If I were the manager of a pub, and three people showed up there from out of town, all at the same time, but all from different towns and cities, just to try the beer, I’d assume I was doing something right.
OK, so I haven’t come to Berwick-upon-Tweed just to visit the Barrels Ale House (pictured below). I’m just walking around the ancient walls of the town and pausing for breath when I turn round from the Tweed estuary and there it is. I remember the name from the Good Beer Guide. Why not, then? I’ll just stop for a quick one and then resume the walk.
Half a dozen or so folk are occupying the room, all facing inwards, all with a table to themselves. I perch at the bar and listen to the locals and the bar person trade witticisms. “If it’s called tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” says a sign behind the bar, unpromisingly. This proves not to be an accurate augury of my welcome, however (and in any case, another bar person’s T-shirt says: “I’m the one the Daily Mail warned you about”, which I appreciate very much). Eventually the big group patter breaks into smaller particles, and I find myself talking to men from Rotherham and Norfolk who are, as they say, only here for the beers.
One pint becomes three; we get chatting with a couple of locals; and before very much longer Dave – a midlander who settled here a few years back – is shepherding us into a taxi to the Pilot Inn. The Pilot is the other Berwick pub that features in the Good Beer Guide. Three pints become… um, well, several.
Tonight is Monday; tomorrow I’ll find my way to the Pilot again (look out for its appearance here soon as a featured pub); and then on Wednesday I track down to Tynemouth, near Newcastle, to see my old friend Carrie. Tynemouth has the self-sufficient, Boots-and-bistros feel of one of those suburbs like West Bridgford in Nottingham – all Guardian-hip, childless professionals in their mid-thirties. But here there’s also the sea, thronged with eager surfers.
The Cumberland Arms (right) feels like a little bastion of pre-cool Tynemouth. It’s a local boozer, on a quiet night. With a nice curved bar. Carrie and I choose from a good range of four or five cask beers and box ourselves into a corner while some stocky men play the slotty and no-one watches the rugby on TV.
The atmosphere’s completely different over at the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel (below right). Again, the beer roster isn’t quite as exciting as the previous pub’s. But there’s an enthusiastic buzz of talk which more than makes up. The place is packed with people, loquacious and twinkling in an evocative dim light (see also: the New Beehive, Bradford). They’re visibly revelling in sociability.
Eventually, so am I. Carrie’s partner Jago has joined us. We talk about work and the pitfalls of ambition. The sheer force of the bonhomie here empowers me to loosen up and speak articulately for the first time all day. A group to our side must be Scout leaders. Then I remember I’m in the north-east, which adds the possibility that they are participants in a Scout-themed stag party. In these parts there’s no knowing.
The following day I travel down to Staithes, on the North Yorkshire coast. As I arrive there’s an hour to go until I can check into my accommodation. What a good thing it is, then, that the Captain Cook sits halfway down the hill between my bus stop and the village.
Again, the Captain Cook is the pub recommended by Camra’s Good Beer Guide. Rightly so: the amber/bronze ale I’m supping is a delight, and it’s brewed right here. I perch on a bench, gazing out through the mucky windows. I listen to a table of late middle-aged locals reminisce about people who’ve died or left the village, and wonder if I’ll live long enough for a pension, so that at last I can spend Thursday afternoons in my local doing exactly the same thing.
Down in the village proper – which turns out to be the most beautiful place I have ever seen – I try out the Cod & Lobster (below). The beer is perfectly good, though less interesting than at the Captain Cook. A kind-mannered, quietly spoken couple seem to be running the place. A new barrel of Timothy Taylor beer is in place. I reflect that while the landlord isn’t what you’d call lively, the Landlord certainly is.
The Cod & Lobster sits by Staithes’ tiny beach and harbour, which makes it a wondrous place to sit and watch dusk descend. At length I get talking to a positively delightful couple of folks – tourists like me – about writing, music, art, politics and isn’t this a nice place. We hit it off wonderfully and end up as the last drinkers keeping the doors unlocked. There’s not a word of complaint or urging from the patient management.
It’s not quite as congenial the next day at the Royal George, but it’s not bad. In between mouthfuls of a half-decent Thai vegetable curry, I natter with a southern bloke at the next table about racehorses (there was a trainer from Staithes) and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (there’s a 1970s edition of Top of The Pops on the telly). Next thing, he’s behind the bar, managing the staff. The girl who served me can’t take any more X-Ray Spex and switches to another music channel playing something recent and awful. Shame. I was enjoying X-Ray Spex.
Some of the village’s arty types arrive, talking of opera in St Petersburg. I’m way out of my depth and slink away. Granted, I’ve just been walking along the top of the cliffs, and you can’t really expect too much in the way of dignified conversation with strangers when you’re covered in seagull poo.
I can’t resist another look in at the Cod & Lobster, but tonight it’s less intimate, more raucous – at least as much as anything can approach raucous in Staithes – with a dozen or more Smoggies crammed into one end and making a great racket. With some shock I realise it’s Friday night. I’d lost track of time.
It’s a long journey from one far corner of Yorkshire to another by public transport – two buses, two trains and several hours. So when I’m travelling home on the Saturday I break it up with an hour or so at the York Tap (pictured below). This is the smart and new-ish station pub for York, from the people who brought you its counterparts at Sheffield and Euston.
There’s a slight sense of bar staff talking among themselves, but when a customer complains about being served in the wrong order I instinctively side with the workers. Probably because the customer looks like an affluent racegoer and sounds like a right uppity bastard. Best of all is the look of utter befuddlement on the face of another poor innocent when the staff have to explain that they’re very sorry but, actually, they don’t have any Budweiser.
So the beer is sweet and the décor light and bright, but the people-watching is better. The best thing of all about this week in pubs, however, has been when people-watching has progressed to people-interacting. That, after all, is what pubs are for. And even when you’re wandering through places you’ve never been before, they can pretty much guarantee a whole chain of little life-enriching encounters.