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Nottingham by Pub
Those of us who love pubs need no telling just how an important part of the tourist experience they play. I can’t imagine visiting any British city without checking out at least a few of its pubs. That’s where you get a real impression of life locally.
Consequently, I find it odd that so few regional tourist boards don’t do more to promote their local pub culture. Hats off then to Experience Nottinghamshire for its recent ale trail initiative.
The Nottingham Real Ale Trail focuses on 14 pubs within the city centre.
Not all the best pubs feature – those that are included are obliged to help with the funding – but there’s a fine cross-section of establishments on the trail, as I discovered last autumn, shortly after the map that illustrates the route was published.
I kicked off my extended crawl at number 1 on the list, The Lincolnshire Poacher, just slightly uphill, north of the shopping area, in a row of ethnic shops and restaurants. This really is a very bad pub to install as the first on a tour because, once inside, it’s almost impossible to leave.
A combination of L-shaped public bar, small snug/lounge and a conservatory at the rear, this is just the sort of place you’d like to be snowed in at, with its striking row of handpumps dispensing beer from the parent Castle Rock brewery and other noted small and regional brewers.
The comforts are plain – bare board floors, scuffed tables, old brewery signs and mirrors – but the beer choice (pictured above) weighs like an anchor when you get up to go.
Mixing and Matching
Somehow dragging myself back down into the centre, I then deviated from the route’s number scheme and started to mix and match pubs on the list with those featured in the 2012 Good Beer Guide, such as the Hand & Heart and the Roundhouse.
The former has the most deceptive exterior, a plain, unassuming frontage that conceals what amounts to a simulation of a Spanish bodega inside.
Tiled-effect wallpaper, carved-wood wine cabinets and the strum of a Spanish guitar suggest you could be somewhere in Madrid, not the Midlands, especially as the back room, cut into the city’s sandstone foundation, definitely has a wine bar feel. However, local beers feature on the pumpclips and the management is very active in promoting cask beer.
The Roundhouse, meanwhile, does what is says on the tin. It’s a circular structure with a touch of elegance inside, once you’ve climbed the stairs to the first-floor bar.
Fake frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings, with cherubs and cupids gazing down on you as you sup by candlelight one of the handpumped, locally-brewed beers. Ales from Mallard, Springhead and Nottingham breweries were all on tap during my visit.
Back on the trail, I headed for the Malt Cross, one of Britain’s most unusual pubs. It used to be a music hall, where Charlie Chaplin once played, and was converted to its present use by a Christian charity only nine years ago. Glass panels in the floor are lit from beneath and mirrors create a false impression of space.
But, if there’s no room downstairs among the dark green booths, pop up to the gallery, under the arcade-like roof, and enjoy the view from above. The house beer comes from Brewster’s, but you may also find beers from Purity and Blue Monkey, among the offerings.
I also headed along to Ye Olde Salutation Inn, one of the oldest pubs in the city. The date on the wall outside reads 1240. Although this year seems to relate to the first building on the site, the presence of heavy beams and sloping floors inside suggests that the current building has indeed been here many a century.
Today the pub is a rock music haunt, but with two smaller bars for those who prefer a quieter life. Eight handpumps dispense a mix of local and national beers.
Heading back east into the centre, I made next for a couple of pubs within a stone’s throw of each other in the Lace Market area. The first is the Cock & Hoop, a bright, fresh and inviting pub still displaying Home Ales etchings on its windows, recalling the major brewery that operated in the city until the mid-1990s.
If there’s no room in the front bar, head down the stairs at the rear to the comfortable second area, which is only spoiled by the soundless television on the back wall.
Around the corner is Kean’s Head, another Castle Rock pub that amounts to no more than one open, squarish room, opposite St Mary’s church. Friendly and bustling, it serves a fine range of cask and bottled beers to wash down a good menu of home-cooked pub meals.
West and South
Just behind both these pubs is The Cross Keys, a bright, well-refurbished pub that appeals to all ages, with bare board floors around the bar and a tartan theme in the lower area.
Six cask ales are available, including from local breweries, but, reluctantly forgoing a drink here, I made my way back west and south, skipping this time the city’s most famous pub, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which featured as Inside Beer’s Pub/Bar of the Month for December 2011, and heading instead to The Canalhouse.
This is one of the most unusual pubs I’ve ever visited, a huge, red-brick establishment, housed in the old canal museum. It is big enough to have the canal – with full-size barge – running through it, and still leave room for an extended outside drinking area.
That’s where I capped off my evening, choosing from a selection of half a dozen cask beers, including ales from Castle Rock, which owns the pub.
My final port of call, the next day, was The Vat & Fiddle (pictured right), the red-brick Castle Rock brewery tap, just south of the centre, close to the rail station.
With its display of brewery awards, functional L-shaped interior and darts and bar billiards area, this is a great beer-drinking haven, the 12 pumps impressing you as you enter and, just as at the Lincolnshire Poacher, forming a powerful barrier to prevent you leaving.
As much as I’d have liked to have whiled away all my time in these two pubs, I’m glad I did break free as Nottingham does have much to offer the beer lover and pub enthusiast, too much in fact to take in properly in just one day.
The answer, no doubt, is to stay longer, then you can do full justice to the work the local tourist board is putting in to celebrating the city’s great pub heritage.