Archive for February 2011
It was pissing down rain when the bus arrived in Swindon Friday so I opted, of course, to take the long way home so I could check out a new pub. The one I was going to go can wait because the one I spotted just beyond it was sublime. The Greyhound was packed, local, and full of character and characters. Besides the one yuppie, I was the only one at all out-of-place, here, and yet it seemed a very comfortable place to raise a glass.
The bar is just west of downtown and across from a very pretty park along the railroad (the STEAM Museum is just across the rails). It is definitely a drinkers’ pub with the bar central and filling most of the space. There is a large back area with some pool tables on a glossy floor and with windows all around, but the best atmosphere is in the warm, brown confines of the Public Bar. Courage Best Bitter (which I had) and something else on the pumps, then the standard lagers, spirits and wines. A proper joint, this is, and as I walked back into the deluge I had this bit of a tune stuck in my head, “One of them’s off her food, and the other one’s off his head, and both of them are off down the boozer…”.
I missed lunch and was dying for a kebab on the way home but wanted to try a new place. Unfortunately, the ones along Botley Road leading west out of town don’t open until evening. Shit. I was fast approaching the last bus stop before the A420 when I spotted the George, which I thought from the outward appearance was closed but a door was ajar and it seemed worth an investigation.
Lights were on and there was a big bloke stretched out on a couch watching the Ireland v Bangladesh cricket match on a giant tv, so I pulled up to the bar for a lager. Friendly guy, he is, a true local that grew up in the neighbourhood and had stories of the changes to the chip shop (“they might have a kebab, now that they’ve tarted it up”) and even offered to do up a burger for me but I opted out. The place probably rocks in the evenings (the words “Party Time” and “Way to Be” spring to mind), but it was absolutely dead late Friday afternoon. I wish the place the best.
The Duke of Wellington is so local that the customers recognise the shadows cast on the windowsills of other customers coming in. A fire was being built as I entered and while I may or may not have been the youngest person in there it did have that distinct feeling of crazy old people ruling the roost. It is cosy, welcoming, and bigger than the small front lounge would lead you to believe. If I lived in Faringdon you would have trouble prying me away from here. However, I had to pick up some items to make burritos that night and needed to rush through my London Pride to make the next bus.
Oh, and there is a golf course with low greens fees nearby and some of the guys are out there regularly. And, the Duke is where they bring the inevitable potty stories from the links…beautiful.
When I hit Faringdon last year for some runs, I was pleased to find so many good pubs. I ran up to the Swan on one of these loops and found that it was still being prepared to open (I believe the carpet was just being laid and there were scaffolds and shit everywhere. Now, my new commute takes me right past the place a couple times a day so I hopped (pun) off to try it out this week.
It is home of the Faringdon Brewery, a tiny operation down the basement, but the current run won’t be ready until next Friday. No worries, as they had 5 of the 6 pumps loaded with good ales to choose from. Better than that, they were £2.50 per pint. Better still, you could split it into 3 X 1/3 pint glasses and create your own sampler platter which I did with (from left to right, above) a Whitstable Brewery Oyster Stout, a Vale Brewery Special, and a Marston’s Sweet Chariot.
The Oyster Stout was lighter than most stouts and had a tart finish you can feel in the cheekbones. The Special was copper coloured and a bit light and astringent after the stout (which was probably a poor choice as a starter), and not at all my favourite Vale brew. The Sweet Chariot was very nice, though; it had an almost viscous mouth and deep, oaky flavours but wasn’t at all heavy. Marston’s brews this for the Six Nations Rugby tourney and the pump clip, with the George Flag on it, went strongly against the grain of the Welshman at the end of the bar.
As the only non-brewer in the pub, I was treated to the brainstorming session for naming their ale in honour of the impending Royal Wedding. The front runners all seemed to have Willie in the name…Willie’s Wobbler, for instance. On my way out, I suggested something to do with the extra Bank Holiday along the lines of Lost Weekend. We’ll see what they come up with, I guess.
It was easy enough to catch the first bus away from the Manor Farm seeing as I wasn’t delayed by a full measure of ale, and I soon found myself down on Rodbourne ready to hit the Sunday Farmers Market (a very good slow food venue). The only problem was that I was still thirsty; but, the gods smiled on me as the bus pulled away from the stop revealing the Dolphin directly across the street.
