A craft beer pilgrimage in the heart of London

It’s been said that there are three sure signs that you’re a hipster – 1) Denying that you’re a hipster, (so basically you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t), 2) claiming to have done all the cool stuff before it became cool, and 3) having a beard, apparently.

Now, I have a beard, I grew it years before all those would-be-lumberjack, sculpted-facial-hair-and-excessive-tattoo-sporting inner-urban fashionistas made it cool, and I’m definitely not a hipster. But I don’t mind a bit of craft beer…

Which is why I found myself, one weekend in August, meandering along an alleyway in Sarf Lundun with a group of fearless companions on the trail of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. The accepted wisdom is that you start the Mile from the southern end, near South Bermondsey Railway Station, and work your way in a vaguely northward direction in an ever-increasing state of inebriation until you fall into the Thames.

No, hang on, that was just me. .. most people who do The Mile are far more responsible and genuinely interested in sampling the diverse array of beer styles and varieties available from the microbreweries found along this informal but increasingly popular trail. From fruity hops-laden IPAs, to rusty malt-heavy porters, or dense whole-meal-in-a-glass stouts, anyone who’s ever enjoyed a quiet ale will be able to find something to their taste somewhere along the route.

We started our odyssey not far from South Bermondsey Station at Fourpure Brewing Co. It’s worth noting that this area the heartland of one of England’s most notorious football clubs – Millwall – and Fourpure is just around the corner from the club’s home ground. Over several decades Millwall fans have built a reputation for brute violence and general hoodlum-ery. We were advised by our intrepid guide to tread carefully while in the area because it was a match day at The Den. The local pubs were overflowing and most patrons had the club coat of arms permanently inked onto their bodies somewhere.

I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Millwalleans, despite their thuggish reputation, ever since one of their number confronted three knife-wielding terrorists with only his fists during the Borough Market attack in June this year, with a cry of “Eff you, I’m effing Millwall!” (censored for the benefit of sensitive readers). This show of foolish bravery in the face of mindless violence saved the lives of several people at the scene, but did little, perhaps, to soften Millwall’s reputation. It did, however, make me feel much more well-inclined towards them as I passed through their sovereign territory, although it didn’t mean that our host’s advice went unheeded as we tip-toed our way past The Blue Anchor under the watchful eyes of 50 or more tattooed Lines loyalists, who were in the process of getting lagered up before the big game.

But I digress…

Over the course of the next five hours our journey took us on a circuitous route shadowing the elevated rail line through the light industrial laneways of London’s inner-south. I won’t bore you with detailed descriptions of the premises, or wax lyrical with masturbatory tasting notes. To be honest, the details get a bit blurry after the second stop (must have been a bit of a virus or something). Suffice to say that I didn’t taste a bad lager, ale or stout during the whole adventure, and I tasted more than a few.

Apart from Fourpure, which was a great start that really set a positive tone for the day, highlights from an afternoon dedicated to the appreciation of the brewer’s art include:
Brew by Numbers, whose unique method of categorising their brews through a combination of numbered codes to designate the individual batches – e.g. 08(style)|05 (recipe) = Stout|Oyster – was rendered completely incomprehensible by the several hours of alcoholic consumption that preceded our visit. Their coffee porter, however, was probably my favourite beer of the whole outing.
EeBria – Not actually a brewery, but rather a distributor of fine ales etc. But their taproom is definitely worth a visit, both for the friendly experts manning the taps and the table games, which kept our little ones occupied while we got down to the serious business of beer tasting.
Partizan Brewing – Don’t actually remember anything specific about them, but I’m sure they were great. Does that still qualify as a highlight? Probably not. Onwards!
Anspach & Hobday – By the time we arrived at A&H the Beer Mile was in full swing and there were folk spilling out onto the street. Luckily we were able to snag a table inside and thoroughly enjoyed both the atmosphere and the booze on offer.

We finished our run across the road at the Marquis of Wellington, where we filled our bellies with pizza and delicious Greek street food and tapped our feet along to the seriously talented duo playing inside. Live music was just what we needed to wind up what was a genuinely entertaining trek.

We came seeking beer, and this we found by the gallon, but the thing that struck me most profoundly during our excursion was how effectively the small businesses of London have taken up residence in this corridor and many others like it across inner-city London. A zone that in other cities would remain a sterile, under-utilised transport corridor has been turned by a growing community of entrepreneurs into a thriving artery of commercial and creative enterprise. I’m guessing that the rents for these spaces are relatively low compared to other areas of London, given the wide array of small, independent, outside-the-box outfits that inhabit them.

