I ask my taxi driver what makes York the best place for a pub crawl. “It’s the most beautiful, picturesque and historical city in England,” he replies, “and you can tell York’s history through its pubs. You don’t have to go far, just ambling around. You can’t get lost and you’ll never get thirsty.”
He adds, “Not long ago we had 365 pubs,” as he drives me all of five minutes from the train station to my hotel (just about everywhere in York is within walking – and crawling–distance.) “It’s a right shame there’s only about 300 left.”
Most of us would think that number excessive for a population of about 180,000. But York is a mecca for both heritage fans and “real ale” connoisseurs, from Londoners on day trips to foreigners like me spending a few days visiting the city and its surrounds.
A good starting point for boning up on the local brews and brewing styles is The York Brewery. A quick tour of this Dickensian factory (circa 1820) is followed by a tasting (choose four ales from several on tap) and a quick lecture on a few things you should know before visiting the local booze-cans—known affectionately in these parts as ‘boozers’.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is an organization that promotes real ale and the traditional British Pub. In the early ‘70s many small breweries closed or were bought up by “super breweries” and cask ale was about to expire. CAMRA coined the term “real ale” for cask-conditioned (served from the keg while it’s still fermenting; also referred to as “live” ale) and bottle-conditioned beers to emphasize their superiority over keg beer. Today, over 75,000 CAMRA members worldwide consider everything else as “near beer” or not even beer.
Any more information that you need to know can be gleaned from just about anyone you rub shoulders with at the local. Or you might want to hook up with professional pub crawler Keith Mulhearn (talk about dream job); after all, with more than 300 pubs, deciding which ones to visit can be daunting.
We hit the narrow cobbled roads and drink in the atmosphere — even the air smells like hops. Mulhearn is also a local historian. “Every pub has ten stories,” he says, “especially from the old guy in the corner who remembers the good old days — there’s no better place than a pub to hear a good yarn.”
“Pub crawling in York is all about exploring and having fun,” Mulhearn says. “Young and old people alike change their regular routes for a bit of adventure.” Pub conversation is mainly about all things beer and other people’s favourite pubs. Barmaids are also considered an important issue, tied for second place with soccer.
“We have more free houses now than we did a decade ago when the big breweries took over,” says Mulhearn. “They always served the same lager and it was bloody awful.” Nowadays, some pubs owned by the big breweries but run by local managers can serve beer from breweries other than their own —hence the term “free houses.” And pubs constantly change their menus — John Smith’s bitter on tap yesterday could be replaced by Black Sheep bitter today.
Everyone seems to have a say in what’s on tap. “If enough people moan about a particular brew, the landlord will listen. Before, he would say if you don’t like it, scram … actually, I think quite a few still say that,” says Mulhearn, laughing.
I soon find out that each pub has its own quirks and peculiar charms, like its inhabitants. We start at the King’s Arms, unique because it is constantly flooding from the perilously close river nearby. “It flooded two weeks ago to the second highest level it has ever been,” said the proprietor, as he points to a marker on the wall. “This time nobody got served, not even by boat.” Apparently, the river levels rose so high the King’s Arms actually shut down. “Sometimes it laps up to the door but they only close when the water splashes over the bar top and everyone is standing in their wellies,” Kulhearn chimes in. I think they are having one over on me but I’m directed to several photos on the wall and sure enough, there in black and white, men are served pints as they stand in their canoes, water lapping the bar top. You won’t find any carpeting here.
After a glass (pacing myself) of Centurion’s “Ghost” ale with tones of chocolate malt and roast barley, we stroll over to The Blue Bell, one of York’s most respected real ale boozers and one of the oldest. Complete with original Edwardian interior, the rooms are snug.
Sidle up to the glazed screens where proprietor Sue Hardi passes pints through opening panels to the narrow passageway and back room. “Allo luv, you alright?” says Sue as she hands Margaret (age 84) a pint of Guinness. “That’s a tenner,” she says to Margaret, letting her know which bill traded hands. As it turns out, Margaret is back for round two, having stopped by for a pint at opening.
I ask Sue who makes up her clientele. “About 80 percent local and that means you must be within breeding distance,” she says, with a wink.
“The usual clientele ratio is five percent courting couples, 20 percent old man in corner, 60 percent experts in pub chat, 10 percent tourists, and five percent dog,” a strange man at the bar chimes in as he takes a long pull on “The Terrier,” an award-winning ale and impossible to get at the end of the night. I down a glass of “Guzzler” and we head toward The Golden Fleece, possibly the oldest pub in York — an inn from around 1650.
“Possibly” is the operative word because our next stop — the Old Starre Inn, also claims to be the oldest, licensed in 1644. The story goes that Edward, son of Henry V111, decided that York residents were too drunk and only allowed eight licenses (there were about 50 pubs at the time) and the Starre was one of the eight. Mulhearn is thrilled to discover local brewer Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter is on tap and no wonder — he still uses oak barrels and his ale is remarkable.
