It’s now that time when people turn to reviewing the highs and lows of the year that is drawing to a close. So here are some of my thoughts. It can’t really be called “Golden Pints” as the emphasis is very much on pubs rather than beer.
Best new pub visited – the Slubbers Arms in Huddesfield. I’ve visited 111 brand-new pubs this year, probably a record total since 1985, and this narrowly claims the prize. It’s a former Timothy Taylor’s tied house that still serves their beers. Built in the sharp angle of two roads, it has an unspoilt interior and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. However, as it’s a good half-mile north of the town centre, and doesn’t open at lunchtimes, it may well be one that I never end up visiting again. An honourable runner-up was Holden’s Codsall Station Bar.
Best revisits – a joint award to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset and the Dolphin in Plymouth, two pubs I have really enjoyed in the past and wasn’t disappointed when I visited them both in a day, as can often be the case. Plus another honourable mention to the wonderfully unspoilt Star in Bath.
Beer of the year – it s hard to single anything out when so many are only encountered once. A couple that particularly stick in the memory in terms of their quality were Pedigree in the Bank House in Uttoxeter and Enville Ale in the White Hart in Shifnal. I’ve had quite a few good examples of Pedigree, which is a beer that has gained a reputation for often suffering from poor cellarmanship.
The beer I’ve drunk most of is undoubtedly Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter, but that’s more a function of finding the atmosphere of their local pubs congenial. Sometimes it’s excellent, sometimes no more than OK. Draught Bass and Black Sheep Bitter have both been excellent on several occasions, and I had a memorably good drop of John Smith’s Cask in the Market Tavern/Tap in Preston.
During the course of the year we organised six Proper Days Out via the Beer & Pubs Forum, together with a few more impromptu meet-ups. These covered Huddersfield, Rugby, Uttoxeter, Preston, Liverpool and Shifnal. All were good, as much for the company as the pubs themselves, but perhaps those that stand out were Uttoxeter and Shifnal, which involved visiting most of the pubs in a smallish town rather than a few selected highlights in a bigger place. The next planned trip is to Burton-on-Trent in March next year. The forum itself continues to tick over nicely as a friendly, low-key alternative to the sometimes fractious CAMRA Discourse.
Pub cat of the year – I have to say I’ve encountered very few pub cats during the past year. I did visit the famous Bag of Nails in Bristol, where the cats were delightful, but I have to say the pub itself wasn’t really to my taste, and I felt more at home amongst the old boys drinking flat Bass and watching the racing in the Myrtle Tree a few doors down.
So probably the title has to go to Artemis in the Olde Cottage in Chester, who I have never met, although I hope to remedy that omission with a trip next year. He’s a handsome young tabby who turned up at the pub as a stray and, now duly snipped and chipped, seems to have established himself as the centre of attention.
I’ve done 92 posts on this blog so far this year, including this one, and may possibly add one or two more in the remaining days. That’s more than last year, but fewer than some previous years. As I’ve said before, many of the more ephemeral subjects now tend to go straight to Twitter rather than justifying a blogpost in their own right. I continue to get over 1000 pageviews for some of the more popular posts (usually those about craft beer in some way or other) and considerably more comments than some other supposedly more prestigious bloggers. Possibly my favourite post was my extended review of Anthony Avis’ fascinating memoir of the postwar brewing industry, although, as often happens, this one seems to have gone largely unremarked.
By restricting the ability to make unmoderated comments to a brief window, and laying down a policy of not accepting repeated comments from unregistered people unless I know who they are, I seem to have dealt with the issue of persistent malicious trolling which had bedevilled me before. If you want to debate the issues in a respectful manner, that’s fine, but if you want to have a go on a personal level that is out of order.
I’ve also continued to add new pubs to my Closed Pubs blog – a total of 45 this year so far – including in the past few weeks a series sent in by a reader on the Cross Green area in East Leeds, which in recent years has been denuded of all its pubs.
My Twitter account passed 5,000 followers earlier in the year, and is now over 5,200, so plenty of people seem to appreciate it. That is a significant milestone, as is opens the door to following more people, although in fact the number of accounts I’m following is now fewer than my followers because I’ve culled a lot of dormant accounts. I’ve said before that the secrets of success on Twitter are to define clearly what your account is about (and, by implication, what it isn’t about) and, despite the reputation of the platform, not entering into bad-tempered arguments. As with the blog, if you want to discuss things, that’s fine, but if you’re going to be personally antagonistic you will be muted. Toady, who does do the political stuff that Mudgie steers clear of, passed 3,000 followers during December. He mutes rude people too, and has been blocked by, amongst others, Stockport’s favourite young socialist Owen Jones.
If you run a Twitter account on your own behalf, you are free to say whatever you want, and people will follow or unfollow accordingly. But, if you are tweeting on behalf of a commercial business, a pub or brewery, you really are shooting yourself in the foot by engaging in political grandstanding which may alienate half your potential customers.
