Saturday 30 June 2018

The British Guild of Beer Writers AGM 2018

Last Wednesday evening I took the train up to London, in order to attend the Annual General Meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers. This was the third trip I’ve made to the capital in the space of the past two weeks, but much like buses, things often come in threes.

Wednesday evening's AGM was another number three, as it was the third such meeting I have attended, since joining the Guild in the summer of 2015. It’s no surprise that meetings of an organisation for people who write about beer, should take place in a pub, and this year’s venue was the Bishop’s Finger, a Shepherd Neame pub in West Smithfield, just a stone’s throw away from the famous Smithfield Meat Market.

I had a virtually seamless journey up from Tonbridge, courtesy of the enhanced Thameslink service. Just a simple platform change at London Bridge station, now fully operational after years of re-building and re-modelling, and I was hopping onto a sleek new 12 coach,  Thameslink train.

I must say I am really impressed by the investment that has gone into the Thameslink project, and the fact it now offers speedy travel, without having to change trains, across central London for those of us who live in the south. For example, my train, which had come from Brighton, was bound for Bedford, and I understand there are also through services to Cambridge.

I wasn't going that far, as I alighted just three stops later at Farringdon. From there it was a five minute walk to the pub. My route took me through the splendour of the Victorian buildings which make up Smithfield Market, and as I walked under the ornate,  cast-iron canopy, lorries were parking up ready to deliver their meat for the early morning trade.

I think I am correct in saying that the Bishop’s Finger was the first pub which Shepherd Neame owned in London, and for many years it represented the Kent brewery's sole presence in the nation’s capital. It’s probably getting on for 40 years since I last set foot inside the pub, but as our meeting was held in an upstairs room, I didn’t see that much of it. Downstairs there was just one open plan bar, although I’m pretty certain that back in the 70’s, the Bishop’s Finger had two bars.

The British Guild of Beer Writers was formed in 1988 to help spread the word about beers, brewing and pubs. It’s members include the cream of the country’s beer media experts – be they journalists, authors (writers or bloggers), producers, photographers, illustrators or PR people.

The Guild’s wish is for the public to be given every opportunity to learn about beer at first hand from its members, and for the public to be able to read, listen and view how beer is flourishing in Britain today. Supporters of the Guild include brewers, pub companies, and many suppliers associated with the brewing trade.

I was admitted to the Guild, as a full member, back in 2015. I qualified for membership by virtue of having written this blog (at the time), for seven years, and also for having edited, as well as written most of the copy for, two magazines/newsletters, published by local CAMRA branches.

I am proud to be a member, and although I am in illustrious company, I have found everyone I have met so far, to be friendly, engaging and helpful. You can check out the Guild’s many members here, should you wish.

I made my way upstairs, where the 30 or so members present were squeezed into the pub's function room. Fortunately the room had its own bar, and with a choice of Spitfire and Whitstable Bay Pale on hand-pump, and Five Grain Lager on keg, we were unlikely to go thirsty. There was also selection of bottles, chilling away in the fridge. Chilled beer was certainly needed as it was a very warm evening outside, although the rather fierce air-conditioning certainly kept things cool in the room.

The proceedings stuck to the usual AGM format of reports from the various officers, followed by an election for four places on the board. I say board, because a couple of years ago, the Guild changed its status from that of a members club, to that of a company. This was done primarily to place things on a firmer financial footing.

It was also time to say goodbye to Guild Chariman, Tim Hampson who was stepping down  after 12 years in the role. Addressing the assembled members, Tim reflected on his years as chairman.  “The Guild has moved from being a club to a more professional organisation,” he said. “When I took on the role, my priority was to put the Guild on a more stable financial footing and I’m delighted that, thanks to our Treasurer Paul Nunny, we have now achieved that.  This allows us to offer far more to our members  in the way of seminars, events and training.”

He continued, “I am especially proud of our Annual Awards and Dinner, which has become one of the highlights of the drinks industry calendar.”

