– Craig Pinhey
While not all of us are religious in the traditional sense, we still crave spiritual experiences. For me, that usually amounts to drinking a good beer in a nice pub while reading one of my favourite authors.
Occasionally, though, I need the next level of therapy, which involves going to one of my favourite regions to enjoy my chosen pastime at the source. A recent 4-day sojourn to Southern England to visit beautiful pubs, walk the coast, and enjoy fresh cask ale was just the ticket – my ticket to enlightenment. I brought a great book too, in theme: The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons’ Sherlock Holmes tome.
The trip started poorly though, with plans to head to a pub for lunch destroyed by a hellish wait at the passport line at Heathrow. Once through, I was distraught to find my rental car had no GPS. Undaunted, I headed south, picking my way along the M3, A3 and secondary roads, eventually stopping at a petrol station for a coffee and a map. Yes, I used an actual paper map to find my bed for the night at The Castle Inn in West Lulworth, Dorset.The first pint is often the best on such trips, simply due to anticipation. Mine was Coast Path, a refreshing seasonal 3.6% ABV summer ale from Palmers Brewery in Bridport, Dorset County. This was very appropriate as my plan was to walk parts of the Jurassic Coastline over the next few days. Although good pubs in England serve regular draft beer in additional to cask ale, my main interest is to drink cask. When well done, it’s my favourite drink in the world.
It is largely a textural thing. I love the smoothness, although I also love how English breweries make low alcohol ale that is moderately bitter and deliciously malty, and that tastes far better when naturally carbonated and dry hopped in the cask. I don’t find this is the case with citrusy, piney, bitter North American style ales or IPAs, which lose their balance and spark when cask conditioned.
After a tasty curry and fries, I enjoyed several more cask ales before retiring. This was late May, and many UK breweries had their summer ales out, which are typically golden and more refreshing than a regular bitter, although still blessed with pleasant malt character and good body. Examples included Innocence, 4% ABV with light citrus notes from Plain Ales in Wiltshire, and Cotleigh Golden Seahawk (4.2% ABV) from Somerset.
NOTE 1: I didn’t drink a single beer over 4.5% ABV on the trip. That’s how you stay functional.
NOTE 2: Beer is relatively cheap in rural pubs, around 5-7 $Cdn (includes tax, and there’s no tipping) for an English pint, which is a full 20 ounces (568 ml).
After a full English breakfast – hold the fried bread – and a walk to the remarkable coastline and oddly circular beach at Lulworth Cove, I hopped in my rental and headed to the spectacular beach and cliffs at West Bay in Bridport, made famous by the British crime drama Broadchurch. By then I’d figured out – duh! – that the iPhone GPS works like a charm if you preload the map when connected to Wi-Fi. The West Bay Arms serves cask Palmers ales – I had their amber coloured Copper – and excellent food, such as classic fish and chips. After lunch, a view from the cliff path was certainly worth the climb.
That evening I tried an educational flight of still ciders at the Castle Inn – which has over 40 on offer – including a very wild tasting farmhouse cider from Heck’s in Somerset. Southern England is a mecca for cider lovers.
An exciting part about touring the UK is driving through tiny rural roads, such as the one I meandered along to Dartmoor in Devon, the home county of my grandfather, all the way accompanied by my XTC and Elvis Costello anchored playlists. The GPS took me on one lane, two way traffic, winding roads in farm country, with stone walls or hedgerows on both sides, so that – just like in life – you cannot see what’s coming around the next corner. Sometimes it’s a cow or some sheep, other times a truck.
I only had to back up a few times to let vehicles pass, and found the idyllic East Dart Hotel in Postbridge in time for a wonderful al fresco lunch accompanied by Shiraz (the owner’s Newfoundland dog) and a terrific pint of Devon Dew (4.5% ABV), from Summerskills Brewery in Plymouth. That afternoon I walked the 45 minutes through the moor to the historic, renowned Warren House Inn, an off the grid pub in the middle of barren Dartmoor, with a wood fire that’s burned in their stone fireplace since 1845.
This was a pilgrimage for me, as I’d been there 15 years earlier with my father and brothers. I grabbed a pint of Blacktop’s Pride of Dartmoor (and after that an Otter Ale from Devon) and carried it across the road to their beer garden for a truly zen experience, letting my stress dissolve into the sheep mowed moor.
The trip mostly over, I worked my way back towards Heathrow with only a stop for a delightful lunch and ales at the Red Lion in Criklade, Swindon, in Wiltshire. The Red Lion is also the home of the Hop Kettle brewery, a micro in behind the pub. The food and beer were excellent, including their dry, classic 3.8% ABV C.O.B (Cricklade Ordinary Bitter) and maltier 4.2% ABV North Wall Bitter.
I completed my pub tour at The White Horse in Longford Village, right by Heathrow. They offer accommodation and good cask ale, too. The building dates to the 1500s and is a stone’s throw from the airport, convenient for an early morning car return before the flight home (in my case, direct to Halifax).
Wherever your ‘favourite drink’ destination, trips like this can be very therapeutic, renewing your soul, whether you have one or not.