The Great British Beer Festival
For five days of the year each summer, the somewhat soulless exhibition centre in Earls Court is transformed into a giant pub (pictured above). Or at least that’s what it feels like. Gone are the trade stalls and suited delegates, replaced by an army of (mostly bearded) volunteers manning hundreds of kegs, dispensing beers few people have ever heard of to thousands of squiffy punters – a lot of whom are wearing traffic-cone hats or sombreros for no apparent reason.
Beer is back on the menu in Britain – there are more breweries in operation since 1939 and cask-ale sales are rising year on year – and if you were to judge purely by the GBBF, you’d think we’d never stopped loving it. More than twelve thousand people pour through the doors every day to sample over five hundred different ales, from a Pitstop Penelope to a Radgie Gadgie.
For details of the event, including opening hours on each day, visit CAMRA’s website (http://www.camra.org.uk).
Islay’s world-class whisky
With their famous brand names framed on a rocky foreshore, the distilleries of Islay are among the Hebrides’ most conspicuous landmarks, the whitewashed cardinal points of any self-respecting whisky tour. The prize for Islay’s most bracingly distinctive spirit belongs, most would agree, to Laphroaig, a dram of which is probably best enjoyed in situ at their distillery near Port Ellen on the island’s south coast. If you’re arriving by ferry from the Kintyre peninsula, you can’t miss the bold black lettering, though that’s nothing compared to the boldness of the whisky’s bouquet, a remedial dose of peat and kelp that smokes the senses and tars the tongue.
Also near Port Ellen is the even older and equally iconic Lagavulin, a venerable 16-year-old malt with a similarly peat-smoky if not quite so medicinal finish. Further east is Ardbeg, a dramatically sited huddle of pipes and stills dating to the early nineteenth century, famously described by whisky authority Jim Murray as “the greatest distillery to be found on earth”. Oldest of all Islay distilleries, however, is Bowmore, a beach-fringed northern stalwart whose lighter strain of peat-reek is perfect for newbies.
Up-to-date tour times and prices are available on the individual distillery websites: http://www.laphroaig.com; http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/Lagavulin; http://www.ardbeg.com; http://www.bowmore.co.uk.
The perfect Martini at Dukes
You may never get to drive an Aston Martin, or enjoy a dalliance with a beautiful Russian spy, but one sure-fire way to indulge in a little James Bond fantasy is to savour one of the exquisite Martinis at Duke’s Bar, a regular haunt of Ian Fleming and said to be his inspiration for 007’s favourite tipple.
Britain’s most picturesque beer garden
There aren’t many centuries-old coaching inns left intact in Scotland, and none with so sublime a setting as Tibbie Shiels’. Perched on the edge of St Mary’s Loch in the heart of the Scottish Borders, with the Loch of the Lowes fanning out behind it, this is a place to dream into your ale. Its handful of loch-side benches may have been beaten by the Borders weather, but the views alone, unbroken across the water’s inky expanse and the sheet-glass summits reflected on its surface, render the term beer garden perhaps just a little inadequate.
The Inn itself, or at least the oldest portion of it, is the epitome of Borders vernacular, white-painted stone with low windows and – hanging baskets notwithstanding – a certain austerity, appropriately enough, perhaps, given this area’s historical reputation as a Covenanting stronghold. Nineteenth-century regulars famously included Sir Walter Scott and his friend and Gothic novelist James Hogg, shepherd in the parallel valley of Ettrick, and a writer whose influence has been cited, in recent years, by such prominent Scottish literary figures such as Irvine Welsh.
Tibbie Shiels Inn, St Mary’s Loch, Selkirkshire, Scottish Borders 01750/42231, http://www.tibbieshiels.com.
England’s oldest pub
During the Middle Ages, the water quality in Nottingham was notoriously poor. Locals often resorted to brewing ale because the fermentation process created a palatable, nutritious product safe to drink – albeit one with alcoholic benefits. And so, when Nottingham Castle was built for William the Conquerer in 1068, a brewhouse was one of its first additions.
Thankfully, Nottingham’s water quality has improved over the past thousand years, so locals and visitors have to think of another excuse for stopping off for a pint at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which occupies the brewhouse site, dates back to 1189, and claims (alongside twenty or so rivals) to be the oldest pub in England. Although the black-and-white-timbered exterior dates from the seventeenth century, the interior is wonderfully evocative of the pub’s more ancient heritage: there’s a distinctly cave-like feel, with stone walls, aged wooden beams, narrow passageways and cramped alcoves.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Brewhouse Yard, Nottingham 0115/947 3171, http://www.triptojerusalem.com.
Kent’s acclaimed vineyards
Though wine has been made in England since the Normans – some say since the Romans – it wasn’t until the 1960s that vines began to be grown on a commercial scale. English sparkling wine has been the most successful so far, but numerous whites, rosés and even reds are following in their wake.
There are now over four hundred vineyards in England, mainly concentrated in the sunny southern counties. Many are open to the public for tours and tastings. One of the best is Kent’s oldest commercial vineyard at Biddenden, a family-run concern producing wines from ten varieties of grape of Germanic origin, including Ortega, Dornfelder and Schonburger.
