The Ship’s Journal is a battered red diary where we jot down details of our trip. Miles travelled, locks operated, diesel pumped, groceries purchased, wildlife spotted and moorings moored. Indeed, Emily is, as I write, cheerfully mining the data therein, to prepare a statistics post of great breadth and insight.
Happily, this prestigious tome also records for posterity all the pubs, inns, cider houses and bars we’ve patronised on Felucca’s journey. In an idle moment I counted these, and discovered we have visited a whopping 122!
Their names reveal the watery character of our travels. Five were called The Navigation and five The Bridge. There were three Boats, one Narrowboat, a Boat House and a Boatyard; two Anchors, a Lock, and a Top Lock.
As well as four Swans, there was a Swan In Rushes and a Three Swans Inn.
Less aquatically, we visited eight Lions (three each of black and red, and two white); five equestrian (various hues of horses, a Nags Head and a Four Horsehoes); and three George & Dragons.
Then, a gaggle of other creatures, real and imagined: a Badger; a Lamb and a Sheep; a Trout, two Bears, a Greyhound, a Magpie (and Crown), a Unicorn, a Spread Eagle and a Dandy Cock.
And of course a mellifluous miscellany of other strange and glorious names capturing the eccentricity of history, locality, language and landlords: The Shroppie Fly, The Riverhead, The Ring O’ Bells, The Old Beams, Oddfellows Hall, The Clock Warehouse, The Brasenose, The John Barleycorn…
Most of the 122 have been good; nay, very good. Our hit rate has been remarkably and joyfully high. This has been helped, I am sure, by the precision advice of both Google Maps and the Pearson’s Canal Companion; but it is also, I hope, an indication of the general high quality of pubs in England and Wales.
It is of course a shame that so many continue to close each year, as publicans crumple under the assault from PubCos, high beer duty and stay-at-home punters. Boo! But I am optimistic that the best pubs can weather the storm: some of the most remote hostelries have been heaving with punters at most unusual times of the week, suggesting that a cracking boozer can, with luck, bring in the crowds and the cash.
So, to help the struggling landlord, to offer sage advice to thirsty pub-goers, and as a penance for my ale-supping decadence, I hereby offer you my top ten pubs of Felucca’s journey. Cheers!
(Pubs are in the order we visited them.)
Camp House Inn, somewhere in Worcestershire, WR2 6LX
The weather on the first of May was inspired: blue skies and lovely sunshine; a proper spring day, in a spring that had been late and often cold. At the crack of dawn, we took Felucca down the staircase locks from Stourport Basin into the Severn, our first Proper Big River. The Severn unfolds in broad, tree-lined reaches as it descends to Worcester, and in May the leaves were a-budding, the magnolia a-flowering, and various birdies a-singing. Visiting the Camp House on such a day was incomparable. Steps lead up from the jetty, a grand horse chestnut enfolds the garden, and miscellaneous fowl (peacocks etc.) potter happily around the tables. We supped sensational Batham’s and ate generous Ploughman’s in the sunshine.
On a grotty day and approached by road, this might have been any old pub. On a glorious spring morning, having just tied up one’s boat on the boisterous sparkling torrent below, this was a magical, timeless hostelry of hearty food, good cheer, and refreshing ales. One could easily spend an afternoon here tipsily imagining one were a traveller of old as per Tolkien, Wind In The Willows, Three Men In A Boat, etc…
The Brandy Cask, Pershore, WR10 1AJ
All self-indulgent lists are going to be a pretty subjective affair; this one is probably more self-indulgent and more subjective than most! So, just as the Camp House might have been lost without trace had the weather been terrible, the Brandy Cask gets a leg-up from the peculiar euphoria in which we visited. Just half an hour earlier, the crew of Felucca had their most hair-raising experience thus far, when the flooding Avon nearly brought us to grief: first on the terrifying currents through Pershore Old Bridge; then via an incredible near-miss with an out-of-control narrowboat coming downstream on the flood, which passed us with only a few feet to spare.
Thus we entered the Brandy Cask high on the adrenaline and endorphins of a death-defying near-miss. Turns out this is a pretty good springboard for an enjoyable evening in the pub, and the Brandy Cask didn’t disappoint. The interior is excellent and old-fashioned, and the beautiful garden is long and thin and runs right down to the Avon at the bottom. The food was so-so and the landlords rather curt, we thought; but they have maintained this pub as a historical record of times past, and it is thus a boozer of integrity, atmosphere and character. The beer is also excellent: Original, Whistling Joe and Brandysnapper from their on-site brewery. Glorious.
