Thursday, 29 May 2014

Alnmouth to Alnwick via VIP Brewery: 21st May 2014

It was to be another 'staycation' this year, a week in a cottage/apartment in the picturesque village on Alnmouth on the stunning Northumbria coast. This meant a number of walks along the coast, up towards the fabulous Ship Inn at Low Newton by-the-sea, Bamburgh Castle and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, as well as this more local trek inland towards the historic town of Alnwick.

View Alnmouth in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Bus: Alnmouth to Alnwick (Arriva X18, 43 on the hour the day, 53 in the evening, @ Alnmouth Post Office)

Alnmouth is on the Northumberland Coastal Path and perhaps the best view of it is high up from the golf course to the north of the village as you come to it from the Coastal Path.

The beach goes on for several miles (it's certainly possible to walk all the way along to the Fishing Boat Inn at Bullmer on mostly sand & some rocky outlets) and it then sweeps into the mouth of the River Aln estuary.

Alnmouth has one long main street with a good number of coffee shops, restaurants, a great deli (with an excellent, if slightly expensive selection of bottled beer), a Post Office (you can get cash from here) and a number of pubs - The Schooner Hotel (supposedly haunted, but with a great beer garden to hide in), The Sun Inn (book for food here) and the Hope and Anchor (with the choice of either a fish menu or an associated pizza/pasta restaurant), but I found myself at the mock-tudor Red Lion Inn more often than not.

Under the passageway and just in at the side entrance of the building there's a small bar area with wooden bar top, a number of tables & chairs tucked into various corners, low-beams, an open fireplace and then a more formal dining room towards the front of the building. The bar is big enough to allow live music and it was packed out on Saturday afternoon for this session.

On the 4 hand-pulls they certainly had some interesting beers when I was about including Cullercoats Rocket Brigade IPA, Rooster's Astro, Tyne Bank Silver Dollar and Tempest Rye PA and I think I took all of these back out to the passageway and then down to the fabulous beer garden.

This has tables & chairs before the walled garden (where mostly cyclists sat after their exertions), benches on the grass and also 'patio furniture' on the built-up terrace. From here there were panoramic views of the shimmering Aln estuary, especially as the sun came down in the evening. It was a great place for a beer or two (or three).

On my walk out of Alnmouth I came first of all to the Friary of St Francis, an elegant building with extensive flowering gardens. They were holding their Gala/Open Day the next weekend so I unfortunately just missed it; it would have been interesting to have a wander around the place both inside and out.

On the road out of Alnmouth there's a single lane bridge across the River Aln (and a separate pedestrian path) with the Aln still tidal here as it meanders into the estuary.

A bridal path then took me past Alnmouth Cricket Club where I spotted a sign-post to Lesbury. I eventually found the path at the very left hand side of the cricket pitch and this took me through a number of gates and to another bridge over the Aln - this time a lot smaller as the Aln had narrowed considerably over the course of a mile or so.

I eventually came out onto the main street of Lesbury and a couple of hundred metres or so along here I reached The Coach Inn, a perfect place to wait for the X18 bus along the Northumbria coast if getting off at nearby Alnmouth Station, especially if the sun's out and the outside tables can be used.

It's a long, fairly narrow place inside, a central bar, a lounge area on the left, more comfy seating on the right and then a more formal dining room further right into the extension. I liked the large chimney breast in the bar area festooned with all the brass implements you could possible want and there was an interesting selection of 'talking-heads' water jugs displayed close by.

They only have 2 hand-pulls, today with Black Sheep Bitter and Taylor's Landlord, but the Landlord had just gone off, prompting a good-natured discussion between a regular and the barman/owner about whether cask ale was worth the effort or not; I put my tuppence in about this (very much in the 'definitely worth it' camp) as I ordered my pint of Black Sheep Bitter and went out into the sunshine for a bit. From Lesbury it's not that far to the small Hawkhill Business Park on the road to Alnwick. However I couldn't see a decent path on the twisty road so it definitely makes sense to either take the bus (and ask the helpful driver to stop) or bike it. On entering the estate the first unit is allocated to VIP Brewery.

