Monday, 24 November 2014

Swanage Breezer Railtour Part 2.

So, let's recap.

  • Myself and BGC are on an excursion train from Basingstoke to Swanage.
  • We've had some good ale on the train down.
  • We've arrived at the Swanage terminus of the Swanage Railway and we're off into town.

So here we are, old Swanage town. Against all the odds and weather forecasts we're down the seaside and it's a beautiful sunny day!
In Part 1, I alluded to our disappointment that the town band wasn't on hand to welcome us with some sort of grand civic reception. This disappointment was short lived as we rounded the corner to bump into the town cryer! He was chatting at the time, but I imagine he was just taking a break from announcing our arrival to townsfolk.  

Before we could do anything, we had to get some sea air in our lungs. So like the Skegness adverts, we skipped down to the sea front and were met with a superb view in the autumn sun.

Our first pub was only a short skip away so we headed straight over to the Ship Inn. Pints of Ringwood and Palmers beers were ordered up and we were away. We even sat outside! BGC donned his string vest and handkerchief and we were on holiday.

Thinking we should take in some history as we were there, we crossed the road over to the museum. A good local museum for me me features little set ups of shops, preferably with mannequins in period dress. Swanage museum didn't disappoint. There was even some old quay side rails outside, a relic from limestone days.

Not content with doing one non-pub thing, we set out for the pier. We purchased two 'strolling' tickets, linked arms and promenaded to end of the pier. Naturally I was in a top hat pointing out fascinating features of the coastline to a bonnet clad BGC who fawned over my every word. There's a nice little museum on the pier, featuring model ships with local relevance and some good dioramas, another museum must. 

Thirsty after all our strolling, and with a crab fridge purchased we went for another ale, this time at the White Horse Inn. Ringwood Old Thumper was the beer of choice and BGC managed another Cask Marque scan.  

Next stop, and maintaining the colour theme, was the White Swan. A lively, friendly pub on a Saturday afternoon. BGC was especially impressed with the socket for charging his phone. Pints of  local Piddle Brewery Premium Ale were in good nick and gave us the energy for the long 100 metre walk up the high street to the Red Lion.

The Red Lion wasn't part of the initial plan, but I'm glad we went in. It wouldn't of been a trip to Dorset without a cider, and the Red Lion was the place to be for this. A blackboard at the bar presented a daunting array of headache juice. I decided on a Gwynt y Ddraig Happy Daze. My geography and linguistics aren't up to much, but I'm guessing it was from Wales. Regardless, it was very nice and BGC even spotted the fireplace to be made of a length of bullhead rail in a couple of chairs. As we left we even spotted a local (for us) favourite from West Berkshire Brewery. Good to see Good Old Boy is getting about. 

The next part of the trip was a walk up a hill to a closed pub, so not much to tell there. We did happen across some fine old buildings, including the town hall and even the tiny old prison. An engraved stone proclaimed it was "Erected For the Prevention of Vice & Immorality". Hmm, moving on then.

We thought it was probably time to head to the station, to take in a bit of the atmosphere if nothing else. On the way we stopped on a bridge which gave a good view of the station throat and the shed and loco servicing area.

As we hadn't eaten since Greggs, we thought it prudent to visit the station buffet. Situated in an old carriage, the buffet had a selection of filled rolls and some grand homemade cakes. BGC got a couple of bottles of Corfe Castle Brewery Raven in and we chowed down.

As we were eating, the driver experience freight train steamed into the station. The train drew a great crowd of young and old which is always nice to see. After a quick look in the gift shop we headed back for our train which was sat in the bay platform.

Still chasing that stations Untappd badge, we cracked open a bottle of Box Steam Brewery Chuffin' Ale at Bournemouth station. 

And that was that. A great excursion down to the sea on the train with some nice beer, sunshine, and
a pal.


PS. BGC was one number away from the top prize in the raffle.

Find out more:
Pubs in Swanage
Photos on Flickr

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Swanage Breezer Railtour.

It was my birthday recently, and as we've discussed before I'd rather do something as a present than have a thing, or stuff. With this in mind (and the email with a link I sent her) mother kindly marked the occasion with two tickets for the Swanage Breezer, a railtour put on by UK Railtours. Mrs BB had cleverly lined up an excuse, so the honour fell to everyone's favourite beer swilling commuted, Rich or the 'BGC' to certain online communities.