Apart from the various micro-breweries we came to the area to visit, we also discovered a number of awesome little food producers, distributors and/or importers that made our day on the Beer Mile even more of a fully-fledged culinary experience. Our favourites among these were:
Crown & Queue cured meats, whose Hoghton Loin and consummately prepared scotch eggs were the perfect complement to our liquid diet.
Käse Swiss – Their well-stocked counter of odiferous imported Swiss cheeses drew us to them on wing-ed feet from half a block away.
The Little Bread Pedlar, where we were able to grab a couple of incredibly crusty & delicious baguettes just before they closed up for the day, enabling us to both line our stomaches and reinforce our collective belief that life’s just too short to eat mediocre bread.
The Ice Cream Union – Seriously delicious, small batch frozen delights that had the sweet-toothed among us groaning with satisfaction.

All up it was a really fun day out – good company, great beer and some excellent little surprise finds that made it the perfect way to spend a warm sunny English summer afternoon. One of three that we experienced in the six weeks we spent in the UK.

 

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On Your Bike

It was always our intention to stay overseas as long as possible, to make the most of this opportunity to travel and show our kids just how big and interesting this world of ours is. Our funds were limited, but we’d come up with a few strategies to reduce our costs and make our Dollar/Euro/Pound stretch a bit further.

One of these was to try our hand at housesitting – looking after strangers’ houses and/or pets while they take a break and do some travelling themselves. There are many platforms out there, but after doing a bit of research, we elected to join up to two – Nomador and Trusted Housesitters (TH). About a month before we left Australia, a sit came up on TH in rural Somerset, England. We’d always planned to jump across the channel the UK while we were on this side of the globe, to visit friends and see some of the places our ancestors came from.

To my surprise, they accepted our application and we had dates locked in – UK in August, right in the middle of summer. It was a double win because it’s supposed to be about the only time the weather in Somerset is bearable, but also it would give us a chance to escape the searing Iberian summer heat, when Spain is traditionally at its least bearable.

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There are many hills in Somerset. This was just one of them.

So August came and we landed at Stanstead. As the date for the housesit approached another idea started forming in my mind. Another of our travel objectives is to minimise our environmental impact while passing through the landscape – admittedly not easy when you’re flying to the other side of the world – but we’ve been trying to achieve this goal by using public transport or walking whenever possible. The property we’d signed up to sit was about 25km outside the main regional centre, Taunton. What if, I thought, we were to hire or buy second hand bikes and ride there?

Now Mem’s written a separate article on our growing love affair with bicycles, so I won’t go into too much detail about the ride itself. But in researching the idea I discovered a really fantastic organisation from whom we ended up hiring four bikes and a trailer for our Somerset adventure.

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Riding’s not all about movement. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses – or pick the blackberries like El Chico here.

On Your Bike is a local charity based in Taunton. The founding principle of this social enterprise is that they accept donations of old bikes, which they then repair and resell, while at the same time offering the chance for disadvantaged people, ex-services personnel and the long term unemployed to learn the mystical art of bicycle maintenance. this gives them the opportunity to develop valuable skills, while at the same time enhancing their self belief and employability. On Your Bike’s graduates receive industry-recognised qualifications and are more than capable of servicing bikes and repairing just about any bike-related fault.

When I contacted the charity about our plans, I received a reply shortly afterwards from Lucy Workman. Lucy, having grown up 15 miles from Taunton, describes herself as “a proper Somerset girl”. She started out at the charity as a volunteer and eventually worked her way up to the the role of Manager, which she’s held now for three years.

Lucy Workman from On Your Bike

Mem & the kids with Lucy Workman, Manager at On Your Bike

When we arrived in Taunton on a train from Swindon, we realised that it was even easier than we’d anticipated, as On Your Bike has a shopfront literally right next to the station! Lucy was about as helpful as a person can get, and in short order she’d sorted through our plans, located four excellent work-horse bikes and even dug up a trailer from somewhere. She gave us an excellent deal on the hire, delivered the bikes to the station for us and was even kind enough to sit down for a quick interview once the details had been finalised.

Within half an hour we’d picked up the bikes and gear and were humming our way along the banks of a canal through Taunton (completely the wrong direction, but that was our fault – another story for another time), the kids riding through every puddle they could find.

For anyone thinking of a riding tour of or through Somerset, we can’t recommend On Your Bike highly enough as a source for everything you might need to get and/or keep you on the road.

Footnote: If you visit Somerset and are looking for somewhere to eat, Lucy recommends The Halfway House in Pitney, which has been voted one of the 20 best in the British countryside, or The Scrumper in Taunton itself.

Surfing the Severn Bore

In August 2017 my family and a group of complete strangers helped me to fulfilled a childhood dream and rode the Severn Bore. A huge thank you goes out to Stuart Matthews for his excellent and detailed advice on surfing the Bore, and to Matt Hammersley, who generously lent me his Bore-log and booties and gave me all the information I’d need to successfully achieve this bucket-list item. Thanks also to Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards in Somerset.

To read more about this adventure, check out my article on Swellnet: To ride a tidal wave.