Wetherspoons in Aylesbury Are Like Buses…

…you wait twenty years (well, seven in my case) for one to turn up, then two arrive at once.

For about ten years now Aylesbury has probably been the biggest town (pop nearly 80,000 in the 2001 census) without a branch of J.D.Wetherspoon. In June the company opened two pubs — both conversions. The Bell Hotel in the Market Square became The Bell and Chicago’s Rock Cafe (or whatever it was) on Exchange Street was converted into the White Hart, which is the more Lloyd’s No 1 of the two.

The White Hart is in a clever location it currently sits apparently forlornly looking out over what passes for an inner ring-road with just a closed-down furniture shop for company (at least the last time I remembered that’s what it was). But come November the new Aylesbury Waterside theatre is opening over the road and when all the barricades come down then hordes of intellectuals will come flocking down to the new cultural quarter down by the canal. Perhaps. But the White Hart shares the same development as the Odeon multi-screen and there’s going to be, eventually, a new shopping centre in the area and, we’re told, Waitrose is definitely on its way. So Wetherspoons might have been pretty shrewd in getting into this particular piece of real estate.

Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury
Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury

Wetherspoons gets a hell of a lot of flack from the bloody-minded, anal retentive wing of CAMRA types — almost all of it unjustified. The only thing they do that gets my back up is their policy of pretending there are more real ales available at any one time than there really are — the notoriously tiny ‘Coming Soon’ sign that perches on the pump clips of what are inevitably the most interesting beers.

I also admit that they can be chronically understaffed and if you’re unlucky you’ll have an infuriating delay in being served — something I’ve found at the Falcon in High Wycombe. But this is a corollary of their pricing — a bit like how Aldi and Lidl might trade off queueing time against discount pricing. It would be pretty churlish to complain about less than instant service if you get a good pint of real ale for £1.89 — or 5op less if you use one of your £20 of CAMRA members’ discount vouchers.

Wetherspoons do vary — the Falcon in Wycombe is now looking very shabby and in need of serious refurbishment — but they do put something of an objective quality reference point in an area’s pub stock. Put simply, if the best pubs in your area are Wetherspoons then the other pubs aren’t really up to much.

To take Aylesbury as an example. A few years ago there were no Aylesbury town centre pubs in the Good Beer Guide. Then Chiltern Brewery took over the King’s Head and Vale Brewery transformed the Hop Pole. Suddenly there were two destination pubs for ale drinkers and many of the other pubs raised their game.

Yet both the King’s Head and the Hop Pole aren’t cheap and so aren’t particularly threatening the trade of their rivals. The same can’t be said of Wetherspoon’s arrival. With really cheap real ale now consistently available it would be a shame if established pubs were undercut. The Queen’s Head is currently closed but this pre-dates the Wetherspoon arrival.

But it could be argued that, like the Hop Pole and King’s Head, Wetherspoons is also expanding the market, rather than cannibalising it. For example, I was in Aylesbury on Friday lunchtime and had a quick drink in the White Hart (surprisingly, it was non-alcoholic). I’d anticipated probably buying a sandwich from M&S for lunch, or similar, but at £3.10 the Wetherspoon ham, (free range) egg and chips (not many of them though!) was much better value for money.

Prices for beer are so high in pubs that people tend to binge on cheap supermarket beer before going on a night out to save money. If Wetherspoons, with cheap real ale, gets people into the pub rather than boozing on bland stuff at home then what’s not to like?

Wenlock and Mandeville

First posting in well over a week…the election must have used up all my blogging energy…but what has happened in the intervening time. Well, last week the Olympics organisers (whoever they are) unveiled their teletubby style mascots who we’ll no doubt get heartily sick of by 2012. I was intrigued by their names — and one seems to have a good real ale pedigree.

Wenlock is one of the duo and I wondered whether his/her/its naming was anything to do with the famous Wenlock Arms — a famous CAMRA haunt and archetypical back-street boozer within which lurks a row of tempting handpumps. The Beer In The Evening reviews of the place have been quite mixed recently. There seems to be a general consensus that standards have declined in certain areas but whether this detracts from the beer drinking experience seems a moot point. I’m somewhat ambivalent. The beer I’ve had there has been pretty good and the place is pretty dog-eared but I’ve never had any trouble in there — although I’ve only tended to visit when it’s been quiet.

