Tuesday 30 July 2013

Strawbury Ducks Forever

The Strawbury Duck
A few days ago, I went on two trains from Southport to a tiny hamlet called Entwistle, which is north of Bolton, for a reunion with some friends from the union; our destination was the Strawbury Duck (that is spelt correctly). To get there, you have to travel on a single track railway line to Entwistle Station, which is a request stop. I say station, but it's no more than a single platform and a small shelter.

Next to the station is a pub called the Strawbury Duck. This is an old, multi-roomed pub that has had some money spent on it in a fairly recent refurbishment and therefore looks rather good, with stone walls and nooks and crannies. There are also outside drinking areas where you can watch the sheep while you sup. It's popular with walkers and with people like us who catch the train out specifically to drink there.

It has quite an extensive menu. Unimaginatively, I had spicy veggie burger with chips, salad and salsa sauce, not normally my first choice but it was just what I fancied. Everyone seemed to enjoy their meals.

The beers that were on were: Lancaster Blonde, Robinson's Unicorn, and Everards Horizon. There was a pumpclip turned around for a Strawbury Duck house beer brewed by Tetley's of Northampton - still doesn't sound right, does it? I had the Horizon until it ran out, then the Blonde. Both are golden ales, with the Horizon being drier, which I preferred, but the Blonde was quite acceptable. The beers were at the right temperature - good news considering the weather. After we'd eaten, we sat outside in the glorious sunshine drinking more beer, except for one driver who was on water. I've often noticed that the sunshine brings out a hoppy smell in real ale.

After 5 and a half hours, it was time to catch trains to our various homes. I had to change at Bolton and had three quarters of an hour to kill, so I wandered out of the station and found a pub nearby called the York, which had 4 handpumps but only Hobgoblin on. It was a locals pub and the people were friendly but, owing to train timetables, for me it could be no more than a brief pit stop.

When I got back to Southport, I went to another reunion, this time of people I used to work with in Southport DWP, but unfortunately it wasn't in a real ale venue. One nice thing came of it: the social club is arranging an evening barge trip as a staff outing and they asked me whether I'd join them with my guitar so they can have a 50s and 60s singalong. It should be fun.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Beer Guides

I suppose "The Belgian Good Beer
Guide" wasn't dramatic enough.
I received an e-mail from CAMRA yesterday inviting me to buy CAMRA books, such as London Pub Walks, the Good Bottled Beer Guide and another book by Roger Protz on the cheery theme of another few hundred beers to drink before you die. As a member, I can buy the Good Beer Guide (GBG) for £10, thus saving £5.99, but I really can't be bothered; I last bought the GBG in 2006. I stopped buying it when I realised that I had hardly opened, let alone used, the editions that I did own.

With the internet and Branch websites, it's not hard to find out the decent pubs if you're going to a town you don't know, plus for CAMRA members only there is the What Pub website that is currently being developed. In addition, the GBG is scarcely a pocket reference book: with the ever-increasing number of microbrewers listed, the book is getting bigger and bigger and it isn't particularly convenient. It is the biggest-selling book published by the Campaign, and I think it is a bit of a con. Many of the sales are for presents for a relative, often Dad, who likes to go to the pub; the fact that Dad generally goes to the same pub most of the time and really isn't interested in a list of pubs in places he will never visit is neither here nor there - a sale is a sale.

All the information about pubs in the GBG is compiled entirely by local branches, and it takes a lot of work all done by unpaid volunteers in their own time. The CAMRA conference passed a motion a few years ago that branches could not list all of the pubs that they put forward for the GBG in any of their publications or websites. They do all the work but are not allowed to use that information locally in case (the ludicrous argument goes) it damages the sales of the GBG. I spoke against this, but the conference were, I'm afraid, taken in by visions of tumbling sales of the campaign's best seller if they happened to print in their local magazine a simple list of GBG pubs in their own area, although the motion did kindly permit branches to publish incomplete lists as "tasters". The argument (propounded by Roger Protz, GBG editor) is stupid because people don't buy the guide just to find out the pubs in their local area, which they probably already know about - you buy it to see what pubs there are in other areas. In this instance, commercial considerations outweighed common sense. I'm surprised that there hasn't been opposition to the What Pub website on the grounds that it may affect GBG sales.

