Sunday, 21 January 2007

St Albans - a pub crawl in CAMRA's home town - Part One

I had my first taster of St Albans' great pub culture last year. I went up in September with two pals for the Hertfordshire CAMRA beer festival, and it was a great day. It was in St Albans that the oldest branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), probably the most succesful consumer group in history, was founded in 1972 by disgruntled drinkers determined to save Britain's cask ale heritage for future generations. With tales of legendary pubs steeped in history as well as good beer, it wasn't too difficult to get a group of lads together for a day of dedicated research into the city's finest.

You'd think that the night before a gruelling pub crawl would be spent doing something other than getting battered. Sadly that message didn't get through to some of the lads who had signed up for St Albans. Consequently, only six of the expected nine attendees made it to the station at 1pm as planned. Cans of Gales HSB were doled out for the 20 minute train journey to St Albans City. Although this was intended to be a serious and civilsed crawl of traditional real ale pubs, there are some lads' traditions you can't set aside - tinnies on the train is one of them. The HSB was considerably more welcome than the particularly pungent egg sandwich Jon (the one that drives the Clio) greedily tucked into as soon as we pulled out of King's Cross.

Pub 1 - The Farmers Boy

The crawl had been planned with the intention that we'd visit six pubs, starting with The Farmers Boy (134 London Road, AL1 1PQ, Tel: 01727 766702). The pub is also home to the Alehouse Brewery, the only place in St Albans where beer is still produced commercially. The pub is less than ten minutes walk from the station in an area blessed with good pubs, so makes a good start for any crawl. The new signage (a simple "TFB" logo as opposed to a more decorative sign) has drawn some criticism from the CAMRA crowd, and is a bold statement in a town so attached to its traditional pubs. Come on people - it's only a bloody sign and you shouldn't get too upset when it's outside a pub as good as this. The landlord and (frankly beautiful) landlady were very welcoming and gave Dryz, our one lager drinker, an appropriate amount of grief when he ordered fizzy yellow swill. He politely declined the kind offer of a lemonade top and a parasol. The pub inside is modern and comfortable, the seating in the bay windows making for a very nice perch.

Beers on offer were Timothy Taylor Landlord, Brakspear Bitter and two of Alehouse's own brews. The first of these, Yorkshire Bitter, was passed over by all of us in favour of Farmer's Joy, a 4.5% abv old ale. A very dark beer with a persistent white head, this one grabbed us all. Normally I don't like very malty beers, but the striking citrus flavours and hop presence balanced it perfectly. It's very easy drinking, yet very satisfying. Farmers Joy is a real discovery - a fantastic start for the crawl. Dave claimed to be tasting bananas in there, which drew some funny looks. It was difficult not to order a second pint, but we had a long crawl ahead of us, and it was time to move on. We didn't know then that we'd be back later, the plan being to end the session at another pub, The Lower Red Lion.

Pub 2 - The Garibaldi

Passing by the attractive looking Hare and Hounds and The White Hart Tap, we headed down an attractive back street with a fine view of the cathedral rising above the small houses at the end. The next stop was The Garibaldi (61 Albert Street, AL1 1RT, Tel: 01727 855046), a Fullers pub - one of only a handful in this part of the world. It's a perfectly pleasant local, dominated by the large island bar and blessed with a friendly canine resident.

The normal range of Fullers beers (minus a seasonal) were on, plus one guest, the lacklustre Freeminer Bitter. A shame that the pub goes to all the effort of having five real ales on, yet apart from one golden ale (Fullers Discovery), all are bitters. A real pet hate of mine. The day's papers were available at the bar, prompting discussion of the whole Celebrity Big Brother Jade / Shilpa thing. This set up something of a theme for a day in which the bullying of certain team members increased exponentially with each pint downed. Unexcited by the prospect of another in this charming but unremarkable place, we bailed out across the street and entered the grounds of The White Lion via the back garden gate.

Pub 3 - The White Lion

The White Lion (91 Sopwell Lane, AL1 1RN, Tel: 01727 850540, website) must be a great pub in summer, as the garden is huge. Doubtless they can and do host wicked barbecues. The interior is equally enjoyable, divided into two very different bars. The larger area is smarter and more suitable for dining, but as we were here purely for the beer we made for "the den" at the front of the pub. A very cosy room adorned with the kind of comforting, horse brass nonsense I like to see. The bar itself has an unusual and amusing relic - a plastic Watneys Red Barrel pump, now dispensing Carlsberg where once it spewed out something even worse. Red Barrel is a justifiably maligned beer from the 60s and 70s, nowadays symbolic of the times when most breweries were bent on eradicating real ale and tried to foist piss like this on to the public. Apparently it was the first keg bitter inflicted on drinkers, so we've got Watneys to thank for the likes of John Smiths Creamflow which still clutter up bars today. In a pub run by a man so devoted to real ale, the Red Barrel is especially ironic. The landlord used to run the Lower Red Lion, which was pencilled in a the last stop on our real ale trail.

