Whenever I'm in pubs with strong real ale affiliations, I keep an eye out for those free CAMRA magazines like The London Drinker. Usually they're full of angry articles about short measures and closures of pubs you've never heard of, but they're also a good way to find places that offer the more unusual ales favoured by the beerhunter. Sometimes they print write-ups of pub crawls, much like this one. It's always struck me that despite describing huge numbers of pubs visited and beers consumed in a single session, no mention is ever made of the kind of drunkenness that must result. Either those old CAMRA boys are immune to the effects of alcohol, or we aren't getting the whole story. Perhaps it's better we never find out. As hinted at in part one of this article, our St Albans pub crawl became less focussed as the day went on. The beginning of the downward spiral coincided neatly with our visit to the fifth pub of the day, and the arrival of fresh blood in the form of the three late joiners.
Pub 5 - The Boot
The Boot (4 The Market Place, AL3 5DG, Tel: 01727 857533) is dead in the centre of St Albans, in a centuries-old building which has served as a pub since 1719. Its position in the midst of the chains you'll see on every high street in Britain does serve to de-glamourise it somewhat, but there's no denying it's an impressive pub and well worth a pint or two. When we arrived, James and Sap, fresh from their trip to O'Neills, ordered lagers before we could implore them to do otherwise, despite a range of proper beers. Between us we tried pints of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (a very hoppy session bitter from Scotland), Youngs Special and the more unusual Pendle Witches' Brew, a sweet, strong (5.2% abv) amber ale which Wee Ross seemed to enjoy. The pub was louder and livelier than those we'd visited before, with locals already lining up at the bar for a night on the lash Booze Britain style. We didn't stay long, as what we hoped would be a highlight of the trip lay ahead.
Pub 6 - The Farriers Arms
Leaving The Boot and heading down Lower Dagnall Street, we passed two other pubs before hitting The Farriers Arms, the house in which the local CAMRA branch was founded on 20 November 1972. On my previous visit to St Albans I'd didn't make it here and was keen to take a look this time. CAMRA still has its offices in St Albans today, and you'd think the Farriers would be a monument to all that's good and welcoming about traditional pub culture. Not so. There are some that claim the official story is wrong, and that CAMRA was in fact founded in our next pub, The Lower Red Lion. Now that I've visited the Farriers, I want to believe the dissenters are right.
We entered the quiet pub and filed into a back room, just by the back door which leads to the outdoor toilets. The real fire was the only cheery thing in the whole place. The locals were transfixed by a rugby game shown on the TV in the corner, and we were initially ignored by the old barman. The decor was akin to what you'd expect from a lonely pensioner's home in the 1970s. If I had to say something good about this pub, I'd say the beer was perfectly well kept. The fact it tasted like dishwater was indubitably the brewer's fault, not the cellarman's. The pub is tied to McMullen's, Hertfordshire's major brewery, founded in 1827. They operate around 130 pubs, at least two of which are in Central London. I want to support breweries committed to real ale, I really do - but the "Winter Ale" offered up here just took the piss, and tasted little better than it. It was an amber ale with no discernible flavour, and no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The most puzzling aspect was what made it a "winter" beer, as most summer thirst-quenchers have more to them than this one. A poster on the wall advertising seasonal beers indicated the beer will only be available for a short time - so it's not all bad news. Misery in a glass. Other beers were Country Best and AK Bitter (in fact a light mild), also from McMullens. I've tried both before, and in my opinion they're both unappealling beers.
The dismal, depressing atmosphere in the Farriers created an uneasy feeling amongst the lads which was in danger of bringing us right down to earth after a series of great pubs. We left, leaving behind us nine pints of barely touched dishwater, under the watchful eye of a manager who suddenly perked up at the prospect that the outsiders were no more. You'd have to put me in a cage and roll it through the door to get me back in that pub. And even then I'd rather survive by sucking moisture from the carpet than touch the Winter Ale again.
Pub 7 - The Lower Red Lion
The trauma of the last pub caused me to forget we were soon to be joined by a tenth member of the team. Doctor Gibbles had been on a course in London during the day, but had promised to catch up with the crawl. He bundled out of his cab wearing the kind of 3/4 length shorts you'd expect to see in an American teen movie, not outside the Lower Red on a cold January evening. An elaborate wind-up had borne fruit, as he'd fallen for the line that everyone was going to wear shorts for the whole crawl. Suffice to say, he looked a complete tit. The dead hand of the Farriers was lifted and we entered St Albans' most famous pub ready for the next beer.