“The Three-Legged Mare is all gussied up in traditional style,” explains Mulhearn as we return to the 21st century with a visit to that pub. I try a sampler box (4 x 4 ounces) of local ales from light to dark, all “good old traditional English styles.” Prices fluctuate from one establishment to another; here it’s cheap at £1.38 a pint. And popular….
Next up is The Ackhorne, tucked away down narrow St. Martin’s Lane and often missed by visitors. It has a wide range of real ales –- the board above the bar lists 16 on tap today.
“Gastro pubs are restaurants in drag — The Maltings is a pub, period,” says the bartender as I order a glass of Todcaster Ale. The ceiling, bar and most of the walls are built from old oak doors. “Plan your eating first,” Mulhearn advises. Food is usually served until 6 p.m. in pubs (9 p.m. in wine bars). Note: Most everyone serves a home-cooked Sunday roast, not to be missed, with Yorkshire pudding (what else?) and lashings of gravy.
We stumbled over to a few more boozers down the lane but I can’t remember their names because at this point, my notes are indecipherable.
There’s nothing better after a pub crawl than a proper English breakfast. My hotel had the works: traditional black pudding or regular bangers, fried bread, fried tomatoes, rashers of bacon and eggs washed down with scalding tea strong as espresso.
If there’s one place to be hungover with no regrets, it’s Harrogate. If you are checking out of your hotel, leave your luggage at the York train station and take a half-hour ride to this upscale town. But first, phone ahead and book a session at the newly renovated and exotic Turkish Baths. Spend a few hours de-toxing before a ten-minute walk along the green and expansive Stray to The Coach & Horses, a local favourite and a proper British pub. Always on tap: two guest beers and a few Daleside brews. Take a brew break and stop by the renowned Betty’s for a “fat rascal” (the best scone I have ever had) and sturdy crockery and marvel at the décor—this one is the original 1919 venue with highly polished woodwork and Victorian stained glass.
As in York, just about everywhere in Harrogate is within walking distance. The Old Bell Tavern, Hales Bar and The Blues Bar are all short strolls between pints and each is worth a visit. Bill Clinton stopped in for a pint at The Old Bell Tavern some years back, as his photo on the wall attests. He might have had a pint of mild Roosters ale with a stellar Beery pie; gutsy and gob-smacking good with a Yorkshire pudding crust.
A half-hour train ride north (the train runs every 20 minutes) puts you into the small university city of Durham that might have the most beautiful cathedral in the world. It doesn’t have quite as many pubs as York does, but the beer is just as good. My cousin Barry Bonnick replaced Mulhearn here and escorted me to no less than a dozen drinkeries. He’s been a member of CAMRA for years and likes nothing more than going on about real ale.
“A good beer is a balance between bitter and sweet,” Bonnick explains as I down a Folly Ale from Wharfedale Brewery, full of nut and caramel flavours. “Toffee and caramel come from malt and bitter from hops.”
We sample Big Lamp Bitter – low alcohol content at 3.8 percent but if you’re going back to work, a good “ lunch session.” Big Lamp also makes “Black Out” at 11 percent but I give it a pass. We breeze into the Victoria (with a portrait of Her Majesty on the red brick frontage dated 1899). With a constantly changing selection of ales, its Lillliputian rooms are packed full of pub enthusiasts.
At the Dun Cow, a spaniel sniffs every patron; The Shakespeare is a “spit and sawdust” room but the locals consider it a gem (good selection and cheap), where everyone is drinking Fuller’s London Pride. There’s more: Market Tavern, Colpitts, the charming Swan and Three Signets. But my liver informs me that it’s time to catch the last train back to London. You can get a few hours kip on the train (leaving almost hourly) before it arrives at King’s Cross station.
Stand at the bar with just a hint of anxiety and thirst. Unlike the ubiquitous British queue, the pub has an invisible line-up, the landlord or bartender mentally noting who is next in line. Order only when he or she has acknowledged you and be ready to pay; a pint of ale will set you back about £1.88 (£2.50 in London). Start up a conversation with anyone within earshot and you’re bound to find an ale expert. Be prepared to stand a round with your new friend(s) unless you want to be considered tight.
If You Go:
The best, no-stress way to see Britain is by rail. You can save by purchasing a rail pass and you won’t have to queue each trip to purchase a ticket. First class isn’t cheap but it’s worthwhile, especially after you’ve had a few pints.
Must See: YorkCastleMuseum for a glimpse into pub signs and their meanings. Walk around Half Moon Court — it offers an excellent replica of local streets from an era when few people could read or write and relied on signs.
The Mount Royale Hotel, run by the charming Oxtoby family, is a cross between a boutique hotel and upscale B&B. Most of the spacious rooms overlook a lovely expansive garden. Phone 01904 628856; email: email@example.com; website: www.mountroyale.co.uk
Keith Mulhearn, Professional Pub Crawler:
Phone: 07931 668935; mail: roamintours.co.uk; website:www.roamintours.co.uk
Turkish Baths: From £10 – £15. Phone (01423) 556746 www.harrogate.gov.uk/turkishbaths