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Review

These boots are meant for pub walking...

Added: Tuesday, April 24th 2012

Bob Steel is well-named. His feet must be made of the metal for he has published a series of guides to pub walks that cover London, the Peak District, Edinburgh and the Lake District.

His latest guide is by far the most ambitious: South East Pub Walks, published by the Campaign for Real Ale. He has pounded pavements, highways and byways in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Bucks, Hertfordshire and Essex in search of great boozers and, depending on your age and agility, strenuous walks or quick strolls between them.

He must have left many blisters in his wake as he’s hiked up hill and down dale, but Bob’s mission is always to end with a soothing pint after even the most arduous mission.

I’m a resident of St Albans and I was keen to see his recommendations. He says the city has “arguably the best range of drinking options in the South East outside central London”. Bob suggests visitors should head for the Mermaid in Hatfield Road, which he praises for its wide range of well-kept beers, including seven real ales and one draught cider. The beers often include one from a local Hertfordshire brewer, Tring.

Bob’s next port of call is the Blacksmith’s Arms near St Peter’s Church. He describes the mock-Tudor pub as almost a permanent beer festival with 10 handpumps dispensing cask beers, including such locals as Buntingford and Red Squirrel. Bob is unaware of the fact that the Blacksmith’s for several years was a no-go area for beer lovers, as it concentrated almost entirely on keg beer and lager. But under new owners Town & City and the energetic manager Mark Frazer it has become a haven for those who enjoy a good pint and has deserved its entry in the Good Beer Guide.

Bob then tramps off through the city centre to a pub of great antiquity, the Boot opposite the Clock Tower. I feel he could have made more of the Boot’s history, where soldiers drank during the Battle of St Albans, but he rightly praises the pub for its good range of beers, including yet again an offering from Tring.

In a small city bursting at the seams with pubs, it’s not possible to include every one. But some may think it odd that Bob only mentions in passing the Farriers Arms in Lower Dagnall Street, for it has a special place in CAMRA folk lore, with a blue plaque testifying to the fact that it was the meeting place of the first formally constituted branch of CAMRA -- South Herts -- which flourishes to this day and organises the local annual beer festival.

Bob finds time to drop into another historic masterpiece, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks down hill from St Albans Abbey. He rightly dismisses much of the hyperbole surrounding the pub and makes clear it’s not as old as some writers suggest. It was a centre for the unpleasant past time of cock fighting long before it was licensed to sell ale. Nevertheless, it is ancient and venerable. One of my favourite but possibly apocryphal tales surrounding the pub says that during the Civil War Oliver Cromwell not only dropped in for a tankard of ale but took his horse to the bar with him. Don’t attempt to emulate him today.

Further south, Bob takes you by the hand to show you some of the best rural pubs in Kent and then goes back on to the pavement in historic Rochester and Chatham. Rochester is a timely town to visit as it’s at the heart of Dickens country and has many attractive old inns, such as the Coopers Arms, the Good Intent and the Man of Kent. The latter has a fine tiled exterior that bears the name of a long-defunct local brewery, Style & Winch.

Back in the countryside, the Greensand Ridge area has villages with such good old Kentish names as Ightham and Plaxtol. The Golding Hop, a remote old inn, celebrates the most famous hop variety in the county. Kentish hops are also celebrated at the Hopbine pub at Petteridge on the High Weald.

I grew up on the East London border with Essex so I know the county well and regret that its lovely rural landscape is often overlooked by writers determined to turn it into Chav County.

Bob has unearthed some attractive pubs in such villages as Pleshey with the Leather Bottle, a former Ridley’s house that now offers Woodforde’s Wherry alongside Green King IPA, which is ubiquitous in this part of the world. Maldon, alongside the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Canal, is an ancient and historic small town with many maritime and half-timbered buildings. The town has two micro-breweries, Farmers Ales and Mighty Oak, so the beer choice is good and there are several excellent hostelries, including the Maltsters Arms, the Queens Head and the Queen Victoria.

Close by, on the Blackwater Estuary, the maritime connections are spelt out by two neighbouring pubs, the Old Ship and the Jolly Sailors, with a singular Jolly Sailor at Heybridge Basin.

The book has good maps and splendid photography and is a joy to read from the comfort of the armchair. But it’s best to put on your walking boots and follow in Bob Steel’s remarkable footsteps.

*CAMRA’s South East Pub Walks, £9.99, is available from book shops or from www.camra.org.uk.

South East Pubs