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

The Problem of “Every” Pub, Revisited

As I wrote in the opening article of this series, one of the problems to tackle is that of working out just what is meant by “pub”. Another problem is the word “every”: how do we know that we haven’t missed any?

Starting from that list of licensed premises I mentioned before, then yes, there was some manual pre-filtering to do. The full list was some 570 premises, and we’re certainly not going to visit all 570 of them, just in case each one is a pub. So unless we know the place already, we have to guess: does each entry “sound like” a pub? The Red Lion – sounds like a pub. Nisa Local – sounds like not-a-pub. Easy. (Until it isn’t).

But even then, this still leaves another way for the system to go wrong: what if a pub wasn’t on the list in the first place? Because we now have a written-down list of sixty-ish pubs to visit, we’re reasonably familiar with that list … which is why it came as a surprise when we suddenly came across another pub that isn’t on the list.

Enter The Anchor, at 300 Cardington Road, Bedford (not to be confused with The Anchor, at 397 Goldington Road of course). It very much looks like a pub, from the outside (try Google street view, or just go along and see for yourself). “The Anchor – Choma Zone Bedford” Facebook page promotes events happening there. Maybe it doesn’t need a license any more, perhaps it’s something other than a pub? But then the page’s cover image looks like this:

Screenshot 2017-03-15 22.57.28.small.png

showing various forms of alcohol; and elsewhere there’s a picture and mentions of Tusker beer.

Maybe the list of licensed premises – obtained from Bedford Borough Council – is out-of-date. That could explain it, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just plain wrong. I offer no opinion on what the truth of the matter is – but it does look as though we should add The Anchor, Cardington Road onto the list and give it a go.

But when an oddity like this crops up, it makes you wonder if there’s anything else missing.

The Bull

Not so long ago we visited Fox & Hounds, with its Greene King “Meet & Eat” branding – and found it to be surprisingly reminiscent of a casino. Perusing the web site, we noticed that GK has one other pub in Bedford under the same branding – so on a warm weekday afternoon, we head over there to check it out, perhaps slightly wary of finding much the same as we did in Goldington.

The Bull – front

It looks attractive enough from the outside, with its painted white walls and black timbers, leaded windows and hanging baskets. It’s set back from the road with a few tables out front, a beer garden down the side with a mixture of decking and grass, and with ample car parking to the rear. Out front are the usual signs promoting the presence of televised sport.

Inside, pop music plays at a comfortable volume; there are a few locals here, and a few out in the beer garden too. The presence of three men in their twenties, playing with the two fruit machines, occasionally swearing, means that we’re slightly on our guard at first, but they’re fine. The Bear, it is not.

So, to the bar: there’s Green King IPA, GK Abbot, and several empty handles; on the taps, Fosters, Coors, Strongbow original, Stella, Carlsberg extra cold, John Smiths extra cold, San Miguel and Guinness. We both select the GK IPA, at £2.40 per pint. The beer is lively, a new barrel, the bar woman tells us; she does a decent job of keeping it under control and eventually we take our pints and sit down.

It’s actually rather nicely presented here: the room is L-shaped, going across the front of the building and down the left; the carpet looks fresh, there’s plenty of natural light, the furniture’s in good nick. In the area on the right, beyond the bar, there are lots of mirrors mounted on one wall, which is an unusual feature, and all the better for it. Next to the loos are some gumball machines; there’s a TV on the wall, silently showing a loop of GK-selected adverts. Bonus points for the loos here in that they are (a) easily findable, (b) together, so you don’t have to head one in one direction for one set, but the opposite direction for the other, and (c) clearly labelled without trying to get smart.

The Bull – seating area

Moving back round to the right: there’s a cash machine, and then the bar, with Union Flags mounted above – maybe a seasonal thing, because of the rugby Six Nations? Would be interesting to see if those flags are always here, actually. There’s plenty of space and seating in the main bar area, with a fruit machine near the front door, and another TV, larger than the one at the other end, mounted on the wall facing the bar. It’s showing cricket, but with the sound turned off. Further round, there’s a log fire; and then those fruit machines I mentioned earlier, a pool table, and a dartboard.