The bar is fairly open-planned with a few tables around the perimeter of the old wooden floors. There were a half dozen televisions tuned to football for the 40 or so customers milling about but the sound was low enough that you could have a conversation. I ordered a 3B but they were changing the barrel and I opted for a lager; “are you sure? It won’t be a moment,” the bartender offered, but I pointed out that I am, in fact, a savage with no real sense of taste. “Oh, that’s a shame,” said the guy next to me as he paid for his forthcoming 3B in advance.
Overall, I would say this is a very nice place to stop in on the weekly veg run. And, I spotted this one other item that will draw Jackie in (most other places have 25mL shots):
Stagecoach Bus, with whom I have a regional bus ticket, runs two an hour Sundays up to Haydon Wick part of Swindon taking me past several interesting looking pubs and into decreasingly interesting looking neighbourhoods. What sold me on the Manor Farm was the offer, online, of a free pint in exchange for ‘registering’ with the website:
When I tried to exchange the ticket, though, it was first subjected to scrutiny usually reserved for use by border guards at the crossing into North Korea, and then I was given a third of a pint of foam. But it was free foam.
The house is pretty nice, though, and the food smells good and judging from the swarms of fat, middle-age, suburbanites swarming into the dining areas it must come in ample portions…by Zeus, the customers (and beer head) do.
Walking generally towards home I was accosted by an endless parade of dudes handing out flyers for nightclubs, but my mission was to find food. One guy waving a stack of leaflets said, “hey, Squire, what are you looking for?” Before he could go on with whatever pitch he was about to make I said, “A fairly decent kebab, if you really must know.”
It took him a second either to process my accent or the request or to reboot from his normal spiel, but he then claimed to work days at Downtown Kebabs, a place around the corner. I still don’t quite believe him about working there (I’ve never seen an ethnically English — that is, white — employee at a kebab) but the doner was tasty and neither greasy nor salty and the salad crisp with the sort of amazingly succulent tomatoes that doner places seem to have an inside line on.
Anyway, it made the stumble home up the bikepath a bit more pleasant.
Caught the bus from the hockey game back downtown and missed my stop, and wound up walking back towards the railway village. Along the way, I spotted the Glue Pot and figured, what the hell it looks like a place to enjoy one more for the walk home.
Boy, was I right! Great beer list, proper drinking crowd enjoying the wares, and tons of folks to chat with.
Along the way, I spotted a fez and had to find out more seeing as I’ve only ever seen Modern Drunkard Magazine aficionados ever where one in public. The guy was celebrating the last night before relocating to Korea, of all places, and the landlady insisted he wear this thing for the rest of the evening. I am completely stuck on this Glue Pot, now.
I had the Back Row detailed in the photograph further up the post. It was perfectly yummy and I would have had more but I really needed to grab some food soon as I had been drinking more or less continuously since hitting the Rolleston earlier in the day. And, off into the night I went.
I am going to count the Link Centre as a pub for several reasons, not least of which it seemed a right social place to hoist a few beers and these beers were priced like at a pub (and not at the extortionate rate that beer is priced at public sporting events in the States). I had several Kronenberg 1664′s during the match and lot’s of people had friendly chats with me during the evening.
The game should have been promoted with links to The Office, seeing as the teams were Swindon and Slough (the two towns pivotal in the Wernham-Hogg based documentary series). That this was missed is a shame but still not too surprising as the towns are still a bit touchy about the treatment each has received in the show’s aftermath.
I bought the cheap seats, which is to say unreserved but rink side. These were fantastic…you could walk around, the players left the ice for the locker rooms right next to you, and there was a glassed in place near the bar over the mostly-visitor goal. Much better, I think, than the reserved seats.
I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of play. It wasn’t NHL level but I spent a couple of years in markets that only had top-level minor league franchises and this was equal or superior to what I remember of that. The Wildcats played a very good defensive game that belies their 7-0 loss…the starting goaltender really only seemed to have 30 minutes in him and the Slough attack was accurate, though not overwhelming.
I saw more broken sticks at this game than I have seen since playing in junior high school. Cheap materials, I guess.
The highlights for me:
‘God Save the Queen’ to open the game
The deejay booth played ‘Here Come The Girls’ as the Slough team emerged from the locker room at the start and then the guys refused at first to go out. Funny.
And, at the end, down 7-nil, I was the first to leave the place and even then it was only after the final horn sounded. And, the exit/entrance hall was filled with kids waiting to come in and skate. Great.