As for local guides, one problem is that few branches have the time or resources to update them when they get out of date. While it might be nice to buy a local guide for a town or city, if you go there infrequently, it will be out of date before you can get any significant use out it.

I wouldn't want a good bottled beer guide because, compared to draught real ale, bottled beers are always a compromise and sometimes a disappointment. I can't think of one bottled beer that compares favourably to a decent, well-kept pint of real ale.

So I don't buy beer guides any more. They get out of date so quickly, much more quickly than they used to with the turnover of licensees being noticeably higher than in the past. But if you want to buy one for Dad because he goes to the Dog and Duck every weekend so he can peruse a list of thousands of pubs he'll never visit, go ahead. At least it will be another sale to keep the GBG editor happy.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Summertime blues?

Instrumental tunes welcome too
Pilgrims' Way brought the Bothy Folk Club's summer season to a fine close; a packed room showed enthusiastic appreciation of this excellent young band who presented a good choice of material in a confident and engaging manner. Don't worry too much if you missed them: I'm sure they'll be back. There'll be no more guests until 8 September when the club will present Vicky Swan and Jonny Dyer.

But the Bothy itself carries on: every Sunday night we'll be running a free acoustic song sessions in the same venue from 28 July until 1 September, i.e the next 6 weeks. It's free, and performing is not compulsory. Some people find the informal approach much less intimidating than a normal club night. If you're a nervous performer who nevertheless fancies having a go, these sessions might be just the thing for you. If you don't play an instrument, don't worry: you definitely won't be the only unaccompanied singer.

These singarounds will be at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, beginning at 8.00pm. The venue serves cask Thwaites Wainwright.

Sunday 21 July 2013

The Politics of Morris

Argarmeles Clog at the Southport beer festival.
An 'acceptable' dance form for women.
A couple of days ago, I deliberately stepped into a controversy that, by rights, I had no real part in. My
place in the folk scene is as a folk club resident singer and guitarist who performs written, as opposed to traditional, material (when I play 50s and 60s music, that is usually outside a folk setting). The debate was about Morris dance. I am not a dancer myself, although I have played among the musicians for at least three separate sides over the years. I have learnt that there is a huge variety of folk dances in this country, but when you are talking specifically about Morris, there is a long-standing dispute as to whether women should dance it. In one corner, there is the Morris Ring which sides can join only if all the dancers are men. In the other corner, the Morris Federation admits sides that accept women. The basis of the dispute is that Morris is meant to be a fertility dance in which the young men attract the interest of the young maidens, and so it is against tradition for women to dance it, although it is often pointed out that women kept the traditions going when men were called away to the two world wars, and there is anecdotal evidence that women were dancing Morris before the First World War anyway.

I wrote on the Whitby Folk Week Facebook page where the discussion was taking place: "I have come across pedants who maintain that you cannot arrive in Birmingham because "arrive" is derived from the Latin "ripa", meaning a shore, or that men cannot be hysterical because they don't have wombs ("hysterical" is derived from the Greek for womb). Things change, including Morris. No one dances Morris nowadays to attract the young maidens, when the fertility aspect might have been relevant; they will dance for a combination of maintaining tradition, putting on a show and having fun. Women are just as capable of dancing for such reasons as men; the function of Morris has fundamentally changed with the times - traditions do, after all, evolve - and quoting the outdated fertility reason for Morris is like saying you can't arrive in Birmingham."

Quite assertive stuff from a non-dancer, although I doubt they'd have known I don't dance. I got 3 "likes" but my points were in the subsequent thread pretty well ignored. What I chose not to say was that the Morris tradition involved it being danced not only by men, but by young men, and with the best will in the world many dancers would nowadays struggle to fit that description. 