Both Sky and BT TV sport are advertised outside, and here and there are lists of upcoming fixtures, for football and the Six Nations. Perhaps on a more sport-focussed day it could get noisier here. But today, we just have the silent cricket, and the music.

And older gentleman of obvious ill health sits at one of the tables near the larger TV, slowing supping on his pint of bitter. Nearby at one of the fruit machines, a man his fifties holds his pint while he plays. At the bar, a man his his forties discusses the pub Wi-Fi with the bar woman; apparently it only works for three hours at a time, which seems to be as per design. With him is a man in his thirties. He takes a phone call at the bar; the conversation isn’t particularly disruptive, but nevertheless I’m glad that it’s brief. Afterwards, someone – the phone call man, I think – is hammering more flags to the bar.

The music plays: Madonna, UB40, U2. Then later, Mike & The Mechanics, which someone turns up, unnecessarily. Thankfully the volume returns to a better, lower level for the next song.

There’s a reasonable mix of people here, including now a woman in her thirties with a young girl; a couple in their twenties; and a family group, sat at the back near the pool table. A man in his fifties enters, and before ordering a Guinness, he greets the bar woman – not by name, but it’s clear that they know each other.

It’s approaching the end of the afternoon now, and time for us to move on. The beer selection didn’t dazzle here – GK’s two omnipresent brews, but alas there were those empty handles where a guest, or even more GK such as Speckled Hen, would have really helped. The atmosphere was relaxed, the place was clean, and as luck would have it, we happened to get the benefit of a lovely warm early Spring day too.

There are very few pubs in this part of town, and given that lack of choice, if we happened to be walking past, then we could pop in again, sure. But we don’t often find ourselves down here, and given what we found today, it doesn’t seem likely that we’d often make the effort to come here if we weren’t already in the area. It’s not terrible, it’s just not drawing us in either.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Ship (Bromham Road)

The evening is late as we enter The Ship – the one on Bromham Road that is, not St Cuthbert’s Street. This photo was taken a few days later:

The Ship – front

As a building, it’s pleasing enough: white exterior with exposed timbers, hanging baskets, and The Ship Inn painted in big clear script above the centrally-placed door, with the Charles Wells branded lantern. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s Charles Wells, or the big, prominent “Sky Sports, live here” banner covering almost half of one of the windows; or the various advertising boards outside promoting “big screen”, “disco”, “karaoke” and “party” that put me off. I’ve walked past this place hundreds of times, but it’s always looked so impenetrably gloomy in there. But, enough of snap judgements: let’s head in.

When we enter, on a weekday evening, it’s pretty quiet, as one might expect. Modern pop music plays at a comfortable volume – in fact, as RealAleRocks observes, it’s VH1 (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Adele), playing from one of the TVs. The other TV, further back next to the pool table, shows something else, muted. A handful of punters sit near the bar; two play pool.

The welcome from the barwoman is friendly enough, and perhaps making up for the mediocre beer selection: on the handles, Young’s Special and Courage Directors; on the taps, CW Dry Hopped Lager, CW Eagle Smooth, and then the usual suspects, which today are Carling, Kronenbourg, Aspall’s, Guinness, Stella, Fosters, and Strongbow. We both plump for the Young’s Special, for a total of £7. The beer is lively, but eventually a pair of pints are marshalled into place.

The front of the pub is mostly a seating area, up a couple of steps from the ground level, and separated off from the main part by a handsome wooden balustrade – one of many nautical-themed elements here. There are round dark wooden tables and chairs, and a two-seater sofa in the corner; ceramics line the lintels, and on the dark wood-panelled walls are hung pictures, many of a seafaring nature. A sign above the window reads “Dan’s office”.

