Last Updated : 07/07/07
ath is a good beer city, this much I know - or, at least, it used to be; I remember in the “golden years” (Yeah, a ride on the trams was tuppence, I know) when I used to visit fairly regularly that there was a decent spread of pubs and, with them, beers throughout the centre. The much unlamented Ash Vine had their Pig & Whistle, Hatchetts was decent, and a number of other bars helped to keep the tick count clicking forwards.
Wind forwards ten years or more and the scene is very different, but arguably a lot better. The new Abbey Ales owns a few pubs in the centre (although once you’ve had their beer that’s your lot) and some new free houses have come along to spread the word amongst the populace – or so I’d heard from reports on Scoopgen. Consequently, as soon as I knew my work would take me to Bath, I contacted Martin the Mildman who, by his reports on Scoopgen, seemed to be in Bath every other week and he kindly supplied me with some excellent gen and so, armed with a wad of information, I was all genned up and ready to hit a city I’d not been around in a decade!
Miles out again.
True to form, work had booked me into a hotel five miles outside Bath itself, although I’d had enough notice to be able to work out that I could get a bus into the city and – amazingly – get one back at a reasonable hour too! The hotel was yet another attractive manor house and my room was tweeness honed to a level which would be acceptable to an American tourist, but I wasn’t there to admire the furnishings, oh no, I was there for the beer – and with the time pushing 15:00 I decided that it was time to get into the centre and see what beers I could find.
I soon located the bus stop, a mere five minute walk from the hotel, noticing on the way that the Hop Pole pub at the end of the hotel’s supremely ostentatious drive seemed to be owned by Best Western enabling me to have a pint “on the house” when I got back, and waited for the bus to arrive whilst watching the Avon rush noisily under the little bridge which arched over the raging torrent below. I was soon on my way aboard the bus to Bath with my wallet substantially lighter to the sum of almost £5; once again I was amazed at the high prices of public transport and thought it amazing that anyone used the things at all!
My mood lightened considerably as the bus wound its way along the scenic A36 into Bath and thence along roads which I recognised (I even saw the Huntsman from the bus, the Eldridge Pope pub where I scored all their beers many years ago!) before alighting at the bus station. After a quick navigational hitch I was on my way along Grand Parade, pausing a minute for a few photos of the buildings and weir there, before recommencing my march down Walcot street, past the Pig & Fiddle, and towards a pub which I couldn’t remember if I’d ever visited in the dim and distant past - the Bell.
The Bell, 103 Walcot street, is a stone building with a beige-painted, cement-rendered exterior which reminds me a lot of a Dutch brown cafe! It has lots of beers, little “compos” to relax into, is dimly lit and, as befits the atmosphere (and Dutchness!) quite cancerous. Such a pub just cries out for no music to spoil the mood yet, for some reason, crap music was wafting from the speakers, albeit at a reasonable level, and wasn’t too obtrusive. Sitting in my alcove, sipping on my Butcombe blonde, I still couldn’t conclusively remember if I’d been there before although it did ring some distant bells, mainly of the substantial beer range which is; Butcombe blonde, Otter ale, Abbey Bellringer, Bath gem, RCH pitchfork, Summer lightning and Stonehenge Danish dynamite as regular beers plus two/three guest ales, which were Exmoor hart, Spinning dog Muttley’s revenge and Teignworthy Harvesters. Not a bad beer list, with plenty of local beers and a good mix of styles, although the one criticism which could be levelled at the beer range is that it’s a little conservative – but it was fine by me.
The Butcombe was golden, with a lovely rich, fruity nose; this led to a full malt taste, nutty & dryish, but it ended a tad cloying in the very malty finish and wasn’t anywhere near as good as the Butcome bitter I’d had the previous week in Ilminster. I’d soon supped up and was out of the door, walking back along the self-proclaimed “Artisans road”, towards the ex-Ash Vine pub where I hoped the beer range had improved in all areas since I’d last been there!
Late and Unlamented.
