Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Unspoilt pubs in the secret kingdom


       I know the Secret Kingdom is a book for the yout. Its about some sort of miniature city discovered by a child which turns out to be real. That's what I dislike about childrens books - palpably unrealistic. Now, where's that intriguing phone book...

Anyway this isn't about that, this is about this - a trip the weekend just gone with Wee Fatha round some relics and ruins of Northumberland - the secret kingdom of the title. One reason it may have acquired the name is that its relatively unexplored, in a tourist sense. There are huge areas with almost no-one living there and probably (I admit I have no evidence to support this!) less population per square mile than anywhere else in England. One of the endearing side effects of which is a goodly smattering of unspoilt pubs, including two of perhaps the best in England. Here's how I got to them.

We started our tour by driving to Berwick on Tweed but stopped in Spittal nearby to take in the sunny view across the river. Here we also made an unexpected visit to the Red Lion. A cosy pub back from the seafront this traditional boozer has a friendly landlord and a single real ale - Robinsons Dissy Blonde. I concede its probably the worst Robbies beer but any port in a storm as they say - and after over 3 hours driving we were parched.

In Berwick I finally got to visit the Free Trade Inn. The first time I attempted this I was twenty and I was on holiday dragging Abz round some slightly less than impressive boozers on a constant hunt for "new " beers (don't worry, I grew out of that). Even then though I could see the Free Trade Inn was something special, yet every time I found myself in Berwick thereafter it was closed. Now we were parked in front of it and following a phone call the night before they had opened early. Brilliant!

On entering I was greeted by Brenda who figured I was the call maker, and found someone already sat at the bar, quickly followed by a few more punters. All of us wanted a pint of "real". Northumberland Brewery Secret Kingdom was pulled through by the barmaid whilst she had some banter about uproarious antics in the pub the night before, until we were all served with malty ale at £2.60 a pint.

For those of you who don't know about the Free Trade its on CAMRA and English Heritage's National Inventory of Unspoilt Pub Interiors. It is, and I concede this may be the least inspiring jewel in the crown reveal ever - the only partition pub in the UK, and, one of only three pubs called the Free Trade (apparently, Brenda says one has opened in Cornwall. The other is in Newcastle). The partition of the piece features because you enter down a corridor before finding a further thinner passage to the back snooker room "the newer Victorian part" ahead of you, and the entrance to the bar on your right. The bar is separated and the corridor formed by a wooden partition held into the ceiling by curved metal staves creating a  unique bar snug. The rest of the room opens out to your left with ancient leaded windows providing light and privacy.

The whole experience of visiting was enhanced by chatting to friendly locals and visitors and Jenny the barmaid, a refreshingly upbeat and helpful lass with an amusing take on the way the Berwick gossip machine works "oh aye, like that time I died!" was one example of Chinese whispers getting out of hand. She was also very well versed in the history of the pub and told us that it was previously called the Free Trade and All Nations. She also directed us to our next pub. In summary, after waiting so long to do something it can often be a disappointment. The Free Trade Inn was not.

The Pilot is a jennel away at Low Greens. Slightly less classic in comparison but sporting three handpumps, original room layout and plenty of light yet warm wood paneling . Here I had a pint of the Anarchy Citra Star and WF a half (well, some of, as I hope you know, its often only a sip and I "have" to finish the rest...) of Hadrian and Border Farne Island. This was £2.90 a pint and almost exclusively the price we found in pubs throughout the northern reaches of Northumberland.  We settled down to sup and listen in on the conversations - including resounding distaste at hoppy beer! I like to think I did my bit in buying a whole pint of the excellent Anarchy beer. Each to their own.

Our next stop was further North in Horncliffe. The Fishers Arms is in a terrace in this small village, formerly a Vaux pub, and featuring two distinct areas to a single room with a basic bar at one end. There are two handpumps, one was in use from which I tried a half of the Allendale Curlew, which was the first of many of the breweries beers on the trip. After this we decamped to Norham to scramble round the castle before ending up in Coldstream.

The Besom is a Regional Inventory pub with two handpumps. Initially I was a little disappointed - although we had come to admire the interior, the choice of Greedy King Old Golden Hen and Wychwood Hobgoblin was seriously underwhelming. However in fact, the pub slowly grew on us. A wander around the two left hand rooms with their Coldstream guards theme (tasteful as well) was a feather in its cap and although I'd have preferred a bit more adventurous beer it was certainly selling, and the company and conversation were spot on.

A long haul South and East followed bringing is to Embleton and the Greys Inn. A small back street pub which was clearly the centre of the community they had a good range of about 6 beers to choose from - we tried halves of Tempest Unfermentable, Alnwick Amber and Tyne Bank Pacifica. The Tempest was very dry but enjoyable, the Alnwick (brewed elsewhere I think) was inoffensive and the Tyne Bank smelled positively grim but actually tasted very nice.

Our next two stops were missed due to a lack of parking and a lack of time - both the Jolly Fisherman at Craster and the Red Lion in Alnmouth will have to wait for another time what with both locations being completely rammed on a boiling hot Saturday. Instead we headed off to our accommodation in Longframlington and to the Village Inn for tea - and some of their VIP brewery beers (which ironically, I think are brewed in Alnwick). The pub is old but with quite a lot of modern alterations and an odd mix of quieter dining area and raucous bar separated by not a lot. Still, the food was good and the two VIP beers tried - Village Bike and Village Ghost, were decent, with the Ghost warranting another go. Assumedly they were £2.90 a pint, but it all went on the bill.

Just up the road is the Regional Inventory listed Bridge of Aln Hotel at Whittingham, our penultimate stop. Now accessed at the left hand side despite an impressive porch entrance facing the road into the village this pub in a Grade 2  listed building was last refurbished in the early 1950's. Although the austere lines of post war make do and mend fittings doesn't necessarily suit the grand old pile housing it, I found the pub was full of character and characters.

No real ale but from a choice of smoothflow Tetley and Youngers Scotch I chose the latter, and we sat down and almost immediately got chatting to the locals. Esther the landlady was holding court and it was, apart from a 5 minute interruption to find out the lottery numbers, probably a scene played out for decades. Unfortunately we couldn't linger though as we had to speed through the lanes to Netherton before the Star shut.

Which we managed, despite WF taking a rather literal interpretation of the directions, and got to the Star just gone 21.40. Two gents were just leaving, and I suspect that despite officially closing at 22.30 Vera would have locked up after they had gone.

This is another National Inventory pub, with 40 consecutive entries in the GBG, formerly a hotel, and with the newest part being of considerable vintage itself. A servery greets you as you enter, with a table no-one sits at (rumour has it there is another room used if its gets busy) and Vera fetches the beer from barrels at the back of the servery. To my surprise, this time it was Exmoor Gold - having been Castle Eden Ale since God was a lad.

We took the beers and juice for WF on an ancient tray and sat in the sparsely appointed room on the right. Just fixed slatted benches and tables, a few chairs, a giant Ushers of Edinburgh mirror, and a seat for Vera. Nothing to distract you but conversation, and the clinking of glasses on tables. A fantastic pub.

Details of day two coming soon.

Wee Beefy.


  1. Was getting worried about you WB , no news of your outings for a few days!!
    The Free Trade is a classic , been in a couple of times. Only briefly each time unfortunately. But a pub which I will be re-visiting for a few photo's i hope. Glad to hear it's doing well.
    As for the Star @ Netherton hopefully on the radar this year.
    Look forward to part 2

    1. Thanks. I was getting worried too - found 2 spelling errors straight off. I was going to write up part 2 tonight but mysteriously became "tired". Hopefully tomorrow.