The Ship - inside - composite
The seating area, with bar beyond (inexpertly assembled composite image)

Further back and round to the left – past an oddly-placed sofa right next to the door out to the beer garden – is the bar, with stone flagging underfoot. Opposite the bar are the loos, easy to find and clearly labelled (always a plus point in my book). Pennants along the wall promote awareness for prostate cancer. There’s a fruit machine here, quietly flashing away. Beyond this, the space opens out to accommodate a pool table, with a TV on the side wall facing it. Above, a projector, presumably called upon for those live sports events that were advertised outside.

A man and a woman, perhaps in their 20s, play pool; a woman sits at the bar, reading a paper; a man plays with the fruit machine. Later, a man in his 60s arrives, orders a pint of Stella, and sits near the window, reading a book. Two men in their 40s pop out to the beer garden to smoke. Now, a woman in her fifties, and separately, a man in his forties. I’m pleasantly surprised by the gender mix here.

It’s quiet tonight, but dotted around are adverts for “Captain’s Quiz”, “Poker night”; book a table for Mother’s Day; come for the Liverpool v Arsenal game. I wonder just what those events look like – it’s hard to imagine this place being busy, right now. It’s quiet here, and that’s fine by us. At 8pm, both TVs are switched over to show a football match. In some pubs, that’d be a rudely noisy cue to leave; but here, the sound of the football is low, and we feel no reason to hurry away.

I like The Ship‘s dedication to its nautical theming; it was friendly, and if you prefer to be left alone, that was fine too. So a return visit isn’t out of the question, and it is quite near to the station. But as RealAleRocks notes, why would you come here, when The Bedford Arms is only a couple of minutes’ walk away? Maybe just because, even though arguably better pubs are close at hand, The Ship is friendly, easy on the eye, and still deserves its fair share of trade from the passing traveller.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Tavistock

I’m no pub historian. I do know that this place used to be called The New Inn, but neither RealAleRocks nor I never went in there, so this is our first visit. Before starting out on this venture, while assembling the list of pubs and working out what our criteria would be, this place came up, and warranted some discussion. As with all the places that we’d never been to, we were making assumptions, that is to say guessing, about what we thought this place might be, in order to decide whether or not to include it on the list. “The Tavistock: Pub & Carvery”, says the sign on the outside (which we checked using Google Streetview, from the comfort of our own home). Well, it said “pub”, so … well I guess we just took them at their word.

Tavistock - front.jpg

It’s early evening on a weekday as we arrive. Inside, it definitely looks more like a restaurant than a pub. Sure, there’s a bar on the right, but restaurants tend to have bars. On the bar we have a selection of drinks that I won’t waste my time reciting, and you don’t have to waste your time reading. I’m amused by the fact that this place has just two handles: CW Eagle IPA (with the two-tone blue badge); or CW Eagle IPA (with the older red-and-green badge). Nice to have a choice, eh?

Tavistock - two eagles.jpg

RealAleRocks selects the Eagle IPA (!), and I have a pint of Stowford Press. When we ask for the beer to be topped up (as it badly needs it), the staff’s attitude becomes noticeably less friendly, but it’s topped up anyway. We’re charged £6.80 for our troubles, and we choose a table and sit.

The place is laid out as a square. It’s just a single, large, square space, with a bar on one side, the food along another, and tables everywhere else. A TV is on, quietly, above the bar. There’s wooden flooring, filament bulbs, and a perfectly unremarkable green-and-cream colour scheme. In the far corner are a couple of chocolate-coloured leather sofas. In contrast to the rest of the pub restaurant, it’s very gloomy over there – we’re not really sure what that corner is for.

The Tavistock – interior

There are families here, couples, a few men on their own – but everyone except us is eating; the staff seem to be tolerating us “just drinking”, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this doesn’t happen often. RealAleRocks and I watch the goings-on, including watching the staff struggle to pull another pair of pints. One comes out very low, again; the other pint ends up with a high, odd-shaped head. We speculate that pouring pints isn’t their strong suit.

