I’ll admit it: until now, I’ve never thought much of The Balloon. We’ve often walked past it, but it always seemed to be the sort of place where, as things get more lively of an evening, men with pints, and raised voices, and perhaps yelling down the street all spill over onto the world outside, putting us slightly on edge, as we walk past and try to keep our heads down.
So much for the preconceptions. What about reality?
We visit on a sunny weekday afternoon, to find that it’s quiet, but not empty. First things first: the beer choice. Actually, no, a correction: the first thing, as soon as we enter, is the smell of cleaning products. But after that, the beer choice. There are three empty handles; and on the taps, we have Guinness, Guinness Extra Cold, Symonds cider (sorta…), John Smith’s extra smooth, Fosters, Kronenbourg; and in the fridge I can see Newcastle Brown Ale, CW Bombardier, Bud, and Desperado. I ask for the Symonds, only then to be told that that tap is actually Strongbow (sigh). So it’s £5.80 for a Guinness Extra Cold (RealAleRocks), and a Strongbow cloudy (me).
Another pub with no handles on at all (the same was true at The Tiger Moth, recently) – disappointing, if I’m honest. However, given the amount of Guinness / St Patrick’s Day promotional material around the place, I’m prepared to believe that the Guinness is probably perfectly palatable.
This is a small pub – the smallest we’ve visited so far. It’s L-shaped, with the bar at the front and a pool table down the side. In the corner, there’s a brick fireplace which, judging by the half-dozen or so large bags of firewood and the tinder next to it, gets plenty of use. A large TV is mounted above the mantelpiece, which is littered with set-top boxes, WiFi routers, adapters and cables. There are two fruit machines, and a juke box mounted on the wall. The TV, the fruit machines and the juke box are all silent.
There are a couple of pictures on the walls, and some drinks-related mirrors (“Paddy Old Irish Whiskey, Cork Distillers company”; “William Stones Best Bitter”); John Smiths beer mats are on the tables. On the blackboard at the end of the room, past the pool table and the poster for Bedford Pool League, are chalked the words “Corbyn is (?) wank – wanker!!”. With its worn floorboards, plain walls and ceiling, and the metal-tubing seats with tired blue coverings, this place definitely has the feel of a tiny run-down village hall.
But it’s friendly here. The lady who served as when we entered has a Scottish accent, as I think do several of the punters. Another woman, perhaps in her 60s, sits at the end of the bar with a lager; she gets up to help serve when we arrive. An old gentleman wearing a trilby sits at the bar with his Guinness, walking frame next to him; he says nothing. A man in his 30s, wearing a hoodie, sits at the bar and chats to another man, perhaps in 70s, next to him; he doesn’t have many teeth left these days. The younger man leaves to pop into town for something, leaving the other punters and the bar staff to mind his remaining John Smiths. He returns for it later.
More locals arrive, three men in their 60s or 70s, and they’re greeted by name. But our time here is up, and as we head out of the door, the regulars wished us well. If we were to come back, the main draw would be the low prices – but the selection when we were there was pretty terrible. For decent ale, the Wellington Arms has you covered – and it’s only just around the corner.
Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0