 The tickets took us from Basingstoke to Swanage using the newly installed mainline link to the Swanage Railway. Traction came courtesy of a couple of South West Trains Class 159s bolted together to give a nice six car set.

 The day began with a lift to Basingstoke, care of our old friend Brother of Beer Branches (BoBB). There's a nice old stable building in the car park of Basingstoke station, now in use as a car wash. A swift visit to Greggs (BGC has an account) provided us with bacon butties and coffee and we bid farewell to BoBB who had work.

The train started at London Waterloo, so we had a little wait on our hands. As the train runs as an 'unadvertised express' it doesn't appear on any information boards at the station. A cheerful ticket barrier man was on hand to show us the way.

When the train arrived we found our seats and were impressed to find a handy little program, full of times, route information and history. A nice little touch. We were also very excited to hear there was going to be a raffle.

After Basingstoke, our first stop was Salisbury to take on more passengers and for the driver to swap ends for the next leg. It was here that BGC recalled seeing an exciting new badge on Untappd. The badge in question was called 'Beerspotting' and featured a natty cartoon of a steam train with a bottle for a boiler. The conditions for getting the badge were drinking a beer in five different stations. At this time I should point out I had a backpack full of bottles, not to mention civilised plastic cups to slightly lessen the yobbish look. It's also probably worth mentioning it was about 9:30.

Unperturbed, we dished out the beer and booked the check in. BGC had cheated and already had a beer in a station at an earlier date, so only needed three more for the badge. The beer in question was Funnel Blower from Box Steam Brewery. Box do a great range of railway themed beers, mostly featuring Great Western themes. Funnel Blower is a fantastic vanilla porter, ideal as an eye opener on any rail themed outing. It's also very good at more socially acceptable times and venues.

The next stop was Southampton Central, planned arrival of 10:07. This was for another swap of ends, so included a five minute stop. This, perhaps unwisely, was considered the perfect opportunity to get another beer down our necks taking us one closer to that lovely badge. Wincing as people looked around for the source of clinking glass, a bottle of West Berkshire's very own Two Cocks Brewery 1643 Puritan Stout came out of the bag. Two Cocks have been producing beer near Newbury since 2011 and have one a string of well deserved rewards. A number of the beers feature a Civil War theme (Roundhead and Cavalier being the others) in recognition of the brewery being the site of the Roundhead camp prior to the first Batlle of Newbury in 1643. It's a nice beer, slightly bitter with a nice chocolate flavour. There's even a bit of liquorice in there.

We pulled out of Southampton Central at 10:12 bound for Bournemouth. This is a nice part of the journey, taking in the New Forest which looks grand, even in the rain. We thought better of a beer at Bournemouth and resolved to get one in there on the way back. By Poole the rain had cleared up and the sun shone brightly over Upton Lake and Poole Harbour.

Next stop was Wareham, where we took on a guard from the Swanage Railway and arrangements were made for us accessing the line. The preserved line is accessed via Worgret Junction along the short section of line still under Network Rail control that leads to the now disused Furzebrook BP terminal. This facility dealt with gas from the nearby Wytch Farm oil field. Trains took the gas to Avonmouth for onward distribution. The terminal was converted to butane and propane in 1990, which included the construction a 56 mile pipeline to carry the oil to Hamble. At the peak of production an average eleven trains a week used Furzebrook. The final trains ran in 2005.
This is the limit of Network Rail and we're now on the restored track of the Swanage Railway.

The first stop is Norden, where we have a stop to wait for a steam service to come out of the single line section and into the loop. Norden is the Northern limit of passenger services on the line (for now) and is nicely presented, featuring a station buffet and the Purbeck Mineral and Mining museum. With the line clear we set sail for Corfe Castle, which is a station, a village and a scaffold clad castle. Even with the scaffolding, the place looked stunning in the sun and will definitely warrant a return visit.

 We now had a clear run down into Swanage, where there was a gala atmosphere. Disappointingly, there was no town band to mark our arrival but there was plenty happening. A steam engine was forming up a freight train for a driver experience day, there were stalls on the station and South West Trains were presenting a giant cheque for £10,000 to the RNLI.

