Taking the Waters (With Malt and Hops)

Richard Plumb in Harrogate


Friday 5pm.  I am waiting to be joined by Mrs P before embarking on another weekend of ale research, dining and retail, in measured quantities of each, as, I have again been warned, “we are not spending all weekend in pubs”.  It is bitterly cold outside so I suspect a review of this stance may take place, once we have been out for a while.

Sitting near the bar of The Old Swan Hotel, I could see the barman preparing for the evening session.  Unusually, for these sort of hotels, there was a handpump, dispensing Theakston Best Bitter.  Perhaps I would try a pint in a bit.  I continued to observe the barman setting up.  Ice bucket – filled, lemons –  sliced, fridges –  re-stocked …… pump clip –  turned round!  Perhaps I wouldn’t then.  It remained facing away all weekend – wouldn’t do to sell the stuff over the busiest part of the week, now, would it?  How could they claim there was no demand and discontinue it, if they did that?

Presently my fellow researcher arrived and we set out, down the hill towards the town centre.  My what a pretty place Harrogate is?  Lots of stone buildings, grand facades and history.  The Town Council had been thoughtful and placed informative brass plaques on all buildings of note, which, to my wife’s annoyance, I would stop and read.  In no time, the first of my target pubs hove into view – Hales Bar on Crescent Road, but, it was early, the warning was still ringing in my ear, so I effected a demeanour of disinterest, whilst casting sidelong glances into windows, and continued walking.

Some hills, and several degrees of frost later, we reached a road named The Ginnel, where I knew another target venue was located.  I spotted Major Tom’s Social down the hill and having read they were noted for their pizzas, cited this as a suitable reason to enter.  Success; the evening was off to a good start.  An odd sort of place to venture into but friendly nevertheless, Major Tom’s was located above an art gallery and along a corridor past a vinyl record shop.  The bar resembled a pop up, given the extensive use of sterling board for the bar itself, panels behind and general boarding out across most locations.  The furniture seemed to have been recovered from a closed down school, even down to the blackboard, on which was helpfully drawn a diagram of the brewing process.  Dotted around were mannequins in space suits, in keeping with the Major Tom theme.

Pizzas ordered (and beer mat shaped numbered disc retained), I turned my attention to the beer offering, and it was varied.  Roosters Highway at 5.1% ABV and Session IPA (4.7%), Swannay Orkney Stout (4.2%) and Vocation Pride and Joy IPA at 5.3%.  To these could be added a number of keg craft beers but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to these.  I ordered the Orkney Stout to warm us up and it did not disappoint.  Post Pizza, we had a second go at the Stout and people watched for a while.  There weren’t many to watch but I suspected the place would be much busier later.

Leaving, we wandered around town for a while before encountering Royal Parade and The Bell Tavern directly ahead.  By now, the insistent cold wind had achieved my aim and Mrs P enthusiastically followed my lead and we entered.   This great looking place reminded me of Edinburgh pubs with extensive use of heavy, dark wood, warm lighting and an extensive range of hand pumps.  I was very happy indeed as I could select from Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker at 4.0%, Ilkley Tribus Lupulus (Series2.1,  4.4%), Roosters Yankee (4.3%) plus Howl, (6.8%) and matured in rum barrels, Orkney Atlas Range Nimbus Blonde at 5.0%, Okells IPA at 4.5%, Theakston Best Bitter (3.8%), Hawkshead Windermere Pale (3.5%) and Fyne Ales, Jarl at 3.8%.  Rarely encountering the Isle of Man brewer, I opted for the Okells whilst Mrs P tried the TT Boltmaker.  It sounded sturdy and therefore dark but it was quite thin and bland.  The Okells was fine, so I had another.

To sit down, we moved into another room which resembled a museum of toffee, for this is what it was.  The room had once been the main outlet for Farrah’s toffee and had become part of the pub when the shop closed.  Farrah’s is still made in the town but is sold in numerous other shops.  The wall was dominated by a dark timber display on which was carved “We are the sole makers of Farrah’s Original Harrogate Toffee known the world over as the Purest and the Best.”  I resolved to buy some before the weekend was out, but forgot.

Curtailing this wonderful ale drinking experience, we returned to the hotel for dinner.  Booking a table for 7.30pm seemed a good idea at the time.  There would always be tomorrow and some improvement in the temperature was threatened.  We dined well and retired to the bar to fill up the corners.

In the morning, after arguably the best full English I have ever enjoyed, we set out, once more for the town centre.  Compulsory retail took up a few hours before the prospect of further ale research beckoned.  Approaching by a different route, we unexpectedly encountered Hales Bar once more.  This time, entry was permitted and I gladly complied.

Behold, another oasis of order, calm, sumptuous furnishings and dark wood in this, Harrogate’s oldest pub, which has been in the ownership of the same family for generations.  Seven ales were on offer and I list them all here, pursuant to my Editor’s recent instruction to so do.