The British Oak, Bournville, West Midlands, B30 2XS
This was an unexpected gem in the otherwise disappointing surrounds of Bournville, on the Worcs & Birmingham Canal. There was a beer festival on when we visited, and we lounged on the sofas in their rather bohemian garden, eating burgers and quaffing Dark Star Pale Ale. Proceedings were conducted by the young staff chaotically but with great charm. There is a bowling green out the back too.
Badger Inn, Church Minshull, Cheshire, CW5 6DY
Nick, Emily and I moored up for the night on the Shropshire Union near Church Minshull, and strolled into the village to stretch our legs. The Badger has long since closed down, said our guidebook; it’s a crying shame this famous watering hole is no more, etc.
Look, said Emily: the person who lives there now has kept the pub sign up. It looks nice and all that, but it’s a bit unfair to travellers who are going to be disappointed when they realise it’s now a house, not a pub after all.
And look, said I: they haven’t even taken the “Good Beer Guide” and “Innkeeping Institute” signs down from the windows. That’s just lazy, frankly; if not downright rude to the thirsty journeyman passing through. The council should DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
Nick, meanwhile, had pushed open the door and got a round in. For the Badger has re-opened and is in very fine fettle. It’s perhaps one of the posher pubs on this list, stuffed to the rafters with the Cheshire Set on a Saturday night. The atmosphere is jolly, the beer fine, the bar snacks divine (pork and black pudding fritters), and the patio has comfortable cane chairs. Overall very civilised, and bonus points for treating us three ragamuffins no differently from the footballers and their WAGs, i.e. in friendly, helpful and charming fashion.
The Woolly Sheep Inn, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 1HY
Oh, Skipton! As the winter wind rattles the bare trees and the rain drums on the roof, I go back to Skipton in July. Lounging on the pristine castle lawns in a heatwave, strolling through the colourful street market, stuffing one’s face with pork pies hot from Stanforth’s ovens… and drinking in the Woolly Sheep. This splendid establishment sums up all that’s fine about Skipton: friendly staff, handsome comfortable interior, excellent beers and food, civilised ambience. Timothy Taylor on tap, naturally. And a sunny garden. Happy days in God’s Own County.
Whitelock’s Ale House, Leeds, LS1 6HB
We have visited a great variety of interesting hostelries on our travels. No two the same, with a fascinating range of shapes, sizes, décor and atmosphere. However, sadly notable is the relative shortage of pubs which retain a genuine historical flavour (whatever that means!).
For example, the Anchor in High Offley (on the Shroppie) is quite unique on our travels for genuinely feeling like someone’s front room. Olive Cliff, the little old lady who lives there, gossips in the bar with regulars and pours beer from a jug (one of only four pubs in the country to do this, apparently). Everyone chats away, table to table, a relic of when a genuine communal spirit energised such establishments. It’s been like that for ages there, but who knows how long it will last?
Another establishment retaining an interesting slice of the past is the Station Refreshment Rooms in Stalybridge (on the Huddersfield Narrow). This idiosyncratic pub has been reborn from the station’s buffet, and still retains the character of old times, with excellent railway memorabilia, pleasant beer, and pie and black peas. It’s light years away from modern station pubs, which as any fule kno are almost without exception dreary and terrible.
But Whitelock’s is my favourite “heritage pub” (yucky phrase). Betjeman loved it and called it “the heart of Leeds”. It has a blue plaque and an enthusiastic history on its website, which I daresay includes a few tall stories. Regardless, the décor says more than the website ever could; it dates from 1880 and is a triumphant ensemble of cast iron, wood and stained glass. Plus it does a good pint, a roaring trade, and a cheerful atmos. It’s easy to forget you are a stone’s throw from Briggate’s chain stores, and tempting to delay one’s return to the 21st century with another pint of Leeds Pale…
Fernandes Brewery, Wakefield, WF1 1UA
The beer on our travels has been good. Pushing open the door of a new establishment, one strides with brisk optimistic step to the bar, it being odds-on that the beer will be very acceptable indeed. With a bit of luck, it will be rather more than that.
First, if nothing else, you’re likely to get a half-decent national staple; a Doom Bar or an Adnams will do the trick.
Then there are a bunch of good regional brewers: Marston’s, Burton’s, Thwaite’s and the like. And then a whole profusion of smaller brewers, microbreweries, cottage brewers, innovators and foreign imports. Most places will have a couple of options from this list; some will have a whole truckload. The Narrowboat in Skipton, for example, served beer from the up-and-coming Copper Dragon five minutes down the road, as well as several others on draft, a list of American craft pale ales, and Belgian classic like Kwak and Duvel.
