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

The Star, Clapham

After the Horse & Groom almost opposite, we wander across to The Star.

Outside, sandwich boards advertise “Xmas Crazy horse karaoke, Sat 18th Feb” (so that was some weeks ago), and “Logs, £3.50 per bag”; another chalk board reads “6 Nations rugby today, Come on England”. Hung on the fence that marks the edge of the pub’s property, and covering up a banner advertising Charles Wells Bombardier as being just the thing for St George’s Day (so that was lots of weeks ago), is an English flag of St George, complete with “three lions” shield, Carlsberg branding, and the legend “Official Beer”.

There’s just enough space in front of the building to squeeze in a few picnic benches, but it’s not the day for it, and drinking on a busy street pavement has never been my thing anyway. So we go into the vestibule to find an old off-sales hatch, a door to the left, and one to the right – so we randomly select the right, which, as it turns out, was probably the better choice.

The Star - front

The lounge here is a small room, carpeted, and very much has the feeling of a Working Men’s Club, perhaps (let’s give it the benefit of the doubt) from the 80s. The bar here is tiny, about 5 ft wide; there are three smaller tables and one larger, a handful of chairs, and a comfortable bench in the bay window. Mounted in the corner of the room, facing the bar, is a small TV: it’s a Saturday, and England are playing in the rugby Six Nations. And whereas in the last pub the TV was silent, here the TV’s on at a perfectly comfortable volume.

So, to the bar. The larger part of the bar is in the other room – we happen to have selected the smaller, quieter option – so there’s a little bell hung just above, for attracting the bar staff’s attention should they be away. One of the locals rings the bell for us. It’s a Charles Wells gig here, and on the handle (I think there might have been literally one handle here, hidden behind the vase of daffodils – well the bar is tiny), there’s the “guest” ale – Director’s. Ah yes, that sort of “guest”. On the taps: Kronenbourg, Guinness, Carlsberg cold, Strongbow, Eagle extra smooth, and Fosters. Two pints of Directors it is, then, for £7.20.

The Star - bar

On one wall, there’s a large, old juke box. On another wall, between the bar and the exit to the ladies’ loos and the back door, is a brick fireplace, with a mirror placed off-centre on the mantelpiece, along with a highly unrealistic stuffed vole and a kingfisher. Around the lintel to the left, above the door where we came in, is a row of photos of men, each of whom is wearing a tee shirt that reads “old git”. Next to the fireplace, a cartoon picture of a badger, with the words: “Health tip: don’t eat the badger”.

Two men sit at one of the tables, with their pints of Guinness and Kronenbourg. At another table, a woman in her forties; she’s drinking Carlsberg. A man in his forties stands; everyone is watching the rugby, yet it’s not killing conversation – people are actually talking to each other too. Another woman in her forties arrives with a young girl, presumably her daughter; the standing man appears to be the dad. Every now and then, fractionally ahead of the action on our TV, we hear the reactions of those watching the same game on the TV in the other bar. “Get in there!”, a man shouts, for the umpteenth time.

Someone produces a plastic bowl of crisps and peanuts, which is passed around the bar, and the locals invite us to join in, which we do. After a while, the family group leaves, and everyone says goodbyes by name. Later, RealAleRocks sneezes, and one of the locals replied with a “bless you”. It seems really friendly here.

Outside to the front, at one of those picnic benches, a man in his sixties sits, smoking. On a visit to the ladies (sign on the door: “Women only. No men allowed”) I poke my head out the back door to find a tiny beer garden – a small concrete paved area with tables and a sofa, on the edge of the car park.

Before we leave, I show my face in the other bar: a rather larger room, where a woman, a girl, a boy, and about seven men are watching the rugby, on a rather larger TV than the other room, that’s turned up rather louder – but still, not uncomfortably so. There’s a dartboard here, and a fruit machine; England flags hang from the ceiling. I ask the woman – who turns out to be the landlady – to “Remind me, where exactly was The Swan – this side of the Horse & Groom, or the other?”. The other, she tells me – she took on this place on 18th December 2006, just over ten years ago; and The Swan closed the very next day.

I find the contrast of this place with Horse & Groom interesting – it’s far more everyday, working class, unfancy presentation here. The beer selection is, if nothing else, smaller – but given that the most exciting thing we found at Horse & Groom was GK Abbot, I hesitate to say that the beer is better or worse at either place. But The Star was most definitely friendly and welcoming – the most friendly we’ve encountered so far in this series. As someone who spends most of their life these days in towns and cities, this welcome made for a rather refreshing change.

Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0

Horse & Groom, Clapham

It’s been a little over a decade since last orders were called for the final time at its nearby neighbour The Swan; but the Horse & Groom still has The Star for company, almost directly opposite. And variety being the spice of life, I’m happy to report that these two pubs are very different indeed, each with their own strengths.