Timothy Taylor Landlord (4.3%) vied for my attention alongside Fullers London Pride at 4.1%, Robinsons Blonde (3.8%), Black Sheep, Holy Grail (4.0%), Daleside Old Legover at 4.1% and Hales Ale also 4.1% with, finally, In Bev Bass at 4.4%

Beside the pumps was a sign advising the distance each beer had travelled.  The Fullers won that easily at 221.1 miles whilst the truly local Daleside had come a modest 1.9 miles.  Gradually, we repeat history when local breweries served their local community.  How long before the horse drawn dray comes back into general use, I wondered.

We settled down at a table sheltered from the opening door and the icy blast, and enjoyed Old Legover followed by Holy Grail.  I can get TT Landlord near home and London Pride pretty much everywhere.  I had an exploratory walk around and noted gas flame cigar lighters on the bar and a water tap to dilute whisky – a standard Scottish pub feature.  Through a short corridor, I encountered another bar called The Vaults which also doubled as a tea room during the day.

After an enjoyable hour, we set off, map in hand, in search of The Stray and two other pubs.  Opting for back roads, rather than the more direct route, I failed to impress Mrs P when I could not locate The Stray but, instead, found myself in some pub-less hinterland dominated by estate agents.  Always one to study the offerings of these, for downsizing options in the future, we concluded Harrogate would not make our, worryingly short, list.

Still, a short walk distant, would bring us to the climax of the weekend and The Harrogate Tap on Station Parade, which I had spotted earlier, during compulsory retail hell.  It was right next door to the railway station, which was understandable, given its history as the station refectory.  Closed for over 30 years, it had been restored to original splendour by The Tapped Brew Company, who have also transformed station bars at Sheffield and York.

The bar was extremely busy and we briefly contemplated abandoning our visit until we spotted a small table with three stools and one occupant; a middle-aged chap reading a book.  With his agreement, we squeezed into the remaining space.  I managed to access the bar and caught the eye of a frantically busy member of staff.  Not wishing to take up too much of her time, I ordered a pint and a half of Roosters Distant Sun (3.9%) which met Mrs P’s full approval as it was dark, malty and locally brewed in Knaresborough.  Returning to the table, the other occupant was now finishing- up his pint but, when I offered him a refill, he accepted and, when I returned a second time, we fell into conversation.

It’s amazing who you meet in English pubs and their diverse backgrounds.  Andy was a teacher in the local Grammar School, who started out as a trombonist in a band on a cruise liner, where he met his American wife with whom he set up home and has three, dual nationality daughters.  All three were artistic, in their own right.  Two were in Sheffield, with his wife, at some drama event but he would be leaving soon to meet the third for dinner.  This didn’t stop him staying with us for a couple of hours whilst we sank several great pints.

Mrs P stayed on the Distant Sun whilst I chopped and changed and sampled several from the extensive range, comprising, North Riding Sticklebract (4.5%), Marble, Earl Grey IPA at 6.8%, Tapped, Mojo at 3.6%, Kirkstall Pale Ale (4.0%), Black Sheep Best Bitter, 3.8%, Roosters Weakender (3.0%), Bristol, Bitter Kiwi at 5.0%, Mallinsons Dana (3.8%), Great Yorkshire, Blackout at 5.0% and Wild Beer Company, Biddle at 4.2%.  Whilst we sampled and supped, the pub became less busy and I noticed lots of folk, particularly children, using the route from the station platform and through the bar, to exit the station.  This, Andy informed me, was to avoid the ticket check at the proper exit barrier.

Eventually, our friendly local had to leave and our thoughts turned to food as we hadn’t had anything since breakfast, and it was now dark.  With much ale taken, our discerning dining requirements had dimmed and we found ourselves in a random Chinese buffet on an “East All You Can for £12” mission.  Ensuring value for money, and finishing off our bottle of wine (yes, honestly), we ventured towards the hotel, it being now 10.30pm.  But, at Cheltenham Crescent, we encountered the Little Ale House, a new addition to the pub scene in a converted shop.

To say it was busy would be an understatement but, feeling no pain at this stage, we gradually worked our way to the tiny bar and selected the first suitable offering, Great Heck, Dave, a dark mild at 3.8%.  The extensive offering was listed on a collection of blackboards and, at this stage, being unable to make coherent notes, I photographed the boards with a view towards listing it all later.  We then found our way to the only available seating, in the cellar, and finished off our drinks.

At home, I uploaded the photo and zoomed in to study what was listed.  With a little internet research for clarification, I can tell you that the other offerings extended to Mad Hatter, Nightmare on Bold Street, a 5.3% milk stout, North Riding, Aussie Pale, made with Australian Hops at the Scarborough brewery (4.5%), Fierce, Granadilla Guerrilla (5.5%) from Aberdeen, Bad Seed Session IPA and Oatmeal Stout, an unrefined and unfiltered stout from this Malton brewer.

No details on ABV’s as their listing in the GBG is brief and their website is being rebuilt.  Final two, Kelham Island, Pale Rider (5.2%) and Dark Revolution, So. LA, an American Pale Ale at 4.5%.  How on Earth they fit all that lot in such a small space is a wonder.  Oh, to try them all.  The spirit was sort of willing but the liver was weak.

Thus concluded another weekend of discovery and enjoyment in my preferred environment.  With Harrogate firmly on the re-visit list, we had a late taste in the hotel before turning in.