Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival 2012

It’s that time of year again – the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival. This is a great festival to really kick-start the year – lots of dancing, lots of music, and lots of following a Straw Bear around from pub to pub drinking good beer. I won’t talk about what the festival is all about as I have done this before on previous posts, but click here and here  if you want to know more.

Straw Bear parade

Straw Bear parade

We took the train to Whittlesey from Cambridge – we decided this was the best mode of transport as last year we saw that every pub in the town was holding a mini beer festival. We changed at Ely; the journey only took just over 40 minutes. On Ely platform it was pretty obvious that most people were festival-bound – many passengers were carrying musical instruments, and some were Morris dancers with bells and bright clothes hidden under their thick overcoats. It was bitterly cold; one poor chap could barely drink his coffee as he was shivering so much. The fields were white with frost, the mist was rising from the rivers and streams and dykes, and at one point we had a white-out. Mist was all around us in the heart of Fenland.

Morris dancers outside the George

Morris dancers outside the George

As soon as we arrived in Whittlesey we headed with the crowds up Station Road and made for The George in a prominent position on Market Place for a big warming breakfast. This lovely old Wetherspoons pub was heaving at 9.45 am and we were lucky to find a seat. On at the bar was Grainstore Cooking, a great beer brewed in the town of Oakham (not brewed by Oakham) which I have enjoyed a couple of times in the Grainstore brewery tap. There was also the lovely Oakham Straw Bear on draft. I decided to opt for a warming cup of tea at this point, but others had already started on the beer.

Straw Bear and his minder

Straw Bear and his minder

Hubs Place beer fest

Hubs Place beer fest

We made it out for 10.30 to watch the parade which was bright and colourful with its 250 dancers and musicians. We watched a bit of dancing, and then headed indoors to thaw out. We chose Hub’s Place on the Market Square as I remember there being a beer festival in the courtyard garden last year. I wasn’t wrong; there was a cute outdoor bar set up selling Oakham Straw Bear, Oakham Inferno, Elgood’s Straw Beer, Everards Tiger, Woodfordes Wherry, Woodfordes Nelson’s Revenge, and Black Sheep Ale. I chose a Straw Bear at 4.4%, and sat inside by the fire, joined soon after by lots of Morris and Molly dancers with their painted faces. Straw Bear is a lovely straw-coloured peachy tasting beer, very refreshing, but not an awful lot of conditioning in this one which was a pity. It was pleasant enough though.

We moved around the corner, checking out the Falcon and its beer festival in the yard where they were also selling Elgood’s Straw Beer amongst others, and moved onto the Letter B. It’s quite unassuming from the outside, and it was only when we were inside that I realised it was Peterborough’s CAMRA pub of the year 2012. And what a fantastic little pub it was too; a traditional proper pub, and heaving with Morris and Molly dancers. On the bar was Oakham Straw Bear, Elgood’s Straw Beer and Tydd Steam Beartown. I bought a wonderful hoppy and sweet Beartown. I then realised that they had more beers out the back in the Grufton bar. (I found this out when I heard a man ask the barmaid: ‘Do you have any proper beer-coloured beer, rather than this pale stuff?’ and she directed him there).

Bruce's beer

Bruce's beer

I spotted that Oakham had brewed two special beers for this pub, and on asking the barman about them he told me they were brewed for the landlady and the landlord for winning the Pub of the Year award. The landlady’s beer, the Special, had already gone, so I had the landlord’s beer – It Has to ‘B’ Bruce’s Beer, with a picture of Bruce on the pump clip. It was chestnut coloured, maltier than a normal Oakham, but still with that Oakham sherbet hop flavour – the hops became more apparent and the malt less so the more I drank. It was good to meet up with Alcofrolic Chap here  who was also enjoying the beers on offer in the many great pubs in this small market town.

Hero of Aliwal beer fest

Hero of Aliwal beer fest

Next up was The Hero of Aliwal, round the corner and by the river, where we stood and watched some Morris dancers performing outside, followed by the solemn and black-faced Old Glory Molly who took a girl from the crowd  and performed what she found out later to be a fertility dance. Her friends were aware of this and were laughing all the way through. We went inside this pub that felt like more of a clubhouse and found an indoor beer festival. There were several Greene King casks, but they also had on Oakham Preacher which was a new beer and a nice find. It was 4.3%, relatively dark and full flavoured with sweet hop notes and a touch of fruit. We then decided to cross the road to the Boat.

Oakham Preacher

Oakham Preacher

Inside the crowded Boat there were several Elgood’s beers on tap. We moved to the courtyard outside to the mini beer festival where it was freezing cold (Alcofrolic Chap said it’s always cold here as it’s close to the water, and he was right!) and saw that there were 3 more Elgood’s barrels: Straw Beer, Black Dog and Cambridge Bitter. I hadn’t had a Straw Beer yet so opted for this, which was light and honey-flavoured, and very tasty. And freezing cold. We were about to leave when we spotted the Straw Bear himself entering the pub with his minder and followers. He had a bit of a dance, then set off for the Hero of Aliwal where we followed him. His minder patched him up where his straw was coming loose, I posed for a photo with him (you have to, don’t you) then we followed the parade of bears, dancers and musicians around the little back streets, where he ended up in the Falcon.