Members extended their heartfelt thanks to Tim for his unstinting dedication to the Guild, which during his tenure has been transformed into the thriving organisation it is today.  The Guild’s individual membership has passed 300 for the first time, thanks in large part to membership secretary Matthew Curtis.

Former Secretary of the Guild and current Beer Writer of the Year, Adrian Tierney-Jones spoke fondly about the decade he worked alongside Tim Hampson, before presenting him with a bottle of Bass King’s Ale 1902 and an engraved tankard on behalf of the Guild.

In addition to Tim, three other directors stood down from the Guild Board at the meeting and elections were held. It was particularly encouraging to see that three of the four new directors are women, especially as they will be bringing some new ideas to the Guild.

Once the meeting had finished, members tucked into a buffet which went well with the beer. There was just the right amount of food, and the same applied to the beer. With work the next morning, I restricted myself  to three pints; two of Whitstable Bay and one of Five Grain.

It was a highly positive meeting and it was good to catch up with a few familiar faces from past Guild events and also a couple of past European Beer Bloggers' Conferences. I left around 9.30pm, retracing my footsteps back to Farringdon and then my rail journey back to Kent.

After the heat of the city it was rather chilly when I stepped off the train at Tonbridge, but a brisk walk home soon warmed me up.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference 2018,

Regular readers will recall the posts I wrote about the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conferences. These events were held annually, in a different European city each year, and while they lasted were great fun. They drew together a diverse group of like-minded souls, all of whom write or blog, either as a hobby, or for a living.

I attended three conferences in total; the first one being in Dublin, back in 2014, and the last in Amsterdam, in 2016. The one in between took place in Brussels. The Amsterdam conference was the last “European” event, and for me was a particularly sad occasion,  as I really used to look forward to meeting up with the new beer-loving friends I had made.

The conferences were organised by Zephyr Adventures; an American-based travel company which also operates events in the food, wine, beer, and fitness industries. The European Conferences were actually a spin-off of the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conferences, which take place annually in North America. The American conferences typically attract around 150 attendees from throughout North America, and sometimes beyond, but because the European events only attracted around half that number, they were not financially viable, and the event was dropped in 2016.

The first conference was held in Boulder, Colorado in 2010, and since then the event has travelled to major cities throughout the USA. The conferences provide the opportunity for participants to learn about different beers and breweries, to taste and enjoy these beers, and also to network (hate that word!), with like-minded people.

This year’s  Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference  will take place in Loudoun County, just outside Washington DC. It will be the ninth such conference. There were a number of reasons why the organisers chose this location:

Loudoun County contains Dulles Airport, one of two major airports for the Washington DC region, making the conference easy to access.

Loudoun is considered Washington’s “wine country” with 42 wineries in the county. More to the point, the county also now boasts 22 breweries and is fast becoming the playground for the capital’s beer connoisseurs. 

Despite its proximity to the US capital, Loudoun County is described as beautiful, with many attractive rural areas, which participants will be able to visit, as part of the conference on two dinner excursions. The conference will also include a Loudoun County beer tasting event.

As with the European conferences, there are a number of pre and post-conference excursions. The post-conference excursion to Richmond, Virginia is the one I’m particularly interested in; given the city’s history and its role as the capital of the Confederacy during the American civil war. As someone who had a childhood interest in that rather bloody conflict, visiting Richmond will be a particularly special moment.

I’ve already booked my place, and have almost  finalised my travel plans. I have a sister living in the US, and after the conference I will be travelling north-west, by train, to spend some time with her and her family, in the small Ohio town where they live.

The conference is now just over six weeks away, so excitement is mounting. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m really looking forward to it, especially as it affords the chance to get to know the thriving beer scene in north-west Virginia. I’m certain too that my American brother-in-law will have some beery delights lined up for me when I travel up to Ohio, to join him and my sister.