My cider isn’t going down well either; I abandon it half way through. I’ve broken one of the fundamental rules of this series – stay and have a pint – but that’s OK, because this isn’t actually a pub.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0




Flower Pot

Sited just next to one of Bedford’s busier road junctions, Flower Pot often looked like it might be a rather unrestful place to enjoy a pint. And again, I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. RealAleRocks and I have been here before, but not for years, because … well no particular reason really. Just, the habit of going to a handful of pubs that didn’t include this one, and that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this series: to re-evaluate and rediscover.

Flower Pot – front

It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday. In the front room, the ceiling is low with dark wooden beams; there’s wooden flooring around the bar, but the front area, near the window, is carpeted – though the carpet looks slightly tired. The music is on low, the solitary fruit machine flashes quietly to itself. Three men sit at the bar, chatting.

On the handles, there’s Doom Bar and London Pride; the taps offer Peroni, and the usual selection of lagers: Carlsberg cold, Kronenbourg, Stella, Fosters. There’s John Smith’s Extra Smooth too, but I’m not sure that counts. In happier news, Thatcher’s Gold is on tap, and in the fridge are two offerings from Sharp’s: Atlantic, and Wolf Rock. RealAleRocks has the Doom Bar; me, the Atlantic. (I forget to note the price. Sorry folks: must try harder).

Flower Pot – the bar

It’s comfortable here: at this time of the afternoon, the windows to the busy road allow in a fair bit of light, but keep out the worst of the noise. Here in the front, by the window, are a pair of old wooden roughly-rectangular tables. Apart from the bar stools, there’s seating either on the chocolate-coloured soft bench, which has several cushions scattered around, or on some low stools with padded fabric seats. Old photographs of Bedford adorn the walls; on the windowsill, a pair of electric candles in lanterns. Curiously, just next to the window, there’s a single round-pin mains socket: just the one, mind. It’s not obvious to me what that’s doing there.

Flower Pot – seating in the front room

Round to the left, there a several more tables, as the room runs towards the back of the pub. The lighting is dim, and there are lots of old photos of the town here: I find them fascinating. The men who built The Arcade, 1900; old shots of the High Street, and Town Bridge; one of The Olney Arms (which I’d never heard of, but I think seems to have been sited on the junction of Cauldwell Street and St John’s Street, where these days one can find some offices, a few businesses, and the Peking Palace Chinese restaurant. Ah yes! “Scruntlehawk” has more. I’m going to have to go and read all that now, aren’t I?).

Flower Pot – side room

(Forgive me, lots of photos in this article: I just love these old pictures on the walls).

Flower Pot - Arcade photoFlower Pot - Arcade photo text

The woman who served us, now sits with a man and a young child at one of the tables in the side area, folding bar towels. The men at the bar pop out for a bit; a man in a high-vis outfit plays with the fruit machine.

The music continues quietly: Verve, Alanis Morissette, Ub40, Coldplay, Dido, Art Garfunkel, Elbow.

Following the side room towards the back of the pub, there’s a small anteroom almost, where there’s a TV, some comfy chairs, and a space where it looks like a dartboard is sometimes mounted – as well as a darts scorer, there’s a metal strip, almost flush with the floor, presumably at the regulation throwing distance from where the board would be. (Is it still called an oche, even if it’s not raised? Answers on a postcard).

Further round still, there’s a conservatory area, with plenty of natural daylight; here there’s another TV, a pool table, and a dartboard (an actual one this time, not just space for one), another darts scorer. Trophies line the lintel; on the wall, a poster for the local pool league.

And finally, a window out to the beer garden: a small spot surrounded by high walls, but which are at least somewhat broken up by trees and trellis. I never actually found how to get into the beer garden though. Maybe it’s too off-season.