The name stands for The Village Inn Pub which is the name of the establishment in Longframlinton (on the main A1 road to Newcastle) which VIP Brewery owners Phil Bell & Phil Steel help run. Phil Bell was good enough to meet me before setting off on his morning delivery run and let me have a look around the brewery. It's certainly a bit different to the 'standard' industrial unit with the corner of the courtyard in which the brewery is located previously having being used as a turkey farm.

Phil told me that they'd taken over the unit late in 2011 and then spent 8-9 months of 'absolute hell' gutting, sand-blasting, fumigating, cleaning, and connecting-in the 5BBL kit, before taking a BrewLab course and starting to brew late on in 2012. The kit is 2nd-hand from Northern Ireland and consists of a Hot Liquor Tank (up high) and mash tun (complete with home made sparge arm)...

...copper, heat exchanger and 2 fermenting vessels.

This means they can really only brew twice a week with the beers then heading into the cool room for an extended period (Phil tries to condition them there for at least 2 weeks but finds that difficult when demand is high in the summer). This is also where the beer is bottled, by hand at the moment, but they're heading down the contract bottling route in the near future.

There's no doubt that having the Village Inn as a ready made outlet for the beers helped in the initial stages of the brewery, but now Phil delivers to The Schooner in Alnmouth, a couple of places in Alnwick and then to a lot of the seaside & countryside free houses in Northumbria as well as into Newcastle and almost to Carlisle. There are plans afoot to add fermenters and extend into the next door building (the whole courtyard is unoccupied) and Phil's long term goal would be to have a brewery tap/shop/café with outdoor seating and views to the rolling Northumbria countryside, but at the moment he's happy being his own boss and developing & brewing new beers.

All the beers have a Village prefix and they've mostly gone down the 'traditional' route, but with some twists. Village Lite is lager/golden ale hybrid which Phil shifts masses of in the summer, the Village Bike (name a bit dubious, but see below) is a traditional bitter, the Village Ghost a warming stout for the winter and there's also been a Village Copper, a Village Choir, a Village Ruby and a Village Gossip (I suggested Village Turkey when he manages to get the brewery tap open). Almost all the beers are been between 3.3% and 4.8% abv as that is what Phil says his market demands - it's difficult for his customers to justify the increased cost of a higher abv beer and since a lot of the pubs are 'fairly' remote, driving after a pint of higher abv beer is not at all advisable, however he has done an higher abv IPA and plans a North-East Hefeweizen at some point. The pump-clip & bottle label artwork is quite distinctive, with the beer 'object' in the foreground and a large cast of associated characters milling about in the background hoping for some attention as the next possible beer - I really liked them

After exchanging beers with Phil the next stage on my journey was to get to Alnwick - again it's probably easier to get the bus or take the bike rather than walk on the main road, but it's not far until the overpass over the A1 and the sign for 'Alnwick - historic market town' comes into view. The first pub I came to was The Oaks Hotel, a Jennings pub at the side of a busy mini-roundabout, but I decided to continue further on towards the centre of Alnwick and got off the bus at Alnwick Infirmary (there's an excellent Minor Injuries Clinic here - don't ask!). Next to the Infirmary is the impressively high Tenantry Column complete with Percy Lion set on-high which pre-dates Nelson's Column by a good few years.

Just across from here is a fantastic place, Barter Books, supposedly one of the largest 2nd-hand bookstores in the UK. It was originally the old Alnwick Station building and has retained a lot of railway-themed features and furniture.

Inside it is *big*; you get lulled into a false sense of security with the smallish front foyer/old booking office where the horror & SF books are located (there is also an honesty-box café here), and then you pass into the main bookshop proper, with row-upon-row-upon-row of bookshelves completely filled with books. There are also a large number of glass lined cabinets with more rare and/or historic books, and all along one side a larger restaurant/'buffet car' serving both main meals and a great selection of cakes & pastries.

Scattered around there are also internet connection points and as a nod to its railway station origins, a couple of small model trains that whirr around on tracks above your head every few minutes.

