Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cycling in and Around the Cotswolds

Here is another contemporary account I wrote; this time about a trip I made to the Cotswolds, over a quarter of a century ago.
In June 1983 I embarked on a cycling holiday in the Cotswolds. The aim of the holiday was to cycle around visiting pubs belonging to the local brewery of Donningtons - all 17 of them!
Donningtons brewery is situated just outside the town of Stow-on-the-Wold, hidden in a fold in the Cotswold Hills. The brewery is housed in a converted mill, complete with its own trout lake, and is, without doubt, the most picturesque of its kind anywhere in Britain. The company is privately owned by Mr Claude Arkell, grandson of the brewery's founder, and is a survivor from a bygone age.
The brewery itself was started in 1865, but the mill buildings which house it are considerably older. Today, the mill house functions as part of the brewery. The mill wheel is still in use to power some of the machinery, whilst the water, or "liquor", for brewing is drawn from a spring beside the mill pond.

Three draught beers are produced, all of them good, and claimed by the brewery to be brewed from recipes that have remained unchanged over many years. They consist of two bitters, plus a dark mild, and are well received both locally and by visitors from further a field. It is necessary to travel to the Cotswolds in order to sample the beers as, apart from a very local and somewhat restricted free-trade, they can only usually be obtained in the company’s seventeen tied pubs. The pubs are concentrated within a fairly compact area centred on Stow-on-the-Wold. It was for this reason that I had decided to spend some time in the area, and to visit as many Donnington pubs as possible.

The idea behind the trip was not my own. A good friend of mine had spent a year or so working in the Gloucestershire region, as part of his horticultural studies course. He stated that he had always wanted to spend a couple of weeks cycling around all the Donnington pubs, having fallen for their charms, and indeed those of the area as a whole, during the time he spent there.

Like many dreams we all have from time to time, my friend never quite got round to undertaking such a trip. I thought that it sounded like an excellent idea though, and undertook to arrange such a tour as soon as time and finances allowed. That June, my then wife and I found that we had a week to spare, and seeing as finances would not permit the luxury of bed and breakfast accommodation, decided that camping would be the next best alternative. We set about dusting off the camping equipment, sorted out the tent, loaded it all, plus our bikes, into the back of the car and set off for the Cotswolds.

We had no clear plan, apart from making for Stow-on-the-Wold, where we were certain we would find a campsite close to the town. As events were to prove though, our optimism was rather misguided, and we had the greatest difficulty in finding a suitable place to pitch our tent.

The journey was uneventful, despite the weather being overcast. We stopped for lunch at a Brakspears pub; the attractive and thatched Six Bells at Warborough, before stopping off, for a brief look round the picturesque town of Burford. We located the local office of the English Tourist Board, only to find it was closed on Saturday afternoons (unbelievable really for a popular tourist town in the middle of one of the most picturesque regions of Britain, and at the height of the holiday season as well!). This was unfortunate, as we were banking on the staff being able to direct us to the nearest campsite. 

The small but pleasant Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold (where the wind blows cold) was the next stop. After parking the car we again made our way to the English Tourist Board office, only to find that it too was closed. Enquiries in the town informed us that camping was available at a nearby pub, the New Inn at Nether Westcote. The campsite was in the grounds of the pub and although rather basic, was nevertheless extremely welcome. In the New Inn that evening, we enjoyed a couple of pints of the late and much lamented Morrells Bitter with our meal, before walking up to the Merrymouth Inn at nearby Fifield. 

This was the first Donnington pub on the itinerary, and gave us the chance to sample both the company's BB and SBA bitters. The following morning we cycled into Stow where, despite it being a Sunday, we were able to do some shopping. We then set off to cycle to the rather isolated village of Ford, where we intended to have lunch at the local pub. The Plough at Ford had been recommended to me by a colleague from work, who had enjoyed a long weekend break there the previous year. 

En route to the Plough we decided to make a slight detour, and take a look at the Donnington Brewery itself. Unfortunately this did not prove all that easy. The brewery lies down a private road, close to the village of the same name, in a picture postcard setting. Visitors are not welcome, primarily because they would soon end up over-running the place. Leaving my wife at the top of the lane, I sneaked in, as far as I dared, and managed to obtain some photographs of the back of the brewery, but was unable to get the classic shots I really wanted from across the lake.

