Thursday, 31 December 2015

Norfolk Again

The time between Christmas and New Year (Twixmas), is always a slightly strange one. I have an enforced lay-off from work, as my company shuts down from Christmas Eve until New Year. It’s not as if they carry out any maintenance or other essential work, but close it does and staff have to keep back 3-4 days, depending on how the Bank Holidays fall, from their annual leave to cover this.

On several occasions in the past I’ve used this time off to take a short break (2-3 days) in a European destination; normally somewhere cold, and on one trip even experienced some of the heaviest snow I have seen in my entire life. More recently, I have taken the opportunity to visit my elderly parents in the wilds of Norfolk.

Mum sadly passed away, back in February, and now dad has had to move into a care home, due to the worsening of his Alzheimer’s. I don’t have to remind anyone about what a cruel and devastating disease this is, as it not only robs people of their memories, but as time goes on it increasingly destroys someone’s personality. Their interaction with other people also starts to fade, as they gradually start to retreat into their own private world.

They say that Alzheimer’s is often worse for loved ones, and for others close to the sufferer, and having seen dad I am pleased to report he is being well looked after and has settled in well at the small, specialist care home close to where he and my mother were living until quite recently. He also appeared in good spirits, quite content with his lot, calm and certainly not distressed in anyway, so this is a comfort to the family.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a blog about beer, so it is worth referring to the two pub visits I made whilst in Norfolk. The first was on the journey up, whilst the second was whilst staying overnight at the family bungalow.

I know the route up to Norfolk like the back of my hand, and this year have made the journey a record number of times; first to visit mum in hospital, then for the funeral, and then to visit dad. I take the well-worn route of M25, M11 and then A11, before skirting round Norwich via the A47 towards Dereham - the nearest town to the family home. As I wasn’t in a hurry this time, I decided to stop off on the way for a spot of lunch, and a crafty pint.

Chequers Inn - Thompson
I debated where to stop, before setting off; settling in the end for the unspoilt 16th Century, thatched Chequers Inn at Thompson; a small and intriguingly named village in the heart of Norfolk’s Breckland area of sandy heath-lands and extensive pine forests. I had been there once before, along with my wife, young son and American brother-in-law, Ernie. This was about twenty years ago, when Ernie was still stationed at nearby Lakenheath with the United States Air force.

During the course of his 13 year stint with the air force, Ernie had developed a distinct liking for English beer, and had also sussed out many of the local pubs. He also, of course, had met and married my sister. She didn’t accompany us, on that visit, having recently given birth to my nephew Jack, but Ernie had promised us a look around the airbase, and had thrown in a visit to this rather splendid, country pub as a bonus.

As you can see from the photos, the Chequers is an attractive looking building with a steeply thatched roof which seems almost to reach to the ground. I don't remember that much about the pub from that first visit, because we sat outside. Our son was only around four years old at the time, so we were unable to take him inside. It was a nice day, so enjoying our drinks in the open air was no problem. I do recall the pub serving an excellent pint of Adnams though.

This time around, without the assistance of my brother-in-law to guide me, the pub took a bit of finding. This was despite me having an OS map in the car. It’s not very easy trying to read a map, and drive at the same time, and although I had memorised what I thought was the way, I still ended up taking a couple of wrong turns.

Perseverance pays off, and eventually I noticed a sign, right in the centre of the village, directing travellers along a narrow road to the Chequers. The sun was shining as I arrived, and after parking the car I walked across towards the entrance, pausing first to take a few photos.

A latched door led straight to a central bar, but there are rooms leading off on either side. Both were furnished for diners, but as there was sufficient space in the low-ceilinged bar, and I liked the cosy feel of the place, I decided to remain there. Greene King IPA and Woodforde’s Wherry were the cask ales on offer, and I opted for the latter. I have never been a huge fan of Wherry, but the pint I had was exceptional, and had I not been driving I would definitely have had a second.

Sensibly, I stuck to the one and ordered a ham baguette for my lunch. This too was excellent; the thick slices of tasty home-cooked ham in a large crusty white baguette being just right to set me up for the rest of the day. I liked the feel of this small middle bar as well. It was populated by country folk, and the talk was of country pursuits, such as shooting – clays as well as game. There was a well-spoken young lady, dressed partly in tweeds, enjoying a drink with both her father and grandfather. She was home from university and was talking across to the young lad behind the bar, swapping tales about their various shooting experiences. She seemed a little upset though when her grandfather told her, in a very matter of fact way, how he had despatched a fox, using both barrels of his gun. Country life obviously isn’t “jolly hockey sticks” all of the time!

One other point about the bar which I couldn’t help noticing was the rather low beam running directly in front of the bar counter. One hapless chap, presumably not a regular, managed to crack his head on it no less than three times whilst ordering his drinks!

As I said, it would have been nice to have stayed and enjoyed another pint, but I continued my journey, cutting through along the rural roads through Watton and then on to Dereham. Dad was looking OK when I arrived at the care home, and the staff told me he had settled in nicely. I stayed for a couple of hours, even though the conversation didn’t always make a lot of sense.

I then headed for the family bungalow, which felt cold and empty inside. I turned the heating up and made myself at home. With no food in the place I decided I would eat out that evening, so after sorting a few things out I set off down the road to Darby’s; the pub at the other end of the village. I have written previously about Swanton Morley's two hostelries, and whilst the Angel is the nearest one to dad’s bungalow, and the one I usually frequent, it is very much a locals’ pub. Darby’s it was then, so I set off along the more or less straight road which runs the entire length of this linear village, reaching my destination some 20 minutes later.