For more details of the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference 2018, please click on the link below.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier - Part Two

In the first half of this article, I recounted my first experiences of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier; the most intensely smoked of all the Rauchbiers produced in the Franconian town of Bamberg. I went on to promise that I would describe my first visit to this  charming, Baroque city, and how I got to enjoy a few glasses of Schlenkerla Rauchbier in the world famous Schlenkerla Tavern.

The opportunity to visit Bamberg came in late November 2007, when I spotted an ad in one of the local free newspapers. It referred to a coach  trip to a couple of German Christmas Markets, the main one of which was Nuremberg. A morning visit to the Christmas Market in Bamberg was also mentioned, and that was what really grabbed my attention.

The trip was a four day affair, with two days in Germany, plus a day either side to travel there and back. Included was three day's accommodation at a family run hotel, in a small north Bavarian village. The company organising the trip was called Travelscope - more about them later.

I was definitely interested, so went ahead and booked my place - I think it was by phone, rather than online, but that's somewhat immaterial. As is often the case with these sorts of coach trips, the company offered an overnight stay, followed by an early morning pick-up from a hotel, en route. In this case it was a Holiday Inn, just outside Ashford, so it was from there at 4.30 in the morning, that we set off, bound for northern Bavaria.

We crossed the Channel by sea; my favourite means when not in a hurry, as you can't beat a ferry trip, especially when you can dive into the restaurant and grab a Full English, after you've stood on the rear deck watching the White Cliffs slowly receding behind you.

I wasn't so impressed with the rest of the journey, especially after becoming stuck in heavy traffic on the section of the Autobahn around Frankfurt airport. The journey back by coach from former Czechoslovakia, touched on in my previous post, was extremely tiring, and I vowed at the time that I wouldn't undertake such a lengthy coach trip again. But here I was, sat on  coach again, willing the traffic to ease so that our driver could put his foot down and speed us towards our destination.

We were several hours late in reaching our hotel, but as the tour rep had phoned ahead to inform them of our delay, there was a nice hot and very welcoming meal waiting for us when we eventually arrived. After the meal, I sat in the bar with some of my fellow passengers, getting to know them whilst enjoying a few beers; Maisel Bräu from Bamberg, now sadly defunct.

I was up early the next morning for breakfast, having been woken by the bells from the nearby church clock. I wasn't the first down though, that honour went to the Yorkshire contingent, who made up a sizeable portion of the party. Having eaten their breakfast, they were busy making up rolls to eat "on t' bus." No comment!

After breakfast we boarded the coach and headed off towards Bamberg. My excitement grew as we drew closer to the city, and when the driver dropped us off on the banks of the River Regnitz, I made a beeline straight into the Altstadt, or old city. It was a bitterly cold, early December day, so I hurriedly made my way through the narrow streets of the old town in order to find my way to the Schlenkerla Tavern.

I ended up slightly lost, finding myself at the cathedral instead, so I made my way back down towards the river, bumping into a couple of Schlenkerla brewery workers along the way. They pointed me in the right direction and before long, I found myself passing through the doorway of the world famous old pub, which is the home of Schlenkerla beer.

I noticed a couple of customers sitting in the lobby, and as there were a number of spare tables, I decided to join them. I discovered that this part of the rambling old pub was self-service; something which is quite unusual in Germany; and certainly indoors. I made my way to the serving hatch and ordered myself a Seidla (a thin-walled glass in the local dialect), of Rauchbier, noticing that it was dispensed direct from a wooden cask behind the bar.

Almost coal-black in colour, and topped with a thick foamy head, this was my first experience of  Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and it did not disappoint. The gravity dispense method meant there was no extraneous gas present; the result being a rich smooth beer with an intense smokiness, both in the aroma and in the taste, underlying the whole thing. In short it was delicious.