This was all taking place in glorious sunshine.

After a mooch about the station, we headed out into the real world and down to the sea front.

Tune in next time to see what adventures we found in Swanage!

Find out more:
UK Railtours
Box Steam Brewery
Two Cocks Brewery
Swanage Railway

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Bath, Somerset.

Tourist hot spots can be something of a mixed bag when it comes to beer and pubs. On the one hand you've got quick turnaround, ensuring (in theory anyway) fresh beer. On the other hand you've got the price. There's also the faux 'olde worlde' style decor you can often find, but that's not the end of the world.

Regardless of all that, Bath has been a pub crawl I've been considering for some months now and when Mrs BB suggested a weekend away (grow up) it seemed like a good opportunity to do some recon, as well as give away some money to the tourist honeypots.

Arriving at Bath Spa, I was surprised at how small the station is considering the traffic it must deal with. Two platforms deal with First Great Western, South West Trains and Cross Country services delivering nearly 6 million passengers a year according to the Office of Rail Regulation.

When you look at the station on the map you can see there wouldn't be much room to expand the station even if someone wanted to. The southern platform is quite snugly bordered by the River Avon. There's also the fact that the whole thing is built on a pretty big set of arches.

Coming out of the north exit of the station we don't have to go far to find some ale. A short walk across Brunel Square (nice) and a set of stairs back to track level brings us to Graze Bar, Brewery and Chophouse. Graze is the third of a small chain owned and ran by Bath Ales, the other two branches being in Bristol and Cirencester. 

The Bath version boasts a microbrewery, which brews Platform 3, an IPA, for the bar. There's also a good range of Bath Ales beers, some craft beers, and other non beer drinks. Steaks feature prominently on the menu, and whilst I didn't eat the ones I saw coming out of the kitchen looked good.

As it was a nice day, we took our drinks out into the garden. This is where Graze moved to the next level for me, and took on a whole new train geek mantle. The garden shares a canopy with platform 2 of the actual station! This means you can sit at platform level with a beer, watching HSTs and DMUs rumble about their business.

One of my other interests is large animal ornaments. Here again, Graze delivers in spades with these bovine beauties as well as some smaller chicken statues.

I think Graze will be featuring on the eventual Bath pub crawl. Good beer, good views and the location make it an ideal place to start, and maybe finish an afternoon in Bath's ale pubs.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Littleworth, Oxfordshire.

No railway business in this entry, but just in case anyone is bothered by this here's a picture of the First Great Western bicycle rules for services in the Thames Valley. This particular sign is in Oxford which is our destination's nearest station.

There was a time that myself and Brother of Beer Branches (BoBB) were sat about talking rubbish. In fairness this is still a fairly regular occurrence, but on this occasion we were discussing the phrase 'sausage fest'. It got us to wondering if there was anywhere that actually held a sausage festival and like most people these days would, we took to Google. In amongst all the expected results were a few hopeful sites, butchers and the like. Eventually we came to the website of a pub called the Cricketers Arms, in the village of Littleworth, Oxfordshire that held an actual beer and sausage festival! Twice a year! Oxfordshire, why that's only one county away! The dates were favourable, the travel was easy and before we knew it we'd got a gang together and the outing was a goer.
What we didn't realise then was that this was to become an annual pilgrimage, and so for the fourth year in a row I made the trip north. On this occasion I was accompanied by Cousin of Beer Branches (CoBB), himself on his second pilgrimage.
The trip to the pub is relatively easy by public transport, at least on a weekday or Saturday. Buses leave Oxford city centre hourly and the trip is about half an hour. A taxi would be even quicker, and not exorbitantly  expensive.

The festival was the brainchild of Stuart and Angie Bull, the pub's landlords, and has grown in popularity over the years. The beer on offer is always interesting and there's something to suit all tastes. Over the course of the festival there are 14 beers, most of them available from the start. There is also a good choice of real cider from the excellent Tutts Clump.
Stuart explains:

"I try to include any new breweries, breweries which I don't use regularly and regularly used breweries, so that we have a broad range that will appeal to beer festival people and regulars alike.
I also try to have at least a couple of black beers, because we don't have them on as standard and push the alcohol level up a bit (we don't normally go over 4.5%), as well as having at least three or four session ales."

