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Friday, 31 July 2020

Canal Cruising in a COVID World (Part 1)

Recently we undertook our first canal pub crawl cruise in the 'new normal', post pandemic era.

The good news is that we never failed to get a drink in the 20 or so pubs we visited, but planning in advance was required especially for weekend stops!

What was also remarkable was that every pub followed the guidelines differently - some very strict...and some quite relaxed (in a couple, apart from the signs and the hand sanitiser, it was almost back to normal - people standing at the bar, shaking hands and hugging also!)

We started at The Blue Lias on the Grand Union Canal at Stockton (our regular haunt, the Two Boats, not opening until 4th August!)
Here there was no need to book, but a long one-way system was in operation and food (from a limited menu) was served in polystyrene takeaway trays. We were the only people who sat inside. The lager was cold and the food was just what we wanted!

Next stop was Warwick for the evening where both The Railway and The Roebuck were both accommodating with no need to queue. Normal service in the Railway and table service in the Roebuck. In between, we managed to get a very good Italian meal from our go-to restaurant in Warwick, Piccolino's!

Next day was a Saturday (with predicted good weather) so I'd prebooked The Hatton Arms for lunch as it is the only pub nearby after the slog of Hatton Locks!
This is a large gastro pub with a large outside area to exploit as well as the pub terraces which are now covered and protected from the elements by perspex screens. There was only one way into (and out of) the pub, via the front entrance.

We were a bit early, but our table was available so we sat down and enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours of, essentially, restaurant service. All very efficient as they had plenty of staff on.

For the evening we made our first return for a few years to The Navigation at Lapworth, which I'd pre-booked.
Again, there was a one way system in place and the number of tables in the bar reduced, but again, most people were outside.Bar service for drinks and table service for food, so not too different from normal.

Next day and Sunday lunch was pre-booked at the Fleur-de-Lys in Lowsonford, just a short trip down the Stratford Canal.
Again, strict enforcement of the guidelines was in operation requiring an extra long walk for pedestrians to get into the pub from the car park entrance! They were running a limited menu and drinks range, but the lager was cold so we were happy!

In the evening we got as far as Wilmcote, normally a two-pub village. Unfortunately, the Mason's Arms was closed and up for sale. This was not really a surprise as we'd been expecting it for at least 10 years. As for the Mary Arden Hotel, we weren't sure if it was open and, with it being a Sunday evening, whether we were too late for food. So, it was taxi time and a short trip into Stratford-upon-Avon for the evening.

Our first choice, The Garrick, was closed so we headed straight for the Wetherspoons. This was the first time that we'd had to queue up outside a pub, but we were soon inside The Golden Bee after taking care of the administrative chores.
After all the hype, we didn't have to order via the app and it was all fairly normal, going up to the bar to order food and drinks. After eating and a couple of pints we decided to go for a bit of a wander and have another pint in a different pub.

What a mistake!

We left at about 9:45pm and got to the White Swan/Dirty Duck just before 10pm to be told that they were closing. We knew that Encore was open till 10:30pm so headed there. At just after 10pm we were turned away because there wasn't room...there was! The Red Lion had closed at 10pm, so we headed back to Wetherspoons as they closed at 11pm...but...unbeknownst to us...they don't allow anyone in after 10pm. So we were turned away!

The moral of the story? Don't leave a pub close to closing time in the current climate expecting to get a last drink elsewhere, because you probably won't get it!

The thing that really got to me though was the smugness with which we were turned away (not the Red Lion) which will make me very reluctant to step through their doors once/if this crisis is over! Two early 60's blokes looking for a last drink wasn't going to cause anyone any heartache and yet they turned us away with repressed glee without any form of apology (or even apologetic tone!). Still...lesson learned!

Until next time!