Neither my intervention on the Facebook page nor this post is going to resolve this deep schism in the world of Morris. I posted this mainly to show how you can get controversy and, on occasion, some heat where you'd least expect it: in the tranquil world (as most outsiders would view it) of traditional dance. Wherever you go, there's no escape from internal politics.

Friday 19 July 2013

Keeping your cool

They'll be in that pub for
a cool pint afterwards!
Many years ago, John Major waxed lyrical in a speech aimed squarely at American perceptions of England about cricket, wayside inns and warm beer. It transpired that his idea of a wayside inn was a Little Chef, which - until revelations about Edwina Currie emerged - was about as exciting as you can imagine his life could get. However, it was the phrase "warm beer" that irritated me. Temperature is important for food and drink: a plate of cold egg and chips washed down with a cold cup of tea would not have you salivating with anticipation. Alcoholic drinks have their optimum temperature too: white wine should be chilled, and in these weather conditions, it makes sense to put your red wine in the fridge for half an hour or so, as rooms are currently a lot warmer than room temperature. Red wine should actually be served at cellar temperature, but most of us don't have cellars. Another drink that should be at cellar temperature is real ale, which is best served at 12 to 14 C (54 to 57 F). Lagers and smooth have to be served cold to prevent you tasting them, but the correct word to describe the right temperature for real ale is "cool". 

If real ale is too warm, it loses its natural conditioning and is flat and tasteless; some people describe that state as "flabby". If it's too cold, you won't get the subtle flavours; the taste is merely an unsophisticated approximation of what it should be. If I had to choose, I'd prefer too cold because the beer will in time warm up in the glass to the correct temperature. In such situations, I've occasionally bought my next pint well before I've finished the first in the hope that it will be just right by the time I get round to it.

What I don't like is beer that is too warm. It feels wrong in the mouth, in the way a cold cup of coffee would, and its taste is out of balance with astringent flavours more to the fore. In short, it's not particularly nice. With modern cooling techniques, there really isn't any excuse for beer that is too warm, so how come we still sometimes get served it? I suppose the obvious reason is the failure of pub owners to invest in equipment. Pubcos are the worst because they have a ludicrous business that is based on enormous debt, and they begrudge spending a penny more than they absolutely have to. In extreme cases, they'd prefer to let a pub decline than invest in it, and then get a bonanza when they sell it for redevelopment.

I regard £3 a pint as dear, the result of greed by both pubcos and Chancellor, but it's either pay that or not drink real ale in a pub. Drinking beer at home has little attraction for me, because going to the pub is not a shopping trip - it's part of my social life. If I am to pay pub prices, I am less tolerant of imperfections, such as the wrong temperature, short measures, the beer being out of condition or, in extreme cases, actually off. I am surprised when I read on beer blogs stories in which an imperfect pint is left on the bar and the writer quietly walks out. Not much use whingeing about it afterwards on the internet, chaps.

The current heat wave is showing up those pubs that don't have satisfactory cellars or decent cooling equipment. Most real ale drinkers will have a fallback drink, such as lager, Guinness, cider or wine, but for me, all of these are unsatisfactory substitutes. If a pub can't serve decent pint, then I'd prefer not to spend my cash there. In this weather, I don't think you can beat a nice, cool, dry pint of real ale: it shouldn't be a lottery as to whether you get it.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Pilgrims' Way at the Park

Pilgrims' Way lubricating their vocal chords
Pilgrims’ Way consists of Edwin Beasant (melodeons, guitar, bass, etc), Lucy Wright (vocals, jews harp, second fiddle) and Tom Kitching (fiddle, mandolin, reluctant vocals). No less a talent than Maggie Boyle has described them thus:

“Lucy is a wonderful young singer, possessed of one of the finest & most agile voices I ever heard. This, combined with Tom's strong, fiery fiddle playing and Edwin's exquisite guitar and box work, makes Pilgrims' Way an exceptional song carrier. But that's only part of what they do so well. All three play additional instruments, and punch well above their weight in the tune department. They have chosen a lovely repertoire, brimming with integrity and good taste (imho!).”