A short stroll later, I was entering the Pig & Fiddle, Saracen Street, and nothing seemed to have changed at all from my distant memories of the place; the steps were still in need of repair, the floorboards still felt distinctly dodgy, and the carpet retained it’s adhesive properties of old – although maybe it was the thought of drinking Ash Vine beer which clouded my judgement on the place! At the bar, I was pleased to see a scoop available in the form of Hidden Potential (4.2%) although it was a copper, thick malty beer, cloying and unbalanced, with some chocolate malt in the thick malty finish. Another handpump was dispensing Bulmers cask cider with a rider stating “This is NOT Magners”! – you’re telling me it’s not, although to those who think drinking cider over ice is a good idea it might not be obvious.
As I supped my beer, grimacing as I went, I cast a glance over the other pumps and saw a decent range of ale on offer, with Butcombe Brunel IPA and Abbey Bellringer as well as more mundane crap such as Theakstons and Badger. After what seemed an age of drinking, and when I almost believed that I’d somehow acquired an inexhaustible glass from another dimension, the Blindmans was finally consumed and I stumped off, feeling slighty nauseous from my excessive intake of sweet maltiness. Looking at my map I saw that the Volunteer Rifleman's Arms on New Bond Street Place was next on my agenda, a new-ish Abbey Ales pub, and so off I went into the drizzle in hope of another scoop now I’d broken my duck.
I soon found the pub tucked down the narrow lane and squeezed into the minute interior; this was more of a traditional boozer, albeit in miniature! I knew that only rarely was a guest beer on sale, but such is the quality of Abbey Ales that I wasn’t at all bothered when I saw my choice would be Abbey Bellringer, Butcombe or Moles Molegrip – the Abbey it was then! As I sipped my beer, I looked around the interior of the pub and saw it had a wartime theme, presumably as a connection to the name, and had been very well done with slightly sinister propaganda posters urging people not to speak to anyone lest they be a Nazi spy and to dig up their garden and plant all manner of vegetables in it! Unfortunately, the beer let the pub down slightly, being a dryish, fruity, pale amber beer with a dry, bitter finish and fruity malt in the aftertaste, with the fruit being a bit overpowering – not as good as I remember it!
An oasis in the city.
My next visit definitely wasn’t a scoop; the Old Green Tree on Green Street is one Bath pub I used to pop into on my regular excursions to the city and, although I rarely scooped a beer there, I had fond memories of the place being a quiet, wood-panelled haven of calm. As soon as I was inside it was obvious nothing at all had changed since my last visit (and probably for many years before that too) except the beer choice; 6 cask ales were on offer, an amazing number for such a tiny pub and, to make things even better, there were two winners available, namely their new Blindman’s house beer and – amazingly – the brand new Cheddar brewery’s bitter too… Bacchus was unquestionably beaming down on me that minute!
I started with the Blindman’s Green Tree (3.9%) which was golden, fruity, malty, well balanced if a touch sweet and had a slight dryness in finish, but overall a decent, well-brewed beer. As I supped my ale memories came back of my visits many years ago and I realised that the pub was just as I remembered it – a superb, atmospheric, wood-panelled pub, tiny & intimate, in possession of a friendly atmosphere and, in estate-agent speak, an oasis of calm after the busting street outside; this was one top pub although you’d never guess from the outside – something which almost certainly protects it from the hordes of Japanese and Yanks who descend on Bath in summer just because the guide books tell them to.
The Cheddar Best (4%) was next up, and I was struck by the likeness to Butcombe bitter; usually I’d not have noticed, but due to my consumption in Ilminster a week ago I was fully up-to-date with my olfactory knowledge of the beer and the Cheddar was – in colour, aroma and taste – virtually identical, and before anyone asks, that’s a compliment… russet brown, bitter, peardroppy, malty, tasty & moreish say my tasting notes, awarding 3 out of 5, so I must have been reasonably impressed!
Reluctantly leaving the RCH Pitchfork, Bath Barnstormer and Wickwar Mr Perrett’s stout in their respective lines, I adjourned to another old favourite, Hatchett’s, although this is now known as the Raven even though it’s still where it always was on Queen Street, just a few minutes from the Green Tree. I recalled scooping a Moles house beer during 1992 in the pub, and it seemed – unlike the Green Tree – to have been thoroughly gutted and redecorated since and now resembled a slightly yuppified version of a traditional pub. Nevertheless, two house beers were available (also from Blindman’s), Raven (4.7%) and Raven Gold (4%), in addition to the guest ales which, sadly for me, were rather tame than evening, being Otter Bitter, Hidden Quest and some Archers beer which I didn’t bother recording!