We resumed our journey towards Ford, a distance of some six miles or so, through some very pleasant countryside, and managed to locate the Plough. The Plough claims to be one of the oldest inns in England; its cellar having formerly served as a jail. With bare walls, of Cotswold stone, and low-beamed ceilings it looked every bit the part, but being a fine day we sat outside in the garden. Here, we enjoyed a good bread and cheese lunch, washed down with a couple of pints of Donningtons SBA.

That evening we visited our third Donnington pub, the Queens Head in Stow-on-the-Wold itself. The food was good here as well, and for the first time we were able to sample Donningtons XXX Mild, and very tasty it was too.

The following day saw us undertaking a longer cycle ride, to the village of Hook Norton, in neighbouring Oxfordshire. En route we stopped off in the busy market town of Chipping Norton, primarily to stock up on provisions, but also to try beer from Halls Brewery for the first, and as it happened, last time. Halls were a brewery, based in Oxford, that had been taken over, by Ind Coope, a decade or so previously. As is usually the case with such take-overs the brewery was closed and the Halls name disappeared.

Following the general revival of local beers that took place during the early 1980’s, the Hall’s name was resurrected as part of Allied Breweries’ move towards decentralisation, and a beer called Harvest Bitter, brewed at the Ind Coope brewery in Burton-on-Trent introduced to appeal to local tastes. It was not long though before the policy providing local beers was reversed, and the Halls name once again vanished.

Suitably stocked up, and refreshed, we continued our journey. The ride took us through some very pleasant and undulating scenery, in short the English countryside at its best. Before too long we arrived in the village of Hook Norton which, as all beer lovers know, is home to a renowned brewery of the same name. The Pear Tree, in the village centre, served some very acceptable, as well as cheap, pints of Hook Norton Mild and Bitter. After our long cycle ride they were just the ticket, as was the more solid refreshment they helped to wash down. 

Before leaving the village, we cycled up the lane leading to the brewery itself. This time there were no signs warning visitors off, and we were able to see the impressive tower brewery, designed by the famed 19th Century brewery architect, William Bradford, in all its glory. From the brow of a hill, on our way back to the campsite, we were rewarded with a splendid view of the brewery from across the fields. The setting was just perfect; a fine, but rare, example of a working country brewery.

By the time we arrived back in Stow, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, becoming cold and windy. This made cycling hard work and we were both glad of the shelter and relative warmth of the tent for a couple of hours, when we arrived back at the campsite.

That evening it was back to visiting Donnington pubs, but in view of the weather we travelled by car. The splendid Fox Inn in the pretty village of Broadwell, won my accolade as the best Donnington pub to date, and the chicken casserole we enjoyed that night still ranks in my memory as being most excellent. Later that evening we moved on to the Golden Ball at Lower Swell; another fine old, stone-built Cotswold inn. We sat in the bar writing out postcards, enjoying the mild, before calling it a night, and returning to the campsite.

The next morning we decided to move on. It had rained heavily during the night, and wasn't all that better come day break. We packed the car and headed for the village of Broadway, where a campsite had been recommended by some friends. Before driving down the edge of the steep Cotswold escarpment, into the village itself, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular views imaginable, and despite Broadway appearing to be awash with tourists it looked absolutely charming. One look at the place was enough to dispel any doubts we might have had about it being a bit of a tourist trap; a view that had initially made us reluctant to base ourselves there. The campsite too turned out to be every bit as good as our friends had suggested and after roughing it at the previous site, the hot showers, shaving points and well-stocked camp shop were most welcome! What's more the sun was shining again by the time we had finished pitching the tent.

That lunchtime we part cycled, and part pushed our bikes to the top of the Cotswold escarpment. Our destination was the Snowshill Arms, situated in the hamlet of the same name. This was the fifth Donnington pub on my list, and very nice it was too. From the Snowshill Arms, we cycled along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment to Broadway Tower, a 19th Century folly. Inside the tower was an exhibition dedicated to the work of William Morris, whilst from the top there was a spectacular view right across the Vale of Evesham.

Cycling back down the steep Fish Hill was exhilarating, if a little hair-raising. That night there were two more Donnington pubs to visit; the first was the Mount Inn, at Stanton, from where some further spectacular views were obtained. The Mount Inn could best be described as “upmarket”, and the food was certainly expensive. We therefore decided to move on to the nearby New Inn, at Willersey, which was much more to our liking. 

