The Park

So: The Park. Or is it The Park Inn?

I’m sure it used to be the latter, but these days both the signage on the building, and the pub sign at the edge of the property, use the former. And yet, there was a period a few years back when this place had a particularly ill-advised refit and rebranding, reopening neither as The Park nor The Park Inn, but as “tpi”. To which I say: “wtf”. Thankfully, I don’t think I had cause to visit many times during this abomination; RealAleRocks was less fortunate. I think it was around this time that it also became more gastro-pub, and the bar prices rose significantly – both features that have outlived that ill-advised branding.

The Park - front

Entering via the front door brings us straight to the bar, a relatively small cramped affair, considering the size of the pub as a whole. The handles today offer CW Eagle IPA, CW Bombardier Colonel’s Reserve, and CW Bombardier Pale Ale. On the taps, there’s CW Estrella, CW Kirin Ichiban, Aspall’s cider, CW Eagle Smooth (off), CW Triple Hopped IPA, Young’s London Stout, CW Dry Hopped Lager, and Fosters. The woman serving us tells us that the tap is broken, though watching another punter served later, it seems that it’s not so badly broken that a pint can’t be summoned up. In exchange for £8.30 though, we come away with a pint of Young’s London Stout (me) and one of the Bombardier Pale Ale (RealAleRocks).

The bar itself is a simple affair, with its front painted grey, and a series of lamps suspended above the bar along its length. The ceiling is a light green colour, beamed and pleasingly irregular, not too low. On the wooden flooring, a few bar stools with a neat modern design, the bracing provided in each by a black metal band inscribed within the legs. On each table, a candle; music plays quietly.

The Park - bar

At one table, a man in his 60s drinks Bombardier; he sits with a woman in her 40s, and a young girl. A man in his 30s stands at the bar with his phone, and a coke. Next to him, another man in his 30s with his phone too. In one of the bay window tables, two men in their 60s sit, with a Kirin Ichiban, and something pale, but I can’t tell what it is. A man in his 50s orders the Bombardier Pale Ale, and two packets of crisps.

At the left hand end of the bar, the wall is painted that grey colour, same as the bar, and is decorated with a variety of metal trays and plates. The opposite wall features an impressive large stone gothic fireplace, next to which sits a man in his sixties, with his pint. Much as I’d love to see a proper fire, this fireplace instead features tea lights.

Behind the bar, next to the wines and spirits, are a selection of pump clips reflecting a variety of ale that used to be available here: Hook Norton Lion, Black Sheep Special Ale, Wadworth Swordfish, Holt Two Hoots, Butcombe Crimson King, Hydes Lowry, and more. There’s no sign of such variety on the bar today, though. (On the plus side: at least no handles were left empty).

The Park - pump clips

Heading past the fireplace and turning left, there’s a dining area behind the bar, with a series of booths and tables – the booths are all full this evening. There are also a few odd tables here and there, tucked in the edges: a pair of women in their fifties here, a man and woman in their thirties there. To the right, a doorway leads to the conservatory, with plenty of sofas and low, comfy chairs – and this evening, just a man and a woman in their sixties. Past the booths, there are more dining tables, which again are well-occupied this evening, in four or five separate groups.

Beyond this, there’s an entire extra dining room, neatly presented, and completely empty (hence the opportunity to get a photo). To the side, the patio doors (presumably at least some of the time) open out to the enclosed beer garden, where red-stained wooden chairs and tables lie on stone tiles, with a lantern on each table.

The Park - dining roomThe Park - beer garden

Back at the bar, more people come and go – nobody who seems to be under 30 or over 70. Three men in their forties order Fosters, Aspall’s, and Bombardier; they sit at a table by the front window as the last of the daylight fails, and as RealAleRocks and I start to get properly settled in for the evening.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The White Horse

The White Horse - front

The White Horse has long been on my list of pubs that I’d quite like to go to at some point, though I’m not sure I can put my finger on why. It’s far enough out of town that the pubs are becoming sparse, so it stands out. It’s harmless enough to look at I suppose, with its white exterior and predictably styled Charles Wells branding (that typeface, those colours). In front of the pub, there’s a large gravelled area with a few picnic benches; a couple sit here, with a dog. Round the side of the building, there’s even more gravel. Well it keeps the weeds down I suppose.

