The Burnaby Arms

Burnaby Arms - front

After a recent refurbishment (WhatPub says January 2016), the Burnaby Arms has apparently been doing a fine job of being a lovely local pub, a focus for the local community. Sited on a back street corner in a residential area at the end of the terrace row, it’s nicely presented on the outside – cream-coloured first floor, dark green ground floor, with a message declaring “local ales since 1876” above the door. The gable end is painted with a vintage-style sign declaring the pub’s name, with a neat flourish beneath.

Aware that last orders were to be called in a couple of weeks, we decided we’d better make a visit soon, and thus we find ourselves at the bar shortly after it opens, late on a weekend afternoon. The front door is right on the corner, so as you enter, most of this room is to your left (and if you head right, through the doorway and down a step, there’s another room). In here though, it’s more light, fresh, and modern than we were perhaps expecting – very well-presented, with the end wall painted a dark red, a large mirror above a small fireplace, and a selection of tables, chairs, and low stools. Music plays quietly; framed drawings of dapper gentlemen adorn one wall, and a trio of customers in their late twenties perhaps, sit by the window; RealAleRocks remarks to me later that this room has more the feel of a wine bar. Oh, and there’s a crow (not a real one) perched on the curtain pole. Because of course there is.

This being a Charles Wells outlet, the ale selection is mostly as expected – though I admit, I was surprised by the lack of a fridge, as far as I could tell. So on the handles, we have a guest ale, which is good to see: Old Hooky. (A proper guest ale, not just another ale from the same brewery like some Wells pubs. Ahem). Anyway, as I was saying: Old Hooky, Young’s London Gold, Directors, and Eagle IPA; and on the taps, there’s Young’s London Stout, CW Dry Hopped Lager, CW Triple Hopped IPA, (CW) Estrella; and lastly, Fosters, Strongbow, and Guinness. We take two pints of the London Gold off their hands (£7).

The wall behind the bar is covered with cream-coloured tiles, with wines, spirits, and and a particularly strong showing from gin here. Above the bar itself, a row of bare filament lamps suspended from a pipe, with the bulbs of varying shapes, and hung at varying heights: very trendy. Around the edges of the room I see copies of the Firkin, and the Bedfordshire Clanger; on a noticeboard are advertisements for local events, including the “Black Tom Jumble Troll” (Black Tom being the name of this area of town).

Heading through into the other room, just by the end of the bar there’s a sunny west-facing bay window with comfortable soft brown leather curved bench seating and a couple of low stools; or a tall table and stools opposite, to seat four. There’s a small TV above the doorway, and a larger TV down the opposite end of the room, but they’re both turned off. Around the window, a selection of memorabilia, mostly related to Charles Wells: commemorative plates, branded ashtrays, and rather incongruously, a relief of Beethoven. This pub has become well-known for its Pie Nights, which perhaps explains one of the decorations on the wall, which reads: “Live fast, pie yum”.

Burnaby Arms - inside

Beyond this, past a wooden coat stand and the rather pretty tiled section on the floor (most of the floor is wooden), and beyond a grill-fronted storage cage for wines or spirits that doubles as a wall, is a rather gloomier area. Here there are larger tables on the left and smaller on the right, and a bench running along one wall, in a style that reminds RealAleRocks of a 1970s working men’s club. But everything else is far more modern: there’s those irregular bare filament bulbs again, above the larger tables; on one wall, a selection of mirrors; and on the other, a framed picture illustrating different types of beer and lager, and a dartboard (although some tables would need to be moved first before any game could be played, and I didn’t see an oche).

Right in the far corner, next to the ladies’ (door labelled simply “L”; I’m not sure if I checked, but let’s assume that the gents’ was labelled “G”), there’s a giant ruler, from windowsill to ceiling, labelled “The Burnaby Rules”. Speaking of the loos: in the ladies’, behind the inner door, at floor level – a decoration, it’s so cute, a lovely human touch. No spoilers, go see it for yourself. 😉

Out the back there’s a small outside area (I suppose it’s really more of a tiny back yard than a beer garden), only maybe ten feet by twenty, perhaps. Here there’s a cushioned bench, a selection of chairs and stools, and a fireplace surround mounted on the wall – even though there’s no fireplace. Well why not.

Burnaby Arms - back yard

And the final treasure: the old pub sign, still hung on the side of the building, but only if you come back here to look:

Burnaby Arms - old pub sign

We’re settled in and enjoying our pints, and enjoying the atmosphere. The music has been playing quietly (we recognise Paul McCartney, Lily Allen, The Smiths), and gets turned up later, but not too much. We arrived shortly after it opened, but it gets quite busy before long: two men and two women in their 30s; a man, woman and a little girl sit at one of the tables by the mirrors (except when the little girl goes wandering, and the grown-ups have to go chasing after her – which happens a lot); a man and a woman in their 40s, standing at the bar; another man/woman/girl family, at the tall table; a group of people in their 20s perhaps, relaxing in the back yard; and a man in his 40s goes past, followed by two small boys with wooden swords. Quite a mix, and it’s very good to see.