The latter was to be the last Donnington house we visited on that particular holiday. The following day we decided to cast the net a bit further a field, and ended up cycling to the picturesque town of Tewksbury. I can still recall the ride, skirting Dumbleton Hill, and passing through the village of Bredon.

Tewksbury itself was pleasant enough, and after enjoying some excellent Wadworth Devizes Bitter, along with fish and chips, in the ancient and unspoilt Berkeley Arms, a look round the town’s ancient abbey church was in order. Before leaving Tewksbury, we stopped off at the Britannia, a fairly basic local on the outskirts of the town. The Davenports Bitter there was absolutely superb; it was so good in fact that I had to have another pint of it just to make certain!

The ride back was via Bredon Hill, a well known local landmark. It was quite hard going, but a most enjoyable ride nevertheless. Later that year I read a book about life in the countryside between the wars, entitled "The Distant Scene". The book’s author, Fred Archer had lived and worked in Bredon, and the village plus its surroundings featured prominently in the book. It was therefore doubly interesting to read about the area that we had recently visited through the eyes of someone who had been born and bred there.

That night, a car ride was in order, following the day's exertions. My diary recalls that we visited the Butchers Arms at Mickleton. It also records that it was there that I drank Flowers Bitter and Original for the first time. These two beers, which are now very common, were at the time only available from the former West Country Brewery in Cheltenham.

The next day was Thursday, and was to be the last spent in the Cotswolds. We had arranged to visit some friends in Lincoln for the weekend, so would be spending the following day travelling. To make the most of the day, we arose early and cycled into Evesham for a brief look round, and also to visit the bank.

From Evesham, we cycled on to the tiny village of Bretforton, where there was a particularly special pub that I wanted to visit. The pub in question was the world famous Fleece, a totally unspoilt classic pub that had been in the same family for over 400 years. When the last incumbent landlady died, she bequeathed the pub to the National Trust. They in turn had asked CAMRA's pub-owning off-shoot, CAMRA Real Ale Investments, to run the pub on their behalf.

The Fleece was everything that I expected, and a lot more besides. To say that it was unspoilt would be an understatement. To say that it was caught in a time warp would be nearer the truth, but the sense of continuity that only comes when items such as furniture, crockery etc. have been handed down from generation to generation gave it an air that was truly historic, as opposed to the fake sense of history so beloved by modern day pub designers.

My diary records the following beers sampled: Marstons Capital - a light mild that was discontinued some years ago; Highgate Mild, plus Hook Norton Bitter. A Stilton Ploughman’s helped to soak up the beer, before cycling on to the small, picturesque town of Chipping Campden, high up in the Cotswold Hills. The route back was via Snowshill, which afforded one last look at the view from the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, before departing the following day.

That evening, by way of a change, we visited the Plough at Elmley Castle. The original plan had been to have a drink in the Queen Elizabeth, in the village of the same name, but found, much to our disappointment, that it was shut. The Plough was a cider house that brewed its own cider. However, the locals did not appear to appreciate strangers, and the welcome we received both from them, and from the landlady, was far from friendly. We were even charged a deposit on the glasses! Needless to say we didn't stay long, taking our halves of very pale coloured cider outside to drink. It wasn't a terribly good end to the holiday in the Cotswolds but then you can't win them all!

So far as my plan of cycling round all the Donnington pubs was concerned, that would have required a period of at least a fortnight. As it happened we only managed to visit 8 out of 17, but in the days before all day opening, that wasn't bad going at all in five and a half days!


Claude Arkell sadly died in 2007, and control of the Donnington brewery passed to his cousins Peter and James Arkell. Peter and James of course have their own family-owned brewery, Arkells Ltd of Swindon, a reasonably sized concern owning around 100 pubs. According to the latest edition of the Good Beer Guide, Donningtons now only own 15 pubs. I'm not sure which two they sold off; perhaps readers may be able to help here?
Peter and James have stated they will keep things much as they were at Donnington. I only hope they are as good as their word!