Inside, it’s lighter and airier than I expected. The bar is straight ahead, and it extends round to the right, into a separate room. To the left, there are sofas, tables and chairs. At the bar, it’s almost, but not quite, the usual Charles Wells selection: on the handles, CW Eagle IPA, CW Bombardier Colonel’s Reserve (a new one on us), and one empty handle. On the taps: (CW) Estrella Damm, CW Dry Hopped lager, Young’s London Stout, and a selection of other lagers and ciders. We both have the Colonel’s Reserve; £7.40 for the pair. Time to take a seat, and watch the world.

At the bar – which only now, as I write this some days later, do I realise was free of bar stools – there’s neat wooden flooring; opposite the bar, a selection of leather sofas, chairs and pouffes. It’s late on a quiet weekday afternoon, and quiet in here; once we have our beers, the young man who served us goes to sit back down on one of the sofas. Beyond the sofas, there’s a shelving unit, with an assortment of vases on display, and a few newspapers, some in a rack on the side, some in a small neat stack. The papers are all the local ones: Bedfordshire On Sunday, Times & Citizen, and even the rarely-seen Bedfordshire Clanger.

The White Horse - bar

Beyond this, the tables-and-chairs seating area occupies the left-hand side of the building. The carpet here is looking a bit tired, and the walls are painted the most appalling mustard-ish colour (RealAleRocks calls it an “upset stomach colour”); but if you can overlook those, then everything else is pleasant enough. The furniture is fresh and light, and each table has the wine list, and a small posey of flowers in a vase. Well, some are in vases; some are in jars. And one of posies is in a Kronenbourg-branded half-pint glass. But it’s the thought that counts, right?

The White Horse - tables

Next to one of the tables, between the windows, is a fireplace, containing a wood burner that looks more decorative than functional. Opposite, a bookshelf; mostly fiction, but unusually, a selection of computer books on the bottom shelf.

Music plays quietly: the Rock Steady Crew (wow, we haven’t heard that one since, well, 1983 probably); The Bluebells; Jimi Hendrix; Wham; Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty.

At a table in the corner by the window sit a man and a woman in their 70s, and a woman in her 50s, chatting happily with Scottish accents. A man in his forties leaves, heading past their table out to the car park; he seems to know them. A little while later, they all leave, and the barman is over promptly to tidy away their glasses.

It was quiet before; it’s even more so now.

Above the bar, a sign reads “Alcohol is the answer. Sorry, I can’t remember the question”. At the end of the bar, a chalkboard reads “Wines”; “White rosé wines”; then all five slots below are left empty. Another chalkboard advertises live music; according to my notes (that I’m now reading several days later), it said “Saturday, 13th April” – which is not a thing, at least not in 2017. Maybe they wrote it down wrong, or maybe I wrote it down wrong. (I had beer, and I was taking notes on a phone, so stranger things have happened).

A couple of men in their forties leave; they seem to be regulars, saying goodbye to the barman by name. A man and woman in their thirties arrive, and sit at one of the tables. A man, perhaps in his fifties and wearing a high-vis jacket, arrives and greets the barman by name. He sits at the large table in the corner, where the Scottish group were earlier, reading a red-top paper, eating a packet of crisps, and drinking a glass of white wine.

The music here throws up more surprises: two covers that we don’t recognise – one of ABBA’s Knowing Me Knowing You, and one of A-Ha’s The Sun Always Shines On TV. Then back to the more conventional: Oasis; De La Soul.

I pop into the opposite room, round the right-hand side of the bar, to take a look. At the bar here, all three handles are empty, and the taps offer much the same as round the first part of the bar, plus Eagle Smooth, and something by Strongbow. To one side of the bar, another wine list chalkboard, this one reading “Red wines” – but otherwise, it’s just as blank as the white and rosé list was. Opposite the bar and across the stone-flagged floor, there’s a small raised seating area, and much like the left-hand side of the bar, there’s plenty of light here. There’s a TV, a fruit machine, and a dartboard; and oddly, a set of drums tucked away in a corner.