They appeared at the Bothy Folk Club in October last year at short notice after our scheduled guest, Jez Lowe, was trapped in New York by Hurricane Sandy. They went down so well that they received a repeat booking less than a year later, which is almost instantaneous in Bothy terms! They are the final guests of the season this Sunday 21st at the Bothy, which meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. It begins at 8.00pm. Real ale bar. You can buy tickets on-line here.

Although there will be no further booked guests until 8 September when Vicky Swan & Jonny Dyer will be featured, the Bothy will continue to run through the summer with free acoustic song and music sessions every Sunday evening.

Monday 15 July 2013

Final furrow for the Plough

The Plough Hotel in Rufford Road, Crossens, is the northernmost pub in the county of Merseyside. It is a highly visible landmark as you cross the Southport-Lancashire boundary, and is mentioned on bus timetables. It is one of the older pubs in Southport. It closed in January and was advertised to let by its owners Enterprise Inns, and in March was put on sale. Now an application has been made for planning permission to demolish it and build 14 houses. I have little doubt that permission will be granted.

In theory, this pub should have been successful. Its nearest rivals are certainly far beyond easy walking distance and there is quite large number of houses in its vicinity. I suspect that it has fallen victim to the policy of managed decline that pubcos adopt when they want to dispose of property: little investment resulting in the building becoming less attractive, and when the numbers of customers decline below a certain point, declaring it is no longer viable. I do know there are circumstances when a pub can, despite best efforts, become unviable, but I doubt that the phrase "best efforts" describes the situation that has arisen here.

Although I have never known it to be a real ale pub, while a pub remains open, the possibility always exists. Demolished, and obviously it doesn't. And so another one bites the dust.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Minimum pricing plans abandoned

So it looks as though the Government is ditching the idea of a minimum price per alcohol unit in England. I have discussed this several times before (such as here) and don't want to go over old ground again. CAMRA voted to abandon support for minimum pricing at its AGM in April this year, and some members wrote irate letters to the CAMRA newspaper deploring the decision. I hope those members will now reflect on the fact that the Government has now turned away from this policy too, leaving them in alliance with the anti-alcohol campaigners - a strange position for any CAMRA member to be in. It's interesting that, at the same time, the Government has announced that the proposal to put cigarettes in plain packaging will be deferred until the success of a similar policy in Australia can be assessed. Despite their denials, this looks like a U-turn to me, because existing smokers are unlikely to take much notice, and it will be years before the deterrent effect of plain packaging on potential smokers will become apparent.

Whatever their rationalisations, I believe that there is one main reason for both of these U-turns: the Tories are worried that they are increasingly looking like the party that stamps on ordinary people's pleasures. Yes, even they are realising that it is not good for their image, and re-election chances, to come across too much like a bunch of hectoring nannies. While I have no truck with UKIP, the Tories must have noticed that the growing popularity of Nigel Farage's party hasn't been damaged by the frequent sight of him unashamedly drinking a pint and actually looking as though he's enjoying it; a stark contrast to the disapproving glares of the minimum price advocates with their apocalyptic stories of imminent social and financial collapse caused by booze, even though in reality alcohol consumption has been in decline for many years. I wouldn't be surprised if Ken Clarke, the only credible bon viveur amongst prominent Tories, were encouraged to be seen in public once again clutching pint and cigar.

I doubt we've seen the last of minimum pricing ever, but let's hope it's been kicked into the long grass for a good while.

Friday 12 July 2013

Tattie Jam in Southport

Tattie Jam
Tattie Jam are a Scots duo consisting of Seylan Baxter and Ruaridh Pringle, talented musicians with an unusual take on the hugely rich Scottish tradition. They offer a distinctive range of songs, from ballads and protest songs to humour, and tunes ranging from slow airs to driving jigs and reels. They perform, often with harmony vocals, a diverse blend of reinterpreted songs and tunes from the hugely rich Scottish tradition, and songs and tunes written by Ruaridh.