I guess the Wenlock Arms says a lot about CAMRA. It’s the holy grail to many CAMRA die-hards: no-nonsense, warts-and-all boozer with no pretensions except to serve good beer. On the other hand, many of the people that CAMRA is trying to broaden its appeal to reach will be mystified at its attraction. I don’t want to appear sexist but it’s probably not controversial to say that women tend to notice aspects like cleanliness and decor more than men do (especially CAMRA type men) and aspects such as the state of the toilets are of more than marginal importance. I’ve obviously not been in the ladies at the Wenlock and the gents have always seemed tolerable to me but some of the BITE comments are not favourable to the Wenlock in this department.

As an aside, the gents in the newly refurbished George and Dragon in Princes Risborough are some of the most impressive I’ve seen — the whole refurbishment is pretty good but often when pubs are done up the budget seems to not to stretch to the toilets. There’s even a poster in there advertising a whisky branded by a long-lost brewery in my hometown of Rochdale.

Rochdale and Manor Whisky
Rochdale and Manor Whisky

The other Olympic mascot is curiously named Mandeville — after Stoke Mandeville — a village that’s lucky enough to have three pubs including the remarkably quickly rebuilt Woolpack gastrohouse and the splendidly traditional Bull.

Haggis and Kangaroo Crisps for Tickers?

Seems like Walker’s Crisps have learned something from many microbreweries — give the same old product a new, gimmicky name and people will queue up to buy it for the novelty value.

For the World Cup Walker’s has introduced a national range of crisps based on World Cup qualifying nations (mostly!). They are listen on Wikipedia but also listed below:

  • England-Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding
  • America-Cheeseburger
  • Argentinean-Flame Grilled Streak
  • Australia-BBQ Kangaroo
  • Brazil-Salsa
  • Dutch-Edam Cheese
  • France-Garlic Bread
  • Germany-Bratwurst Sausage
  • Ireland-Stew
  • Italy-Spaghetti Bolognese
  • Japan-Teriyaki Chicken
  • Scotland-Haggis
  • South Africa-Sweet Chutney
  • Spain-Chicken Paella
  • Wales-Rarebit
  • While these flavours may be completely honed to resemble their inspiration dishes, there’s a certain similarity between various ingredients — a few cheese (Rarebit, Edam, the cheeseburger, etc,). Also the meaty flavours: English Roast beef, Flame-Grilled Steak, Spaghetti Bolognese, Haggis, Kangaroo and so on aren’t probably very different from each other.

    It reminds me of the microbreweries that produce a differently named brew every month which are so beloved of the CAMRA ticker tendency. Surely their beers are not that radically different from each other once around half a dozen styles have been covered. I’ve never understood why the novelty seekers are so easily taken in by a gimmicky name or pump clip design. If I drink a decent beer I’d like to be able to go out and find it again — not for it to disappear into the oblivion of a few tickers’ notebooks.

    It might be a good business opportunity for Walker’s to get the kind of multiple hand pump pubs beloved of tickers to stock the full range of these crisps — perhaps rotating them through the run up to the World Cup — and see if the beer lovers start ticking them off too.

    Talking of beer that’s worth seeking out again, ‘Trashy Blonde’ from Brewdog was on at ‘The Angel’ — a Wetherspoons opposite the eponymous tube station in Islington. I would have had a pint but I’d already ordered a ‘Dark Rider’ from Kelham Island — which was strong and rather nice so I had another pint.

    Pub of the Year Time

    It’s time to vote on our local POTY (Pub of the Year). Despite the hostile economic climate and the particularly vindictive and cynical attitude from the government, it’s amazing that we had so many good pubs to choose from when we did our recent Good Beer Guide 2011 selection (yes, we think it’s crazy too that we have to select them so early — and no, I can’t give clues as to which we chose — although the list is likely to change due to landlord changes and so on before the book goes to press).