As we leave, there’s just time for a quick look in the loos, featuring a sign entitled “DRUGS”, warning anyone using or possessing that they’ll be banned and reported; and in the corridor outside the toilets, another sign, featuring an icon of a person in a wheelchair, reading: “If you have any difficulties being served at the bar counter and require assistance, PLEASE speak to a member of staff”. That’s good to see.

And finally, a peek at the deserted beer garden: a large paved affair, with a few picnic benches and plenty of space. At the edge, next to the pub, is what looks like it might be used as a seasonal bar, but with some abandoned paperwork tucked underneath; a broken wine glass lies on the ground, its stem snapped in two. The parasols have been taken away until presumably warmer weather.

The White Horse - beer garden

As seems to be a pattern with Charles Wells and Greene King outlets, there’s nothing offensive here, nothing so awful that we can never return; but nothing to draw us back in either. Sure, we could come back in the Summer and see what the beer garden is like. But to be honest, I’m not sure it’s terribly likely to happen.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Standard

OK: permit me to do my “pub historian” bit, since I don’t get to do it very often. Ready? Here we go: The Standard used to be a Wychwood outlet, called The Hobgoblin. One Summer’s day several years ago, after a pint or two at The Red Lion in Luton, RealAleRocks and I popped into The Hobgoblin on our return to Bedford, only to turn up our noses at the disappointing selection on offer; we promptly left without touching a drop. Well, you’ve got to have standards, haven’t you? And until today, that was our only visit to this venue.

Now, it has to be said that generally we’d tend to avoid the cluster of pubs at the bottom of the High Street: The Standard, The Rose, Wodka Live!, Yates, Vogue, Cross Keys and probably more are all within a minute’s walk of each other. And that’s door-to-door – hell, you can probably even do bar-to-bar in less than a minute between some of them. In this part of the world, Friday and Saturday evenings are noisy affairs, and security guards stand watch at each pub’s door.

The Standard - front

But today, it’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and all is quiet. We’d heard good things about The Standard, so here we are, seeing how it has fared since its transformation from its previous form. The front looks not dissimilar to its previous incarnation: previously black and white and dark green, now the front of the ground floor is completely done out in that dark, somewhat oppressive green, with the upper floors white with green trim. Whereas the The Hobgoblin had its pub sign with its rather grotesque titular character, now The Standard has life-size Laurel and Hardy figures flanking the front door, something I personally find almost as off-putting.

But, let’s head inside. The front door is centrally placed, so as you enter, you dodge around a pillar just a few feet in, against which stands an antique clock, and above, a TV showing black-and-white CCTV footage of You, Entering The Pub. Beyond the pillar, the main bar area opens up, and red is the dominant colour: red chairs, red walls, red pillars, red sofas, red stools, all on brown stone flagging. The music plays Amy Winehouse, at a comfortable medium volume. The bar fills the right-hand side of the main area, and that’s where we’re headed.

On the handles today, we find St Austell’s Proper Job, St Austell’s Tribute, and Lilley’s Mango Cider; a fourth handle is empty. The taps serve up Caledonian Coast to Coast, Guinness Hop House 13 Lager, Stella, San Miguel, Carlsberg, Fosters, Aspall’s cider, Tetley smooth flow, and Peroni. The fridges have a reasonable selection of ales, too, including various offerings by Brew Dog, Howling Hops Pale Ale No. 1, and Guinness Dublin Porter. We both start with the Proper Job, at £6.80 for the pair.

Above the bar are some chalk boards, advertising “Open mic” on Wednesdays, and live music on Fridays and Sundays, and various other messages of the kind which don’t need changing terribly often. Above the right-hand end of the bar, a trio of copper kettles adds a nice touch.

The Standard - bar

A selection of punters occupy about half the stools at the bar: a man, 30s; a woman, also 30s; further along, a man in his 70s chats with a man and a woman in their 40s. Opposite the bar, there’s a fireplace, surrounded by a brown leather sofa and two leather chairs; next to this, the door to the stairs, and then a large TV, currently showing football, with the sound turned off. To the rear, a raised area, with a range of comfortable-looking sofas, and a standard lamp. Oddly, a curtain on a pole hangs here, and can be pulled across to cover this area. Maybe this is used as a stage curtain sometimes? It looks quirkily out-of-place at the moment though.