With so many ales available, space on the bar is obviously at a premium. Hand pumps on the bar dispense three of the beers, while the rest are racked on a special built stillage.
Stuart goes on to say:

"The stillage was specially made so that I could move it myself. Once certain furniture is moved, the stillage goes in, in case of any beer arriving early."

A comprehensive tasting notes is available for a small fee, which goes to charity. This also allows for a 'beer of the festival' to be selected, the notes being used as a voting slip. It's also pretty handy for ticking what you've had off.

"I ask the breweries for tasting notes or use ratebeer and then remove anything too flowery. Then that's formatted by Angie into a template and emailed to the printer for delivery the week before the festival."

It's not all about the beer though, and the sausages are almost as much as an attraction in themselves. There's a range of 12 available, though the popular ones sell out fast. The sausages are available in two forms, either with mash and gravy or in a roll with onions. I opted for a couple of rolls so as to try two different varieties of sausage. CoBB opted for the mash option, which from previous experience I can say is superb. There's also a range of snacks on offer, including Angie's delicious Littleworth Pie. If you've still got room, or even if you haven't, there's also desserts for the sweet tooth.
Stuart explains:

"Angie orders the sausages the start of the week of the festival for delivery on the Wednesday or Thursday. Choice depends upon previous good sellers and ones that have an interesting combination of flavours. Jan's desserts will be delivered the morning of the festival."

By all accounts February's festival was a record breaker, so I'd strongly advise you clearing your diary for September. Even if you can't make the festival, it's a fantastic pub any time of year and quite deservedly in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.  

Find out more:
Cricketers Arms

Monday, 17 March 2014

Mid Hants Railway Real Ale Train, Hampshire

I find Christmas difficult. Frankly I've got too much 'stuff' and I don't need much more. Suggest this to loved ones though and it's all "I can't get you nothing" and "you must want something". So this year I took a different tack, hinting towards experiences rather than things. In a way it was cruel, as thinking of something I might enjoy is much harder than buying something off a list I'd written, thems were the brakes though and it paid off.
Amongst other things, Mrs BB got me two tickets to the rather good Mid Hants Railway, affectionately (and commercially) known as the Watercress Line. The MHR is a ten mile preserved Southern Railway line running between Alresford and Alton, where it terminates with South West Trains services to London Waterloo. The 'Watercress' part comes from the lines glory days transporting, among other things, fresh watercress to the capital and beyond. It's a scenic trip through rural Hampshire, and has even attracted Michael Portillo and his Great British Railway Journeys.

However, a Saturday night in February is not an ideal time for enjoy idyllic countryside views, so we'll just have to get our kicks elsewhere. Surprisingly, Mrs BB didn't fancy the double header of steam engines and real ale, so Brother of a Beer Branches (BoBB) happily stepped in.
Each Real Ale Train, or RAT focuses on different local breweries. There are plenty to choose from along the length of the line, Triple fff being a prime example. Our night was all about Longdog and Itchen Valley, two breweries operating within 15 miles of outr start point of Alton. The latter brewing at Alresford, the other terminus of the Watercress Line.

There was a busy buzz about Alton station, beyond that of the usual Saturday night crowd. The Watercress Line joins the national network here. There is the operational ability for through trains, but our train was sat in the far platform and the smell of steam and hot oil was in the air. The locomotive in question was Lord Nelson, a handsome Maunsell green Southern Region 4-6-0 engine, preserved in the National Collection.

There was a good mix of people aboard the train, ranging from couples, lads outings to steam and/or beer buffs and families. We gave the train a good scout from the platform, looking for somewhere with good bar access as well as a bit of space. We ended up with both these things plus a short hop to the griddle car where hot and cold food, as well as soft drinks and lager were available. The train makes two trips between Alton and Alresford, with stops in between.

The bar carriage was a practically converted carriage, featuring a bar with built in racking to allow for easy gravity pouring. Given pints were £2 a go, it was never going to be quiet but the folk manning the casks were efficient and friendly.

Three beers from each brewery were on, plus a cider. The beers gave a good choice of strengths and BoBB was particularly fond of Lamplight Porter as were many others. By the last return leg there was next to nothing left, which tells you all you need to know really.
Curry, chille and stroganoff were available in the Gridddle car at a reasonable £5, which filled a hole that got bigger as the evening went on.