The Harvester was a mostly male experience, half the inhabitants there to watch Man U vs Crawley Town and the rest either there to get loudly drunk or to continue on to the Swindon Wildcats hockey match next door. Already pleasantly buzzed, I quietly enjoyed my pint of Bombardier while waiting to go to the hockey game.
A bit bored with the crowd, I focused on the menu and spotted this enticement:
but since the “something on the side” on offer looked like this lot:
I drank up and left to try in vain to find a bookie to take my wager on the Wildcats game. Maybe this is a better place to drink or dine outside of FA Cup time, but I have never had much luck with Harvester pubs before.
[Note...just noticed that this is a Hash House Harriers linked pub via the North Wilts HHH site, which is just a further endorsement as far as I'm concerned.]
Just after noon on Saturday and the two pubs I had hoped to hit were still locked up so I did my shopping and wandered out of the Brunel only to spot the Rolleston up at Commercial. I can’t judge those two, but this one was a peach.
Half full when I entered, the bartender seemed confused by my order for an ale that I think I pronounced correctly and even if not I KNOW I pointed at. Doesn’t matter, but the pint was excellent and at a good price and the guy I talked with at the bar made some musical recommendations for the bar that sounded promising and as I walked back from the hockey game later that night it seemed to be rocking the neighbourhood to the core.
This was the third really huge pub in a row I’ve been in. Known as a frequent music venue, the Swiss Chalet seemed more like a professional drinking establishment on my visit, so much so that my order of an Arkell’s 2B (because I hadn’t had one before) drew scorn (because it is more a session beer than a proper man’s drink).
I was then accosted by the English Bulldog sitting nearby and had a bit of a wrestle with it and things smoothed out. The owner, a large dude that had been arguing with a pensioner over a barstool, said the dog probably just wanted a Peperami to which I replied that the dog can dream on. This resulted in a hearty laugh and a hardy slap on my still injured shoulder. I wandered off to inspect the place and found a fire in the hearth. Nice, and it was a nice place to watch the territorialism that occurred when the house Alsation appeared and brought a favoured chew toy out with him…the bulldog got a doggy reprimand and coyly waited for the shepherd to walk away before romping with the toy. Funny.
There were quite a few groups enjoying late afternoon beverages and the bar has a comfortably local feel to it. Still, I suspect that the music nights drift inevitably from sloppy attempts at pulling to even sloppier attempts at fights. I hope not, because it seems a lovely place to meet up for a pint, close enough to the house to walk, and the prices are good.
With a new album out, you just can’t escape Polly Jean…but her publicist is really working overtime if subliminal ads like this one (found in the Manor Hospital, Oxford) are any indication:
giant complex leaching the lifeblood of the New Inn
So, I dropped the rental car and thought, what-the-hell, how’s about a pint? Fortunately there was a Wetherspoons not five minutes walk away, right next door to the New Inn, called the Dockle Farmhouse. Most of the time, I am very pleased with the responsible way that Wetherspoons refurbishes historic buildings like this but in this case it is literally right across the fence from another very large pub…a very local pub, in fact…and SO close that the car parks are often confused as to which one is which. I find this shameless opportunism. Naughty Wetherspoons.
The place is truly sprawling, too, the buildings alone covering an estimated 1/4 acre before even considering the ample gardens and kids’ play area. There is some history involved, but I am so disappointed in the WalMart-esque predation on the true local next door that I’ll just focus on the beer.
I had an Everards Beacon, which seemed quite timid as I began to drink but by halfway through the pint the astringence was marked and growing with each sip. By the finish, there were hints of fruit and juniper. For someone who dismisses all ale as simple and unworthy this is the perfect stealth pint: the critic will start satisfied that he can be dismissive then get hit by the complexity carried in the glass.
Oh, and the staff were pleasant and professional. Still, the New Inn is right next door….
The New Inn is that rare sports bar that carries real ale. From the looks of the satisfied faces on the several couples finishing their lunches while I worked on my Arkell’s 3B (and the kind comments they passed on as I admired the ale’s dark, sharp hoppiness and malted overtones) I reckon they do a decent plate full of bar food as well.
The place is bigger than it looks from the street, cavernous, in fact. There were roughly a dozen inhabitants but you really had to have a walkabout to see more than three at once. The staff seemed quite friendly, even chatty, and like every other venue I’ve hit since moving West everyone seemed to know each other (except of course for me).