I sat there savouring my beer whilst soaking up the atmosphere of the centuries old pub, feeling a deep-seated sense of contentment and relishing the thought that I had finally made it to Schlenkerla. My idyll was soon shattered when three, well-dressed, middle-aged women came bursting in through the door and started making themselves at home,

They ordered themselves a beer each, before unpacking some of their shopping. Their purchases consisted of a bag of bread rolls, plus some slices of ham and without further ado they started preparing some ham rolls for their lunch. I was gob-smacked as I knew the pub served food, but here were these rather forceful ladies quite blatantly stuffing their faces with food they had bought elsewhere.

It's probably quite widely known that many beer gardens in Bavaria allow customers to bring along their own food, as long as they purchase their beer there, but we are talking about outdoor establishments during the summer months, rather than the inside of a traditional old pub in the middle of winter. No-one batted an eyelid though, and when one of the waiters came along to collect the empty glasses, the ladies ended up giving him some stick over something or other.

By this time I was on my second Seidla and content to let what was happening, a few feet away, wash over me. This was when another customer walked in and ordered himself a beer. He too got some grief from the three women, who were also on their second beer by this time. I could almost sense the fear in his eyes as he looked for an escape route, so I beckoned him over to come and join me.

There was a visible look of relief about him as he introduced himself and sat down. It turned out he was from Coburg, a town in the far north of Bavaria. He was quite a regular visitor to Bamberg, and was in the city on business that day. Stopping off at the  old tavern, for a glass or two of  famous beer was a regular feature of his visits, although i don't think he'd encountered the three weird sisters of Bamberg before.

We got chatting, and as soon as he learned I was from England, he mentioned the British Royal Family and their connections to his hometown. Coburg of course, was the birthplace of Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert and until King George V changed it in 1917, the  royal family's name had been Saxe-Coburg Gotha. He said that I ought to visit Coburg, something I have subsequently done.

Time was ticking on, and the coach was due to depart at 1pm. I had time for one last beer, going this time for a glass of the stronger, seasonal Bockbier. It was basically a stronger version of the standard Märzen Bier, and whilst it was good, I still preferred the normal, everyday beer.

I bade farewell to my new found friend from Coburg, promising that I would visit his hometown as soon as time allowed. Before leaving, I made my way to the rear of the old tavern, where there is an "off-sales" department. I purchased a 5 litre mini-keg of  Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, along with a carry-out case of six bottles. This stash would see me through Christmas that year!

With my arms practically dropping off, I made it back to the coach on time. Most of my fellow travellers had visited the Christmas Market,  so I think they were quite taken aback when they saw me turn up with armfuls of beer. They obviously didn't know about the pleasures of Bamberg's most famous product, but as we were leaving it wasn't really the time to enlighten them.

As I finish writing this piece, I am enjoying a glass of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier; one of the bottles I brought back from my most recent trip. I have been to Bamberg on several occasions in between May's trip and that first visit back eleven years ago, and on each occasion I have called in at the Schlenkerla Tavern at least once.

A few years ago I remember reading comments that Schlenkerla Rauchbier had become lees distinct; dumbded down slightly in order to broaden its appeal. Drinking this beer now, and thinking back to my most recent visit to Bamberg, I can categorically state this is not true. The beer is as good and as distinctive as it's ever been, and if you want to experience this at first-hand, I strongly recommend you book yourself a trip to Bamberg, and spend a session or two in its most famous pub.

Footnote: I'd been home from that first trip for less than a week, when the shock news broke that Travelscope had ceased trading and gone into administration. I'd had a lucky escape as two hundred people lost their jobs and 45,000 people saw their holiday plans cancelled.

You can read the full story here.

Thursday 21 June 2018

Taking away the sparkle

Anyone with even a passing interest in the drinks’ industry, won’t failed to have noticed the alarmist headlines in the media over the past few days about the shortage of CO2.

The gas, is used not just for the carbonation of fizzy drinks and packaged beer, but also in the packaging of a range of fresh foods, in order to keep them fresh during storage and transit. A rather darker use for the gas, is in pork and poultry slaughterhouses, as apparently it is one of the most humane methods to slaughter animals.

