I know it seems a lifetime ago now, but back before coronavirus we had these things called pubs. These were magical places where you could go and buy beer (amongst other things, of course) and meet people. As anybody who’s ever met me knows, I’m a big fan!
Just before the pandemic started, I found myself cat-sitting in rural West Berkshire and decided to explore the nearby inns. Country pubs are one of my favourite British institutions, providing villages with a place for locals to meet up and enjoy a pint together. They are often also excellent places to find good traditional ale, which is what I set out in search of.
My base for the week was the village of Bradfield Southend, which just so happens to have its own pub. The Queens Head is a typical rural pub, with food the main focus nowadays rather than drinks. However, it’s owned by Fuller’s Brewery and it was their classic bitter London Pride (4.1%) on the handpumps. It may not be the most exciting beer in the world, but kept in good condition it can certainly still be an enjoyable drop. I’m pleased to say this one was just that.
Soon it was time to set off walking to the next village, Beenham, a couple of miles down the road. Luckily I’d brought my walking boots as it got a bit muddy in places where the pavements just ended without warning. One close brush with a tractor aside, I made it safely to the next pub and stepped inside.
The Six Bells is flush to the road, so you literally step off the street and into the bar area. Compared to the Queens Head, which had undergone a recent renovation, this pub felt a lot more traditional and cosy. There’s a standard three-room layout, with the central bar flanked by a snug with a roaring fire on one side, and a conservatory/dining area on the other.
With the pub making regular appearances in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, I was excited to see the ales on offer. Today, there were two beers available. One was the ubiquitous Doom Bar (not for me), the other from the nearby West Berskhire Brewery. I opted for a pint of Good Old Boy (4%), a classic best bitter with lots of malt flavour. Again, it was very well kept and although bitter will never be my favourite style, it was very drinkable.
A two-mile wander back up the same road eventually brought me out at the Bladebone. Legend has it that the huge bone hanging over the front door comes from the a woolly mammoth skeleton unearthed nearby. Whether that’s true or not, who knows, but it’s certainly an intriguing tale. Inside, the pub is very modern and definitely geared more towards diners than drinkers. Nevertheless, I found a comfy seat by the fire and settled in.
Oddly, the same two beers that had been in the last pub were on offer again here. Still not fancying a Doom Bar, I went for the Good Old Boy once more. It was interesting to compare the differences between the two pints; the first one was definitely a little more lively and a bit fresher, while the second had a sweeter, more malty flavour.
It was getting dark now, but there was still time to stroll down the country lanes to the next pub. Half an hour or so later, I came across the Old Boot Inn in Stanford Dingley. According to the regulars, this place is a favourite haunt of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – her family’s estate is just down the road – as well as TV presenter Chris Tarrant.
This was definitely not only the smallest of the pubs I’d visited, but also the busiest. Eventually I reached the bar and was delighted to see 4 handpumps, the biggest range all day. After some careful deliberation, I went for 1643 Cavalier (3.8%), a golden ale from another local brewery, Two Cocks. The beer was fine, but the best bit was sitting listening to the farmers gossiping about all the goings on in the village! Soon enough though, it was time for the long walk home and a well-deserved lie down.
I’m in West Berkshire for the day, where should I visit? The most interesting pub, and the one with the most beers, was the Old Boot Inn. It’s a traditional old country pub with exposed beams everywhere and regulars perched at the bar. If the weather’s good, there’s a large beer garden out the back too.
Brewery to look out for? The beers on offer weren’t the most exciting you’ll ever drink, but then again, you don’t go to country pubs for imperial stouts and hazy IPAs! The West Berkshire Brewery beers were solid examples of traditional styles, and worth looking out for if you’re in the area.