Flower Pot – the beer garden

Probably the only thing that puts me off about this pub is that they seem to be quite into their live music. It was advertised on the sandwich board out the front; a poster in the ladies’ advertised “Music: Jam Night”; and a small ad stuck to the wall in the side room told of a local “heavy rock band” seeking a singer/lyricist (“Ring Jim”). And especially in here, with these fairly low ceilings and small rooms – plenty big enough for drinking, but live music? Well, it would get loud, I think. Maybe go along if that’s your thing.

Failing that, pop along of a weekday afternoon: both our pints went down a treat, and I’d really love to go back and take my time looking at all those old photographs.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Balloon

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?

The Balloon - front, as viewed from Foster Hill Road

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.

The Balloon – bar

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.

The Balloon – side

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

Fox & Hounds

Fox And Hounds - front.jpg

For me, Fox & Hounds always gave off the appearance of having the country pub style – set on a route out of town, with a large car park to the side, I’d imagined inside it’d be all quiet tables, low conversation, and a good place to choose between the steak pie or the hunter’s chicken.

Well, dear reader: I was wrong.

Entering via the front door, and after negotiating the vestibule area (choice! left door, or right door. Trick question: it’s the same bar, either way), the pub is laid out in a roughly symmetrical U shape, with the bar straight ahead. But instead of the quiet dining of my imaginations, the uppermost themes here are sport and gaming. The rugby Six Nations tournament is ongoing (but not today), so there are flags and pennants hung around the bar. There are at least four TVs here: a big TV in the left hand area, a small TV near the bar, and a giant projector screen in the right hand area, as well as a medium-sized TV in another room further round to the right. It’s a Saturday afternoon; at least three of the TVs are showing football news and scores, quite loudly.

Fox And Hounds – the bar

Perusing the selection at the bar, we note that GK IPA went off just as we arrived, and Timothy Taylor Landlord is “coming soon”; we both opt for the GK “Grubber”, their rugby tie-in brew, which is an acceptable session ale. Guinness is on tap, and (GK) Old Speckled Hen is available in the fridge, and of course there’s the usual lagers and other suspects.

The left hand area is nice and bright, with several windows letting in the sun – and it would be a pleasant place to sit, were the big TV, mounted right next to one of the tables, not on with the sports news. There are a few more tables further back, but that TV is quite imposing, and even the furthest-back tables would still be quite close to it. Just outside, there are a few picnic benches – but it’s not quite that warm yet, and anyway, you’d basically be drinking in the car park.

So we go instead round to the other side, to find a noisy, gaudy area: a pool table, that giant projector screen I mentioned earlier, at least four video game / gambling machines (oh, and there was a “grabber machine” game near the front door, too). It’s gloomy here, with surely as much light coming from the candelabra-style fixtures as from the various video screens and flashing buttons. Further round, there’s a dartboard and an electronic scorer; a sign reads “Please ask for darts at the bar. £5 deposit”. Further round still, there’s another pool table, another TV, and the entrance to the beer garden, which is grassy, and includes a kids’ play area.

Fox And Hounds – the gaming area

Just off from the bar and the casino-style area is a small raised seating area, so that’s where we sit. There’s some sunlight here, and some attractive black-and-white photos of the town in the 1940s and ’50s – and although the sports news TVs are quite shouty, we can talk here without raising our voices. This place is under the Greene King Meet & Eat branding, and we peruse the menus on the tables – perfectly decent-looking food, and in fact we’re both a bit peckish, so we order pudding.

When we visit a pub that’s less well populated, I’ve tried to paint a picture of the individual people coming and going – but it’s quite busy here, and there’s a fair mix. Not many over 50s, I think, but a surprising number of kids: several small girls play nearby; there’s a family group over by the second pool table. Nearer to us, a man sits with a young boy, presumably his son; he leaves his son playing with a phone while he goes off to the bar. There’s a pair of young teenage girls, thinking about having a go on one of the fruit machines; under the projector screen sits a group of young men and women in their 20s.