So, first: Horse & Groom. It has the perhaps familiar style, but none the worse for it, of white painted walls, black timber on the gable end, with clean, modern Greene King signage. It’s a warm, hazy day today, but made a little brighter by plenty of hanging baskets and window boxes out front. After initially attempting to enter via the beer garden, and encountering a door which seemed unwilling to open (even though there were plenty of people here, nobody rushed forwards to explain in exactly what way I was obviously being an idiot), we returned to the street to enter instead via the front door.

Horse And Groom - front

Moving through the vestibule, with its bird-themed wallpapering, we enter the main bar: a small room with an attractive tiled floor, a large fireplace to one side, and doorways heading both left and right. The bar itself is surrounded by charming dark timbers, the upper edge decorated with fairy lights; in the ceiling, the timbers are perhaps wisely painted a much lighter colour.

I have to say, I find this pub rather visually attractive; and there aren’t that many people in the way, so I managed to get plenty of photos for you, dear reader:

Horse And Groom - bar

Horse And Groom - flooring

To the bar. Above, the wine glasses hang down; on the bar itself are a couple of charity collection tins, and a jar marked “doggy treats”. Because it’s early March, the Guinness-branded promotional bunting is up in readiness for St Patrick’s Day. But, what to drink today?

The handles have Greene King IPA, GK Abbot Ale, and one is empty; on the taps, there’s Guinness (draught), (Guinness) Hop House 13 Lager, Aspall’s Cider, Moretti, Fosters, and Amstel. In bottles, there’s Rekorderlig cider and (GK) “Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale”, as well as Becks, Sol, and Desperado. We both opt for the Abbot, setting us back £7.80.

The tables here have heavy black iron legs, a pleasing counterpoint to the tiling on the floor. At the tables, there are wooden chairs, and a comfortable red leather bench running along the external wall; additional tables and seats have been made from barrels of various sizes. In the wide stone fireplace, a decent stack of firewood, as well as an advertisement for “Quiz & Burger Night”; above the fireplace, paintings of horses. In the corner of the room, a small TV shows the Six Nations rugby, with the sound off.

At the bar, a man in his forties stands and reads a paper, occasionally pausing to drink from his pint of lager. Nearby, two women in their fifties discuss phones, batteries, laptops, rugby team affiliations, and which dresses have been, and can be, worn to weddings. Meanwhile, the music plays quietly: Coldplay perhaps? RealAleRocks recognises Maroon 5. It’s too quiet for me to pick out, mostly.

The menu here looks rather good: roasts, pizza, sandwiches, steak, various mains. An attractive-sounding vegetarian option, the “Garden Burger”.

A large family group appears from the dining room on the right, and they leave; so I take the opportunity to go and have a look around. Converted from a barn of brick and stone walls, with the large arched door to the High Street now sealed up, this room is decorated with plenty of thought and character. The entire far wall is taken up by a series of shelves and alcoves displaying an array of horse-themed ornaments and other items. Illumination comes from some of the shelving areas, and from up- and down-lighters on the walls, and an interesting main lighting piece featuring a series of iron bands looped around the lights themselves.

Horse And Groom - dining room

To the other side of the bar,there’s a lounge area, featuring the other side of that double fireplace we encountered earlier, as well as a second, much smaller fireplace in the opposing corner. Crockery decorates one of the walls; there are a few tables here, but it’s notable how much space they’ve left: other places might have tried to squeeze in an extra table or two. At one table sit two women, perhaps in their thirties, and a child; if I had to guess what language they were speaking, I’d guess Polish. In fact, a different couple were sat at the bar earlier, and I think they were chatting to the bar staff in Polish, too.

Horse And Groom - left room

Next to this room, there’s a short corridor, again with that bird-themed wallpaper; to one side, and a step down, there’s a small room with space for just a single large table, surrounded by maybe 10-12 chairs. Cosy if your group is just that size – but even then, a bit of a squeeze to be honest.

Beyond this room, there’s the door out to the beer garden. The same door that I singularly failed to open earlier – but now it opens just fine. There’s nobody out here now; just the rather attractive stone tiling with brick trim, and a mixture of round tables and chairs, versus tall wooden “booth” areas, all finished off with a street lantern and a few large pot plants.

Horse And Groom - beer garden

We rather liked it here, and in fact we came back just a few hours later to try the food, which as it turns out was also most enjoyable. Yes, it’s a little walk out from Bedford town centre – but then, so too are quite a few parts of Bedford. I reckon it could well be worth an occasional trip out here for the visual appeal of the place and to enjoy more of the food; and if we have to have Abbot again … well that’s a price worth paying, I think.

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

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

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