We walked to the heaving New Crown Inn and then to the Black Bull on the High Street, but couldn’t even get in the door.

Bricklayers Arms

Bricklayers Arms

Bricklayers beers

Bricklayers beers

We then went to the Bricklayer’s Arms, down Station Road, a small, crowded and very lovely traditional pub. There were lots of Morris dancers in there, and some musicians were playing in the corner which added to the atmosphere. There was a bar with about 6 barrels set up in the corner, including Bombardier, Tydd Steam Dr Fox’s Cunning Linctus, Marston’s Pedigree, and Tydd Steam Barn Owl – I went for the latter as I fancied finishing with another straw coloured ale (it’s Straw Bear Day after all). Very sweet, hoppy and refreshing. Old Glory Molly walked in, with their entourage of female musicians wearing hats of ivy and long black coats, and they proceeded to dance in the tiniest of spaces with their jerky, forceful movements – I had to squeeze past them, trying not to be elbowed as we left for our train.

All in all, it was another great Straw Bear and I look forward to the next one. And with all the good pubs in Whittlesey and the many beer festivals, the train is definitely the way to do it.

           

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Oakham pubs and Rutland ales

Last weekend we paid a visit to Rutland. It’s a beautiful county, like an undiscovered Cotswolds with pretty limestone buildings, ancient country pubs, and in the centre of it all, Rutland Water. We stayed in Oakham, a few miles from the water’s edge. This market town is home to several good pubs, giving us a good excuse to sample some Rutland ales.

In the Grainstore

In the Grainstore

Our first stop was the Grainstore Brewery, next to the station. This is a brew pub, and their Grainstore ale is distributed all over Rutland which is evident in many pubs in the area and is great to see. It’s a traditional pub with a light wood and brick interior decorated with hops intertwined with twinkly lights. The pub was pretty busy on this Saturday afternoon as the rubgy was on the big screens, and there was a good atmosphere helped along by a very friendly landlord.

Beers at the Grainstore

Beers at the Grainstore

We tried the Grainstore’s own Cooking ale, 3.6% (another word for session ale) and the Phipps NBC Red Star at 3.8%. The Cooking was golden, light, quite sharp and malty, but Red Star was a winner, a darker red beer but very tasty and easy to drink. We bought some of their bottled beer to take home, the Rutland Panther (a mild) and Phipps NBC IPA. We will definitely be back.

Later in the evening we went to the Wheatsheaf opposite the illuminated All Saints church, and sat by the beautiful log fire in the cosy lounge drinking Everards Beacon at 3.8% (light, slightly hoppy but that’s about it) and Holden’s Black Country Special (5.1%), which tasted even stronger than it is; it was quite meady and malty and smelt like a spirit. The beers were smoother than I normally like, I think they were served with sparklers. It’s a shame as I believe this can change the taste of a good beer. However, this was a nice and friendly local’s pub and we could imagine this being a much frequented establishment if we lived in Oakham.

The lovely fire in The Wheatsheaf

The lovely fire in The Wheatsheaf

The Wheatsheaf

The Wheatsheaf

We wandered over to the Odd House, but were not inspired by the choice of beers and it didnt feel very cosy with kids running around (although we are told that the food there is very nice) so we then headed to the Merry Monk. This pub was heaving with a young crowd; it was obviously the place to be on a Saturday night. On tap there was the wonderful Oakham JHB (nice to see an Oakham ale in Oakham!) and the other guest beer was Swing Low. The Merry Monk also has a large open fire and a gourmet burger menu.

We finished up in the lounge of our hotel, the Whipper In, and tried some Grainstore Triple B which was the only ale on tap, and again very smooth, but not a bad brew, I did prefer the Cooking however.

The Railway Inn, Ketton

The Railway Inn, Ketton

On the way home the following afternoon we stopped off at the Railway Inn, Ketton, a beautiful little village pub ‘probably not changed for a hundred years’ we were told by the landlady. Two old men sat by the open fire drinking their ale whilst putting the world to rights. I drank Phipps NBC IPA, 4.2%, which, I understand, has replaced the regular GK IPA at the bar. I discovered that Phipps NBC as a company has been revived; they  were bought by Watney Mann in 1960 and the last Phipps NBC brew was in 1968. The brewery was eventually demolished in 1974 to make way for the Carlsberg brewery in Northampton. The new owners have now pieced together the old recipes and have started again to brew Phipps NBC IPA, the flagship brew. They are on a mission to establish this beer as a regular in the region’s pubs and then introduce more historical Phipps NBC beers.  Best of luck to them, the IPA and Red Star were certainly my beers of the trip.

There are so many lovely old village pubs in Rutland, too many to visit in one trip – luckily we are only a short drive down the road so can visit this lovely county as often as we like!

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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