’re more concerned about our car paintwork than the welfare of the cows? I can just imagine the TV ad’s: “Hit a cow at 20mph and you might scratch your paintwork. Hit a cow at 40mph and you risk panel beating and a full respray!”

In order to save time, I avoided the Kennet and Avon Canal and instead followed the small road that meandered alongside it, occasionally crossing from one side of the canal to the other. And this had its own benefits passing the Crofton Beam Engines, one of them being the oldest working beam engine in the world.

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Alas, despite my best efforts, and going without breakfast, the heavens opened about 5 miles before I reached Pewsey!  The road quickly turned into a river,

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I grabbed a few snacks from a shop as I entered Pewsey and then went in search of The Shed Alehouse. I was there at least half an hour before opening time, but it was still raining. I pressed my face against the glass and spotted somebody inside. Fortunately, the somebody inside also spotted me, opened up and introduced herself as Sam, one half of the Shed Alehouse team.

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Sam and Gord had kindly donated an entire firkin (72 pints) of their superb Dibber ale! Not to me, alas (although how would I have carried it in my bike?!), but the proceeds to Alzheimers, of course. In total, including a collection box on the bar, the Shed raised over £270. Amazing!!

It was hard to break away from the Shed, but the rain had stopped and the sun had even appeared, so I left Pewsey and headed towards Devizes.

Along the way, I passed through some impossibly quaint villages with chocolate box cottages that would have American tourists in raptures.   But there was also plenty of evidence that people still work the land here.

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At one point, the rain briefly returned, so I took refuge in a shed.  Unfortunately, this one did not have a bar!

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In Devizes, I discovered the Vaults, a larger than average micropub, but with excellent ales and a good micropub ethos.   I’ll tell you more about the pub later.

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It was then time to head to Westbury where my train awaited. This time I chose to use the canal towpath route, muddy as it was after all that rain, as I wanted to check out an amazing, historic, engineering achievement.   It’s incredible to think that in the days when freight was transported by waterway, getting over a hill required a miracle of engineering, and the Caen Hill flight of locks is just that miracle. A total of 29 locks were needed to carry vessels up the 237 ft hill over a 2 mile stretch of canal. My photo really doesn’t do it justice.

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If you’re tempted to undertake this climb (or descent) in a narrowboat then set aside the best part of a day for the task. Thankfully, my journey time by bike along the towpath was only a few minutes!

Approaching Westbury, I spotted a White Horse from afar, but this one wasn’t a pub so I didn’t linger.

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Finally, I reached Westbury. I have nothing to say about Westbury, as quite frankly I was only interested in getting a train back to London.   I may have missed out on the most wonderful town in Britain, but I’ll get a second chance to find out when I return there next weekend to continue my journey.

The Vaults, Devizes

As I locked my bike to the railings and approached the Vaults, in the centre of Devizes, not far from the Wadworths brewery, I had no reason to suspect that this was anything other than a small to medium sized micropub. Indeed it has the outward appearance of a little wine bar. However, the modest exterior hides a cavernous warren of rooms which tick all the “quirky” boxes even if this place might struggle to call itself “micro”.

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The Vaults is linked to the Kennet & Avon microbrewery in as far as Malcolm, one of the Vaults’ co-owners, also runs the K&A brewery. But the Vaults is certainly operated as an independent establishment and not a brewery “tap” – when I visited, only one of the 6 handpumps was given over to a K&A beer.   So naturally, mine was a pint of K&A’s own Pillbox Pale Ale, which really hit the spot!

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The first room that you enter is about the size of your average micropub: narrow but deep, with several tables, and a traditional bar across the right hand wall. Then Lexi, the bar manager, gave me a tour of the premises, first to a further drinking area beyond the bar:

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and then to two more subterranean rooms, each with their own character.

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And finally I took a peek at the cellar.

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Tasting paddles of 3 x third pints of ale or cider are available. The pub also has a great selection of pies to accompany your drink.

Is this really a micropub? Well, if your definition of a micropub is based purely on size then the answer has to be no. But it appears to tick the other boxes, and I think most micropub fans will find much of interest there.

The Shed alehouse, Pewsey

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The Shed Alehouse opened in August 2015, so it missed the cut for my list of the first 100 micropubs. However, I decided to drop in anyway, for a number of reasons: firstly Pewsey is midway between the pubs on my list in Newbury and Devizes, secondly the owners, Sam and Gord, had kindly offered to donate the proceeds of a firkin of one of their ales to my Alzheimers fund, and lastly, well, isn’t it every man’s fantasy to have a shed with a bar in it?   No? Surely it’s not just me?

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Gord told me that he had brewed beer as a hobby since his teenage years. Then, two years ago he took the opportunity of voluntary redundancy to switch careers and he began brewing commercially from a glorified garden shed, and so “Shed Ales” was born. After success supplying various local pubs, Sam and Gord decided to open their own micropub, partly as another outlet for their own ales but also to showcase ales from other brewers.  Gord’s wife, Sam, still works, but helps out in the micropub as much as she can.  They don’t employ any additional staff at present so the micropub is open limited hours.

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With the exception of the signal box in Cleethorpes, I would hazard a guess that the Shed Alehouse is the tiniest micropub that I have encountered! There’s probably room inside for around 15 to 20 people max.  From the interior photo’s I had seen before visiting I had assumed that the pub was in an actual shed – but it’s actually in a small shop unit in the middle of the small town of Pewsey in Wiltshire but the interior has been cleverly lined with shed panels and other bits and pieces.  The conversion work and making of the furniture was done with help from friends and family.