I turned 60 in the middle of the year, which may seem like a milestone, but in practice you don’t feel any different. Growing older often feels as though you stay the same but the rest of the world gets steadily madder around you. And I still find myself approaching new situations and experiences like a wide-eyed kid. One thing you do notice is that conversation with your peers inevitably turns to discussion of various ailments and how you’re coping with them, although to be fair we were outdone in Huddersfield by someone who is twenty years younger than some of us. A benefit, though, is that I now qualify for a Senior Railcard, giving a one-third discount off these trips out by train.
A week later, though, I was shocked to hear of the unexpected death of Leeds beer blogger Richard Coldwell, who was four years younger than me. I think I only met him on five occasions, but he was a distinctive and memorable character who gave his full commitment to everything he engaged in. At first I found him a little hard to read, but eventually I realised that stemmed from his service in the police, where he inevitably had to develop a protective carapace, and underneath he was very kind and good-natured. I could still never quite work out to what extent he was winding us up over his professed dislike of Marston’s and all their works, though.
In the public sphere, I was particularly saddened by the death earlier this month of Marie Fredriksson of Roxette, who was only a year older than me but had fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. While Roxette were often derided by the right-on critics, to my ear she had a beautiful voice and always came across as having a sympathetic personality. Here she is in happier times, with an uptempo song rather than a ballad:
I haven’t experienced any of the truly appalling examples of service in restaurants that I’ve suffered in previous years, although general slowness and lack of attention continue to be a problem, especially in independently-run places. If I had infinite time and infinite patience, I’m sure that sometimes I could still be sitting there at closing time without anyone having given me the opportunity to ask for the bill. Pub food, particularly that of lighter lunchtime items, continues to suffer from a failure to display menus outside and a simple lack of availability. All too often, Spoons is the best or only option.
The quality of food on our days out has been rather hit-and-miss, which I suppose is what you would expect from pub meals in town centres. Best for me in terms of quality and overall offer was the busy and bustling Railway in Liverpool; probably the most disappointing was the 45-minute wait for very ordinary food in the near-deserted Wellington in Preston.
Best food innovation – Wetherspoon’s 8-inch pizzas. Last year, Wetherspoon’s filled a gap in their menus with the introduction of pizzas, which were in fact surprisingly good for the price. However, as I mentioned here, they weighed in at a gut-busting 1100-plus calories each, which is far more than most people want or need. This year, Spoons have introduced smaller 8-inch versions at around 600 calories, which is quite enough for me and I suspect most other people who aren’t manual workers. Having said that, they’ll probably withdraw them next year.
Daft policy of the year – Samuel Smith’s phone ban. I’ve often praised Sam’s general approach to their pubs which, with comfortable seating and an absence of piped music and TV sport produces a congenial drink and chat atmosphere that suits me. However, to prohibit even silent browsing of phones is a ban too far, which has met with customer resistance and opens them up to ridicule. In what way is it any different in principle from reading the newspaper? The offices at Tadcaster must bear some resemblance to the Führerbunker in the last days of the Reich, with none of the subordinates having the courage to argue back against increasingly deranged pronouncements.
Saddest pub closure – Sam’s inexplicable refusal to employ relief managers has also led to a number of pub closures, most regrettable of all from my point of view being that of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, which is one of the few genuine, unspoilt country pubs remaining in Cheshire and always seemed to do a decent trade. Hopefully, as with some of their other pubs, they will find it possible to reopen it in the future.
On a brighter note, they have managed to reopen the Sun in September in Burnage, close to where I live, which had been closed for the best part of two years, and so far it seems to be doing pretty well. I like to believe there is a still a demand for pubs that are, basically, just pubs.
Best political event – the decisive Conservative victory in the December general election, which after a year of ongoing political crisis finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of next month, three years and seven months after the referendum. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, it is a basic principle of democracy that such decisions should be respected. If that had failed to happen in one way or another, it would have led to decades of bitter division. While it hasn’t really been mentioned by commentators, my sense is that an undercurrent of resentment against the sneering attitude of so many in Labour to ordinary people's tastes, recreations and attitudes was a factor underlying the swing against them.
Best tourist attraction – Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, a fairly modest redbrick Elizabeth house which claims (probably with justification) to have the largest collection of priest-holes in the country. Plus it’s very close to the Plough at Shenstone, one of Batham’s only two country pubs.
And a mention to the aeronautical collection of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, which really does justify a full day and more, if you find that sort of thing interesting.
Most disappointing was the famous Longleat in Wiltshire, which is undoubtedly a magnificent Elizabethan house, but fails to put its story across or explain why it is special, and makes far too much of the eccentricities of the current Marquess of Bath.
Best revisits – I spent a few days in North Wales to revisit some of the castles that I had not been to for many years. However, most interesting of all were two more modern buildings – Penrhyn Castle, the Brobdingnagian mock-mediaeval castle built by the Douglas-Pennant family on the profits of the slate industry, and the Gothic Revival Plas Newydd by the Menai Strait, which I managed to catch on a beautiful sunny day when the tide was in.