    We had something quite unexpected turn up in the middle of last year when the Cross Keys in Thame, formerly mainly known for being a forbidding looking place to enter (you never really knew if it was open) and also for its occasional strippers, suddenly became a six-real-ale beer paradise. It then followed up by opening a brewery in its outhouses. However, as it only opened in its new incarnation halfway through the year then it might not be fair to the other pubs to include it in the running for POTY. An award of Most Improved Pub would be well-deserved, although it’s latterly had competition for that from the Bootleggers’ (formerly Flint Cottage) near High Wycombe station.

    We had a worthy winner in the Whip at Lacey Green last year — a pub that had been runner-up a few times and so especially deserved its win. Last year’s runners-ups are still going strong.

    The Wheel in Naphill is a great example of a community local — running several beer festivals a year and having four good real ales. It also has some of the best provision for smokers in the local area. It’s rumoured that Mark, the landlord put a sign up last year saying ‘Local CAMRA Pub of the Year’ and in small letters ‘Finalist’!

    The Eight Bells is a picture postcard village local — and as the village is the incredibly photogenic Long Crendon then it’s very much the sort of pub you can picture Inspector Barnaby from Midsomer Murders visiting (although, to our knowledge it’s not one of the many local pubs that have featured in the programme so far). The pub is 400 years old and has plenty of ancient features and associations with the likes of the Morris Men. However, the landlady, Helen Copleston, has done a great job in promoting real ale. A stillage has been built behind the bar from which three beers are normally dispensed on gravity and two regulars on handpump — Wadworth Henry IPA and their own house brew — Hell’s Bells (get it?), brewed by Ringwood.

    The 2004 winner, the Shepherd’s Crook in Crowell, was in the running again last year and it will be joined this year by the 2005 winner — the Three Horseshoes at Burroughs Grove, Marlow, which is the defacto brewery tap for Rebellion. We’ve canvassed the membership by e-mail for any other pubs which may be worthy of consideration.

    The winners for the last four years are all ineligible:  the Royal Standard, Wooburn Common; the King’s Head and the Hop Pole in Aylesbury; and the above mentioned Whip. Many other CAMRA branches don’t have this type of re-election rule and, consequently, tend to make the same pub their POTY year after year, which seems most unfair to the rest of the pubs in their areas. It’s probably politically motivated in many cases in order to get that pub through to the regional and national POTY competitions. If so, one imagines that the landlords concerned might scratch the backs of the local branch committee for the persistent publicity and exposure. Rest assured that, as far as I’m aware, all our POTYs are chosen completely on their merits — though I must declare that Helen at the Eight Bells gave me a nice cup of tea when I surveyed it for the GBG 2011!

    Roger vs. Brewdog

    I happened to see a link to Roger Protz’s blog on the Swan Supping homepage where he has a real go at Brewdog for behaving non-sensibly. (Actually it could be that he’s most put out that the Independent sent Oz Clarke — a wine writer who surely cannot be trusted to write about beer — to cover the story rather than, perhaps, a well-known specialist beer writer?). I don’t know what juvenile antics they got up to with Oz but I heard the brewer interviewed on the Food Programme on Radio Four and he made a lot of sense. No doubt their very hoppy and alcoholic beers with in-yer-face names and labels represent something of a generational conflict with the CAMRA old-timers. It’s odd how they like to celebrate 35 years or more of campaigning by reminiscing about how radical they were then while criticising some of the more radical, exuberant brewers of the present. Protz seems to think Brewdog will antagonise the anti-alcohol lobby further with their 18% or so beers but CAMRA policy is now starting to face the fact that the more militant members of the anti-alcohol brigade will never be appeased. I think I’m less in the mild and best bitter camp than the Trashy Blonde on this one.

    Good Old Fashioned Customer Service

    A tube worker has resigned because he was being exceptionally rude and offensive to a passenger. I wonder if the fact he was caught doing this on video has anything to do with it. Now the chap needs a new job he should consider that there is a still a career option open to people with the talent to insult the public and who hold the public in general contempt — pub landlord of course. Liberalisation of the licensing laws and a tougher economic climate have made the obnoxious, bigoted landlord a less common inhabitant of the country’s pubs (many will go out of business rather than make an effort to cater for any customer who’s not ‘a local’). However, many still hang on. The local CAMRA branch recently had a meeting in a fairly rural pub and presented the landlord with a pack celebrating his pub’s inclusion (for the first time) in the Good Beer Guide (2010). His response was to refuse to serve one member a coffee and generally complain that we didn’t drink enough beer (several people had to drive). He also kept on insulting one person about the length of his hair.