On the edge of this area is what appears to be a pulpit, holding a flight case for the resident DJ’s kit. In the main floor space are a couple of perching tables, some of which are made out of barrels. On a lively evening, these probably get cleared to one side to make way for a dance area. A series of chandeliers supplement the light entering via a skylight.

To the left and right of the front door, up a step, are seating areas. On the left, a long table, to seat about 10 or 12, with a throne at each end; in the window, a green leather sofa; at the opposite end of the table, an upright piano, and selection of old wireless sets. A Wychwood-branded barrel stands on the floor; a barometer, and a series of oil paintings and flickering electric lanterns, hang on the walls. On the wooden flooring, some old tatty rugs. At the table, sat in one of the thrones, sits a man in his 40s, eating a burger. In the right-hand raised area, a series of smaller tables and chairs, and a couple of sofas.

The Standard - left

The juke box continues to play: Macy Gray, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis.

Later, we head through the side door, and up the wooden staircase to the stone-flagged first floor area. Above the stairs hang the mounted heads of stag and hog, and fish mounted in a case; but by way of incongruous contrast, there’s also a skittles table, table football, and a fruit machine. In the front window (which barely lets in any light here) are a small table and a pair of ornate chairs, providing the only seating here. On the side wall, between the entrances to the ladies’ and gents’, are “Wychwood Brewery” engraved mirrors, hung on those oppressive red walls.

The Standard - stairsThe Standard - mirrors

Head out the back door, though, and you find the roof terrace, a very pleasant and quite large area, with a variety of seating (soft benches, hard benches, metal chairs, wicker chairs, cushioned wooden chairs …), low tables, and high tables made from barrels. Most of the length of the terrace is under the cover of a tarpaulin roof, under which is mounted a chandelier or two, above a rather interesting circular ironwork structure. On the wall, a small TV, showing the football, with the sound off; the juke box music is piped up here too, but quieter than downstairs. Now, it plays Alanis Morissette, Lisa Stansfield, the Shamen. In the centre of the rear part of the terrace, there’s the upper part of the skylight to the bar below; I imagine it provides a view of the dance floor, when such things are underway. In the wall to the right, a closed hatch suggests that another bar sometimes opens up here.

The Standard - terrace 1

A man and a woman in their forties sit chatting; and another couple, with a Brew Dog, and a coke. In the chairs, a pair of men in their forties, with coffees; a man and a woman in their 30s sit at the barrel-table; near the TV, a man in his 60s smokes, his lager sat nearby. A pair of men in their 30s sit at the very rear.

RealAleRocks and I stay for another round (I switch to the Coast to Coast – £4). Oh, and another (this time, the Howling Hops Pale Ale No. 1).

The Standard - terrace 2

The Standard has pleasantly surprised us, and has far exceeded our experience of it as The Hobgoblin. I’m sure there are times we’d definitely want to avoid coming here, but on a quieter day, it was very agreeable, and with fair weather, the quiet relaxing space provided by the roof terrace was most welcome. And as long as you can overlook Laurel and Hardy, that grim red and green paintwork, and the hunting trophies that loom over the stairway, then the rest of the decoration is rather interesting and adds character. It’s an odd mix, to be sure.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Auction Room

When we were assembling the list of pubs, a few names cropped up that we’d not heard of before, and The Auction Room was one of them; RealAleRocks and I were interested. We poked our noses in a few weeks ago, late on a weekday evening (I think it might have been on the way home from visiting Three Cups), and on that occasion, it looked like it had too much loud music, and almost no people. So, we thought, let’s try again today.

The Auction Room - front

Only a minute or so’s walk away from the High Street, with its traffic both automotive and pedestrian, and (on Friday and Saturday nights) its security guards at the doors, The Auction Room is tucked away in Duke Street – a place so obscure I always forget it even exists, and have to look up the name of the road to write this blog post. We arrive at 5.30 on a weekday, and we’re the only customers.