Surfing the crest of this hoppy wave are the in-house microbrew pubs, serving ales brewed in the pub itself. Not just in trendy London (the Brewery Crate on the Lee in Hackney Wick), but everywhere else too: The Brandy Cask in Pershore, the Riverhead at the summit of the Huddersfield Narrow in Marsden; and Fernandes in Wakefield (on the River Calder), which probably beats them all.
At least when we were there, Wakefield was gloomy: grey skies and drizzle at the heart of a golden summer. And then we found Fernandes Brewery Tap in a dingy side street: downstairs, a German Bier Keller; upstairs, an American-style brew pub, with English pies and beer behind the bar, and interesting brewing memorabilia on the walls. We visited with Sophie and had an increasingly hazy afternoon sampling their wares and enjoying the atmos, generated by an almost packed house at 4 on a Monday afternoon…
The Black Lion, Consall Forge, Staffs, ST9 0AJ
The waterways offer many a perfect panorama to enjoy with your pint. The Cornmill in Llangollen is on the churning River Dee, with the steam railway and the canal on the opposite bank. The Trout near Oxford has an idyllic setting above the Thames (or Isis) as it winds across Port Meadow. More industrial but no less atmospheric is the Aspley in Huddersfield, overlooking the basin where the broad canal meets the narrow. And there are countless pretty lockside pubs, where tipsy throngs ogle the boats, offer sage advice, and generally get in the way.
But beating all these, and perhaps my favourite of the whole 122, is the Black Lion. This pub is remote, very remote. It’s apparently in Consall Forge, but Consall Forge seems to have been invented merely so the pub can have an address. It’s at the end of a two-mile wooded cul-de-sac with no other buildings or settlements on it. Stick the postcode into Google maps and you will see there is nothing else nearby. You will need to zoom out a couple of times to see any meaningful settlements.
For this is the Churnet Valley, sometimes known as the Switzerland of Staffordshire. It is a steep valley filled with trees and wildlife and very few people. It is a lost world. Yet in a glorious twist of history, this wilderness has not only the river but also the Caldon Canal and the Churnet Valley Railway winding lazily through. For back in the day there were limekilns and potteries here, long since gone, but served by these antique transport links.
The Black Lion therefore sits deep in a forest with perhaps half a dozen houses within a mile’s radius… yet with canal boats and steam trains chuffing past once or twice a day. Despite its lonely location, it was buzzing with happy punters for the whole two days we were moored outside. Many had the air of regulars.
The beer is fine, the atmos cheerful and the staff friendly. Chickens of many rare and funky breeds peck in the dirt; Labrador-sized cockerels with vicious two-inch spurs strut aggressively amongst the beer barrels. Trees tower overhead, steam trains shuffle past. Unique and special.
The Greyhound, Sutton Stop, West Midlands, CV6 6DF
Every now and then on the waterways, one hears of a pub that has a special meaning to boaters. Much as motorists enjoy a pasty at the Watford Gap Services, or budget holidaymakers a pint of Foster’s at Stansted Wetherspoon’s, there are certain pubs that mark a staging post on the boater’s stately progress from one end of the country to the other.
“Going down the Audlem flight, mate? Best stop in at the Shroppy Fly to get your breath back, eh?”
“Ooh, you’re heading south? We might see you in the Swan at Fradley.” Etc.
Best of these is the Greyhound at Sutton Stop, where the Oxford and Coventry Canals meet. Working boatmen used to drink in the Greyhound whilst they waited for a load to become available. Dancing on the tables was apparently not uncommon. Sadly there was none of this when we were in, but there was a roaring fire, cosy atmos, smashing beer and umpteen single malts. Lovely job.
The Boat, Stoke Bruerne, Northants, NN12 7SB
Another boaty pub, in a famously atmospheric canal village. Stoke Bruerne is home to a canal museum, an old-school smithie, a tunnel, a flight of locks, and a population justifiably proud of their canal, which they keep in splendid nick. The Boat takes pride of place here, and successfully bridges the gap between canal nostalgia and modern-day comfort and good times. The two bars at the front each boast a cosy coal fire and unusual fixed wooden seating, which is very comfortable. The staff are friendly; the beer was well-kept Marston’s when we were in.
And there is skittles, unusual for two reasons: firstly, because it is of a funky variety using ice hockey-style pucks, found only in Northamptonshire; and secondly, because it is a bar game that Emily actually wins at!
We stayed in Stoke Bruerne for two nights, mainly so we could get another lunchtime pint at The Boat and try to even the score at skittles…
So that’s our top ten. It’s a competitive business, and I’m sure the four pubs of Braunston will be clammering to get in on the act. Best to give them a good chance to impress the judges; so it’s off to the Admiral Nelson for a steak sandwich and a pint of Broadside. Happy days!