As I publish this, it’s Saturday lunchtime, which means that you’ve got another day-and-a-half to get down to the Burnaby before things change. Then, the couple running the place are to move over to The White Horse, and I’m sure they’ll do a fine job there – in fact now I’m looking forward to a return visit to that pub rather more than I was before this news. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with the place. Meanwhile, I hope the Burnaby Arms stays open, though I confess I have no idea what the plans are on this front. Although this web series is primarily concerned with where to go to enjoy a pint of ale, this pub provides something far more precious: community.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Red Lion, Elstow

As the sun sets on a weekday afternoon, RealAleRocks and I are walking along Mile Road, heading to The Red Lion. Part of me is having an “I feel old” moment, mainly because even the Southern bypass still feels new to me, and the name “Elstow” still conjures up decades-old memories of nuclear protests and Nirex. Since then, progress has inevitably marched on; the bypass was built, and many new homes besides. The quiet little village of Elstow now lies dangerously close to being consumed by the town, if it hasn’t been already. After all, we included it in the list of pubs “In Bedford”, right?

We turn onto the footpath at the roundabout, and within a couple of hundred yards, the town is all but forgotten, and it feels like we’re on the edge of rural Bedfordshire.

The Red Lion – front

With the closing of The Swan some years ago, The Red Lion is now the only remaining pub in Elstow, and indeed one of very few pubs in the area at all. Its external appearance is uncomplicated, just plain white walls with a few potted plants along the side. As you turn off the High Street and towards the ample car parking at the rear, you pass a block of half a dozen stables on the right; and, opposite that, the main entrance into the bar.

This is quite a large pub, with several distinct areas. But, business first: let’s start at the bar. Today, the handles pull Doom Bar, Greene King IPA, and something by St Austell that’s not quite ready yet; the taps provide Coors, Carling extra cold, Guinness, and the usual selection of lagers. Oh, and there’s Newcastle Brown Ale in the fridge. We both select the Doom Bar (£2.75 a pint), and are pleased to see that, without even being asked, it’s served in a mug. Cheers!

At the front of the building, adjoining High Street, is an area which seems quite sport-oreinted. Two TVs silently play a sports news channel, and modern pop music (Robbie Williams, Duffy, Keane) plays at a medium volume. Perched on a stool at one of the tall tables sits a man in his sixties, playing with his phone and reading a newspaper. On his table are a pint and a half of some sort of lager; on the back of the stool next to him is a leather jacket, but I can’t tell if it’s his, or that of a temporarily-absent friend. Even after more than half a pint’s worth of people-watching on our part, the answer still isn’t clear.

At another table, two men in their forties talk about cricket and football over their pints of Stella and Coors. On one side wall, away from the windows, is a pool table; nearby, a fruit machine. Three men in their twenties sit near the pool table. Opposite, there’s a leather sofa – tired-looking, but comfortable.

In spite of the dark wooden wall panels, this area is light and airy; the ceiling is beamed, but not low. A large brick double-sided fireplace separates this area from that of the main bar. But then I realise what this place – or, this particular room at least – is missing: any form of decoration, anything superfluous. Except for some adverts, usually framed, the walls are bare. The mantelpiece is empty, the ceiling is featureless. No pictures, no books, no brasses or crockery, no candles, no flowers. All a bit … not even bland. Just empty.

There’s busy level of noise here now. On the TV, an advert for the next big football fixture. Soon, a match starts: the music goes off, and the TV’s sound is turned on, louder than the music that it displaced.

So with that, let’s move along. Moving past that double fireplace, we’re back in the bar area. It’s after working hours now, and the place is filling up a bit. On the tables by the windows sit various groups: a man and a woman in their sixties, with a Newcastle Brown Ale, and a lemonade; three men in their forties, one of whom is on his phone; he laughs loudly. The pool-table-group from earlier has become more mixed now: two men, two women, all probably in their twenties. There’s a jukebox here, and another fruit machine; and a smaller TV, facing the bar. A woman in her 70s sits near the window; seven men stand in a group at the bar. Judging by the dog collar, one of them seems to be the local clergyman.

Moving further back still, past the bar, things get quieter. The end of the bar area is demarcated by another double fireplace; and round the back of this one, and up a step or two, there’s a room with a handful of tables and an assortment of chairs. Above the fireplace, another TV hangs on the wall.

The Red Lion – seating

Further round still, and there’s plenty of tables to eat at, mostly in a conservatory area, and a “grabber” machine. Beyond this, the beer garden, large and grassy, with a substantial paved area and lots of tables. Round this side of the pub, it’s quieter: away from the TVs, and away from the all-male groups. Here we have more diversity, with family groups, and couples of all ages.

Elstow may inevitably be consumed by the neighbouring town, but for now at least, The Red Lion remains a village pub, attracting a good mix of custom. Next time we come here, let’s hope that the third handle has something interesting on; and if the weather’s good, sitting out in that beer garden could be just what the doctor ordered.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0