Now, I have to confess: with the demise of the Snug Bar and its unwanted transformation back into The Bear, I’ve been missing somewhere to come and have a good cocktail or two, and it looks like The Auction Room might fit the bill. RealAleRocks is sticking to her guns and is going to have an ale, but I’m more easily swayed by other offerings. In terms of beer: no handles, but the taps offer Blue Moon, Sharp’s Cornish Pilsner, Coors, and Guinness; in the fridge there’s Peroni, CW Estrella, Sol, Sharp’s Doom Bar, and Sharp’s Atlantic, as well as a selection of Rekorderlig cider-ish-things. To the side, there’s a large fridge full of wine. RealAleRocks has the Sharp’s Cornish Pilsner (£4.50 a pint), and is pleasantly surprised by it, enjoying its light floral taste; I plump straight for a Blackberry Margarita (£7), and you don’t hear me complaining about my drink either.

The front door has a glass panel dog-leg arrangement, a vestibule of sorts I suppose, and it does a good job of keeping the cool breeze outside, where it belongs. Inside, past the umbrella rack, the room is a wide L-shape, with the bar across the back wall. On top of the rough wooden floorboards, there’s a large slightly scruffy-looking rug, with a few gum patches trodden in. Down the long side wall, there are big comfortable chairs, an another table next to a bench on the wall, and low stools topped with a soft purple fabric. Below a large mirror on the wall is the fireplace, containing a neat little row of candles.

For now, plenty of daylight spills in through the roof, high above. Later on, the artificial light takes over, from a candelabra contained within a series of 4-foot diameter metal hoops; from a row of filament bulbs, suspended above a pair of racks over the bar; from lights behind the bar; from a purple strip light, under the edge of the bar; from uplighters on the walls; and from a colour-changing floor spot lamp, pointed up at the ceiling in the far corner. Candles on the tables add to the soft glow.

The Auction Room - bar earlier

The Auction Room - colour light

Round to the right, there are high tables and stools, and a series of smaller tables, with wooden and metal chairs, and those more of purple-topped stools again. Given that we’re the only people here, this place can’t help but feel spacious, I suppose. But even ignoring the lack of people, it’s noticeable how much space has been left unfilled here – they could have easily added in two or three more tables, and I’m glad they haven’t.

Katie Melua’s greatest hits plays quietly. After a while, the barman comes over a small complimentary pot of nuts and raisins. He asks if we’d like the music changed; we decline. We’re perfectly happy with what’s on offer – it’s relaxing, and the drinks are good.

The Auction Room - bar later

Eventually, other people start to appear. A man in his sixties, with a pint of Guinness – but he seems to work here. A woman in her fifties, and another in her thirties, both sat at the bar; a pair of women in their forties, sat in the comfy chairs at the side. The music has now moved on to upbeat jazz.

When we pop downstairs to find the loos, we discover an entire extra basement bar, completely deserted of course. Brick flooring, with leather chairs and sofas. It’d be interesting to come back here when it’s busier, to see it in action.

The Auction Room - downstairs

You know how I previously wrote about being familiar with the list of pubs, in that we realised that The Anchor was missing? Well, I’m afraid we slipped up here: The Auction Room isn’t on the list: we had already decided that it wasn’t a pub, but then we forgot that, and visited anyway.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Words and definitions aside, the key concept we’re after is actually “Where could we go for a drink? Where’s good?”. Who cares if it calls itself a pub? Who cares if I (or anyone else) would call it a pub? The bottom line is, if it’s a good place to drink, that’s what counts, and The Auction Room most definitely fits the bill. I’m guessing that we wouldn’t like it if it gets too busy – and we hear that it can get busy on Friday and Saturday nights. But that’s a good thing, because it certainly wouldn’t be able to afford to stay open for long if it was always as quiet as when we were there.

I expect we’ll be back from time to time: it’s a little gem of a place, and as long as you don’t go there for the ale, but instead for the wine and cocktails, you’ll not be disappointed. Hopefully enough other people can find this place, just tucked back away from the High Street, to keep it going. It’d be a shame to lose another cocktail bar.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

Fox & Hounds, Clapham

When I was young, my family lived north of Clapham, and so we often used to pass the Fox & Hounds on the way to and from town. We were not a pub-going family, and so I never went in; and so the only comparison I can make, seeing it probably for the first time in twenty years, is the outside.