Fox & Hounds isn’t what I expected it to be, nor perhaps what RealAleRocks and I would want it to be: but it’s pleasant enough, and a return visit isn’t out of the question – but next time, we’d probably try to avoid the “peak hours” for TV sport.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Gordon Arms

As the only pub on Castle Road, I’m not sure what I expected of this place before we went. Within a stone’s throw of The Gordon Arms lies all of the rest of the Castle Road community shops – several hairdressers, convenience store, bookshop, antiques, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Well OK I didn’t actually see the last one but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in there somewhere. The Devonshire Arms isn’t far away, but it’s tucked away down one of the many side streets, making it easy to miss … hence the focus on the Gordon.

Though I’ve not been here before, by the way, RealAleRocks has. One evening on a works night out with colleagues of varying degrees of tipsiness, they ended up at the Gordon, ordering a round of tequila shots. One of the younger, perhaps more inebriated members of the group accidentally knocked over one of the shots. “The salt did it”, she protested to the barman, who obligingly replaced the lost beverage at no extra charge. He knew how to keep his customer, it seems.

The Gordon Arms - front, from Castle Road

We arrive on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As we enter, we pause briefly to look at the Cask Marque badge next to the front door. I’d never noticed before that they sometimes have expiry dates – and this one’s date reads 31st October, 2016.

The bar is roughly L-shaped; in the front area are round tables, comfy chairs and a couple of large leather sofas, with ceiling fans above. It’s comfortable today, but I imagine in the Summer, with the sun coming in through those large South-facing windows, it could get quite hot in here. But today, the sunlight streams in lazily onto the wooden floor and the stone flagging near the bar. The bar runs round to the left, where on a rather tired-looking carpet, there are plenty of tables of varying sizes, including a large circular table at the back that could probably seat 10 or so. A couple of the tables, in the gloomier corners, include table lamps. Outside there’s a beer garden, with a barbecue, concrete tiles and some tropical trees.

Gordon Arms – the bar

This being a Charles Wells pub, we’re not expecting miracles (or indeed any guest ales): on the handles, we have Young’s Bitter, CW Firsty 15, and one empty handle; on the taps, CW Estrella, CW Dry Hopped Lager, Guinness, Strongbow, Fosters, and CW Triple Hopped IPA. RealAleRocks orders the Young’s Bitter and I have the Firsty 15 (total: £7.55), but for me, it’s past its best; so she graciously swaps pints with me. At the end of the bar is a “Cask Ales” board, with 6 slots: the first three slots read “Young’s Bitter”; “This week’s guest ale” (yes, that gets a slot to itself); and “Firsty 15” (which is, in my book, not really a guest ale). The remaining three slots are blank.

Pop music quietly plays from the speakers. There’s a big TV in the front room, a small TV above the side area, and a big TV above that large circular table at the back – but they’re all turned off today. There’s a dartboard at the back. On a table near the bar, a selection of papers: The Times, Daily Mail, The Sun, and last week’s Bedfordshire On Sunday. Above the bar, a sign advertises a selection of wines. A nearby sign tells us the “Gin of the month”.

A woman sits with a young man who is perhaps her son; a man in his 60s sits at the bar. At a table in the front, in a sunny spot, sits a man in his 50s doing the newspaper crossword, his unfinished latte nearby.

A man in his 30s sits at the bar, with his small white dog on the seat next to him. Apparently the landlady doesn’t like it when his dog is here, though, because it means she has to keep her own dogs locked away upstairs; when he’s gone, her dogs appear. Later on, another dog is around – the bar staff and the regulars know this dog well, it seems. She’s full of energy, and excitedly gets us to play “fetch” with her.

As the afternoon draws on and we enjoy our beers, people come and go: two women in their 40s, sitting at the bar; another woman, perhaps slightly older, at the front bar.  Then yet another dog (something large, fluffy and beige. Sorry. Dog breeds aren’t my strong suit); and, as we leave, a baby buggy.

