Beer Matters

Down by the Riverside

I have been out and about lately and, as always when on my travels, have taken the opportunity for a little research.

The first outing was a leisurely ramble along the Thames Path from Reading and Caversham to Henley (with a modicum of ringing along the way). Sundry waterfowl could be seen taking their new season’s fledglings to the water (in the case of one family of ducks, with active encouragement from Roger Bailey) but everyone gave the swans’ nest a wide berth – the big cob guarding his brood was clearly not to be argued with. Having passed the Reading gasworks and crossed the mouth of the Kennet, an hour’s stroll through fairly open country brought us to Sonning. Ringing here was not on the agenda so, after pausing in the churchyard to invoke the wrath of the Lord upon the local complainant, I made my way straight to the pub.

The Bull at Sonning

The Bull, an old inn overhung with wisteria, is a pleasant enough place albeit with the clientele and the competent but not exactly cheap food one might expect from the locality. All three Gale’s bitters were on offer. The Butser (no, that’s not meant to be ‘Buster’, it’s named after Butser Hill in Hampshire), a good session beer, was excellent. After it, the Best tasted slightly metallic (Challenger hops perhaps) but was also in fine condition. I didn’t try the HSB myself but heard no adverse comment. Now the Bull is a Gale’s tied house – and thereby hangs a tale.

George Gale’s brewery is in Horndean, a few miles north of Portsmouth, and the company’s tied estate is largely confined to that part of Hampshire east of Southampton Water plus a bit of West Sussex – apart from a group of four pubs far away on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border. The story, as told to me many years ago, is this: some time in the nineteenth century, a daughter of the lord of the manor of Mapledurham became pregnant by a young man of the Gale family and the four pubs were provided by way of compensation. Presumably the squire and his lads were partial to a drop of good ale and didn’t think much of the local brew? Whatever the logic one can only conclude that the price of virginity (at least of the aristocratic variety) was somewhat higher in those days.

Suitably rested and fortified, the party left the village by the narrow and picturesque Sonning Bridge for another hour’s trek to Shiplake. After ringing and tea, most of the company departed to the railway station. The Baskerville Arms remained resolutely shut so the remnant of us pressed on with the last leg of the journey, passing a large garden with an extensive model railway including an impressive but rather continental looking station. I had not been to Henley for a few years and was looking forward to seeing how the town has changed following the demise of Brakspear’s brewery.

Ahead of us was the Angel on the Bridge, predictably packed with tourists, so we turned into Friday Street where the Anchor looked more promising. A smart but unassuming back street local, still in Brakspear’s livery, it proved to be suitably quiet and roomy for the weary walker. There were two Brakspear’s ales, now brewed by Wychwood in Witney. The Ploughman’s was indisputably off (and changed without question) and the Special perfectly acceptable but unexceptional. Mind you, I always found the ordinary bitter the more flavoursome of the two.

When I went on a pub crawl around Henley – it must be the best part of 30 years ago now – there were, if I remember correctly, 23 Brakspear houses in the town, or perhaps it was 17. Walking down Hart Street and Market Place, things had obviously changed. The Catherine Wheel is now a Wetherspoon’s and I already knew that the Silver Cross opposite the brewery had long gone. It was a homely place and I recall the landlady saying that she kept milk in the fridge for young lads who couldn’t take any more beer. (I didn’t say anything but, if I’d had a skinfull and was feeling a bit queasy, the last thing I’d want to put down my neck is a pint of milk.)

The Argyll, formerly owned by Morland and the only non-Brakspear pub in the town centre, has now unsurprisingly passed into the hands of Greene King and serves a good pint of IPA. But the one I was really looking for, a beautiful little pub, long and narrow with a covered alley at the side and called, methought, the Rose and Crown, appeared to have closed or become a wine bar or restaurant. To my chagrin I have just discovered from Brakspear’s website that it was indeed the Rose and Crown and still exists but is in New Street, not Hart Street. Ah, how cruel memory plays tricks on its owner.

Next – a weekend “up north”.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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