A welcoming log fire at Darbys
The pub was bustling, mainly with diners, but still not quite full when I arrived. I found a space at the end of a long table, having first ordered a pint of Lacon’s Legacy. I remembered this excellent hoppy, straw-coloured beer from my previous visit, and it was every bit as good this time round. Also on tap, were Adnams Bitter, Bullard’s No. 3 ABV 4.7% (brewed by Redwell- the brewery which got into a spat with Camden Town over the use of the term "Hells"), plus a couple of seasonal specials, (one from Wolfe, and the other a 4.2% beer called St Nick’s from Lacon’s).

I tried both the Bullards and the St Nick (halves only), preferring the latter due to the hint of spiced orange peel combined with the citrus notes from the hops. Food-wise I went for the battered cod with potato wedges and petis pois, which was just right. The early diners gradually drifted off, although a few latecomers did take up some of the vacant places. I was fine, sitting close to the welcoming log fire, and before going ordered another pint of the excellent Legacy. The landlady told me it was now a regular beer behind the bar, and one of the pub’s top-selling cask ales; deservedly so in my book.

I said my farewells and set off to walk back to the bungalow. It is nearly all uphill going back, but fortunately the moon had risen, meaning I had little need of a torch on the return trip.

I expect I shall be going back to Darby’s; at least until the bungalow is sold, for the hard financial truth is that care home fees are not cheap and there is no help from government for people like my father. People like him who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes and provided for their families by buying their own home, are then expected to hand everything over to the state; whilst the work-shy and ne’er-do-wells have everything given to them on a plate when they reach old age. Such is life in modern day Britain!

On a more cheerful note, it was a good couple of days. The Norfolk countryside was looking pretty good in the winter sunshine. The pubs, the beer and the food were all good and, most important of all, I can relax in the knowledge that dad is being cared for and is being looked after well. He is in a place of safety where I know he can live out his final days in peace and contentment.


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading the context behind your pub visits Paul, even on more difficult occasions like your recent trips to Norfolk. It's good to hear your Dad is in a good home though.

I sympathise with your sense of injustice about care home fees. I'm sure most tax-payers would prefer these to be covered by a national insurance type arrangement, and the promised cap seems to be a bit illusory.

NB I recall a banged head in a pub out in that part of the world; quite probably the Chequers. Glad to see a pub serving IPA and a good Wherry can still make the Beer Guide in times of obsession with micro breweries.

Best wishes for the New Year

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Martin. I do, sometimes like to set a bit of background to trips and pub visits, and on the whole this latest journey to Norfolk was a positive one; especially with regard to my father’s situation.

Providing funding for an increasingly aged population is never going to be easy, and even now is never going to be much of a vote winner so far as politicians are concerned. As you point out, the much talked about funding cap seems to have been kicked into the long grass for the foreseeable future, but I agree some form of NI scheme to cover care in old age would be a sensible and fair way forward. Leaving these issues aside, I am just mightily relieved that dad is being looked after and is receiving the appropriate level of care.

Fortunately, I wasn’t quite tall enough to be in danger from that low beam in the Chequers, but the poor chap who hit his head three times obviously wasn’t paying attention. I’m not sure if the pub is in the latest GBG, but I will be filing a high beer score on Whatpub for the excellent quality of its Wherry, and a similar high one for the Lacon’s at Darby’s, Swanton Morley.

I look forward to reading further reports from you, following your travels around the country. With all best wishes for 2016. Paul.

David Harrison said...

We enjoyed a visit to the Thompson Chequers back in October;as you say, decent Wherry and a jolly atmosphere on a mid week lunchtime-it soon filled up with an excitable group of middle aged folk, who were still there on our return from a rain soaked walk.
It is a pity to have to visit interesting places in sombre circumstances:if those with power and influence gave the subject due consideration, I'm sure a lot of lives would benefit.
On a lighter note, we had a superlative pint of Larkin's Traditional at the Leicester Arms in Penshurst after a post Christmas hurtle round the eponymous Estate.We'd not been in this pub before, supposing it to be a bit posh,which perhaps it was, but the beer was excellent!

Paul Bailey said...

Glad to hear about your positive experience of the Leicester Arms, David. I called in about three months ago and was impressed with what I found. I had been expecting the worse, as friends had said the pub had become very upmarket as a result of all the renovation work carried out following its long period of closure. I only stopped for the one; Larkin’s Traditional of course, but was made to feel welcome, and the beer was in excellent form to boot. There was a family group from the north country, drinking in the bar, and it turned out they were staying at the pub.

A significant amount of money has obviously been spent restoring this fine old inn to its former glory, but it appears to have been spent wisely and with respect to the history of this village pub. The fact there is still a traditional bar, where dogs, as well as people are welcome, and that the beer is good as well, bodes well for the future.

ps. For those of us living locally, the Leicester Arms is an obvious destination to cycle to, being at the end of the Tonbridge-Penshurst, off-road, cycle route, and I will be doing just that as soon as the better weather comes.

Neville Grundy said...

The underfunding of social care is something of a hidden national scandal in the fifth biggest economy on the planet. Hidden, that is, until people have to face a situation like yours.

The pubs sound nice. My only experience of Norfolk pubs was at the Norwich AGM. I thought there were some great ale houses there and wrote about them on my blog. My friends took the mickey out of the copious notes I made.