The signage looks like it’s been refreshed within the last few years, but the building itself looks reassuringly unchanged: a large property right at the junction of Oakley and Milton Roads, with bay windows, a white picket fence out front, a black-and-white timbered first floor, and with that poor fox still being chased by those hounds across the ridge of the roof. As seems almost mandatory, a banner affixed underneath one of the windows advertises the presence of televised sport. The light is quickly fading, and there’s just barely time to get a photo before we head in.

Fox And Hounds - front

From the vestibule, there’s doors left and right, but it seems that the right-hand side is locked off today; RealAleRocks suspects that it’s reserved for a private party this evening, but we don’t actually see a notice saying as much. So, the left hand side it is.

As we arrive, it’s just coming up to 6pm; on the televisions (plural), the England men’s rugby team is on the verge of winning their Six Nations game, and spirits are high. There’s perhaps a dozen men here, some women too, a few kids, and a couple of dogs. It’s quite noisy, but not intimidating. The room here is roughly U-shaped, with the bar in the centre of the “U”; there’s a TV just above one side of the bar, almost above the door we just came in through, and another TV in the opposite corner. In the front corner of the room, it looks like a DJ is getting set up for later, with decks, speakers and lights taking up at least not too much space; further round, the doors to the toilets are opposite the bar, then there’s a small raised area with a few tables, then the door out to the beer garden; then finally a few more tables, and a pool table. There’s also a dartboard here; stashed above the bar, several sets of darts are available.

RealAleRocks and I make our way to the bar: the handles here offer Courage Best, Charles Wells Eagle IPA, CW Triple Hopped IPA, and the CW Dry Hopped Lager; Courage Pale Ale is in the fridge. I’m sure there would have been the usual lagers, ciders and Guinness, but on this occasion I’m afraid I didn’t bother listing them all. We both select the Triple Hopped IPA, at £8.40 for the two pints.

While there’s still just about enough light, we head out into the garden, a large grassy space with picnic tables, and also a covered decking area. Tucked around to one side, near the gate, there’s table football; in another area, rather less hidden away, is a plastic slide for the younger children. The garden here is surrounded by walls on three sides, with the main roads just beyond, and the pub itself on the fourth; but since the bypass was opened, well over a decade ago, these roads are a lot quieter now, and we can drink and chat quietly as the last of the daylight fails.

After a while it feels too cool and dark to sensibly stay outside, so we head back in. The rugby’s no longer on, but it’s still buzzing here: the music is on but not too loud; a couple of kids are playing pool. A dog walks around the bar, inquisitive, interested in everything.

We stay for a second pint; a Guinness for RealAleRocks, and the CW Dry Hopped Lager for me. The barman asks her if we’ve had this beer (the lager) before, though it’s not clear why he asked that. As it turns out, the lager was distinctly passed its best, and to be honest I really should have taken it back, but I’m afraid to say I didn’t. Maybe the barman knew he was serving a dodgy pint, I don’t know.

Six men and a woman stand around the bar; at a nearby table, two men, a woman and a young girl. It’s a lively Saturday evening, and it seems to be someone’s birthday (also part of the reason why I didn’t manage to get a photo of the inside of the pub) – food is on platters on one of the tables, there are balloons, and people wearing hats, and maybe later the disco will properly get going. We tuck ourselves in the corner, and play a few games of pool; RealAleRocks enjoys her Guinness, and I endure my lager. As we leave, I notice that the right-hand bar is still empty, and locked – maybe the birthday group is moving into there later, who knows?

Fox & Hounds was certainly friendly, perhaps buoyed by the favourable sports result on TV, and someone’s birthday; but I suspect it would have been quite friendly anyway. The beer selection was what we’ve come to expect from Charles Wells: that is to say, limited, but understood. But after being served a bad pint (and yes I should have returned it, provided feedback to the bar staff, etc etc), I have to say I’d be cautious if I came back. As it happens, that’s probably quite unlikely, purely because of the geography.

See you again in twenty years maybe?

Image by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0