Visitors are free to wander round the vineyard at their leisure, or join the free tour that takes place on various weekends throughout the year. Tasting their wares, from the deliciously light Gribble Bridge rosé to the sparkling white, a refreshing blend of Reichensteiner, Pinot Noir and Scheurebe, is optional, but recommended.
Biddenden Vineyards, Gribble Bridge Lane, Biddenden, Kent 01580/291726, http://www.biddendenvineyards.com.
The smallest pub in Britain
Which is the smallest pub in Britain? Publicans have been arguing the toss forever. What can’t be disputed is just how small The Nutshell, in the heart of the pretty Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, actually is. Just fifteen feet by seven, it’s big enough for twelve customers or maybe fifteen – but only if they can raise a pint without raising their elbows. As you might expect, successive landlords have warmed to the theme of the pub’s rather diminutive size and the antique interior, with its wood panelling, benches and gnarled bar, has at one time or another held the world’s smallest dartboard and the world’s smallest snooker table.
As for the brews on sale, The Nutshell is owned by Bury’s very own Greene King brewery, which provides some sterling beers. Stop in for a pint of the full-bodied Abbot Ale, superb Old Speckled Hen, a ruddy ale with a tangy zip, or the lighter IPA – India Pale Ale, named after the days when it was exported by the barrel load to British expatriates sweltering in the heat of India. Just don’t bring all your mates.
The Nutshell, The Traverse, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk 01284/764867, http://www.thenutshellpub.co.uk.
Britain’s most northerly pint
From the classic oak-fermented ales of Traquair House in the Borders to the aggressively iconoclastic Fraserburgh-based BrewDog (“beer for punks”), Scotland is producing some of the nation’s most exciting brews. And to find one of the most innovative of artisanal brewers you have to travel very far north indeed – in fact almost until you drop off the edge of the country.
In Shetland’s most northerly island of Unst, with its dramatic cliffs and fine sandy beaches, Britain certainly goes out with a bang. Amid the rolling landscape of heath and moor, and crumbling old crofters’ cottages, stands the former RAF radar base of Saxa Vord – now the warm and welcoming Saxa Vord Resort. It’s home to Valhalla, Britain’s most northerly brewery.
Valhalla belongs to the affable Sonny Priest, who started the brewery a decade and a half ago when cutbacks at the RAF base reduced his hours. It’s a small, homespun operation, and its focus is on artisanal creates ales of exceptional quality. The range of six beers include the dark and earthy Auld Rock, which derives its name from Shetlanders’ own term for the island; the unique Island Bere, an oddity made with an ancient grain called bere brought to these islands by the Vikings; and the light Old Scatness, which combines bere, wheat and oats with heather and honey.
The dockers’ boozers of Liverpool
Away from the rejuvenated city centre, Liverpool’s docks can be eerily quiet these days. Though iconic Albert Dock – home to Tate Liverpool, the Mersey Maritime Museum and a host of other attractions – was magnificently restored in the 1980s, much of this vast former fulcrum of industry remains a sad picture of postindustrial decline. Liverpool’s waterfront is now UNESCO World Heritage listed, but many of its buildings stand elegiacally derelict.
Many of the hundreds of pubs in this once teeming area have also met a predictable fate. There are, however, a few beautiful old-timers that somehow still manage to flourish. Step into The Atlantic on Regent Road and you’ll feel like you’re entering a Liverpool that has never heard of Steven Gerrard, Paul O’Grady or even the Fab Four. Firmly stuck in the early 1950s, this one-room pub still has sawdust on its floors and a skiffle band in the corner on Sunday lunchtime. Back towards the city centre and stop off at The Baltic Fleet, shaped like a ship, and the only pub on Merseyside with its own brewery.
The Atlantic, 162 Regent Rd, Liverpool 0151/922 9815; The Baltic Fleet, 33 Wapping, Liverpool 0151/709 3116.
Wales’ finest drinking spot
Tŷ Coch Inn – the red house – at Porth Dinllaen, is a wonderfully quaint village of a dozen or so houses and a lifeboat station wedged between the beach and steep green hills. One of the many beauties of this place is that only residents can drive here. Everyone else comes on foot, either along the beach from nearby Morfa Nefyn, or half a mile across the Nefyn and District golf course. Porth Dinllaen was once a thriving (if small) fishing port with its own shipbuilding yard and plenty of smuggling. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, proximity to Ireland made it a contender for the principal rail terminal and ferry port for Ireland. It hardly bears thinking about: this gorgeous little spot could have turned out like Holyhead – the eventual “winner” of the contest.
In summer the bay is usually packed with small boats plying the calm waters, shielded from the prevailing westerlies by the protective headland of Carreg Ddu. A delightful path wanders up to the point, giving fabulous views down to the village with the high peaks of Snowdonia framing the distant horizon. Stroll back down to the pub for a ploughman’s lunch or a steak-and-kidney pie. On a blustery day it is cosy inside; at all other times, best settle down on the waterside benches. Some find it so hard to leave they hole up in one of the adjacent holiday homes for a wonderfully away-from-it-all few days.
The village is owned by the National Trust (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk), which has details of accommodation.