A Trip to Lorimer & Clarks (or Edinburgh and back in a day)

Travelling in search of decent beer is not a new interest of mine; it's something I have been doing, on and off, for most of my adult life! Here's a contemporary account of a trip I made to Edinburgh, back in the late 1980's, in order to visit the Caledonian Brewery, then known as Lorimer & Clarks.

How do you fancy a trip round Lorimer & Clarks Brewery? my friend John asked in the pub one night. When? I enquired. In a fortnight's time, my friend replied. Knowing that John worked for British Rail, and travelled everywhere by train, I gathered that our proposed trip would be by rail. Even so I was of the opinion that it would involve an overnight stop, so was somewhat taken aback when John informed me that we would be travelling to Edinburgh and back in a single day. What’s more he had managed to obtain a complimentary return ticket from Tonbridge to Edinburgh for me.

On the allotted day I was up early in order to meet my friend on the platform at Tonbridge station. We boarded the 06:20 train to Charing Cross, alighting at London Bridge. From there we caught the Northern Line tube to Kings Cross, where we boarded the 08:00 service to Edinburgh. This was my fourth visit to the Scottish capital, but was my first train journey from London during daylight hours. Previous visits to Edinburgh had either been at night, or had involved starting my journey from places such as Manchester or Sheffield.

We were joined at Stevenage by several other railwaymen, all of whom were friends or colleagues of John's. After being introduced, we settled down to enjoy the rest of the journey and admire the scenery. The trip was made all the more interesting by my friends’ commentary, and lively banter, but of particular interest to me was the section of line which runs along the spectacular Northumbrian coast. The castle at Bamburgh looked splendid against the backdrop of the sea, and as we crossed over the border into Scotland at Berwick, with its three bridges over the River Tweed, our spirits rose in anticipation of the brewery visit that awaited at the end of our journey.

We arrived in high spirits at Waverley Station, just after one o'clock, and immediately hailed a couple of taxis to take us to Lorimer & Clarks Caledonian Brewery. I recognised the brewery facade as soon as we arrived, as this was not actually the first time that I had visited the brewery. Whilst in Edinburgh, for the 1984 CAMRA AGM, me and a group of friends had been privileged to enjoy an impromptu tour around the brewery. Our guide for the occasion had been none other than the late Dan Kane. Dan was one of the pioneers of CAMRA in Scotland, at a time when Real Ale was very thin on the ground, and was later instrumental in helping to save the Caledonian Brewery when it was earmarked for closure by its then owners, Vaux of Sunderland.

We were offered a drink as soon as we arrived at the brewery; our hosts knowing that we would be thirsty following our long journey. Caledonian 80/- was the order of the day, and every nice it tasted too. It tasted even better with the sparkler removed from the beer pump, something that caused considerable amusement to our guides, but from our point of view, something which added to our enjoyment of this excellent beer.

The tour was every bit as good as the one I had enjoyed some two years previously. The last direct fired coppers in the country were especially interesting. Of particular interest to my railway companions were the sidings and associated loading dock. In days gone by raw materials were brought to the brewery, by rail, and the finished product was also dispatched by the same means. Before being led back to the sampling room, we were shown the old maltings, where the Edinburgh Real Ale Festival takes place

After drinking our fill of 80/- Ale it was time to thank our hosts and say farewell. We headed by taxi back into the city centre in order to catch the train home. John and I caught the 17:00 train; the others in the party, who faced a shorter journey than us, decided to stay on in Edinburgh, no doubt to enjoy a few more drinks!

Our journey back was enlivened by my friend describing various points of interest en route. We crossed the border back in to England, at Berwick travelling once more through the spectacular scenery of the Northumberland country side. The sea was on our left this time, and we could see across to Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory. Shortly after, we were rewarded by the view of picturesque Alnmouth.

Upon leaving Newcastle, we took our seats in the dining car for a well-earned evening meal. We remained there for most of the journey watching as the countryside became progressively flatter as we travelled south. Arriving back at Kings Cross we re-traced our morning's journey back to London Bridge. We decided that there was time for a quick drink before catching the train home. The historic, National Trust owned George, in Southwark High Street, formed the ideal venue, and the Greene King Abbot we enjoyed there was in fine form, if a trifle expensive.

We arrived back in Tonbridge, shortly after eleven o'clock; some 17 hours or so since leaving that morning. It had been a long and somewhat tiring day, but an extremely enjoyable and interesting one all the same.