My recent trip round the northeast of England took me to many fine pubs. When arriving in a new region, I always like to pick up a copy of the local CAMRA magazine. I find that the articles and adverts give me a good feel for the local beer scene, and some excellent ideas for pubs to visit during my stay. When I arrived in the Durham branch’s region, I quickly found a copy of the Durham Drinker, their publication. I was delighted to see that it was their Awards Issue in which they listed the winners and runners-up of the various awards given by the branch, including the Durham Pub of the Year.
This year, the POTY was won (not for the first time) by the Victoria Inn on Hallgarth Street in Durham itself. Hallgarth Street is a residential street running out of the town towards the south. The Victoria itself is a somewhat unusually shaped brick-built Victorian pub. It’s a grade-2 listed building, and the fact that its interior is virtually unchanged since its construction in 1899 has earned it a place on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors.
All of the above meant that the Victoria hit the top of my ‘must visit’ list for Durham. On arrival, I found the Victoria to be busy and full of animated conversation. Lady A and I found a bench to sit on and we sat for a few moments taking in the atmosphere. The internal fittings retain a real 19th century look and feel, and I felt that I was but a whisper from that time. The clientele was very varied; I saw a gentleman who must have been 80 years old having a conversation with an attractive young woman, a man in a business suit, a small group of matronly ladies and a gathering of what looked like post-graduate students – from their accents clearly gathered from all corners of the world.
All were enjoying beer from the many handpumps that lined the bar. I started with Durham White Velvet, a 4.2% golden ale. To be honest, the flavours here are all rather muted. There are slight hints of cream and a bit of citrus pith. It’s far from unpleasant, but there’s not a lot to make this beer stand out.
My second was Hambleton Nightmare, a 5.0% dark ale that is coloured a very deep red. This beer packs a great deal of flavour. There is a smooth mouthfeel with creamy notes of coffee and a mild chocolate finish. Along with the chocolate, the finish also packs a nice hoppy kick. Great stuff.
Third up was Wylam Gold Tankard, a 4.0% golden ale. Frankly, by this stage on my tour of the northeast, I was getting seriously tired with dull golden ales. This will be the subject of a future blog, but for now, suffice it to say that I found little to get my teeth into in this beer. It’s a little bit hoppy. Big deal.
Finally, I had a Big Lamp Bitter, at 3.9%, more properly a best. It’s a fairly standard best, probably with wide appeal. There’s a malty start and a hoppy finish. Perfectly drinkable and most likely would not have been out of place if served here in 1899.
Towards the end of the evening, the landlord came over to chat with us. I always like it when that happens. I started by congratulating him on his POTY win, but with the number of awards on the wall, this clearly wasn’t a new experience for him. He’d been running the pub for over thirty years, he explained. ‘I always like talking to customers, and for them to talk to one another. You see there’s no telly and no music, so people have to talk to one another.’
I found myself agreeing with him. I hate televisions in pubs. A big ‘Sky Sports’ banner is one of the best ways to repel me from a pub. I handed the landlord one of my cards and told him that I’d be writing about his pub in my blog. ‘Oh good,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget to mention me. My name’s Michael.’
Michael Webster clearly takes his pub and his beers very seriously. He’s a big supporter of local microbreweries and his list of ever-changing beers is impressive indeed. His insistence on having nothing in the pub to distract from conversation is refreshing and very welcome. In all, this is a great little pub, well deserving of its Durham Pub of the Year accolade.
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