Can I be arsed to walk all the way there in this weather?
Sadly, the house beers varied wildly in quality; the Raven Gold was a smooth, malty brew possessing a subtle grain flavour and some dryness, whilst the Raven was red/brown, caramelly, sweet, cloying, and honestly poor, not something I’d like to try again. A quick glance out of the window confirmed what all those swishing noises for the last half hour outside had meant, and it meant that it was now pissing down with rain, not a good sign for the 15-minute trek out to the Royal Oak at Oldfield Park which, I’d been assured by Martin the Mildman, was the best scooping pub in Bath and was the unmissable one… maybe I should have started there, I thought to myself, as the rain hurled itself against the windows with what seemed to be unnecessary ferocity.
I decided on a quick fill-in move to see if the inclement weather would right itself, seeing as I had plenty of time to spare, and so popped into the Salamander on John Street, a Bath Ales pub, where I had no hope of a scoop but higher hopes of the rain blowing itself out in the twenty minutes or so I would be inside! Ochre walls were the order of the day, draped with hops, which made for simple yet effective décor for what is, in essence, really just a traditional drinker’s pub albeit with some pretensions of loftiness; no scoops were forthcoming, but the Bath Festivity was on and so I had a half. A dark red brew, very caramelly & malty, with some sweetness & toasty malt leads to a complex and toffeeish finish, but a touch sweet and too much caramel for my tastebuds, although those with a sweet tooth may love it!
It was with some relief that I saw the precipitation had eased enough for me to consider the mile hike up to the Royal Oak. I squelched along in the drizzle, reminding myself how much I was enjoying my visit to Bath, although by the time I’d reached the Lower Bristol Road the rain had stopped completely, vindicating my decision to stop off for the half of Festivity. I trudged along the soaking pavements, noticing with growing annoyance the steady stream of No.5 (and occasional No.20) buses which swooshed passed, until finally I reached the pub, standing on the corner of Brook Road, and looking – if the truth be told – about as unremarkable and unlikely to be a scooping honeypot as any I’ve seen… Nevertheless, I’d come all this way despite the weather’s best efforts, and was gagging for a beer - so in I went!
Straight into the top ten.
Local art on the walls, a laid back mood, a very alternative atmosphere... those were my first impressions of the pub, but a better impression was the veritable forest of handpumps which bedecked the bartop; Martin had warned me that midweek the choice could be down to five or so, but there were seven beers available and a quick glance along the clips told it’s own story – I required five of the beers! To say I was knocked back somewhat by this beer range would be an understatement; I’ve not been this impressed with a pub’s beer choice for a very long time – here was someone who clearly knew what was new and/or rare in the micro beer world and wasn't backwards about showing off his knowledge to the customers! In front of each pump was a little glass full of that particular beer, presumably to show it’s colour, which is something I’ve never seen done anywhere else in the UK… the Royal Oak was full of surprises, and I’d not had a beer yet!
The landlord appeared from the rear bar and poured me my first scoops; Red Rock Ale (4.2% - amber, bitter, malty, maybe a tad too bitter?) and Cotswold Spring Honey Bear (5.2% - a golden, sweet, tasty beer with a good mellow malty/honey flavour) and I took in my surroundings as I supped. I also realised that I’d seriously underestimated the time I’d need to scoop all the beers in the pub, having only reckoned on there being a couple of beers I’d need, and so stepped up the pace and got my second two winners; Newman’s Red Stag (3.6% - copper in colour, flavoursome, treacly, melodious and toffeeish, good for the strength) and Bell’s Wide mouth frog (3.8% - quite plain, dry, slightly phenolic beer with some fruitiness in the aftertaste).
I suddenly felt a whole lot better about beer scooping in general; maybe it was the amazing beer range, maybe the sociable and knowledgeable landlord (John, who had some connection with the famous Hobgoblin in Reading), but whatever it was – probably a mishmash of all the good things in the Royal Oak – it seemed as if, after many setbacks, UK scooping had finally acquired another good pub and things were looking better than they had done for some time.
Grinning to myself under a golden aura of well-being, I suddenly noticed John appear with a bucket, wearing a smile.