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Back in the Saddle in Selly Oak

Eleven days after the much vaunted re-opening of pubs in England and I finally had my first pint in a  pub last night. I'm probably the last of my pub/beer blogging colleagues to get back in the saddle, but in normal times I'm not a particularly frequent pub goer, anyway.
We did try to get to the Country Girl in Selly Oak last Friday, but it was fully booked for the evening. So, it became our first Wednesday outing to the Country Girl in many, many years.
The first thing you notice is that the front door is closed and entry is via the back door that leads to the car park. This is also the only exit. There were notices on all of the outdoor tables about social distancing.
At the door we were greeted by one of the bar staff who confirmed our booking (done via the Ember Inn app), shown the hand sanitiser and then led to our table. It was really noticeable how well spaced out the tables were making the maintaining of social distancing quiite easy.
Service was at the bar, but with a queueing system to maintain social distancing. It took a while for my first order ("Two pints of Carling, please!") as there was only one person serving...and the bloke in front of me was ordering meals for his table.
There was no real ale although the bloke in front said there was Worthington. (Maybe CAMRA do still have their work cut out for them if the general populace believes that Worthington Creamflow is real ale!). When I asked the bar maid about this she said that, at first, the pub had no say in what they actually got, but did manage to get their quota of Carling increased (phew!).
To me, the first pint didn't taste quite right, but by the fifth it was perfectly fine! We left at about 10:30pm and we were the last out!
Country Girl, Selly Oak (Post Lockdown July 2020)
So, what was the experience like? Remarkably civilised. Once drinking and talking we disappeared into our own 'bubble' and from that perspective it felt perfectly normal (and the music was so low you couldn't tell it was on most of the time!). But, in reality you have to wonder how long pubs can survive on such small numbers - we saw 20 - 30 people max all evening (but to compensate it was a skeleton crew of staff on.)
I'll be setting out on a couple of canal trips in the coming weeks (fingers crossed) and that should give me a better perspective on what this 'new normal' is like and an inkling as to how sustainable it really is.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

#277 The Three Horseshoes, Winkwell, Hemel Hempstead : 1992 to 2019

Having no new pubs to report on in 2020 and having exhausted the interesting local watering holes, I thought I'd take a while away from blogging. But now, the pub world is waking up from its long slumber and my fellow bloggers have hit the ground running, so I decided to get back on the horse myself.

What better place to restart than this little gem tucked away on the Grand Union Canal near to Hemel Hempstead?
This was on the evening of Thursday 1st October 1992 towards the end of our first journey up and down the Grand Union in the days when our boat Emma Jane was moored down south. It had been an eventful trip encompassing floods and a fire in the engine room. The pub was very close to the boatyard from where we had begun our journey, but our final destination was another day away at Cowley Peachey.

Back in the early 1990's, The Three Horseshoes was a superb country pub that was both a local and did very good food.

Our next visit was at lunchtime on Saturday 18th September 1993 when we visited before setting off from our new moorings at Winkwell.
Not surprisingly, the pub was completely unchanged.

Another year later and again, prior to picking up the boat we 'retired' to The Three Horseshoes for lunch - it was Saturday 27th August 1994.
Nothing new to report, which is the reason I kept taking pictures from different angles!

The last year that Emma Jane was moored at Winkwell was in 1995 and we made two visits to the pub. First was on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd June 1995 before we set off on a journey that took us to Lime House Basin in London.
 Our final visit was at lunchtime on Saturday 26th August 1995 as we set off from Winkwell for the final time to take Emma Jane to her new moorings at Lapworth.
Still unchanged and one of the best canalside pubs along that stretch of the Grand Union Canal.

Over the next years, our canal adventures didn't take us as far south as Winkwell until 2019, when we undertook a massive journey down the River Thames and back up the Grand Union Canal, starting and finishing at Napton.

This is how The Three Horseshoes looked at lunchtime on Monday 5th August 2019.
Just a few changes in 24 years, but nothing unexpected nor too untoward! As you would expect it is now more of a gastropub. Whilst the cosy, proper pub feel is long gone it still feels like an old establishment and has a selection of real all is not lost.

I'd like to tell you about the pub in more detail, but my stay was fairly short lived. I had to pop into Hemel Hempstead to acquire a new phone as my old one wasn't working since I fell into the canal a couple of days earlier!

I can report, though, that The Three Horseshoes has survived coronavirus and has reopened, according to their Facebook page