The engine running around its train at Alresford and Alton allowed for some attempted nighttime photography, as well as the opportunity to use a toilet that wasn't rocking around.

With tickets at £15 each, including a free pint voucher this train is great value. Even when you factor in paying for beer, it's still very reasonable. The winters night we travelled on made enjoying the views a bit difficult, but during the summer months you'd get the full vista as you travel as well as the photo opportunities if you're into that sort of thing.

Really, the perfect night for any beer and steam fan!

Thanks to BoBB for some of the photo's.

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Saturday, 15 February 2014

Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire.

I don't like to talk about it, but in April last year I had to have emergency surgery to remove a severely infected and inflamed appendix. It was during my three week convalescence that I conceived this blog. In my head, I was slightly more strict with the 'branches' part. This wouldn't have been a problem 60 years ago, but is actually quite limiting these days. Anyway, knowing Henley on Thames was at the end of a fairly local branch, this seemed like a natural place to start. So nearly a year later myself, Andy and the infamous BGC changed at Twyford and wound our way to an already wet Henley on Thames.

There's not a great deal of Henley on Thames station. Why should there be? It's the terminus of a single track branchline. Despite this, it's a busy little station if not the most architecturally pleasing, rather smacking of late 80s/early 90s NSE design. 

The 4.5 mile 'Regatta line' runs between Twyford and Henley on Thames, stopping at Wargrave and Shiplake on the way. Services are run by First Great Western using 165 and 166 units. I'm led to believe during the regatta specials have been known to traverse the branch.

There's little in the way of infrastructure to interest the hardcore railway geek like me. This view looking back up the branch shows a solitary signal, glowing red through the January gloom. Colour light signalling might seem a bit unnecessary on a single track branch, but I imagine this is to allow for a bit of flexibility during busier times (ie the Regatta week).

Time for a pint.

On a green opposite the station entrance is this nice plant arrangement celebrating the opening of the branch in 1856. I imagine it represents some manner of broad gauge locomotive.

Being quite a touristy place, a lot of the pubs in Henley on Thames are run in an appropriate way. Expect meal deals and national beer brands as the norm. Not necessarily a bad thing, just not what we're here for
However, you can still find a 'proper' pub, and the Bird in Hand on Greys Road is just that. 

Tucked away in a more residential area of the town, the Bird in Hand caters more for the local drinker, though food is available in the week. 

Beers from Oxfordshire were available in the form of Loddon Hoppit, Brakspear Bitter and Hook. Norton Hooky Mild. Always nice to see a mild on. Pints of the Loddon and Hook Norton were duly ordered and found to be in fine order. 

On the wall was this rather nice collection of steam engine cigarette cards. Now we're talking, smashing.

As well as a friendly landlady, the Bird in Hand boasts a friendly pub dog. BGC begged me to take this picture.

In town, and at the opposite end of the pub spectrum can be found the relatively new Henley Brewhouse. Built in a converted police station, this pub was recommended by an actual brewer, so we expected much.

Upon entering, we weren't disappointed. Interestingly, the two guest beers were from Berkshire, West Berkshire Brewery and Windsor and Eton. More interesting than that were the three on offer from the Henley Brewing Company, brewed in the pub. See, 'Henley Brewhouse' wasn't just a clever marketing trick!
Between us we managed a combination of all the Henley Brewhouse beers, as well as the Windsor and Eton Conquerer, an excellent 5% black IPA. There wasn't a duff one among them, Old Bill's being a particular favourite of mine. As much as we all love Good Old Boy from West Berkshire Brewery, we've had it a few times so stuck to the new stuff.

On the bar is a handy clipboard detailing the various house beers, as well as guests that are on offer. There's a good selection of bottled beers in the fridges too.

Behind the glass at the back of the pub can be found the Henley Brewing Company's brewing equipment. 

To my mind though, the real star of the Henley Brewhouse was the black pudding scotch egg. A scotch egg the size of a tennis ball for £3.50 is pretty good value if you ask me and I'm pretty sure Andy agreed.

Two very different, but equally brilliant pubs in Henley on Thames. Both are worth a look if you're in the town, as well as a host of other pubs doing good quality beer.

There's also one of these to find!


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