Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Compasses - Littley Green

The Compasses - Littley Green
In my post about the former Essex Brewers, T.J. Ridley & Sons, I wrote about a visit I made to their brewery at Hartford End, to the north of Chelmsford, and to the company’s brewery-tap; the unspoilt Compasses at Littley Green, a tiny hamlet just a mile or so from the brewery.

That visit took place in 1990 and whilst I did make a short return visit to the Compasses, a year or so later, I have longed desired to make another one. Ridley’s, of course, ceased brewing back in 2005, following the takeover of the company by Greene King, but it wasn’t until I began the research needed to bring my article about the firm up to date that I discovered that whilst the brewery has long since closed, the Compasses is very much alive and kicking; and what’s more it’s now owned and run by one of the sons of the Ridley family who were directly involved with the company right up until its sale to Greene King. I also discovered that another son had started his own brewery, and although he wasn’t allowed to use the Ridley’s name directly, he named his company after the family’s most famous ancestor, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, who was burnt at the stake for heresy, in 1555 during the reign of Queen Mary.

A return visit to the Compasses therefore was crying out to be made, and I made my intention to do this quite clear in this article, posted back in April. I was finally able to make this visit last Friday, when I broke my journey up to Norfolk, where I was going to visit my father, in order to call in for a quick lunchtime pint, plus a bite to eat at this lovely old country pub.I was able to do this because of a change from my normal travel routine. Instead of making the journey early Saturday morning, I decided to leave shortly after midday the day before, as this would allow me to make a lunchtime visit to the Compasses, whilst still being at dad’s house in time for tea. Unfortunately I hadn’t factored in the traffic, which is often notoriously heavy on a Friday afternoon. The signs weren’t looking good when I joined the queue at the Dartford Crossing, and after the traffic ground to a halt in the tunnel itself for a while, I resigned myself to a long journey.
The brewery, in happier times

The traffic did clear the other side of the river, but I then learned of further problems ahead on the A12 Chelmsford Bypass; the very same route I needed to take before turning off to Littley Green. The pub’s website informed me that the Compasses was open all day on a Friday, but would not be serving food after 2.30pm.  This then was the time to aim for and, in the end, I managed it with about 15 minutes to spare. I had planned on stopping by the old Ridley’s Brewery and taking a few photos, but decided against this in view of the tight time schedule. However, as I drove towards Hartford End and the River Chelmer, I was rewarded with a view of the brewery buildings, still standing behind the bright blue-painted wooden hoardings which now surround the site, but looking very sad and forlorn. I understand they are due to be converted into apartments, so at least part of this historic country brewery will still remain for future generations to appreciate.
Drinking al fresco

I turned right, immediately opposite the brewery, and headed off towards Littley Green. I had forgotten what a narrow road it was, but fortunately I didn’t meet any traffic travelling in the opposite direction. I turned left at the T-junction at the top of the road, and there it was, on the left; the lovely old red-brick building that is the Compasses pub. I pulled up and reversed the car into one of the spaces opposite, and walked over to the pub.Being a hot summer’s day, there were a couple of groups of people sitting outside, and whilst I would normally have joined them, (I love al fresco drinking when the weather allows), I wanted to savour and experience the pub and see if it had changed much.

Fortunately the Compasses was more or less as I remembered it, even though my last visit must have been a quarter of a century ago. The bar layout follows the shape of the building which is a long narrow middle section with extensions at both ends, sticking out at right angles. The serving area is in the middle, and being a rural pub this area has a tiled floor. A step up to the right was an area more or less cut off from the rest of the pub. Clad partly in blue-painted match boarding, and decorated with some old posters and photos this is the section I remember sitting in with my CAMRA colleagues, enjoying our beer and food, all those years ago.
Main bar area

There is a further section at the opposite end of the pub, but this is more open and not as isolated. I am not sure if this area was open to the public 25 years ago, as it may have been part of the licensees’ living quarters. After my look around, I sat myself down in the main part of the pub, opposite the bar and waited for my food to arrive. I had already bought a pint of Bishop Nick Ridley’s Rite; a traditional light bitter with an ABV of 3.6%, which made it an ideal quaffing ale. There was also a stronger Bishop Nick beer on sale in the form of the 5.0% ABV Martyr IPA, plus Welland Valley Mild 3.6% from Great Oakley Brewery. In addition, there were beers from Box Steam, Tripple fff and Skinners (Betty Stogs). The latter is a regular beer in the pub’s beer range. A number of traditional ciders were also on sale.
Gravity dispense

All the cask beers are served by gravity, direct from casks stillaged in a temperature-controlled room out the back. A window allows the curious to pep in, so being nosey I just had to have a look and take a couple of photos. This chilled room is a new addition as, although the beer was served by gravity back in 1990, there was no temperature control or artificial cooling in place back then.

The food I had ordered came in the form of a "Huffer". Traditionally a Huffer was a half a loaf of bread that agricultural workers would take with them each day, stuffed with a selection of fillings. Today, Huffers take the form of a triangular bap filled with a variety of fresh local ingredients. My ham salad Huffer was certainly the perfect accompaniment to my pint of beer. Nice though the beer was, I decided against an additional half pint; a wise decision in view of the long drive ahead of me. Instead I bought a bottle of Bishop Nick Heresy; a 4.0% ABV golden ale, to drink later.
The famous "Huffer"

I was reluctant to leave the Compasses. Not only was my visit good from the nostalgia point of view, but it was also good to see a thriving and well-run country pub, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, bustling with customers, all enjoying good beer, and equally good food, in the plain and simple surroundings of an unspoilt rural alehouse.

For those contemplating a longer stay, it is worth noting that the Compasses offers overnight accommodation in five comfortable and well-appointed rooms in a building adjacent to the pub. It is also worth noting that the pub’s connections with its former owning brewery continues, as the Compasses is owned today by Joss Ridley, who bought the pub in 2008 and has tastefully expanded and improved it during the intervening years. Bishop Nick ales are brewed in nearby Braintree by his brother Nelion. Finally the Compasses website, and the pubs overnight rooms, have been designed by Joss’s sister Alice Ridley, making the whole operation a real family concern.

Do make a point of calling in if you are in the area or, like me, are able to make the detour to Littley Green. I promise you won’t be disappointed.


Martin, Cambridge said...

Glad you enjoyed the Compasses and glad it sounds busy but unchanged; the Huffer should have national protection. The accommodation is new. This is a pleasant part of the country for walks and good pub territory, but hardly a magnet for tourists.

Stonch said...

Great blog post. I have a collection of bookmarks from this site where you talk about pubs you visited recently and in the past that I want to go to. You have an eye for places in Kent and Essex where London seems much further away.

In fact I am, right now, toying with the idea of making a trip to one of them tomorrow...

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, Essex often gets a bad press, but the further away from the Thames estuary one goes, the more delightful the county becomes. Much of this area remains unknown to me, as I am so often merely passing through. I passed several cyclists, as I made my way from the pub, back towards Braintree. They obviously had the right idea; I was only jealous I was unable to have stayed longer.

Glad you enjoyed the post, Jeff. It’s good there are still such places which are within easy reach of London, yet seem a million miles away.