They're on at 8.00pm this Sunday the 14th at the Bothy, Park Golf Club Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. On-line tickets available here.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Mere Brow Beer, Wine & Cider Festival

I've had a couple of enquiries about this, so here is what I've been able to find out:

The organisers of the Mere Brow beer, wine and cider festival state that, following the huge success of their previous one, they will be repeating it on Saturday 13th July, between 10am and 2.30pm at Homestead Farm, Wiggins Lane, Holmeswood.  You can reach the site using the 347 Southport to Chorley bus, but it might make sense to make an early start and finish, as buses leave Southport (on Lord Street near Morrisons) at 10.40 am and 12.25 pm, and the last direct bus back is 3.50 pm from Wiggins Lane.

The festival will have 8-9 micro breweries, wine and cider producers, and sloe gin producers; it will operate alongside the regular farmers market, which will have up to 22 food stalls.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Two local beer festivals this month

Two forthcoming local beer festivals in the next couple of weeks. Local to Southport, that is:

On the 12 and 13 July, there will be a beer festival at the Scarisbrick Bowling Club in Falkland Road, Southport PR8 6LG.  Emily Bernard, 18, is raising money for Project Trust in order for her to go to Ghana for 12 months and live and volunteer in the very poor region of Abor. She will be helping young women become employable by teaching them English, Maths & Science. Emily has organised this beer festival to raise funds. There will be hot food on Friday night, a barbecue on Saturday from 1pm, and live music throughout including a special guest appearance from folk singer Ruth Notman. There will be 20 different real ales on tap, as well as normal bar service. Entry is £3.00 and includes a commemorative beer glass and programme. E-mail for more details.

From 22 to 28 July, the Freshfield pub will also be holding a beer festival. The Freshfield holds both the CAMRA Branch Pub of the Year (POTY) award as well as the all-Merseyside POTY. The latter will be presented during the festival; I'll add a note to this post when I know when that is. The Freshfield is in Massams Lane, Freshfield, Formby, a short walk from Freshfield station on the Northern Line.

Friday 5 July 2013

2 pints a year bad ~ 1 pint a day good

Yesterday, while having a pint of an excellent American-style IPA (pump clip below) in the Sir Henry Segrave, our local Wetherspoons, I found a copy of the Daily Express - yes, I found it, honestly - and read an article stating that: "a pint of beer a day can improve the condition of major blood vessels around the heart, according to new research."  All well and good, but when I searched Google to find this article today, I also came across one from the Sunday Express of 9 June, a mere 27 days earlier, that asserted: "New demands were made last night for shock cigarette-style health warnings on alcohol labels after top scientists revealed drinking more than just two pints of beer a year heightens the risk of cancer ... the Alcohol Public Health Research Alliance (AMPHORA), an EU-funded body ... warned that the maximum amount to prevent other alcohol related diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver, was about two drinks a month." [my emphasis]

The beer I was drinking in Spoons
Talk about mixed messages! I wonder whether journalists ever actually read their own newspapers, but then again, I question whether Express journalists can read at all. What the second article didn't make clear was by how much the risks had been increased. You could argue that walking past smokers outside a pub and briefly breathing in some cigarette smoke might increase your risk of contracting a smoking-related illness, but most sensible people would realise that the increase was at most marginal. I wouldn't be surprised if the dangers lurking in "more than just two pints a year" were similarly marginal, so I'm wondering whether a statistical blip is being blown out of all proportion here for the sake of a journalistic shock-horror headline: it wouldn't be the first time. The other thing that concerns me is that AMPHORA is funded by EU taxpayers; I'm not anti-EU, but this is scarcely a good use of our money.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Music at the Marina

A musical event with a difference: there are two afternoons of live music at the Scarisbrick Marina (on the A570 Southport to Ormskirk Road) this Saturday and Sunday, the 6 and 7 July. Take your own chair and booze if required, although there will apparently be plenty of tea! The Marina is near the Blue Elephant Indian restaurant (formerly the Red Lion pub).

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Diary date ~ Southport Beer Festival 2013

Here's the poster for the 14th Sandgrounder Beer Festival,
designed by yours truly.
I've set up a beer festival page on this blog - the link's on the right, 
or use this URL: http://tinyurl.com/beerex2013