Digging Digfield Ales – a beery stay in the East Northamptonshire countryside

An article I wrote about beer and pubs in East Northamptonshire which appeared in the Cambridge & District CAMRA magazine ALE, May 2019

Rural East Northamptonshire was the perfect spot for a weekend break, with its pretty villages with stone cottages, medieval churches with tall slender spires, village greens with red kites circling above – and of course, its traditional country pubs. This region, and neighbouring Rutland, just over an hour’s drive from Cambridge, feels like a secret Cotswolds but without the hoards of visitors.

After having sampled Digfield beers at Booze on the Ouse in St Neots the previous weekend, brewed in Barnwell, East Northamptonshire, and having always enjoyed beer from Nene Valley Brewery in Oundle and The Grainstore Brewery, Oakham, we were looking forward to trying them on draft in their local area.

The Shuck

Our first pub of the trip was The Shuckburgh Arms, in the attractive village of Southwick, about three miles north west of Oundle. ‘The Shuck’ is the home of the World Conker Championships, which we have previously attended but in its former location on Ashton village green, Northants (and incidentally, that’s the place where we first ever came across Digfield Ales, when we had a tasty Fools Nook, a refreshing fruity and mellow golden ale). This traditional pub on the main street with a large back garden is community run, and it was good to see several chatty locals gathered around the bar. The beers on offer were Digfield Barnwell Bitter, Brewsters Hophead, Tydd Steam Piston Bob, Grainstore Rutland Osprey, and London Pride; Hophead and Barnwell Bitter are regular beers. The Barnwell Bitter, a tasty malty amber ale, was on fantastic form and had us going back for more. A couple of the locals were talking about ales brewed in their region, and mentioned that they prefer Digfield Ales to Nene Valley Brewery as they had suspicions that NVB sent their best beer to London while local pubs get watered down versions! I actually really like NVB beers, especially their Big Bang Theory IPA.
Digfield ales

The second pub of the night was The White Swan in picturesque Woodnewton. We booked dinner here as the pub in the village we were staying in was fully booked. This stone pub was actually quite quiet for a Saturday night, but we were dining relatively early. It has been totally renovated inside, creating a one room modern gastropub vibe, with high-backed leather-esque chairs and light wood tables. It also has an extensive food menu, something for everyone. However, the beer menu was not quite so large – it was a choice of London Pride or Doom Bar on our visit. We opted for London Pride, which was on OK form, but it was a shame there weren’t any local beers on offer. We enjoyed our tasty ‘veggie fish and chips’ – deep fried battered halloumi – and moved on.

Queens Head Bulwick

The next pub we visited was The Queen’s Head in Bulwick, the village where we were staying. When we entered this stone pub on the High Street, overlooking the church, we noticed a difference from the last pub; it was rammed with drinkers and diners. The classy candlelit dining rooms were full, but we spotted a table in ‘The Village Bar’ that someone had just vacated, so we jumped in there and got ourselves a drink – a light and fruity Digfield March Hare; one we had tried at Booze on the Ouse. I don’t think you can ever beat the taste of beer served straight from the cask, such as it is at a beer festival, but this was on fine form. This bar appeared to be a waiting area for diners, as many were called through and headed to their tables as we drank, but it was a very pleasant people-watching spot. We then had a Nene Valley Brewery Release The Chimps – a dry hopped tasty pale ale, described as an everyday IPA. Spitfire was also available. We asked the barmaid if Nene is pronounced ‘Nenn’ in this region (as it is in Northampton, where I am from, and everywhere west of Thrapston) or ‘Neen’ (as it is pronounced east of Thrapston). She said Neen, and mentioned that she’d had an hour long argument with a customer the other night who told her it should definitely be Nenn. “The Nenn people are the most argumentative!” she said. I wanted to argue that I think the customer was right, and that Neen is just plain wrong, but then that would have confirmed her point! It seems that the Nenns and the Nenes are very protective about their local pronunciation…

Fotheringhay Castle

The next day we found ourselves at the site of Fotherinhgay Castle, close to Oundle. This is where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587. Despite that horrific thought, it is a peaceful place, and from the top of the mound where the castle keep once stood you can see the meandering River Nene twinkling in the sunlight. Fotheringhay village was the location of our final pub this trip, and I was hoping to try more Digfield ales.

The Falcon, Fotheringhay

We headed along the main street of this beautiful village lined with stone cottages to the Falcon Inn, another lovely stone pub, which we have visited before, but on this occasion it looked lighter and brighter, with quality furnishings including cushioned window seats, and a roaring open fire, which was great to see despite the fact it was sunny day. This spacious pub is popular for food, with a dining room in the conservatory – The Orangery – which spills out onto the terrace. Although the pub often has Digfield beers on draft, the barman told me that they rotate their guest ales often, and Grainstore’s Rutland Osprey was the local beer on offer that Sunday. We bought a couple of those and sat in the lovely grassy beer garden in the sun and enjoyed the light citrussy golden ale which tasted stronger than its 4% ABV.

We bought a few bottles of local ales from one of the village stores, and as soon as we returned home from our weekend break we cracked them open – a smoky and rich P51 porter from Kings Cliffe brewery,  brewed in Kings Cliffe, few miles from Bulwick, and more bottles of Rutland Osprey, to remind us of that sunny beer garden in peaceful Fotheringhay. East Northamptonshire and Rutland are a world away from Cambridge, and worth a trip for their pubs and local ales alone.

Rutland Osprey in the Falcon beer garden

Published in: on July 15, 2020 at 9:26 am  Leave a Comment  

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