Pubs the length and breadth of Britain have been under a constant attack over the past decade. It`s Wetherspoons` fault, Tesco are to blame, it`s down to money-grabbing pub co`s, whatever you choose to believe, public houses everywhere have had to adapt and evolve. Or close. Nowhere is that challenge greater than in rural communities where pubs have to be all things to all people. Or close.
Montgomeryshire CAMRA are doing their bit. Every couple of months they organise a bus trip visiting some ale outposts in the Mid Wales and Shropshire area.
The first stop for me was in a wet and wild Welshpool where I visited the unassuming Bistro Seven which had been recommended to me as the best place in this market-town for a decent pint. This welcoming hive of culinary industry provided me with a well-kept starter in the form of Purple Moose`s elderflower ale, the name of which escapes me. Not my usual type of tipple but cracking to be honest. Although it was barely midday, this place was already filling up with couples and families dining, struggling to select from the inviting menu, and a couple of other drinkers at the bar.
I then boarded the late-running fun bus after a swift half of better than expected and nicely balanced Lion`s Roar (3.8% Banks) at The Smithfield Bell. This is an imposing Marstons 2-for-1, carpet and climbing frame, joint opposite a sprawling Tesco which dominates Welshpool and appears to be the cause of a crazy one-way system where all roads seem to lead to the supermarket. Maybe they are to blame for absolutely everything, after all!? Maybe this is the future of small town pubs?
First proper stop is The Royal Hill and is really remote. It is actually in Edgerley, Shropshire. Or Melverley. It is accessed by a lengthy lane, miles long and single-tracked including, I kid you not (only had a pint and a half by this point), crossing a narrow metal pontoon bridge that barely seemed wide enough to fit the bus over. For large chunks of the year, this place is inaccessible due to its location on the floodplains of the River Severn. This quaint multi-roomed pub has the lot. Two tidy ales on, a glorious aspect and an unflappable barmaid who worked in permanent fifth gear to provide service with a smile to the thirsty bus load. She can probably walk on water come flood season. Even the food sounded too good to be true - Sea Bass at £10! Little wonder the Hill was heaving with punters.
I enjoyed my Salopian Gold but the Three Tuns Pale was not for me. Too wheaty for my palate or maybe it was the super sweet malt that my tour guide informed me this brewer favours. Well-kept mind and, if you can ever find this gem of a boozer, stay a while. And bring a tent, as one day-tripper said he intended to do in the future!
Next up was food-orientated Hand and Diamond at Coedway. Another Salopian brew here, albeit a fair bit dearer, in the form of the hoppier Oracle. Nice it was too but, to the ire of several of our party, it didn`t really clear. Oracle tasted tidy though, citrusy but without the real zesty zing that this ale can deliver.
A little later, food was served at the cosy Fir Tree. Only one ale here but the Wye Valley Butty Bach (4.5%) is clearly a big local favourite. It is brewed in England but for a Welsh audience, my guide sagely points out but, despite possessing `dual heritage` this one has much too much malty sweetness for my palate. I have enjoyed their HPA in the past though. Or was it EPA?
The Admiral Rodney at Criggion was most folks` choice for pub of the day. At the foot of the 1194 feet of Breidden Hill with Rodney`s Pillar atop, this place embodies the struggle that rural pubs can face. The vista is fantastic but there is hardly a chimney pot in sight. Great beer with the Hop Twister, again from the tremendous Salopian Brewery, and this was clearly my favourite of the day. I would happily still be sat there now! (The Joules` Slumbering Monk (4.5%) was rightly popular too).
Next up was The Punch Bowl, Llandrinio, which is apparently about to BECOME a free house after being bought from a pub co fighting off a change of use proposal with a 500+ signature petition! Buck that trend! One to watch but, for now, there was just Bass and Doom Bar on offer plus pool and fruit machines, as many of the rural boozers seem to possess. Apparently, the Punch Bowl really is a community hub with a huge array of teams based there.
The last 3 were the Horseshoe in Arddleen, the King`s Head in Guilsfield and finally The Oak also in Guilsfield. Butty Bach at The Oak was the group`s pick from these three that I had visited before. Great to see these places doing decent trade but possibly the beer could be (a bitter) better. Maybe they ought to give those Salopian chaps across the border a holla!
Top 3 ales as voted by those who went on this village trip were as follows...
1st - Admiral Rodney, Criggion - Salopian Hop Twister
2nd- Hand & Diamond, Coedway - Station Bitter
3rd- Oak, Guilsfield - Butty Bach
(Thanks to CAMRA Montgomeryshire for the photos of the Royal Hill and The Punchbowl)