A couple of months ago, we held a very enjoyable Beer & Pubs Forum day out in Oxford. Someone suggested that, for a future event, we could consider a trip to Northampton, which was similarly accessible for those from both the North and the South. I have to say I wasn’t initially convinced, as my only memory of the town was from forty years ago at university in Birmingham, when it was dominated by Watney’s and was one of the handful of towns to suffer from 2pm lunchtime closing, something unthinkable nowadays. However, I was talked round, and a date was duly set for last Saturday (May 5th).
With the help of trainsplit.com, I was able to get a return fare of £38.30, changing at Stafford and Rugby and taking in total 2 hours 20 minutes from Stockport. This was my first journey along the route south of Stafford for many years. The London North Western train, which carried on to London Euston, steadily filled up at the intermediate stops and by the time it reached Rugby was standing room only.
|Wig & Pen|
We met up at the Wig & Pen
, just off the town centre, which has a deceptively narrow frontage but widens out into a spacious, L-shaped interior further back. There’s plenty of dark wood and bench seating, and overall it’s a congenial place to drink. As a pub, it was probably my favourite of the day. As I walked in, my colleagues pointed out that the TV screen was showing a collection of funny cat videos. There were eight beers on the bar, including Taylor’s Boltmaker, Greene King IPA and Old Hooky, together with some from local micros. I went for the Boltmaker, which was pretty good but, like many others on the day, a degree or two too warm. Almost next door, I spotted the plaque shown below above the door of the Optimist pub (formerly the Fox & Quill).
|Sign above the door of the Optimist pub|
A fifteen-minute walk then followed out along Kettering Road to the Olde England
, the furthest point on the itinerary. This is one of those cosmopolitan, slightly tatty shopping strips found in most large towns on one or more radial routes just outside the centre. Outwardly it looks like a small micropub, but in fact a flight of stairs takes you up to a rather cramped bar and a spacious room along the front of the building, watched over by the stuffed head of Barry the Boar mounted over the fireplace. There were ten beers available, all on gravity, and all in 4½-gallon pins to help with turnover. Several others went for Hydes Lowry, but I hadn’t travelled 130 miles to drink Manchester beer, so I plumped instead for Downton Honey Blonde, which had that typically slightly flat, lacklustre character of gravity beer than has been around a bit too long.
|Handpumps in the Lamplighter|
We dived off through a maze of Victorian terraced housing to reach the Lamplighter
, a spacious street-corner pub with a one-room interior laid out with geometrically-placed tables. There was a large party enjoying a 50th birthday meal in one corner. This was our lunch stop, so from a comprehensive menu I chose a Stilton Burger (£9.95), which was pretty good, being obviously freshly-made rather than something from the freezer, and coming with a generous portion of skinny fries. Again there were eight beers on the bar, most from local micros, including Oakham Citra, Nobby’s Chocolate Porter and Great Oakley Brewery’s Walter Tull, named after the pioneering black footballer rather than the brother of Jethro. Another decent pint without pulling up any trees.
A short walk around the corner on the main road was the Black Prince, the sister pub of the Olde England, but with a more traditional ambiance including wood panelling and leaded windows. A long line of handpumps on the bar again, with Marston’s Old Empire and the reappearance of the Chocolate Porter, together with the Motorhead Road Crew Beer on keg. The Old Empire lacked the bite you hope for in a beer promoted for its hoppiness. There was a good selection on the jukebox, including Bat Out of Hell, My Generation and Hotel California, but some mischievous person spoiled the mood by putting on Firestarter by The Prodigy. The route to the toilets was something of a maze, and one of our party ended up in the ladies’ by mistake.
Returning to the back streets, we were effusively welcomed inside by the barman at the Princess Alexandra
, which proclaims itself as a “Craft Beer & Ale House”. Indeed, the interior is very crafty, with a long line of keg taps dominating the bar, and the only seating in the main room being at high-level posing tables. There were, however, four handpumps tucked around the corner, including the surprisingly uncrafty Marston’s Saddle Tank, the locally brewed revivalist Phipps IPA and Potbelly Hazy Daze. Served in a stemmed half-pint glass, the Phipps IPA was a quite good. We managed to find some slightly more comfortable seating on stools in a back room, but as far as the general ambiance went this wasn’t really my kind of place.