I could probably have spent most of my holiday here, especially on the rainy days, but there's a lot more to Alnwick. I walked further towards the centre of town and just about managed to get across the road at the 15th Century Hotspur tower gate, part of the old town walls - it's single file here with traffic coming from 4 different directions.

There are some great 'olde' street names here - beyond the tower is called 'Bondate Within' and before it 'Bondgate Without' and just across the road from the Hotspur tower in Bondgate Without is the Fleece Inn.

It's a corner pub with a nice traditional feel to it and comprises 2 separate bar areas with the bar itself also going around the corner and serving both areas and (I think) a separate pool room at the back.

There are 3 or 4 hand-pulls available on the bar, serving mostly local beers, so I took a 1/2 of the High House Farm 5th Anniversary Ale (sweet, red fruits and a bitter earthy finish, not bad for a 3.5% abv). They weren't serving food when I was in but the bar area that I sat in had enough plates up on the wall for a medium sized banquet.

Just up the hill from the Fleece I found another pub, The Tanners Arms.

From the outside it actually seems as if it should be quite an extensive multi-roomed establishment, but inside there's only a single large room. On the dark wooden bar on the left are the 6 hand-pulls & a few kegged beers, there a number of colourful glass panes above the bar gantry and it's all draped with copious amounts of foliage.

The arboreal theme continues with an actual tree in the centre of the U-shaped seating area; OK, it's sort of disguised as a coat-stand but it's still an impressive feature in a pub (although I have (maybe) seen one or two better).
(Pic from the Tanners Arms web pages)

There was some more than decent (again mostly local) beer on the hand-pulls (I took 1/2 of Allandale End NZPA, biscuity sweet with a lovely bitter grapefruit/lemon-sherbet finish) but there was also some interesting kegged beer - I could see WEST 4 and also 2 beers from Allendale (the Tanners definitely seems a bit of an Allendale brewery tap). I got talking to the friendly barman about the Allendale Adder Lager, was 'persuaded' to try a 1/2 and it was pretty decent - slightly sweet upfront, nicely fizzy, maybe some aniseed, and a long dry bitter finish (it was probably better than the WEST 4 - shhhh...).

There are a lot more pubs in Alnwick (there was no way I was going to manage too many more) but as well as the pubs there's a Farmers Market on Saturday with a decent amount of stalls.

And of course probably the main tourist attraction in Alnwick is the seriously impressive Alnwick Castle, used in the Harry Potter films as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It's a large, extensive site (with the Alnwick Gardens next door), but it is expensive to get in (although the tickets do last for 12 months) and is just incredibly busy all year round.

Instead I was far happier to wander about Alnwick and almost bump into a few other historical features such the statue of Hotspur in the Pottergate Garden...

and the gothic arch of Pottergate Tower.

My last port of call in Alnwick was the somewhat hidden away John Bull Inn, just up the road & through some archways from Alnwick bus station.

It seems at first glance to be very much an old fashioned, basic, back-street boozer comprising a front room with a number of seats, cabinet-based dart-board and some musical instruments up on the wall...

...partially separated by an arched partition to a back room with more seats and lots of old Belgian brewery/beer signs...

...with a fairly small bar serving both spaces at the far left corner.

But what makes it different is the amount of interesting beers they have on hand-pull and the large stock of German & Belgian bottled beers in the fridges. On today were Saltaire Amarillo Gold & NZ South Island Pale (both fantastic), Inveralmond Lia Fail, Countrylife Devonshire Piglet and North Star Sentinel as well as 2 cask ciders. It's most definitely a destination pub - quite a few people (apart from me) came in and ticked/untappd things off & took photos, and there was a friendly, almost resigned/bemused/tolerant approach from the locals and the bar-staff. It's a really nice place, just beware that it's only open from 7pm to midnight (and also 12 to 3pm lunchtime on weekends) but at least it's close enough to time the run to the bus station to almost the minute (just remember which archway you came through).

Return journey:-
  Bus: Alnwick to Alnmouth (Arriva X18, 02 on the hour during the day, 12 in the evening)

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