England, The Home of Real Ale

March 2nd 2014, 7:21:00 pm

Flying into Manchester from Athens, the first thing that struck me about England was just how lusciously green everything was. Yes, I've been to England before, I even lived there for nearly a year some time ago, but I was still blown away by it. No other country I've been to has rolling fields and hills like England.

After landing in Manchester I got the train to Nottingham and went and met up with my old friend Matty P at his local pub, the Vat and Fiddle. A few years had passed since Matt left Australia so it was fantastic to catch up with him and try a few pints of Castle Rock's fine ale selection. We made a quick trip to Matt's house to dump my bags then headed to Brewdog to try a few more UK ales before heading back to Matty's place for the nights rest.

The next morning we sought out a proper, full English breakfast from a local cafe; bacon and eggs, sausages, mushrooms and baked beans. So damn good! Only thing missing was black pudding, but we dealt with that omission at subsequent breakfasts.

After breakfast we headed up to Nottingham castle for the event that drew me to England at this time, The Robin Hood Beer Festival. It's a "real ale" festival run by CAMRA, offering over 1,100 casks of ale to sample, and about 300 ciders for those with no taste (Sorry Amanda :P). They had 900 casks of ale tapped at any one time, with the others "settling" so that when they're tapped they pour clear instead of being cloudy with too much yeast.

On arrival you're given a bunch of tokens, two of which buys a third of a pint of ale. The best part is that you don't have to spend any tokens to try an ale! The people working there want you to find a beer you like before you commit to drinking a third of it, and so will let you taste any of the beers for free. The volume of these tastes would often be more than you'd get at a beer tasting event back in Australia, and there you'd have to be spending tokens for the privilege. England has beer tasting all figured out!

The people working serving the beers seemed pretty knowledgeable, and had a surprisingly good balance of the genders. Still weighted towards males, but there were a lot of ladies serving too. The people working were mostly unaffiliated with any particular brewery, and were just beer lovers volunteering.

There was an amazing variety food available there too. I ate a zebra burger from a place with all sorts of wild game meat (wild boar, kangaroo, etc.). More varieties of exotic meat than at Carnivore in Kenya! I think England's reputation for bland, boring food is well out of date these days.

Not long after lunch Amanda and Luke arrived and met up with us at the festival, it was great to see them again, and to taste beers and discuss them with Luke.

I worked it out afterwards, and I think I only drank about 6 pints over the whole day there (8-10 hours of well paced drinking), but I got to try dozens of different ales. So much better than the 1-2 hour tastings where you're rushing everything so you don't run out of time. I think it also helped keep things relaxed knowing that trying everything was impossible. I'd done the sums and worked out that even just a 30ml shot of each beer would have meant drinking over 30 litres. Australians like to drink, but even we aren't that stupid.

We left the festival in the early evening and made a stop in at Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem, one of several pubs that claims to be the oldest in the UK. They claim to have been serving beer there since 1189AD. The pub is partly carved out of a sandstone cave, giving it a cosy atmosphere. It's mind-blowing to think that people have been drinking at that same venue for almost 1000 years.

Our last stop for the night was at The Canalhouse, a little craft beer focused pub along the canals, which actually has a section off the canal that runs in through the pub. Presumably it was for unloading casks of ale back in the days (and maybe even still today?). There we had a few strong craft beers (some well over 9% ABV), which didn't help with the way we woke up feeling the next morning. In case you can't guess, it wasn't fantastic.

Once we were up and going the next day, we made a visit to the op shops in the rich part of town. I managed to score a good winter jacket for £8 and a dapper hat for £6.50. Travelling without winter clothes worked out great for me this time, and hopefully will again if I end up somewhere cold again in the future.

We did some scenic driving and had a nice long lunch at The Unicorn Hotel, a traditional style country pub, where the Pedigree ale pie was fantastic.

On Saturday we went back to the beer festival for it's biggest day. We didn't have pre-bought tickets so we got there before the gates opened to try and ensure we'd get in. There we found a line of people winding way down the hill and around the corner, all the while with England giving us some of its best weather. In other words, it pissed down with rain.

