Saturday 27 April 2013

CAMRA AGM 2013 - Norwich Pubs

Norwich certainly seems to have its share of good pubs, but prior to my recent visit, I had only drank in a couple of city centre ones. The first was the Wildman, on Bedford Street; a pub I visited during a brief weekend in Norwich, back in the mid 1970’s, when, the pub was the only city-centre real ale outlet in Norwich. This was during the bad old days when the reviled Watney Mann owned most of the city’s pubs, and when their pubs only sold fizzy keg beer. Mind you, the Tolly Cobbold beers sold at the Wildman, whilst not pressurised, weren’t exactly something to write home about either!

Fast forward a couple of decades to the mid-90’s, when my sister and her American husband were living in Norfolk, and my brother-in-law had developed a taste for English cask beer. The Reindeer, on Dereham Road was a thriving brew-pub, serving its own range of distinctive “Reindeer” beers, that Ernie had discovered and which we visited a few times. I found out this weekend that the two partners behind this venture had then gone on to found breweries of their own; Chalk Hill and Wolf respectively.

A further two decades later (where does the time go?), and I am wandering my way around a few of Norwich’s finest pubs, prior to attending the CAMRA National AGM  and Members’ Weekend. I won’t list all the pubs I visited, but classed by category, here are the best..

Heritage pubs (On CAMRA’s National Inventory)
The Golden Star, an unspoilt Victorian town pub, situated on Colegate, with many intact internal period features. Although tied to Greene King, the pub offers a range of guest beers. There were a couple of themed St George’s ales on, when we called in; I went for the St  George’s Island, from Milestone Brewery.

The attractive, flint-built Adam & Eve, tucked away down Bishopsgate, close to the cathedral, is another National Inventory pub. I popped in on my final afternoon in Norwich, after the AGM had finished, and when many of the delegates had started to drift home. That Sunday afternoon was blessed by bright sunshine, and temperatures starting to climb steadily. The cold easterly wind had moderated, and most people were sitting outside the pub on benches. It seemed rude not to join them, so after ordering myself a pint of Woodforde’s Sundew, (a very appropriate beer), I too took my drink out into the sunshine. Unfortunately this meant I didn’t get to see much of the Adam & Eve’s interior, but I was struck by the tiny serving area behind the bar, with room for just one person – and a skinny one at that!

Real Ale “Exhibition-type” pubsKing’s Head; Gardener’s Arms/Murderers; Fat Cat
I called in at these pubs in the order listed above, visiting the King’s Head late in the afternoon of my first day in Norwich. It was a pub I had wanted to visit ever since I read a feature about it several years ago, (I can’t remember whether it was in “What’s Brewing”, or Beer Magazine). It was slightly different from what I’d been expecting, but was still just as impressive. I sat in the fairly basic, front bar enjoying a few of the extensive range of beers which the pub had on sale. There is also a slightly larger bar to the rear. I chatted with a couple of the locals about football (a subject that I know very little about) and beer and pubs, (a subject I know a bit more about), with a local CAMRA member). My only slight gripe was that the measures were a little on the short side. However, the attractive and pleasant barmaid compensated for this somewhat, so much so that I wasn’t really inclined to demand a “top-up”.

I popped into the well known Gardener’s Arms/Murderers the following lunchtime, after a look around the shops and the area around the castle. I was aware that the pub was running a beer festival, but this had only just got up and running when I arrived. Built on a couple of slightly different levels, and with many corners and “snug” areas in which to lose oneself for a while, The Gardeners’ proved the ideal refuge from the busy shopping centres outside. There was a good mix of customers in the pub, ranging from refugees from the shops, like myself, to office workers meeting up for a drink plus a bite to eat for their lunch. I tried several of the beers on sale for the festival; like many such events, they weren’t all on at the same time. I liked  the Gardeners’, which incidentally is family owned, and found it to be fine example of everything a town centre boozer should be.

Last, but by no means least, we have the deservedly famous Fat Cat; Norwich’s permanent beer-exhibition in a pub. My visit on Thursday evening was all too brief though, due to being delayed at the Kett’s Tavern, (see below), but what a place! With nearly 30 different cask ales on tap, it was extremely difficult to know what to choose. Despite the pub being heaving, my friends from MMK CAMRA had managed to grab seats and a large table in a room to the rear, and again in spite of the crowds, I was served with my pint, more or less straight away. I was also impressed with the large collection of old brewery memorabilia, adorning most of the walls.

Pubs tied to a local brewery –, Kett’s Tavern; Plough .
Kett’s Tavern, named after the local leader of the 16th Century rebellion, is a quirky, but interesting pub on the north-eastern side of the city, just off the inner ring road. Owned by the same people who run the Norfolk Bear Brewery, and selling a good range of their beers, this pub was a bit of a walk, but well worth it. I ended up staying longer than anticipated, due to bumping into a member from Coventry CAMRA, whom I’d met the previous night. I also underestimated just how long it would take to walk from the Kett's to my next port of call, the Fat Cat, on the other side of the city where I had arranged to meet up with friends  from MMK branch. (See above). Unfortunately I was a bit late, which was annoying, as I don't like keeping people waiting.