The Lower Red Lion (36 Fishpool Street, AL3 4RX, Tel: 01727 855669) isn't somewhere you should miss off a tour to St Albans. As you can see from the photo, it's situated in a gorgeous house in what must be the finest street in the city, right by Verulamium Park and overshadowed by the abbey itself. The pub has a large garden in which beer festivals are held in warmer months, resembling as much a residential back garden as anything you'd normally see attached to a boozer. The pub also offers rooms, doubtless a good option. The interior is split into two rooms, separated by a compact double-sided bar offering a choice of eight real ales (mostly from micros and small independents), a real cider and Czech Budvar on tap. On our visit they seemed to be suffering from a glut of Christmas beers, something the barman acknowledged as he reeled of a list of ridiculously named and obscure seasonal brews. I passed up on the Highgate Throbbin' Robin and tucked into a pint of Christmas Cheers from Highwood, a farm brewery in Lincolnshire. I wish I could tell you what each of the rest of the lads had, but frankly I have no idea - things were really getting hazy at this point. The beer was heavily spiced and certainly hit the spot for me. There was a hint of whisky or brandy in this rich, dark ale, along with a fair whack of chocolate. Although not terribly well integrated, there was a lot of powerful flavour for a beer of only 4.5% abv. The regular "house" beer at the Lower Red is Oakham JHB, though due to the landlord's involvement in the microbrewery across town at The Farmers Boy (see part one of this article and below) you will often see Alehouse beers here.
Appropriately for a pub so devoted to drinking, and one so busy of an evening, the Lower Red only does food at lunchtimes. As a result we had to cut our visit short and move on somewhere else - we were about 8 pints in now, and it was time to soak up the beer.
Pub 8 - The Six Bells
Neatly avoiding another McMullen's pub on the way, we continued down Fishpool Street for some way, crossing a bridge over the River Ver to be presented with a lane even more rural than what came before it. Two lovely looking old pubs sat almost side by side here, The Rose and Crown and The Six Bells (16-18 St. Michaels Street, AL3 4SH, Tel: 01727 856945). We chose the latter and managed to find a couple of tables to push together in a side room set apart from the packed main bar. Food was fairly expensive but was just what we were looking for - burgers and chips all round. Beers were unexciting, as this was another pub only offering session bitters. I chose Caledonian Deuchars IPA again, and washed down my meal with a perfectly pleasant pint. The other cask ales were Adnams Bitter and Greene King IPA. While we waited, Dave decided to get darts from behind the bar, despite that fact a middle aged couple were sitting directly below the board. The manager actually had to come over and ask him if we wouldn't mind cutting it out - with a perfectly straight face he told her he didn't see what the problem was. The arrows were confiscated just as the food arrived.
At this point we'd made our way across the length of central St Albans, taking in all six pubs we'd planned to visit along with two extras. A long walk, punctuated with a group wave at diners in the plush St Michael's Manor hotel on Fishpool Street, took us back to the Market Place. Here pandemonium broke out as one individual who will remain unnamed (he drives a Renault Clio) said he wanted to go somewhere like Chicago Rock Cafe, apparently his plan all along. He was duly told to eff off, and a decision was taken to head back to the Farmers Boy for the benefit of those who hadn't been on the crawl at the beginning. Half way down the London Road the moaning grew more intense, and we ducked into a fairly charmless looking pub for a quick pitstop.
Pub 9 - The Beehive
To be honest, if we'd known just how close we were to The Farmers Boy, we wouldn't have bothered with The Beehive (Keyfield Terrace, AL1 1QL, Tel: 01727 811127). Don't bother including this one if you do your own St Albans crawl - aside from a decent quizzer and big screen sport, it has little going for it. Housed in a mock-tudor 20th century detatched building, this place has only marginally more charm than the All Bar One on Leicester Square. Real ale was available in the form of Adnams Bitter and Wells Bombardier, but in this town you have to do a lot more than serve an acceptable pint. It was time to end the night on a high.
Pub 10 - The Farmers Boy (again)
Entering the Farmers for the second time in the day, we were greeted with open arms by the owners who immediately served up perfect pints of Farmers Joy (see part one of this article for a review of this great beer, brewed on the premises). The atmosphere was completely different to earlier, as you'd expect, it now being 10 in the evening. Good music and a great mix of happy people enjoying a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Hats off to the landlord for tolerating our drunken hoonery, as the sambucas were dished up and everyone got a second wind for the last couple of hours of drinking. The Farmers Boy has a 2am license, and I was told they do stay open that late if people are up for it. The pub was certainly still going strong when we rushed to get the last train after midnight. One of the lads foolishly sloped off early, and had a nasty shock when he fell asleep on the train home and ended up being woken by a guard in London Bridge - that'll learn you, you grumpy sod.
St Albans lived up to its reputation once again - a good old boozy town for those who like proper beer and traditional, historic pubs.
Cheers to all the lads who made it, and here's to the Brighton crawl next month.
- The London Drinker is an A5, colour magazine available free of charge in real ale pubs. Its distribution area covers the whole city. It is published on behalf of all the London branches of CAMRA. The London Drinker is also the name of the branch's annual beer festival, which this year will be held between 28 and 30 March (details are in the beer festivals section to the left).
- McMullen's Brewery is in Hertford and has a website here. There's a good article about the brewery here by Roger Protz. McMullen's two London pubs are The Nag's Head right by Covent Garden tube (10 James Street, London, WC2E 8BT, Tel: 020 7836 4678), and The Spice of Life in Soho (37-39 Romilly Street, Cambridge Circus, London, W1V 5TP, Tel: 0207 437 7013). If you like their beers, good luck to you - I'm afraid I don't.
- The Lower Red Lion has a homepage here. The pub's next beer festival is to be held between 30 March and 1 April, but they haven't got details on their website yet. It should be a good opportunity to try a variety of beers from the Alehouse Brewery at the Farmers Boy.