Every day of the past fortnight, I have spent the evening on licenced premises, drinking beer. And some lunchtimes too, as well as the odd afternoon. This fourteen-days-in-a-row pub crawl is a feat I suspect I am unlikely ever to equal, let alone surpass (but we shall see).
So, as best as I can remember, here are the details of the pubs we visited between Stretton and Droitwich.
The Mermaid, Wightwick
A Vintage Inns chain pub, with artfully distressed beams and mismatched furniture which matches the mismatched furniture in all their other pubs. I don't recall what the beer was, but odds-on it was Marstons. Excellent company though with Clair and Iain on Plover, and John and Sue Yates on Buckden joining us later.
The Plough and Harrow, Kinver
Little did I realise at the time, but this was a mythical beast, a Bathams pub (coincidentally, Pete Brown blogged about Bathams just after our visit). Jim enjoyed the mild but I found the bitter very sweet. Apparently it grows on you. The pub however was very unwelcoming, so after sampling a pint we set off to find some dinner at...
Ye Olde White Harte, Kinver
... Where we had some halfway decent food and some unmemorable beer, but again, the company was all.
The Hollybush, Stourport-on-Severn
This was one of the finds of the trip. Owned by the Black Country Ales Brewery (although a free house) and run by a splendid woman called Maggie, the Hollybush has a good range of local beers with descriptions on a chalkboard, knowledgeable and friendly bar staff, and wonderful chips (of which more later) - cheesy chips on this occasion.
The Gardeners Arms, Droitwich
Yes, we've arrived at our destination already, and are directed to this pub just off the towpath. The best thing about it was how welcoming the landlord and landlady were, going out of their way to make us comfortable. The food menu was imaginative and well executed (meze on Wednesday), and the beer - Marstons, natch - well kept if unexciting (it's just as well the beer was mostly unexciting, or I would probably have found it hard to be as moderate in my consumption as I was, sticking at two to two and a half pints most nights). A very pleasant pub which was visited on many occasions over the weekend.
The Gardeners Arms - Greek menu tonight, but I had a very reasonably priced fishcake.
The Hop Pole, Droitwich
An interesting pub, serving Wye Valley beers, and they had the Enville ginger beer on as well, which I was quite partial to. At lunchtimes (12-2) they serve very cheap home cooked food. Not outstanding, but good, and excellent value. We came here for lunch on Friday and thought it very good, but...
Droitwich Working Mens Club
HNBC hired the main hall at the WMC as our base for the weekend, where film shows, auction, quiz etc could all take place, and the club shop was based. Especially given the somewhat changeable weather, this proved to be a very good move. Normally, the WMC doesn't offer real ale, but for us they got in six barrels (we'd only asked for four, but got through over five) from the Wye Valley Brewery - HPA and Butty Bach at £2.50 a pint. Served straight out of the barrel, this was one of the few places (even including the otherwise good ones) where we didn't consistently get short measure. Other than during events, people didn't tend to use the WMC much as the hall was functional rather than cosy, and there were other good pubs nearby - but we still managed to get through most of that beer. Nearly everyone in HNBC seems to be a real ale drinker (not all that surprising really I suppose).
The Gardeners Arms
The Hop Pole
The WMC were hosting a disco on the Saturday evening, and the Gardeners Arms had a singer, so after a couple of pints there we reluctantly left as he started belting out hits of the sixties. The Hop Pole went down in my estimation a bit I have to say, with a member of staff being rather sniffy about our having moved the tables, despite this being to accomodate a Club member's wheelchair. The Gardeners, on the other hand, moved the furniture themselves to accomodate us. I boycotted the Hop Pole after this.
Sunday was the day of the tat auction, so that was a marathon session - of spinning out a single pint as long as possible, in order to keep a reasonably clear head for the quiz, which was also held at the WMC that evening. By this point I had switched from HPA to Butty Bach, which has a bit more flavour. Nothing really so far to really grab you by the throat though.
The Gardeners Arms
Back to the Gardeners Arms for those of us who hadn't yet left Droitwich, where they laid on a buffet for us at cost price or less, to thank us for our custom (and to get us drinking in there one more evening, although I suspect we would have done anyway); they had also got in some different beers for us. The landlord put a slideshow of his photos of the boat gathering on the big TV screen and by the end of the evening, he had paid his sub and joined the club! A real lesson on how to increase custom by making people welcome.
