In every walk of life, we come up against situations or attitudes that disappoint us. We expected better, and we were let down. This applies to pubs and beer as much as to anything else, perhaps even more regularly. I was recently disappointed by two pubs, and I think that it’s right to speak about the pubs that fail to deliver as much as those which thrill, excite and satisfy us. My expectations for a pub are simple and unsensational. I expect good beer, served with politeness. I don’t expect friendliness. When I get it, it’s a bonus. I do, however, expect publicans and bar staff to be polite. They, in turn, should expect no less of me.
My first recent disappointment happened in the Black Horse, in Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire. This is a smallish village pub opposite the ruins of Bolingbroke Castle where the future King Henry IV was born in 1367. Lady Alebagger and I had driven out specially to this pub, having read its entry in the Good Beer Guide 2011. It was a Sunday evening and the pub wasn’t very busy. A few locals were sitting at the bar chatting with a man who I assume was the landlord, though I could be wrong, and a barlady. There were three real ales on the bar, Milestone Black Pearl, Milestone Crusader and a Spitting Feathers brew. I asked for a half of each of the Milestone beers. The barlady pulled my half of Crusader and then started pulling from the Spitting Feathers pump. I stopped her, saying that I wanted Black Pearl in the second half. She moved to get another glass, but was swiftly intercepted by the man I assumed to be the landlord. He took the part-filled glass off her and proceeded to pull Black Pearl into it, on top of the unwanted Spitting Feathers. I was stunned, literally. I looked at Lady A and she looked at me. I KNOW I should have stopped him, and asked for a clean glass, but I was in shock. Bit of British reserve as well, perhaps. Mustn’t complain, y’know. I cannot report which of the two mixed beers in my glass was sour, but one of them certainly was. I didn’t take it back to the bar, I just left it. We left, very disappointed in a pub which had seemed to promise so much, and yet delivered so little. For what it’s worth, the Crusader was in acceptable condition.
There is a section at the back of the GBG which encourages you to recommend or criticise a pub that you have visited. You can do this on paper – the form is provided at the back of the GBG, or by email, as I did.
My second recent disappointment was just three days later, when we were visiting the little village of Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast. In the middle of the village, up a steep little hill, is the House on the Hill. It looks good from the outside, and has a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes on the wall (you know, deerstalker hat, Meerschaum calabash pipe). The image puzzled me for a bit, but a plaque on the wall explains that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes mystery ‘The Dancing Men’ whilst staying there.
So far so good. I went inside. Maybe they had a problem with the loos and maybe that’s fixed now. Never mind, not important, on to the beers. There were a good few pumps on view, so I felt optimistic. The barman looked quite young and I asked him which of his beers were most local. ‘They’re all local’, he said with the slight hint of disdain that is the mark of some rural types when addressing the obvious tourist. He waved his hand towards the pumps. Greene King from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Purity from Warwickshire. OK, so knowledge of the beer wasn’t his strong point, maybe admission of ignorance could be seen as a sign of weakness. Whatever, I plumped for a half of Greene King St Edmund’s Ale and a fruit juice for Lady A. As we sat down, the barman came over and said, ‘I’m sorry but we’re officially closed. You’ll have to go outside.’ OK, up we got, out we went. It was a pleasant day, it would be no hardship to sit outside. I took a sip of my St Edmund’s. Eew! Fine for chips, not for drinking. I dashed back in as they were trying to shut the door and explained the situation. By this time an older gent had stepped up behind the bar. ‘It’s probably the end of the barrel,’ he said, ‘I thought it was tipping a bit this morning. What can I get you instead?’ I indicated the Buffy’s Hopleaf, a beer I’d not had before but had a good reputation. He pulled the half and I went outside, narrowly missing being bowled over by the force of the pub door slamming at my back.
‘What did you get instead?’ asked m’lady. I looked at it (with hindsight, I should have done this earlier). It was opaque and turbid. ‘Horse urine, it would seem,’ I replied. Giving the sludge the benefit of the doubt, I took a sip. Holy crap! Have you ever had a really rancid cider? Imagine the very worst cider you can think of, watered down with seawater. That’s what was in that glass.
Of course by now, the door was bolted shut and I had no chance of getting my money back. I just left the revolting thing on the table.
The remarkable thing was that the pub was advertising a beer festival they were holding the following week with 60 real ales. Not sorry I missed that one.
The House on the Hill is listed in the 2010 GBG (as the HIll House), but has been dropped from the 2011 edition. I don’t know why, but if my experience was typical, then it’s not surprising.
Alright, two pubs have failed to make me happy. Big deal. I must also add the caveat that maybe I just happened on a ‘bad day’ for each of these pubs. I can only suggest that you go and see for yourselves, don’t let me put you off.
Of course for every pub that lets you down, there’s one that exceeds all your expectations. See, for example, my blog on The Vine in Norwich, ‘Small But Perfectly Formed’
More on good pubs later, ’til then, don’t have nightmares!
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