“More beer!” he said, mischievously, and proceeded to pull another three beers through; I glanced at my watch and saw I had 50 minutes remaining in the pub at the very maximum and so it was with increasing horror that I saw first one, then two scoops appear on the pumps! I gulped down my taster of Matthew’s birthday ginger (4.5%, and as bad as I’d expected – I hate ginger!) and quickly acquired two more winners – this place was still exceeding all my expectations as to scoops, could it get any better than this?
Wylam Dakar Rally (4.1%) was a dry, subtle, grainy brew with a sociable maltsack finish, but the real star was the ultra-rare Hopstar Dynamo Dee (4.2%), a hoppy, bitter, tasty and very well made pale brew with the usual Hopstar lupulin overload! I asked John where he’d got this from, having visited the Black Horse in Darwen recently and knowing how rare Hopstar beers were, and was told that Andy from the Black’un came down to Bath sometimes and slung a few firkins in his boot… now I’d heard it all, surely anything could happen here – would Butcombe stout come on next, I wondered, before realising it doesn’t exist except in Aston’s mind! (although, if Butcombe’s brewer is reading this, how’s about it, then?)
As the superb Cerne Abbas clock - with his rotating penis - counted down my remaining time in this oasis of beer excellence, John had one final surprise for me. Handing over a couple of pumpclips, he casually asked me if I needed any of them.
“Bloody hell”, I thought, “It’s cellar runs now – is there anything they don’t do here?”, whilst trying to give the nonchalant impression this happened in every pub I went in.
One of the beers was a scoop, Ma Pardoes’ Hung Drawn and Quartered (6%) and so, frantically calculating I had ten minutes tops to finish all my beers, against my better judgement I accepted a half of that from the cellar and got stuck into my remaining ales whilst the new beer was fetched. Having written this and read through it a few times, I now realise why I felt so bad the next morning; must have been the eight beers in two hours in the Royal Oak on top of all the other beer I’d had that evening thus far… although at the time I felt fine! With literally five minutes drinking time left I didn’t really do the Ma Pardoes justice, although I did note that it was a deep red/brown brew with a strong caramel and toffee flavour and some treacly notes in the bitter finish, and not bad at all.
Thanking John profusely for all his help - and supply of scoops! - I marched off along the Lower Bristol Road in a manner which would make Windsor Davies (in his Sergeant-Major guise) proud until I’d reached the bus station with just under ten minutes to spare; always makes! As luck would have it the bus was five minutes late in arriving, so by the time I boarded I’d recovered my breath from the enforced yomp and slumped into a seat from where I could see where we were going as I really didn’t want to miss the stop…
Suffice it to say that I managed to stay awake and got off at the correct stop before partaking of a meal in the Hop Pole pub opposite the hotel along with a pint of Butcombe Bitter… thinking about it, this may have been the straw which broke the camel’s back and gave me such a fuzzy head and a mouth like sandpaper the next day, although by that point in the evening I was up for more beer - as long as it was real - owing to my “beer armour” which I’d acquired from the excessive scooping pace that afternoon!
Bath city centre seems to be at least as good, if not better, than I remember it from all those years ago when I used to visit reasonably regularly with most of the good pubs then still operating in one guise or another and seemingly serving more variety of beer. The big eye-opener, obviously, was the Royal Oak at Oldfield Park which is straight into the top ten of UK scooping pubs on this visit alone; anywhere with up to ten beers on at a time, and with those ten being of such scoopability, should be on everyone’s must-visit list. It’s only problem is it’s location a mile west of the city, although if you’re lazy/short of time the number 5 bus runs almost to the front door so there’s no real excuse for not visiting this superb new bastion of micro-brewed beer – show John some support, he definitely deserves it!
Bell, 103 Walcot Street
Pig & Fiddle, 2 Saracen Street
Volunteer Rifleman's Arms, New Bond Street Place
Old Green Tree, 12 Green Street
Raven, 6-7 Queen Street
Salamander, 3 John Street
Royal Oak, Lower Bristol Rd (corner of Brook Road)
|Bell, Walcot St||Old Green Tree||Pig & Fiddle||Royal Oak||Raven, Bath|
|Salamander, Bath||Royal Oak, Bath||The Royal Oak's bar, Bath|
© Gazza 18/12/06 V1.0