Once the gates opened the line moved quite fast (although it continued to grow about as fast as it moved), but we all got in without much hassle.

We went straight to the table area and secured ourselves a table and then I got some chicken tikka masala for breakfast. It is not sensible drinking without a bit of "ballast" in our stomachs as Matty P liked to put it.

This time we focused on the top tent where our table was, which conveniently had the most different ales available. There was also a bottom tent, and then a few other "renegade" tents with only one or two breweries beers available in them two. It turns out you need a fair bit of space for 1100 casks of beer!

My favourite beer of the festival was Bateman's Hazelnut Brownie; a sweet, rich syrupy beer with delicious chocolaty aroma. The name was pretty much spot on describing how it smelt and tasted. It was not a session beer, but it was nice to have a small glass of.

After the beer festival finished up, Luke and Amanda headed off to explore the south of England. I decided I wanted to stop moving for a while and stayed put in Nottingham for a nice long time.

My days comprised of sleeping in, working on my Spanish and spinning poi. Then when Matty got home from his crazy long days at work we'd go out and visit any one of the many local pubs, trying as many different ales as humanly possible.

It felt like a mutually beneficial situation. Matty got someone to help around the house, some extra company, and a drinking buddy. I got the days to slow down and relax without feeling like I was wasting my limited time in new city X, and a great introduction to all that English ale has to offer.

After a few weeks of this it was time to head to London for Amanda and Luke's leaving Europe celebrations. Matty and I got the bus to Victoria Station, then headed straight to Camden to have Lunch at a nice pub Matt knew. Their menu contained the "Cheese and bacon dirty burger". How can you go wrong with a name like that?

After lunch we headed to a pub called The Old Haberdashery, where we were meeting up with everyone. Amanda and Luke, Leigh and Nikki, and a few other people we know who happen to be in London and had the afternoon free all made it along.

After a lot of beers and reminiscing, we headed to the Boom Festival teaser party, our main event for the evening, which turned out to be a terribly organised disaster.

We spent two hours waiting in line to get into the venue, and this was with everyone having pre-booked tickets, the event had sold out. There was a cloak room line that didn't move whatsoever in the 15 minutes I stood there before decided I wouldn't bother. I'd guess another 2 hours to cloak an item, and another 3-4 to get it back at the end of the night. A stupid token system at the bar meant you had to queue up twice when you wanted a drink, or buy loads of tokens and risk having a bunch left over at the end of the night. There was way too many people packed into the tiny venue making the place so unbearably hot that we went outside to the smoking area just to get out of the heat. This is in London at the end of Autumn! I was so hot that I was comfortable outside in just a T-shirt for ages before I stopped feeling overheated.

I'd love to say even in the face of all that I had a good time, but I didn't. Pretty much everything about the night sucked. I was getting so mad about how poorly executed everything was that I got a yelling at from Nicolette about how negative I was being. I completely understand not wanting to make a bad situation seem worse than it is, but when the dust settled the next week I don't think anyone had a positive word to say about the event. I don't know how Boom Festival could let such a farce of a party tarnish their brand like that.

We left before the event finished, as soon as the trains to Cambridge were running again. Like sleepless zombies we endured something like 3 changes back and forth onto buses because of weekend track works. Thank you Amanda for staying awake and making sure we got there in the end!

In Cambridge we were staying at Amanda's good friend Andrew's place. When we arrived we walked in, he handed us bacon sandwiches (what a champion!) and then we all lay down and got some much needed rest.

Andrew was heading off to visit his family, so we were sort of house sitting for him for Amanda and Luke's last few days in Europe. Cards against humanity (The UK version) was played. £65 of fireworks were purchased and set off in a nearby field (45 seconds of non-stop explosions). Cheese, wine and beer was consumed. Good times were had. No photos were taken.