Heading back across the inner ring road to the town centre, we came to the St Giles Ale House, which actually is only a few doors down from the Wig & Pen. This is a contemporary micropub but, with dark wood and normal-height seating, it’s actually a congenial, if small, drinking space. We decamped to the unexpected beer garden at the rear, which is something of a suntrap in the afternoon and allowed us to hear the ribaldry from the Wetherspoon’s on the other side of the fence. There were four beers on handpump, including Nobby’s Northampton Red and Framework Double Chocolate and Winder Wheat. The Northampton Red, although it was actually more of a mahogany colour, was for me comfortably the beer of the day – cool, tasty and full of condition.
The next pub was something of a curveball – the tiny, keg-only Rifle Drum, situated on a narrow alleyway just off the Market Place. Martin Taylor had picked this out as a rare surviving example of an old-fashioned, down-to-earth, wet-led town-centre boozer, and indeed so it was. It’s a fairly shallow single room with no pretensions to architectural merit. The draught beer range, mostly from the Heineken stable, was John Smith’s, Fosters, Kronenbourg, Strongbow and Guinness. I had a half of Kronenbourg which was, well, what it was. This, together with two halves of Strongbow, came to under a fiver, which is pretty decent value for money. Just across the alleyway is Shipmans, formerly the White Hart, a National Inventory-listed pub that sadly has been closed and boarded for some time with no immediate sign of reopening.
|All Saints' Church|
Passing the impressive neo-classical All Saints’ Church, we headed down Bridge Street, which showed that Northampton, despite being in the “flat Midlands”, does actually have some hills. A special event was in progress in the Albion Brewery Bar
, making it standing room only. From what I could see, it was celebrating “LGBTQ Friends”, and the Mayor seemed to be in attendance in his official chain. The bar is located in the erstwhile Ratliffe & Jeffrey Albion Brewery building. The interior seemed to have some interesting features, but the crowd made it difficult to appreciate them. However, we were able to get to the bar where the beers on offer included several of their own Phipps brews plus Lacons Falcon Ale. The latter was pretty decent, but those who had the Phipps Golden Mild were very impressed, although arguably it was too hoppy to really qualify as a mild.
Heading south across the inner ring road, we passed the impressive Plough
on the left (now, I think, basically a residential hotel) to reach the Malt Shovel Tavern
. Situated opposite the massive Carlsberg brewery, this is a distinctive mock-Tudor building that seems to be Northampton’s established multi-beer freehouse, with an interior full of brewery memorabilia. Although it was busy, we were able to find some seats at the front. As well as the regular range, there was a beer festival in full swing, with the beers stillaged next to the bar, providing a rather overwhelming choice. Among those sampled were Dark Star Partridge, Tornbridge Wild Swan, and Elgoods Harry Trotter. Nothing wrong with the beer, but again that lack of sparkle you get from gravity beer than has been tapped for a while.
|Malt Shovel Tavern|
From here, a ten-minute walk took me back to the station for my train home, although some of those who were staying overnight went on to the Pomfret Arms
a short distance to the south of the Malt Shovel Tavern.
In summary, an excellent day out, not least for the company. We visited some interesting, quirky pubs with a wide variety of beer. However, it has to be said that nothing really stood out as a must-visit pub, and many of the pubs simply had too many beers on. The hot weather won’t have helped with beer quality, and I only had one beer (in the St Giles’ Ale House) that exceeded an NBSS score of 3. So it may be another forty years before I pay the town a return visit. I would say in its favour, though, that the town centre retains many traditional streets lined by Georgian, Victorian and inter-wars buildings, and is by no means, as some might imagine, a wasteland of modernist redevelopment.
For the uninitiated, the blog title comes from the nickname of the local football club, reflecting Northampton’s shoemaking heritage, and is not intended as a general comment on the town.