The shortage is due to a number of factors which have combined to create a perfect storm. Northern Europe has already been facing a CO2 supply problem, but now three of the largest UK plants which produce the gas have closed for maintenance, sparking panic among brewers, pub groups and food suppliers.

Much of Europe’s CO2 comes from ammonia plants that manufacture fertiliser; the gas being a by-product of the process. But as demand for fertiliser peaks in winter, manufacturers often shut down during the summer for maintenance work.

Demand for beer and fizzy drinks is peaking as football fans gather to watch the World Cup football, whilst enjoying the recent spell of good weather. People want to watch the football and have a pint, so the shortage could not have occurred at a more worse time. A spokesman for one well-known brewery said. “This effect will be felt right the way across the industry, from micro-brewery to large brewer.”

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), which represents brewers and 20,000 UK pubs, said the CO2 shortage was beginning to cause stoppages in beer production, although it did not name specific companies.

Not surprisingly, given its support for naturally carbonated beers, CAMRA, has seized on the opportunity to urge drinkers to abandon artificially carbonated brews. Tom Stainer, the Campaign’s chief communications officer said, “Beer drinkers concerned about the supply of beer this summer can rest easy. There are plenty of fantastic real ales, ciders and perries that will be completely unaffected by the impending CO2 shortage."

“Real ales are naturally carbonated by live yeast that is left in the bottle or cask, and are therefore ‘living products’ compared to keg beers, which artificially inject CO2 into the brew for carbonation. In addition, real ciders and perries are naturally still, making them a refreshing beverage choice in the summer heat.”

I must admit that as a person with a scientific background, who works in a science-based role, I was totally ignorant about how the bulk of our stored CO2 is produced. I assumed that breweries collected their own, as a by-product of the fermentation process. I also thought that CO2 was separated from the atmosphere by companies such as BOC and Air Products, who supply oxygen and nitrogen in cylinders, or larger vessels.

As someone who is primarily a Real Ale drinker, the CO2 shortage won’t overly bother me; although I can only begin to imagine the disruption it will cause to the food and drinks industry as a whole.

Watch this space, as they say!

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier - Part One

It's only fitting that we should end the series on Bamberg with a couple of posts about the city's most famous beer, and the brewer best known for producing it. I am talking of course about Schlenkerla, the brewery whose smoke or "Rauchbier " is known and admired by beer lovers the world over.

Rauchbier is the style of beer which Bamberg is best known for, but what exactly is it? In simple terms Rauchbier, is a style of beer with a distinctive smoke flavour derived from the use of malted barley dried over an open flame. Prior to the industrial revolution, virtually all malt was dried in this fashion; although drying malted barley in direct sunlight was sometimes used in addition to drying over direct heat.

Starting in the 18th Century, the practice of drying malt in a kiln, using indirect heat, became more widespread and, by the mid-19th Century, had become the near-universal method for drying malted grain. Since the kiln method directs the smoke away from the wet malt, a smoky flavour is not imparted to the grain; nor to the beer which is subsequently brewed with the malt.

As a result, a smoke flavour in beer became less and less common, and eventually disappeared almost entirely from the brewing world. But not quite, as certain breweries maintained the tradition by continuing to use malt which had been dried over open flames.

For reasons which remain unclear, the town of Bamberg in the Upper Franconia region of northern Bavaria, remained the centre of smoke beer production, and nearly two centuries later, two of the city's brewpubs - Schlenkerla and Spezial,  still produce several varieties of Rauchbier, for the continuing delight of their customers. Both breweries produce their own Rauchmalz from malted barley dried over fires made from beech wood logs.  

Of the two Schlenkerla is by far the best known, and whilst the Rauchbiers produced by Brauerei Spezial are still eminently drinkable, they are quite mild in comparison to those of Schlenkerla. It is the latter therefore that we shall concentrate our attention on.