While it seems unlikely that we’d seek out The Gordon Arms in particular, principally due to its location, if we do happen to be passing we’d be more than happy to pop in again to sample the friendly local atmosphere. We won’t be expecting miracles on the beer selection, though.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

The Bedford Arms

It’s a grey day (yet another appallingly drab-looking external photograph, I’m afraid), and just about on the nose of the end of the working week, when we arrive at The Bedford Arms – first-time visits for both RealAleRocks and myself. Pausing only briefly to look at the Cask Marque signage next to the front door, we enter.

Bedford Arms – viewed from Bromham Road

The bar is arranged as an L-shape, with the right hand side in a smaller, cosier room, and the corner and left of the bar in the larger main room. The smaller room has a few small square tables, a log fire, and bottles lining the lintels. Apparently, every other Wednesday they have a “bring a bottle, taste a bottle” night; the bottles of those beers which score well, are placed on the lintel above the fireplace; bottles of beers which score badly go on the opposite lintel. Or maybe it was the other way round.

On the bar (popping my head round into the main bar to see the full selection) we have: an empty handle, two handles badged up as Franklin’s ciders, but both marked as “coming soon”; taps for CW Triple Hopped IPA, CW Dry Hopped Lager, Young’s London Stout, Symonds cider, Fosters, CW Estrella, Young’s Special, Young’s Bitter, CW Burning Gold, Bombardier (I think?), Young’s Directors, and CW Firsty 15. And there’s a fridge, too: Young’s London Gold, CW Bombardier, CW Burning Gold (bottled), Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, CW Banana Bread Beer, Blind Pig cider, and a choice of Aspall’s cider. Not bad. We opt for the Burning Gold and the Firsty 15, at £7.25.

In the main bar, there’s more seating, plenty of windows, and a piano. Three men sit at the bar, chatting to the lady serving. The “real ales” chalk board has tasting notes, most of which are for the Wells & Youngs fixtures – in fact even the solitary “Guest Ale” is the CW Firsty 15. Definitely stretching the definition of “guest”, in my book.

Bedford Arms – the bar

Beyond the bar, a ramp leads down to a lower seating area, with black-and-white checkerboard tiling, a pair of comfortable-looking sofas, and another piano, this one topped off with a couple of small stacks of music books.

Bedford Arms – the lower seating area, with sofas

It’s more obvious in this photo than it is in real life, but the entrance to the ladies’ is well hidden. I even wondered if we’d been relegated to an outside lav, such was the trouble I was having trying to find it inside. The answer, by the way, is that it’s hidden behind that sofa on the left. There’s a sign saying “Ladies 👉🏼” painted on the mirror just next to the piano, but that’s about as useful as a chocolate fireguard, it’s so hard to spot. Like finding Platform 9¾. Also, it was bloody freezing in there.

Back in the bar, and music plays very quietly. There are wine lists on the tables, the last of the light outside is now fading, and it’s a little cooler in the bar than I’d prefer: I think I can hear a heater working quite hard somewhere. Near the end of the bar are posters advertising a traditional music session; vinyl revival; open mic night; and the beer-tasting I mentioned earlier.

We’re now down to just one man at the bar, plus us. The barwoman addresses him by name as they chat.

Office hours must be over: from the rear door, in walk a group of young, smart professional types: five men and a woman. Then a man and a woman, perhaps in their 40s, arrive; there are now some solo men sat in the other bar.

RealAleRocks and I stay for another pint. It’s now 7pm, and we’re pleased to note that the music hasn’t been turned up, and the lights haven’t been turned down. By now, the young smart group has gone, and there’s lots of good-natured chatter and laughter coming from the smaller room. Two more couples arrive.

Later on, things are getting quieter. On the way out, the landlord tells us more about the bring-a-bottle nights. It’s a friendly place here, that’s for sure, and in a handy location. The beer selection is what it is: don’t expect much beer other than Wells & Youngs, though the range available isn’t bad. Plus, there’s always those ciders. I wonder when those handles will be on?

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0