Plough – tied to the Grain Brewery, the Plough was rather full when we called in, quite late on Friday evening. The music was also a trifle too loud for my liking. On the plus side, there were four cask beers from Grain available, and the all-female bar staff were friendly and helpful, even offering tasters despite being very busy. (Other pubs, please take note). A lunchtime visit would perhaps have been a quieter and more pleasant experience.

Unusual/eatery-type pubs, Vine, Take 5.
The Vine, featured in “What’s Brewing” a couple of months ago, and being run by a landlady who hails from Thailand, specialises in Thai food. I made two contrasting visits to the pub. The first, on Wednesday night, found the downstairs bar fairly quiet, although the upstairs restaurant seemed fairly busy. I had an amusing time translating the extremely broad accent of a visitor from Northern Ireland CAMRA, so that the Thai girl behind the bar could understand what he was saying! Contrast that evening with two nights later, when Friday evening saw Norwich’s smallest pub packed to the gunwales with CAMRA members from all over the country.

Take 5 is a slightly off-beat sort of place, situated in Tombland, close to the cathedral. A grade II listed building, I called in on my first night in Norwich, primarily to get something to eat. The Supreme of roast chicken breast, served with new potatoes and a feta and spinach sauce, hit the spot, and the Bonny’s Gold, from the local Golden Triangle Brewery, really hi the spot, in fact it was the best pint I had all day! Friendly staff, combined with an easy going, un-hurried atmosphere, made Take 5 just the right place to unwind after a busy day, exploring the streets, and pubs, of Norwich.

Apparently Norwich has four JDW outlets, although I only came across two of them. The Bell, located centrally at the top of the hill, close to the Gardener’s, is a conversion of a traditional old pub into a maze of linked drinking areas, sited on two levels, whereas the Glass House, is a modern building, again on two levels, close to the cathedral. Both still had their Spring Beer Festivals running, but I used the pubs primarily as somewhere offering good value food,  (I ate twice at the Glass House), and somewhere to grab a cup of coffee from (Bell). Both outlets were of a high standard.

Favourite pub – Fat Cat.
It had to be this one really, as it ticked all the right boxes. It’s a shame I only had time for one pint there as I really wanted to stay longer, especially as my colleagues had managed to grab a table. The group had opted to go for a curry instead though, and being partial to the occasional “ruby”, I opted to join them. After our meal, it made sense to head back into town, rather than retrace our footsteps in the opposite direction, to the Fat Cat. We probably picked the best night of the long weekend, in which to visit, as I imagine on subsequent nights the place would have been even more packed than it was when we called in.

Well, what a contrast compared to my first visit, 40 years ago. Norwich is now definitely a city I shall be returning to, and next time I will be spending a bit more time in the Fat Cat.


Curmudgeon said...

The Bell was the first Spoons I ever went in, before the company had started their expansion outside London and the South East. I remember getting wrecked on Exmoor Beast :-(

Neville Grundy said...

It was nice to meet you Paul. My own pub trail had some overlap with yours. I went twice to the Fat Cat - definitely my favourite too - spending several hours there, but still only scratching the surface of their range of 30 real ales.

Paul Bailey said...

Was good to meet you too, Nev. I've read your pub trail article and seen the overlap with mine, although you seem to have got a bit further out from the city centre than I did.

Myself, and the people I was with, also found the Chalk Hill beers unpleasant. Definitely agree about the burnt taste. A real shame as the Coach & Horses was a nice pub.

David, Little Omenden Farm and Nursery said...

Ah,The Wildman! As you rightly say, the Wildman was the only real ale outlet in the city in the early seventies, with the honourable exception of the Adnams on gravity in the panelled bar of the Maid's Head Hotel,which was a rare treat for us as students.(I shouldn't think that we were particularily welcome, either!)By the time I returned to visit friends doing post-grad stuff, Norwich was well on the way to becoming real ale heaven.

Cooking Lager said...

Shouda got the Spoons app on your phone then you'd have found all 4 of them and been able to avoid the other dumps.

Paul Bailey said...

Cookie, Spoons is Spoons is Spoons. They're second to none at what they do, and sometimes the "any port in a storm" is the right approach. However, when I'm visiting a new town or city, I like to see what it has to offer, apart from Spoons, and Norwich really hit the spot so far as good, individual and distinctive pubs was concerned.

Ian S said...

The Bell is definitely the best of the 4 in my experience - a great range of beers and not as cold as in the Glasshouse. Of the other two one is an enormous shed on the Riverside 'retail park' (which still serves perfectly good Wolf and Wherry) the other is a small place on the outer ring road with a few ales and lots of fruit machines!

Paul, I'm sure you realised the glasses in the Kings Head are over-sized and lined? If so and still got a short measure I can only assume they were extra busy or the beer was extra lively as that's very unusual.

If you're in the city again, do visit the Beehive, run by the daughter of the founder of the Wolf brewery - a little way out from the centre, but well worth it.