    Pubs — The Preserve of the Middle-Class?

    King William IV Speen
    King William IV Speen

    Today I drove through Southcourt in Aylesbury: a large, 1930s-60s housing estate which was originally almost all council housing. Such estates used to be bastions of working-class ale drinking but the smoking ban and the credit crunch have finished off two of the three pubs and the closest pub in the direction of the two centre is also shut. A pub that tried valiantly to keep going in the face of cheap supermarket beer and home-based entertainment like videos and Sky TV was the Steeplechase, which did some decent real ale at times. It has been boarded up for a year now and is a sad sight.

    However, on the bright side, a report partly supported by CAMRA and publicised on the BBC website reported that cask ale was the only type of beer now with growing sales and partly because twice as many women enjoyed drinking it in the past couple of years. There was also a very interesting report on the Radio Four Food Programme about hops and their use in real ale — which gave an opportunity for Roger Protz to yet again claim that beer is far more interesting than wine. The brewer at Brewdog commented on his Punk IPA, which the female presenter found very tasty. (I love this beer and its weaker sister — Trashy Blonde — Brewdog are so non-pc they even make an 18% beer.)  The programme noted that the trend towards using more (and more assertive) hops started by US craft breweries and is now being adopted by ale brewers here. Such beers have to either have a high alcohol content to balance the bitterness or need to be drunk in much smaller quantities (such as thirds of pints) to be palatable.

    The two themes above suggest that there’s a trend for both beer and pubs to lose their long-time association with the working man and instead to become the preserve of the middle-classes. A valid criticism of CAMRA is that while it has spectacularly succeeded in preserving real ale and increased the variety available, it has done so mainly for the benefit of a minority of beer snobs and tickers. Real ale is not the drink of the working man any more — that accolade was lost to lager a long time ago — the fact that real ale quality is dire in a large number of workaday, non-CAMRA-Good-Beer-Guide pubs might have a lot to do with this. However, it seems that these sort of workaday, average, unremarkable pubs are the ones that are suffering most at the moment and, as the cask report says, it’s the affluent real ale drinkers who are able to afford £3 a pint in the pub and don’t go for the £10 24 can Stella pack at Tesco as an alternative.

    So perhaps the saviours of the English pub as we know it are the middle-classes, much as that might be an anathema to some of the more revolutionary founders of the real ale movement. The middle-class seem to have saved real ale and pubcos should perhaps target these high-spending, but demanding customers more. Another factor in the pub’s favour is brought to mind by having forty-something politicians paraded at the party conferences over the past couple of weeks: it seems the annoying, social-skills free nerds that inhabited student politics in the 80s are now making their bids to be the annoying, power-crazed nerds that run the country. But if that’s reflected in other walks of life there may be a silver lining in that the middle-class, especially Generation X who are entering middle-age, have very fond memories of the pub from their student days (mostly rose-tinted in terms of the amount they drank and time the spent there). Yet this almost sentimental attachment to the pub as a hub of student life might yet save the great British institution. The middle-classes might not be propping the bars up swilling ten pints of mild a night but they might be pretty solid campaigners to ensure that pubs are still there for people that do.

    Crown, Sydenham, Oxfordshire
    Crown, Sydenham, Oxfordshire

    To illustrate the point there are a number of examples of local pubs being saved from closure by being bought by (presumably relatively wealthy) members of the local community and re-opened and run on a community basis. The Unicorn at Cublington and Crown at Sydenham, Oxon are good examples. I went tonight to a pub, the King William IV at Speen, that’s not owned by the community but run in a way that is designed to be community minded — to the extent of having a small room of a perfect sized for committee meetings. It also has an ice-cream parlour selling locally sourced ice-cream. A group of local charity volunteers were also enjoying the evening in the pub. These pubs aren’t, of course, exclusively full of middle-class people but they’ve benefited from the sort of activism that the middle-classes (and, dare I say it, CAMRA) have shown to be very successful.