The Hollybush, Stourport
Of course we had to go back to the Hollybush. This time we were travelling with Phil and Ros on Warbler and were joined by James on Marquis. We'd been told that Tuesday was the chef's day off so food might not be available. When we asked Maggie, she said that the chef was off, but what did we want. Just some chips, we said. I can do that, she replied, and immediately asked the barman to go and turn the fryer on. Ten minutes later four bowls of crisp golden chips appeared - wonderful. This place probably had the best choice of beers of anywhere we visited, including a 6% 'mild'.
The Anchor, Caunsall
On Phil's recommendation we stopped at lunchtime on Wednesday specifically to visit this family owned pub which he remembered from many years ago. It's a little walk from the canal but if you stop by Bridge 24 (which we didn't) there's a footpath that takes you almost to the front door. Once again the beer was unexciting, but the atmosphere was excellent, and this little pub in the middle of nowhere was packed. The reason - cobs. The Anchor doesn't have a fancy menu; it serves fresh white cobs (that's rolls for you southerners) filled with ham, beef, cheese or turkey. They come on a plate with a pile of salad, and there are jars of sauces for you to add as you wish. The beef was over a quarter of an inch thick; the cheese equally chunky, the ham plentiful, and all for £1.50 apiece. I ended up having two and everyone else had three or more. A brilliant example of succeeding by doing one simple thing and doing it well. We thought they only did the cobs at lunchtime, so Ros cooked us a wonderful lentil dhal before we set off again for an evening session in the Anchor - only to see the place still full of people happily stuffing their faces with cobs. Never mind, shouldn't have too mush white bread. Definitely a pub worth seeking out.
We stopped in Swindon for apparently famously good fish and chips, which I found a bit disappointing (probably been spoiled by the Newhaven Fish Bar in its heyday, where the fish, fresh off the boats, was, I now realise, outstandingly good).
This was an evening of two dreadful pubs. First we tried...
The Old Bush, Swindon (Staffordshire)
Not very welcoming, although the (1930s roadhouse?) building was quite interesting. This was my first (and I sincerely hope last) opportunity to sample Martson's Me Duck, the most insipid beer I have ever had the misfortune to taste. As Ros said, the Milton-tainted water in their tank had more flavour. So we moved swiftly on to...
The Green Man, Swindon (Staffordshire)
This was marginally better, but it's all very relative. I still felt it had no warmth or atmosphere, and smelt of grubby curtains and stale beer, but no one else had the heart to move on - think we were by this stage all rather more anxious to get to bed. Nominally a Banks's pub, so yet another outpost of the Marstons/Wolverhampton and Dudley empire of blandness. By this point I was drinking cider, and so desperate that I really felt that the Marstons Heritage pub up the road would be an improvement (I don't even really like Hobgoblin, but at least it tastes of something).
The Swan Hotel, Brewood
Back home now, and rounding off the holiday with Clair and Iain who have been such wonderful and helpful company throughout. First we tried the Bridge, but were told it would be a long wait for food. We asked how long; the girl disappeared into the kitchen to find out, and didn't emerge, so we left. I have a suspicion that this pub may just have changed hands yet again, but that's only a guess.
The Swan of course is a brilliant pub, but doesn't do food, so after a couple of pints of Directors (a regular feature at the Swan, hooray!) we went to eat at The Mess, the bistro opposite. This was an inspired choice - good food, a real change from your run of the mill pub grub. No beer but decent wine. We splashed out on three courses, and even with a couple of glasses of wine it came out under £20 a head. The service in particular was excellent, a proper old school waitress, efficient and without fuss.
The Swan Hotel, Brewood
Iain and Clair had gone home by this point, but Alan and Cath on Sickle had arrived, so I couldn't resist the chance to make it a full fortnight but taking them to the Swan. Once again the Directors was lovely, and another good evening was had in this packed (but mercifully music-free) pub.
So, fourteen days, eleven pubs. Four hits: the Hollybush, the Gardeners, the Anchor and, of course, the Swan. Hon. Mensh. to the WMC for rolling the barrels out for us; a 'could do better' for the Hop Pole, and two serious misses: the Old Bush and the Green Man, with the Plough and Harrow also included in this category unless you're on a Bathams hunt. Favourite of all (discounting the Swan because it's our local) has to be the Hollybush, and the reason for that is the landlady. Nice one Maggie.