After our few days there, Matty drove Luke and Amanda to London. By the time we got there, it was peak hour, so we stopped at a suburb in the outskirts and had a few drinks until the trains would have quietened down. We said our goodbyes and wished Amanda and Luke well on their American travels, before making the long drive back to Nottingham.

For my penultimate weekend in England, Matt kindly sorted us out some transport so we could go and check out the one real thing on my list of stuff to see in England: Stonehenge. I think the desire to see it stemmed from the movie European Vacation, which is kind of lame, but seeing the real deal was pretty cool.

On the drive there we were buffeted with ice cold winds, dark clouds and rain. The wind ended up working in our favour, blowing us a clear patch in the sky while we were waiting in line to get in. The blue skies lasted for nearly our whole visit. The weather while we were there was stunning, some of the best I saw during this visit to England.

I learnt some interesting stuff from the far too verbose audio guides. There's third of each pillar buried underground, meaning that the already quite large stones are actually 50% bigger than they appear. They have little pegs and holes to help keep the tops in place on the pillars. The heaviest one is estimated to weight 45 tons. Another amazing construction project that nobody truly knows how they accomplished it, although they have some theories that sound pretty reasonable.

After Stonehenge we headed to Bristol to visit an old friend, Jen, and to check out some of the Banksy pieces around the city. I got an iPhone app guide to his work around the city, which sadly a large proportion of have been vandalised and since painted over. It was awesome to see the ones that were still there though.

We caught up with Jen over a few drinks, then headed to a fancy little microbrewery bar and had way to many more tasty beers, followed by an obligatory going-to-bed kebab before sleeping in the van. I slept in the back (which I found out was not exactly sealed from the outside air) and matt slept in the cabin. I was glad to have a reasonable sleeping bag that night.

The next day Matt and I both felt rubbish, so we wandered around trying to find somewhere that was open to get a decent breakfast. Eventually we found a place called the Bristolian that had a great English breakfast, helping us both feel much much better.

We spent the morning touring around Bristol some more, checking out the immense amounts of great street art that decorates the city. I highly recommend checking out the Flickr gallery for this post if you like graffiti.

We decided to go and visit bath that day, a picturesque city full of beautiful architecture. We walked around the city a bit, saw a stealthy bridge (shops built on both sides of it hide the fact there's a bridge there at all), before making the long drive back to Nottingham.

I spent a few of my last few days of this visit to England in London, revisiting sites I'd been to a decade earlier when I lived an hour away in Ipswich. Lots of nice nostalgia.

I went to Buckingham Palace and the huge gardens nearby, walked over to Big Ben and The Palace of Westminster, then walked along the Thames for a bit before it started raining.

I headed over to Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square and bought some last minute tickets to see "The Book of Mormon" for that evening, a musical by the guys behind South Park.

I tracked down a fancy London beard barber shop and got my beard shaped for way too much money, but you only live once, right? I got some good tips about shaping it myself (which I screwed up just a few months later) and some tips on handlebar moustaches.

I visited the London Transport Museum which was quite an interesting collection about all the eras and advancements in public transport in London. Funny to see signs from the start of last century for the same stuff that people need to be told today (don't block the doors, move down the isle, let people off first). It seems like common sense has never been common.

I'd hoped the museum would have a bit more of a focus on the underground than it did. It was nearly completely missing information about the many abandoned underground stations, or 3d models of how the whole network and it's supporting escalators/lifts fit together.

I went along to the Book of Mormon, which by that point was sold out completely, but my seat was actually pretty decent on the ground floor with a good view of the stage. One of the perks of going to the theatre alone! The musical was a funny tale of two Mormons who get sent to Uganda to preach, one of who is a compulsive liar, the other a "star" Mormon. The star loses his faith, so the liar steps up and makes up even crazier stuff than actual Mormonism to get the Ugandans to stop doing bad things like killing one another, or raping babies to cure their aids. I thought it poked a lot of fun of Mormons, while not actually crossing any lines as far as South Park normally does.

The next morning I went and saw London bridge, which is pretty dull but had a great view of the Tower Bridge, which I love to look at.