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The bar is across the rear of the Shed, with a row of 5 handpumps, typically one of these is for one of Shed’s own ales and the other four for ales from other breweries. As with everything else in this pub, the cool room for the beer storage is tiny – the use of vertical extraction and the cask-widge system avoids the need for a stillage and makes the most of this small space.

As well as ales, cider, wines, pilsner and soft drinks are also available.  Take-outs are available in 2 or 4 pint containers.

The Shed is a great little micropub in itself – the novelty shed theme is an added bonus!

Southampton to Newbury

Early on Saturday morning I heard my daughter and her friends arrive home from their Friday night out.  I glanced at the clock:  3.30am. Oh dear, I thought, only an hour before my alarm goes off.

My bike and I (it doesn’t have a name, or a gender, in case you were wondering) needed to catch the 5.30 train from our local station in order to catch the 6.30 from Waterloo to Southampton. And so it came to pass that I was preparing to leave the house barely an hour after my daughter had gone to bed!

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It wasn’t that I really needed to be in Southampton quite that early, but in the micro-universe that is the UK’s railway system the early bird catches the cheap seats!

Leaving Southampton shortly after 8am the temperature was already picking up – it was going to be a ‘scorcher’ as The Sun would say. I headed to the Test Way (aka NCN246), a route for cyclists and walkers following a disused railway along the Test valley.

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While it was good to be away from the heaving traffic and industrial hinterland of Southampton, and shaded form the sun, I’ve now experienced quite a few of these railway paths and, delightful as they are, riding along too many can become a bit repetitive.   And I’ve grown to feel the same about canal towpaths too:  at first the whole environment is quaint, peaceful and impossibly idyllic, but one canal lock is very much the same as another, and there are only so many original double-entendre narrowboat names.  Eventually the novelty wears off and you, and your wheels, find yourself yearning for smooth tarmac.

So now I find myself increasingly drawn towards the network of narrow country lanes that criss-cross most of the country.  They’re largely shunned by motorised traffic, but take you through interesting villages, some with names that sound more Middle Earth than Middle England. (today, along the way, I spotted signs for Middle Wallop, Picket Piece, Hurstbane Tarrant, Enham Alamein and Crux Easton)

It was way too early for lunch when I arrived into Andover (another cracking name for a town – anybody opening a bank there must be asking for trouble!).  But when you’re a cyclist it’s never too early for lunch, so I grabbed lunch there at 11, and was back on the road by midday.

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The afternoon involved much more on-road than off-road, and I rolled into my campsite a couple of miles outside Newbury with plenty of time to put up my tent, have a shower and lounge around for a while as the Cow and Cask were not expecting me until early evening.  I even found time to take pose-y pictures of myself outside my tent using the self-timer on my camera.

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It was then a short ride into Newbury town centre to visit the Cow and Cask.   I’ll do a write up about the pub itself at a later date, but suffice to say, landlord Ian has set himself up and excellent little micropub with a great set of customers, meaning that I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours there.

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Ian and Karen had also organized a 100 micropub sweepstake which had sold out and raised over £50 for Alzheimers Society. Thanks so much for your support!   Curiously, the pub name on the winning ticket was The Just Reproach, one of two other pubs that had also run a 100 micropub sweepstake? What are the odds of that?   (I meant that as a hypothetical question, but the answer’s 1 in 50)

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At one point a local press photographer came down. He wanted to do something creative so we took all kinds of shots of me riding my bike past the pub doorway with Ian leaning out passing me a pint on the move, a bit like a drive-thru McDonald’s. But without cars, and without junk food…  OK, so nothing at all like it really!    I look forward to seeing the results – it will certainly make a refreshing change from all the photos of me grinning inanely while propping up the bar with a pint in my hand – Nigel Farage eat your heart out!

Back in my tent, while trying to get to sleep in the still balmy heat, I could hear rumblings of thunder in the distance.

The Cow and Cask, Newbury

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The Cow & Cask is run by Ian Batho, who previously had the tenancy of another Newbury pub. “Ah, another disgruntled and ripped of tenant”, I first assumed, but Ian assured me that the brewery that had owned his previous pub had always treated him fairly. His reason for downshifting was for he and his wife Karen to have more time to themselves. Apparently, the micropub brings in less money but Ian and Karen do have more free time.

It’s a one-man operation – so far Ian has not felt the need to hire staff. Karen and her friends regularly provide moral support, but from the other side of the bar!

Ian has created the Cow and Cask in a shop / small business unit near the centre of Newbury, not far from the train and bus stations. Not being on a traditional high street it’s a little hard to find and not necessarily the sort of place you are likely to stumble upon by accident. But clearly word has got around, as the small room was packed with happy and loyal regulars. Unusually for a micropub, there’s free parking right outside.

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Inside, there’s a bar across the far corner with ales served from jacket-cooled casks that sit in a stillage behind the bar.   When I visited there were three cask ales available plus several draught ciders. The usual micropub fayre of scotch eggs, pickled eggs, pork pies, crisps…etc are also on offer.

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The remainder of the room has two (or three? I can’t recall) large-ish regular height tables. It’s a good setup, encouraging conversation between strangers. Although most people there when I visited seemed to know each other, it didn’t feel at all cliquey.

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A great little micropub, in a region where micropubs are few and far between.