I was vaguely aware of Rauchbier quite early on in my drinking career, because I had a copy of Michael Jackson's ground-breaking book, the "World Guide to Beer." This beer style remained a curiosity stored in the back of my consciousness, until quite by chance I overheard two beer enthusiasts talking about it whilst on a lengthy coach journey.

It was the autumn of 1984, and I was on my way home from a trip to the country which was then known as Czechoslovakia. The visit had been organised by CAMRA, and I wrote about it at some length, several years ago. Our coach hadn't long crossed the border from Czechoslovakia and into West Germany; a process which whilst quicker than that of the inward journey, was still frustratingly slow.

It wasn't until we were back in the decadent west, with its familiar symbols of capitalism, that I fully appreciated quite what was missing from the communist country we had just departed. A Shell petrol station was the first of these, but strangely enough it did endear a sense of security, and as we sped along the Autobahn and through northern Bavaria, I started slipping in and out of sleep.

The lengthy journey ahead, combined with the several glasses of Pilsner Urquell consumed earlier, during an extended lunch stop in Pilsen itself, no doubt contributed to my soporific state. I was vaguely aware of the conversation coming from  the two lads in the seats in front of me. I hadn't really mixed with them during our time in Czechoslovakia, but I was aware that they knew quite a lot more about beer than I did. Not only were they older than me, they also seemed far better travelled.

As dusk turned into the full blackness of night, I remember one of them becoming quite excited by a sign on the Autobahn. "Look," he said to his companion, "there's the turning for Bamberg; that's where they brew smoked beer."

In my imagination I thought I could see the lights of Bamberg glimmering in the distance, but in reality they were probably those of a much nearer town or village, but the very mention of the home of smoked beer reawakened my awareness of this niche beer style to the extent that I was fantasising about our driver making an unscheduled stop, just so we could sample some of it.

Of course this didn't happen and, as our coach sped steadily north-westward, all such thoughts vanished. Instead I drifted into deep unconsciousness and didn't wake up until we reached the Belgian border. (This was pre-Schengen days, and there were still check-points at the boundaries between west European countries).

My chance to sample Rauchbier eventually came in the unlikely setting of my adopted home town of Tonbridge. It must have been some time in the late 1980's that I spotted bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchbier on the shelves of our local Sainsbury's. I had learned quite a lot more about beer by then, thanks in no small measure to the late, great Michael Jackson once again.

It wasn't one of his books this time though, but rather the even more revolutionary TV series "The Beer Hunter". This had really opened my eyes to what was out there in the world of beer. In one of the series six episodes Michael had visited Bamberg and had of course sampled the city's most famous product in it most famous tavern. The fact that Sainsbury's now had bottles of the stuff on their shelves meant that at long last, I was able to sample this legendary beer.

The beer was everything I thought it would be, although I admit to be slightly taken aback that it was so dark in colour (I wasn't such a huge fan of dark beers in those days). Unfortunately Schlenkerla Rauchbier was only available for a short period. I don't know whether this was due to supply problems or low sales, but almost as quickly as it appeared on Sainsbury's shelves, it just as quickly vanished.

I tend to think that the beer was probably a beer too far; too extreme for most people's tastes at the time. Just remember, the late 80's were 30 years before today's explosion in the variety of different beers and beer styles that are available to today's' beer connoisseurs, but if there's an enterprising entrepreneur out there, looking for something different, then smoke beer from Bamberg would certainly fit the bill.

Apart from the occasional sighting on the foreign bar at beer festivals, it was another twelve or so years before I was able to enjoy a glass of Schlenkerla Rauchbier. By this time (early 2000), my wife and I had  our own specialist off-licence, and in my quest to offer something different, I managed to track down an importer specialising in German beers.

Schlenkerla Rauchbier was on their list, along with several other beers from Deutschland, so I went ahead and ordered a case. I was now able to offer this world classic beer to my discerning customers, along with the occasional bottle for myself.