I looped around and visited the Tower of London, did the tour led by a beefeater which I enjoyed just as much as last time. They have great delivery of their stories and jokes making it both informative and enjoyable.

I went through and saw the crown jewels, this time looking out in particular for the big ones stolen from Africa and India that I'd learned about in my travels. They don't make very much note about that side of the story, or that they refuse to return them.

An new interesting fact I learnt was that the tower was once used as a menagerie, filled with all kinds of exotic animals. The animal husbandry back then left a lot to be desired. For example they had ostriches but didn't know what they ate, so they tried feeding them iron nails, which of course killed them. They also used to have a polar bear on a leash that could swim in the Thames. Nuts!

I went past the monument for the great fire of London, an impressive pillar mostly hidden by the large buildings around it, then got the tube to Camden where I was staying for the night.

Camden has a counter-culture feel to it, and attracts some rather odd people. One example was quite a talented girl who was busking near the train station on an electric violin, while some douchebag sat metres in front of her listening to his iPod. He moved along only when someone tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out what an incredibly rude twat he was being.

I wandered around the markets, seeing loads of great street art, vintage and Victorian (?) era clothes, and lots of other cool stuff to look at. I wish I had unlimited cash and no bag weight restrictions so I could buy a whole new wardrobe, try out a completely new style (or just _have_ a style really).

I visited Cyberdog, which I'm told is practically mandatory when going to Camden, a store that pretty much doubles as a night club. The lights are dimmed, the UV lights are on, there's a live hard trance DJ spinning records and everything. The place was full of rave clothes and cool trinkets. There was a cool Tetris night light that comes apart completely and the blocks light up as you stack them in whatever order you please. Also, Pacman ghost ponchos! Quite an unique and wonderful shop. Sadly they don't allow you to use cameras inside the store.

I spent the evening checking out my hostels open mic night, where the acts varied from extremely talented, to please-stop-now, this is painful.

The next morning mostly got wasted at the apple store. The camera in my phone had been showing some weird graphics distortions, which meant they were happy to replace it on the spot. Unfortunately this mean I then had a blank phone and needed to restore from iCloud in order to have access to any of my important stuff like Google Maps or my bus ticket back to Nottingham. It turns out the wifi in an Apple Store gets hammered pretty heavily by all the people using it, so it took forever and then some to restore. Still, shiny brand new phone for the third time!

The afternoon was entirely spent at the London Science Museum. A place full of fascinating exhibitions of aviation, mechanical computers, the materials things are made of, the human body and loads more. I spent 5 hours there before they kicked everyone out and closed, but I wish I had more time as there was so many more sections to visit.

I met up with my old friend Andrew, who lived in Australia for a year a while back. We went to a nice pub called "The Cask" for some delicious ales and some gourmet burgers, and a lot of catching up. We talked "shop" for a little while and it was reassuring to still be able to feel like I'm not too far out of the loop. I guess as quickly as tech changes, the things people enjoy ranting about change much more slowly.

I got the bus home late that night, which didn't make it into Nottingham until around about 2am. I stumbled back from the bus station to Matty's place and promptly passed out.

The next morning Matty made us an epic breakfast for lunch, then we set out to make one last visit to all the pubs in town before I left. In at Brewdog we had a nip of Tactical Nuclear Penguineach; one of their rarer, strong (32%), exotic and expensive drops. Thankfully at the Brewdog bars at least they'll sell by the 30ml, instead of having to buy a 330ml bottle. It was superb, but it is an impossible beer to follow as the flavour is just so intense.

On my final day in England, we drove out to a nice country pub. Sadly it had a rather poor selection of ales, so we drove right back into town and found a place doing an awesome Sunday roast for lunch. That pub was conveniently located near the building which was used for Wayne manor in one of the Batman films, so we checked that out too. It's an impressive mansion with a huge green grounds surrounding it.

The next day I was off to the airport bright and early to catch a flight to Berlin, to find out just how large the gaps in my knowledge about the Cold War really were.