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York by Pub
A quarter of a century is too long to be without a visit to York. Perhaps it was longer. I couldn't actually remember when I was last in the city.
All I knew was I was very glad to be back, even though several of the streets were under water, inundated as the River Ouse broke its banks.
I was in town to host a couple of beer talks at the annual York Food & Drink Festival, but I was damned sure – flood or no flood – that I was going to see as many pubs as I could, too.
There is no more logical place to begin a city crawl than at its railway station and, frankly, York station is a more logical choice than most, given that it is now home to the splendid York Tap (pictured above).
This refurbished Edwardian tearoom is a beer hunter's dream, an architecturally pleasing treasure trove of fine brews from near and far.
You could, quite realistically, begin and end a beer spree in York in this one place and there must be many who never set foot beyond its welcoming threshold.
Stained glass and mosaic floors are just a couple of the visually attractive features, along with some restored cupolas on the roof. But it's the beer range that is of greatest appeal, a selection loaded with quality, be it on cask, on keg or in bottle.
There are 32 beers on draught and a whole book of bottled beers to keep you interested, not that there's any chance that your mind may wander off the subject in hand.
Renowned Ale House
It's not easy, but force yourself away if you can. Just a few minutes down the road, stands one of the city's most renowned ale houses.
The Maltings looks moody and sombre from the outside, a black hulk squatting close to one of the river bridges. Inside it's been brutalised.
The distressed decor ranges from battered red plaster walls to scuffed old doors nailed to the ceiling.
Chipped enamel advertising signs comprise the ornaments in this totally down-to-earth, busy monument to cask ale.
Beers from Rooster's, York Brewery and others splash into a constant flow of pint glasses as workers tumble out of nearby office blocks and demand refreshment.
My exit from The Maltings took me across said river bridge, its arches gorging on the relentless heavy downstream surge, and on to the historic heart of the city.
Only a short stroll later I was squinting up at the Gothic vastness of York Minster, while preparing to nip in for a jar at one of the city's oldest buildings.
A fake blue plaque stickered to the window declares this to be the birthplace of Guy Fawkes, though I'm not sure someone who has been caught trying to blow up Parliament would be quite so feted today, whatever our view of politicians.
The Guy Fawkes Inn (pictured right) is a dark, gloomy, multi-roomed establishment that reeks of antiquity, with dining the main pastime in all areas except the tiny bar area at the front.
Nevertheless half-a-dozen handpumps top the bar, with beers from North Yorkshire breweries the main beneficiaries, Rudgate, Copper Dragon and Black Sheep among them on my visit.
For a notably different drinking experience, head left out of Guy's old front door and stroll up to The Three Legged Mare. Beyond a shop front-like exterior extends a minimally furnished, open-plan pub, broadly hour-glass shaped with a bar at the pinched centre.
This is a York Brewery house, so you can sample the likes of the sessionable Guzzler or the chunkier Centurion's Ghost, but there are guest cask ales too, plus a few international favourites.
It's worth continuing to walk away from the centre for the next port of call. The Minster Inn stands in a quiet sidestreet facing (from the outside) the city's ancient walls.
Don't be deterred by the fact the beer range is sourced only from Marston's. The five handpumps are mostly dedicated to seasonal beers from the company.
There are several rooms here but it seems most of the action takes place in the central corridor, where locals stand and chat while looking in to the neat but small front bar and its three simple tables.
The conversation is wonderfully inane and effortlessly amusing to eavesdroppers, topics ranging from 'How many pets have you had?' (it is agreed that butterflies do not count) to 'Do they drink while playing?', a question muttered while jerking a thumb towards the closed door of the lounge which has been reserved for a chess match.
Difficult to Leave
Because of the 'entertainment', this is another devilishly difficult pub to leave but on you have to go. Back down in the centre, just off the famous old shopping street known as The Shambles, stands York Tap's older brother.
'World Beer Freehouse' reads the description outside Pivni, the brainchild of Czech beer importers Pivovar. This is a terrific discovery, housed in a 12th-century, timber-framed property that climbs to three storeys and juts further out into the street as it does so.
The bar is on the ground floor, but more seating can be found above. Rock music belts out from the speakers and the range of clientele covers everything from young to middle aged, trendy to trendless, all drawn here by one thing – outstanding beers, in all formats, from top breweries across the world.
There is no cellar, so the five, regularly-changed casks just sit behind the bar, only a yard or so away from the handpumps used for dispense.
There are numerous other fine pubs in the centre of the city, with histories that date back centuries.
The oldest is the multi-roomed Olde Starre (look for the sign stretched across the street), which is approached via a small alleyway, and then there is the 16th-century Golden Fleece that extends a long way back from a narrow frontage, sloping down as it does so. It claims to be York's most haunted pub.
But, if time restricts you, sacrifice these two for a visit to The Blue Bell.
'No groups. We are too small to accommodate' reads the rather blunt sign on the door.
If you are allowed beyond the uninspiring red-brick frontage, you'll be squeezed into either the minute front bar where there's just room for one oblong table plus a tiny, copper-topped table behind the door, or into the smoke room behind which is equally cosy and intimate – an effect enhanced by dark-stained wood panelling and deep red vinyl benches.
Stoop and you can order a pint through the hatch: there are plenty of Yorkshire ales on tap, as well as some kegs from Brewdog, Meantime and Goose Island.
Chances are, however, you'll find no room to sit and will be very happy to just stand and sup in the corridor that runs the length of the pub.
If you have the energy, you may wish to continue down the street, over the river and on for another half-mile to the southern walls, where just outside are two architecturally less inspiring but nonetheless hospitable cask ale boozers that merit a visit.
The Rook & Gaskill is a Castle Rock pub, with the typical huge selection of beers in a friendly but functional environment. It is named after two men hanged for stealing sheep.
Across the road is the only Batemans house in the city, The Waggon & Horses, but other beers (many of them local) are also available.
Should your visit to York permit a second crawl, then the journey back up into the centre will treat you to even more fine pubs, some in residential areas to the west of the river, including the well-preserved, multi-roomed Golden Ball on Cromwell Road and the equally unspoilt, street-corner Swan on Bishopgate Street.
It could also include the famous King's Arms, one of the oldest around but sadly (and not for the first time) well and truly immersed in the waters of the Ouse during my short stay.
I hope it has dried out by the time of my next visit, which, I guarantee, won't be as long coming as the last.