Having explained what Rauchbier is, how I became aware of it, plus my first experiences of drinking it, it's time to leave the story for a while. In the next chapter I will recount how I travelled to Bamberg for the first time and drank Schlenkerla Rauchbier on its home turf; in the city's most famous, and best known tavern.

Sunday 17 June 2018

To Norfolk for the day

I had an interesting day out on Friday which, although at one stage seemed to be going awry, worked out fine in the end. It involved a trip up to Norfolk, to visit my father. I mentioned it  briefly in my last post, but I thought I’d elaborate more and use this piece as yet another “filler”, as I’m still working on that much longer article I keep promising to publish.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been visiting Norfolk, on a regular basis, for the last 25 years. My parents moved there, from Kent, following my father’s retirement; the idea being to downsize and release a bit of the equity, locked up in the former family home.

Mum and dad settled in a mid-Norfolk village and enjoyed a happy retirement which lasted nearly a quarter of a century but in 2015, my mother sadly passed away. Nine months later my sisters and I made the sad, but necessary decision, to move dad into a care home. The Alzheimer’s he was suffering from was getting progressively worse, and for everyone’s sake, but especially dad’s, we were left with little choice but to transfer him to somewhere he would be safe and receive the proper care and attention he needed. 

Over the years, on numerous occasions, I have made the journey to Norfolk, sometimes with the family or, more often than not, on my own.  I feel sometimes that I know every motorway junction, every roundabout and almost every bump in the road of the 150 mile trip, and whilst journey times have improved with the opening a few years ago of the last dual-carriageway section of the A11 (Barton Mills to Thetford), it is still a tiring drive.

This time then I decided to let someone else do the driving and, following a little online research, opted to make the entire journey to visit dad, by public transport. There is a fast Inter-City train service operating on a half-hourly basis (weekdays), between London and Norwich, and I was also aware of an express bus running from Norwich to Dereham.

The final leg of the journey, is the three mile  section from Dereham to Gressenhall; the small village where dad’s care home is situated, and a little more research followed by a phone call, revealed that local taxi firm, Dereham Taxis, would be able to transport me to Gressenhall.

By booking in  advance, online with The Trainline, I procured a return train ticket between Tonbridge and Norwich for the bargain price of £32.10, and this included travelling in First Class accommodation on the return journey from Norwich. Konect Bus who provide services in this part of Norfolk, operate an express bus between Norwich rail station and Dereham on a half hourly basis, and what’s more their timetable shows which trains each service connects with!  Two UK public transport operators actually offering an integrated service; how’s that for joined up thinking? 

I booked Friday off from work, and with all that’s going on there at the moment, I was really glad to get away from the place. From Tonbridge I jumped on the first available London bound train and alighted at London Bridge. The completely rebuilt station is something to behold, especially for those of us who remember its cramped and over-crowded predecessor.

It was a fine morning so I decided to walk across the Thames via London Bridge, and up to Liverpool Street. I have done this several times in the past, finding it far preferable to the hot, dirty and over-crowded Underground. Also, given the lengthy passageways down to the Northern Line at London Bridge, and then the labyrinthine inter-change onto the Central Line at Bank station, I don’t think there’s that much extra walking involved. It’s certainly far more pleasant being out in the open, strolling along and observing life, as all the city workers, rush to their offices.

So a nice comfortable Inter-City train to Norwich awaited me at Liverpool Street, and a nice fast journey through East London and then into Essex. As the railway crossed the River Stour, just before the river broadens out into the wide estuary, I could see the massive cranes of Felixstowe docks, standing out on the horizon, and as the train pulled into Ipswich station, I knew we were less than an hour away from Norwich.

Or so we should have been, except the train didn’t move off. I’d already noticed the conductor walking along the platform, talking on her two-way radio, so when her voice came over the PA system I wasn’t too surprised. Apparently a passenger had been taken ill on the train, but as soon as the situation had been sorted, we would be underway.