Five ales were offered in the White Lion when we visited, though none of them were particularly exciting. Considering its formidable reputation as the best pub for real ale in the town, I was hoping to see something like a mild, a porter or a stout. I was disappointed, but the pub itself more than made up for this. The fit barmaid didn't do any harm either. Two of us chose Exmoor Gold, which wasn't particularly nice - a strange metallic taste dominated. Lagerboy Dryz had agreed to try an ale in this pub, and unfortunately he had this one, giving him the perfect opportunity to go back to the Fosters and Carling for the rest of the day. Two of us, including me, had Adnams Old. This is the third time I have had this beer now, and continue to be nonplussed - much as I love their advertising, I'm afraid Adnams just isn't a brewery I rate anymore. Unusually for him, my pal Jon (the one with the Renault Clio) came out on top. His Coach Horse Dick Turpin was in perfect condition, and the caramel and buttery flavours briefly cheered the miserable bastard up.

As we left I was surprised to see a print of The Westoe Netty, a painting by Bob Olley, a local artist from my home town in the North East. Essentially a picture of several men pissing in a defaced public toilet, seeing it down here in St Albans tickled me enormously but left the others bemused. It also hangs on the staircase in my gaff and rarely draws compliments, I must admit.

Pub 4 - The Goat

So far the crawl had gone entirely to plan, and it was definitely time for something to go tits up. We'd quite forgotten that the three stragglers who hadn't made the 1pm rendezvous were en route from London, and would need to be directed to where we were. Entering a pub which wasn't on the itinerary and which was also a mobile phone reception blackspot was in retrospect a bit of a mistake. However, Chadders spied through the window of The Goat (37 Sopwell Lane, AL1 1RN, Tel: 01727 833934) an unoccupied bar billiards table in surprisingly opulent surroundings. It was beginning to get cold and dark outside already, so we scuttled into this large, (slightly faux-) traditional house in search of a decent pint of ale. Shepherd Neame Spitfire, Adnams Bitter and Caledonian Deuchars IPA were on offer. My pints of Deuchars were perfectly pleasant, but at this stage I was ready to move on to something more susbstantial and wasn't thrilled to see yet another row of session bitters. The Goat isn't a bad pub by any means, but not one I'd include on a crawl unless, like us, you've got the bar billiards bug.

Three games of billiards passed the time nicely, with some very random play on the last shot from Jon causing boundless joy. For those that don't know, when only only one ball is left on the table at the end of a game of bar billiards, all players take turns at a set piece shot. The aim is to bounce the ball off the cushion and get it into into either the 100 or 200 holes in the middle of the table. The stakes are high, as in trying to pot that ball you're liable to knock over the black skittle and wipe out all of your score. Jon decided to tackle this tricky shot by simply ignoring the cushion, the holes, and the black skittle, powering the ball to the top of the table where it bounced on to the floor. Well done, mate. Needless to say, he and his pal Dave the long armed goon didn't manage to pull a last-gasp victory out of the bag.

Emerging from the Goat into the late afternoon darkness, my phone suddenly came to life. I had voicemails from Posh Alec, who had searched pubs across St Albans for the last hour trying to find us, and James and Sap who had arrived separately and decided to retire to the civilised surroundings of O'Neills until they could contact me. It was then that it dawned on me that perhaps we weren't all exactly on the same page in terms of what kind of place one visits on a "real ale pub crawl". The heathens were directed to the Boot on the Market Place where six became nine, the pints continued to flow, and the next, lairier stage of the crawl began.

[Continued in Part Two - click here]

Information:
  1. Thameslink trains to St Albans from London are operated by First Capital Connect, and run from London Bridge and King's Cross among other stations. The fastest trains only take 20 minutes to reach the city's main station. A cheap day return is currently £9.
  2. Alehouse Brewery opened in September 2006, using the same premises at the back of the Farmers Boy that the Verulam Brewery had occupied since 1997. It is the only commercial brewery in St Albans. It has a website here, but it is under construction and may have been abandoned. Alehouse brews are sold at the Farmers Boy and also the Lower Red Lion (which will be reviewed in part two). I've also seen them on at the Wenlock Arms (26, Wenlock Rd, London, N1 7TA , Tel: 020 7608 3406). At the St Albans beer festival last year they produced a milk stout, an unusual style, called Milk & Alcohol especially for the event, which I tried and enjoyed. This is a very promising microbrewery and it deserves to flourish.

5 comments:

  1. howay man get part 2 up

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  2. I think I saw you chaps out when I was on my usual saturday night out in town - was one of you not in shorts?

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  3. Long Armed Goon FanJanuary 22, 2007 3:07 pm

    does the Long Armed Goon only own one jumper?

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  4. Great review so far - and looking forward to part II (I sense it gets slightly more random...)

    Just random pedantic point - if you're in St Albans, it's an abbey not a cathedral that you spy over the houses. (With apologies for being sad enough to know that!)

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  5. Thanks Lennon - I stand corrected - next time I'll stick to "big church"! Part II is up now, thanks for reading.

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