A passion for pubs: the 'Completists' tour Britain, with Good Beer Guide to hand
Added: Sunday, December 17th 2017
It’s unnerving to sit down with three avid readers of the Good Beer Guide and find they have visited many more of the pubs listed than the editor.
“Do you know the Pig & Whistle in Lower Muckover?” I ask. “Been there,” they reply. “Next?”
But these are no ordinary perusers of the guide. Martin Taylor, Simon Everitt and Richard Coldwell have a lifetime’s ambition to visit every pub in the guide and they plan their trips with military precision.
The 2018 edition is only a few months old but already their copies are dog eared, maps and pubs smothered by coloured marker pens to show where they have been so far. Simon has even cut out the breweries section from his copy to make it easier to carry the weighty tome around.
I caught up with the Completists, as they dub themselves, in Sheffield, where they were planning a tour of the local hostelries. Martin lives in Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire but, as an aviud supporter of Manchester City, he spends a lot of time in the North-west. He also loves drinking in the Stockport area. Simon lives in York and Richard hails from Leeds. As they know pubs in the north likes the backs of their hands, I thought I might upstage them by mentioning the pubs on my home patch of St Albans.
But they’d been to all the city’s listed outlets and stressed their delight at drinking in such historic alehouses as the Boot and the Olde Fighting Cocks. They’d even managed to find the Holly Bush at Potters Crouch, so lost down country lanes that it defies the most sophisticated sat nav.
“Fuller’s beer in good nick,” they say approvingly.
Martin and Richard are both retired while Simon works for a bank in York. They are a long way removed from the Private Eye and Viz stereotypes of real ale drinkers – no bushy beards, sandals and gravity-defying bellies.
They are not heavy boozers, they have lives outside beer and don’t often drink at home. “Waste of time,” Simon says. He’s not fond of bottled beer and it’s draught ale in pubs that’s their genial obsession. They meet at weekends or during holidays: Simon had taken a day off for the Sheffield jaunt. I met them at the celebrated Fat Cat in Alma Street, Kelham Island, and over a glass or two of Best Bitter and Pale Rider from the Kelham Island Brewery next door we waxed lyrical about the importance of the pub to good beer in Sheffield.
One by one, Steel City’s big breweries closed but brewing glory returned thanks to the efforts of the late Dave Wickett. He turned a failed keg pub into the vibrant Fat Cat and then in 1989 added the brewery and its prize-winning ales.
How did the Completists’ obsession with pubs begin? Richard says, “Pubs are people and we like people and pubs.”
They got into contact with one another as a result of their blogs. Martin turned up at Richard’s house one day and, instead of being shown the door, they started to plan their trips. Richard began his blog in 2015, Simon a year earlier.
They work closely with another Completist, Duncan Mackay, who holds the record for number of GBG pubs visited. They call him, reverentially, the Pubmeister: sadly, he wasn’t available for the Sheffield crawl.
“I worked on my own at first before I joined up with the others,” Simon says. Their plan is to visit every pub that’s still open and listed in all the editions of the Good Beer Guide. To date, Martin has chalked up an astonishing 3,000 pubs. Simon claims 1,572 while Richard says he has no idea how many he has been to: “I’m a butterfly. If I find a pub I like, I go back to it.”
Saturdays are key days for hitting a town, city or village. They also use holidays, when Simon is free from work, and plan train journeys with all the care of Michael Portillo and his well-thumbed Bradshaw.
From the Fat Cat, we walked the short distance to the Kelham Island Tavern on Russell Street. In spite of the name, the pub has no connection with the brewery close by.
The tavern has been saved from dereliction and survived terrible flooding in 2007 that ruined the cellar: the pub was closed for six weeks for refurbishment. Owner Trevor Wraith and his team have turned the pub into shrine for good beer.
The tavern has the unique distinction of being named CAMRA’s national pub of the year in 2008 and 2009 (see awards below). The beer range constantly changes but you are likely to find the likes of Abbeydale, Acorn, Bradfield and Pictish. There are 12 handpumps and you will always find a mild, porter and stout on offer.
The Completists have their favourite pubs. They speak highly of all the watering holes in the Wigan and Blackburn area, where beer costs around £2.40 a pint – half the price of London and the South-east.
I share their pleasure at the Brunswick in Derby, the railway pub with its own brewery. Simon chips in with the Whalebone in Hull while all three speak highly of the pubs in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. But they’re not wedded to the north and they wax lyrical about the Royal Oak near London Bridge, famous for selling the full range of Harvey’s beers.
They have compiled a spread sheet of all the pubs visited, some of which are extremely remote. They include the Anchor in Clun that, when found, doesn’t open until 7pm, the hard-to-find Bounty in Cookham in Berkshire, and the King William near Rye in West Sussex located at the end of an unlit track.
Sticklers for tradition, they have nothing but praise for the Falcon in Arncliffe, North Yorkshire, which was the original for the Woolpack in Emmerdale. The landlord has refused to recognise Boltmaker, the new name for Timothy Taylor’s Best Bitter, and resolutely clamps the old pump clip to the handle on the bar. Worth a long tramp over the dales, the intrepid threesome say.
We move on, a short stroll to Shakespeare’s on Gibraltar Street. In contrast to the small and comfortable rooms of the previous pubs, the Shakespeare, dating from 1821, has several large rooms with high ceilings, generous seating and an amazing ornamental long-case clock.
Shakespeare’s was a Georgian coaching inn that had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Punch Taverns, who closed it in 2010. It was re-opened a year later by William Wagstaff and has rapidly earned a good reputation for beer and live music: there are regular gigs upstairs in the Bard’s Room.
Nine handpumps dispense beer from mainly regional breweries, including Abbeydale, Brass Castle, North Riding and Stancill.
It’s a good step to the train station but it’s downhill and we’re soon ensconced in the Victorian splendour of the Sheffield Tap (below). The address – Platform 1b – doesn’t pay justice to this glorious building, originally the first class refreshment room, built in 1904 for the Midland Railway. A long, high vaulted bar stretches the length of the main room, which butts on to the recently installed Tapped Brewery in the former dining room, visible through glass windows.
There are three beers from Tapped on sale along with several from Thornbridge in Bakewell, Derbyshire. As we sup our beers, talk turns from pubs to ale and I ask the Completists to name their favourite brews.
Martin says Titanic Plum Porter and Draught Bass, Simon plumps for Oakham Green Devil while Richard chooses Northern Monk 822 Double IPA and Brass Castle Sunshine. But you can’t keep them off pubs for long and the mention of Bass leads to praise for the careful refurbishment of the Cooper’s Tavern, the former Bass bottle store in Burton-on-Trent where the famous brew comes straight from the cask, as flat as a millpond in the Burton tradition.
As we go our separate ways – a train south for me and the Rutland Arms on Brown Street for the tireless trio – I ask if they ever have any disagreements. Not about beer but animals. Richard likes dog-friendly pubs, Simon prefers cats. “Pubs cats are brilliant,” he says. “And tanks with lizards in them.”
I hope many of you will be able to experience the joys of some of the Completists’ pubs first-hand. Even if you can’t follow in their footsteps for the whole journey, you can dip into their blogs. They reflect the humour, the quirky specialness and the sheer variety of our pubs which they capture with their photos.
And I’m honoured that the Good Beer Guide has become the pub lovers’ bible.