Unfortunately the next announcement was request for anyone with medical knowledge to make their way to the First Class coaches at the rear of the train, followed by an instruction asking us all to disembark and remain on the platform, as the service was being terminated.

Things were a little chaotic, shall we say, as we had to cross via the stairs, to the opposite platform, only to then re-cross back to where we were originally, due to a fault which developed on a London-bound train, which prevented its departure. It’s a good job I’m fit, and was travelling light, but the long and the short of it was by the time the next train for Norwich arrived, I was running around 40 minutes behind schedule.

A quick call to the taxi company allowed me to adjust my pick-up time in Dereham, but I was only able to move the return journey back by 20 minutes. This was because, like many taxi operators, the company had all its available vehicles committed to the school run. Really? We had to walk in my day, none of this cosseting and being ferried around in taxis, for us!

Moving swiftly on, the No. 8 Konect Bus appeared roughly on time, at the side of the station, I bought a return ticket for the bargain sum of £5.50, and after a brief additional pick-up at the newly refurbished Norwich Bus Station, we headed out of town and were soon speeding along the A47 towards Dereham.

The bus dropped me in the centre of town, where my taxi was waiting. I arrived at dad’s care-home shortly after 2pm. Dad was looking a lot better than on my last visit. On that occasion he was asleep for much of the time, but on Friday he was alert and quite chatty. He had put back on most of the weight that he’d lost earlier in the year, when he was laid up with a chest infection.

It was really good to see him, and although I was only able to spend an hour with him, I’m pretty certain he appreciated my coming to see him. I had a brief chat with the home’s deputy manager, who said they were pleased with his progress, and that he was now back to something approaching his old self.

The journey back to Norwich was the reverse of the outward one, and I arrived back in the city at 16.10. My original plan had been to stop for a pint in the city centre, but with my train departing at 17.30, I decided to stay on the bus and get off at the station.

So where to stop for a pint?  I now have this year’s Good Beer Guide available as an App on my phone, but even without this I knew there was a paucity of decent pubs in the vicinity of the station. I was aware of the Compleat Angler, next to the River Wensum, but it has always seemed rather down at heel, and the link to WhatPub didn’t provide much that was complimentary either.

You can see quite a bit from the upper deck of a bus though, and as the bus waited at traffic lights, I noticed a sign indicating it had recently changed management/ownership. It was definitely worth a try, and as I walked over the bridge, the sight of punters enjoying a pint on the outside terrace, overlooking the river, was sufficient to gladden the heart of this very thirsty drinker.

The Compleat Angler is now a Greene King managed house (it may always have been so, but what the heck?). A sign by the entrance advised there were up to 10 ales available (Martin beware), so after stepping inside I carried out a quick scan of the hand pumps, along both sections of the bar, before deciding to ask the bar staff for their recommendation.

The two girls in charge seemed pretty knowledgeable, and after a bit of discussion as to whether I wanted something light or dark, hoppy or malty, I opted for a pint of Lupus Lupus from Wolf Brewery, who are an old favourite of mine. I was glad I did, as this well-hopped, blonde ale was just what I required, cool, bright and packed full of flavour. I scored it at 3.5 NBSS.

The interior of the Compleat Angler has been stripped back to basics, with bare wooden floors and lots of other dark wood. With the 2018 FIFA World Cup underway, one of the first matches was being shown on a wide screen. I didn’t pay much attention, although I did notice that Iran were one of the teams playing.

I headed out to the riverside terrace, and sat there enjoying my pint and updating my social media account. I was tempted to go for another pint, but it would have meant rushing; something I don’t do anymore, unless I absolutely have to. The pub was a very pleasant place in which to finish my brief visit to Norfolk, and I will keep it in mind for next time.

There almost certainly will be a “next time”, as having now “test-driven” the public transport option, I will use it again. I know it’s perfectly feasible to drive from Kent up to Norfolk and back in a day, but it is very tiring, and whilst my total spend exceeded what it would have cost me in diesel, I didn’t have to factor in the cost of my usual overnight stay.