Update 20 May 2011: Sandgate to reopen after squatter vacates: http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/9038434.Ex_manager_leaves_pub_after_row/
Update: The Sandgate makes the news for a sacked landlord squatting in the apartment…very funny stuff! http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/9013518.Manager_Chris_won___t_quit_debt_ridden_pub/
I had to pick up a rental car to take Jackie to an appointment so I found myself commuting home early. Midday bus routes are more efficient and I got off at my stop early enough to stop in the Sandgate, not far from my rental agency, for a pint.
There was no real ale although a Taylors Landlord tap clip was turned around indicating it was settling. There was, however, a friendly crowd and a barmaid that was a dead ringer for one of my lab mates (albeit 10 very vigorously lived years older and with a spectacularly displayed rack). I sat at the only bar stool unoccupied and near the cribbage match that was ongoing, and ordered a delicious Carling.
As I ordered a second (and some Walker’s Crisps flavoured “Steak and Al”), the conversation turned on me and I was given some great tips on bars and bar meals. ALSO, this should be of special interest to the Tucsonans out there who aren’t already sold on “spectacularly displayed rack”: they have an 8:30 am license…still not quite like the Buffet, but when you have those morning shakes or have been sitting around the car park for two hours since closing time somewhere else (note that it tends to be 2 am for a late bar around these parts), there is nothing better.
The Queen’s Tap has a reputation as a music venue and is filled with A4 sized adverts for rock, ska, and punk bands but the distinct impression it left with me was of a sort of classy little boozer. The wood floors are nice finished and there’s almost pristine tiling around the oak bar. The music was turned up a bit loud but seemed geared not to offend the sensibilities of the O.A.P.’s sipping on ales nearby nor the business attired folk enjoying giant glasses of wine in a booth round the corner.
I had a pint of the guest ale, Bateman’s Hooker (a sharply hopped and faintly citrus brew, I thought, and was pleased to read that’s how it is pushed), and settled into a paper on linear ion traps as most of the folk passing through appeared to be commuters chugging quick pints before dashing off to the rail station across the street.
Live music appears to be on Friday and Saturday from around 9. Definitely worth another visit as it is 10-15 minutes walk from the house.
Okay, this made me laugh out loud and I’m glad I didn’t have food or drink in my mouth when it happened.
The Oxford Literary Festival gets thousands of top-flight authors and sponsors hundreds of scholarly lectures each year. The Swindon Literary Festival, on the other hand, is proud to present this:
I, for one, can’t wait.
The Southbrook is our new local, and a proper old local it is. When we walked in at 5:30 last Friday it was already packed with several conversational groups distributed along the bar. A pint and a large (really large) wine later and I stepped up for another round and one of the barflies came around and served us before returning to his post on our side of the bar.
We hadn’t realised that to the right of the Confessional Box that greets you as you enter this ancient, former barn there was a lounge that serves as a dining room. Such is the magnetic force of the bar for the two of us, I guess; but when a couple of guys retrieved menus I found my way over there to get some for us as we were starving after a day of unpacking items in the new digs. Turns out the lounge was even more lively than the public bar and I retreated with our menu back to where Jackie awaited.
The food choice was enormous and I settled on the lamb roast for about £6.50 that arrived with mounds of sweet, succulent lamb covered with gravy atop a rosemary and thyme rich dressing and garnished with fresh, local vegetables cooked just enough to retain crisp texture. While we waited for this feast we met a large number of the regulars who weren’t just friendly but quite welcoming, indeed. I don’t know if they’ve ever even had a foreigner grace their establishment before, such was the reception. I am so pleased that this is our local, after the year in Bicester where no one really gave a rats arse (except of course for the fantastic Black Bull over in Launton).
The Southbrook doesn’t have much of a web presence, somehow even avoiding mention in such nearly comprehensive guides as Beer In The Evening. It is about a mile walk from the train station and down at a dead end of a side street off Ferndale in a roughly 120 year old housing estate so might not be high on anyone’s agenda for a visit but I would recommend it wholeheartedly.
Now, let’s see how long it takes to get barred.
Google street view of the new digs
We have moved house to Swindon, ancestral home of Mark Lamar, Diana Dors and Billie Piper and known for the Great Western Railway and the Magic Roundabout (Google any of these if you really want links). We got about 3 times the garden, and twice the living area of the place in Bicester at £115 per month less (plus another £85 less in Council Tax per month) and the commute on the bus is as quick and as cheap but my annual bus ticket also gives me five other counties to explore (and not just back-and-forth from Bicester to Oxford). There’ll be more photos once we’ve emptied most of the boxes, but for now lets just say we are very happy with the move.