18 June 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd – Sojourns in Stamford

For any lover of Real Ale there can be few places in the country more attractive than the area around Stamford, Lincolnshire. Over the weekend I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful, historic town and checking out several of its excellent ale houses; what follows is a far from complete survey – there are many more pubs I’ve yet to get to!

Accompanied by the Beer Monster we kicked off with a swift half in the Toreador, a cellar bar situated on Broad Street, beneath the Stamford Corn Exchange.

This is an odd little place, primarily catering to the younger generation and popular as a pre-club venue from Wednesday night onwards, and a glance at the bar reveals the usual suspects of lagers / ciders / alcopops / spirits - however the bar also sports 4 handpumps dispensing real ale.

Sadly on our visit (a Friday afternoon) only two were in use, offering a choice of Courage Directors or John Smiths Bitter. Needless to say we both opted for the Directors, and found the condition and dispense to be good – despite the fact that we were both served in Kronenbourg 1664 glasses!

For those who enjoy such amenities the Toreador also offers a pool table and fruit machines, and on Friday and Saturday night the venue also boasts dj’s playing a mixture of chart, house and r&b.

This is a bar with a lot of potential – the open plan layout works well, the place is well lit and tastefully furnished with leather seats and tables … it’s just a shame the ale range was so limited!

From the Toreador it was onwards to the Otters Pocket on All Saint’s Street, a slightly more down to earth establishment popular primarily with sports – and particularly rugby – fans.

Aside from the dodgy name (google it for a giggle if you’re not too easily offended!), this really isn’t my kind of venue – the wall sports a large mosaic Union Jack, every conceivable surface is adorned with sport related material and they even have flat screen televisions installed by the urinal in the gents!

Determined not to be put off by the less than congenial surroundings we nevertheless sat down to sample the beer quality, inspired by the six (albeit not overly exciting) real ales available at the bar.

Of the 2 halves we tried I found the Oakham Bishops Farewell to be in reasonable condition, though a little on the tired side. Unfortunately I had opted for Hop Back Summer Lightning which was very much past its prime; as a result well over a quarter pint was chucked away.

I’d have to say, of all the Stamford pubs I’ve been to, the ‘Pocket is by far and away the poorest for atmosphere and beer quality; having said that, the pub does a roaring trade with the sports contingent and probably couldn’t care less what I think.

It’s just a shame that with six real ales on offer they don’t take more care of their cellar…

Feeling the need for a change of scenery we set off for our next destination, the White Swan on Scotgate.

Formerly the Punch Bowl, this place used to have a mixed reputation for its ale quality. The pub has now changed hands, and the current licensee seems to be keeping a good cellar and offering some brews from micros as well as the nationals.

The pub itself is a fairly traditional affair, well lit and comfortable with stripped floors, neutral colour scheme and a general air of tastefulness. The small bar is situated to the front of the building, while the rear is taken up with seating and a separate area with a pool table.

We found 5 handpumps on the bar, of which one was dedicated to Weston’s Old Rosie cider. The remainder comprised Springhead Bitter, Oakham Bishops Farewell, Greene King Abbot Ale and Milestone's North Rock. Sadly the North Rock had just gone, so we both opted for the Springhead which we found to be in excellent condition and well dispensed.

It’s also worth mentioning the very friendly and outgoing chap who served us – the son of the current licensee – who was happy to talk to us about the pub and the changes that they’ve introduced to the place.

I wish the team here every success with the pub, and hope to watch the place go from strength to strength over future visits.

Thanking our host for his time we polished off our ale and made our way to the next port of call, the Tobie Norris on St. Paul’s Street – the real gem at the heart of Stamford’s real ale scene in my opinion.

An Ufford house (one of five in their estate), the Tobie Norris is an excellent example of a restoration project undertaken properly.

From the moment you enter the wonderful stone building you get a real sense of history and would be forgiven for thinking that the pub has been open for centuries - it hasn't, in fact it's just coming up on two years since the doors opened to the public.

Comprising three floors, each historically restored and furnished in keeping with the character of the building, it's easy to see why owner Michael Thurlby has just received the CAMRA award for Best Conversion to Pub Use.

In addition to the beautiful building, the Tobie also has a strong focus on micro beers, and has recently held a very successful beer festival which I was fortunate enough to attend. The condition of the beers available from the bar has always been tip top in my experience.

There has been some criticism of the pricing of the beer here, with some locals feeling that around £3 a pint is too high; all I can say is I have no objection to paying a small premium for the privilege of drinking in such a wonderful environment - especially as it discourages the less salubrious end of the market from frequenting the pub!

Finally a comment about the staff and management; on every visit I have found them to be genuinely friendly, courteous and helpful - always a bonus!

After some discussion (and several halves) we decided that our next target would be the Jolly Brewer, located on Foundry Road.

A fairly basic pub in terms of decor, though nicely light and spacious, with pool and darts facilities, this unassuming establishment has a lot to offer the serious ale drinker; up to 4 draught ales from some great breweries kept in tip top condition and served with a smile by the friendly staff.

I'm informed that the pub is tied to Admiral, which makes the achievement of the current licensees and their dedication to Real Ale all the more admirable (no pun intended!).

On our visit we sampled Black Abbott and Sod, both from Idle, along with Milestone's Classic Dark Mild; condition and dispense were excellent for them all.

The pub also held their first Beer Festival in May, which the Beer Monster reliably informs me proved to be a great success with 15 micro ales on stillage and another 4 on the handpumps.

In addition to the beer, the pub also offers a range of hearty meals which I’m told combine quality food with real value for money.

The current licensees deserve real credit for what they’re doing with the pub, and it is to be hoped they will continue to receive the loyal support of the discerning Stamford drinkers.

As the day was drawing to a close and we were reliant upon public transport we decided that we had time for one more pub. Our choice seemed fairly obvious, the Green Man – by reputation the finest Real Ale pub in Stamford, and a place which I hoped would impress me rather more on this occasion than it had previously.

A traditional boozer, the Man offers up to 8 real ales on handpull, with microbreweries being very much the order of the day. Effectively L-shaped, there is a long narrow bar to the front of the building with additional seating / bar running up the side. To the rear is a large beer garden which also plays host to the regular beer festivals which the pub holds.

Although held in high esteem locally for its range and quality of ales, I have visited this place 3 times now and have yet to be wowed; on my previous visits I have found only limited micro options, with the condition of what has been available at best passable and at worst unfit for sale.

Sadly on this occasion things didn’t go much better; 4 ales were available – Fullers ESB and Summer Ale, Fernandes Triple O and Wentworth XII Challenge. Opting for the Wentworth, I was dismayed to find that the beer had turned and was undrinkable. My dismay only deepened when, having replaced it with an ESB, the barmaid left the beer on with the clear intention of selling it.

As on previous occasions we stayed for one drink and left, disappointed.

Though the Man had proved a let down once more, we boarded the bus home in high spirits and well satisfied with our day - and planning our itinerary for the following afternoon!

All things considered, Stamford is a fantastic place for a real ale odyssey; as I mentioned at the start of this entry, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the pubs the town has to offer and I’m looking forward eagerly to my next visit…



  1. I've gotta get along to the Tobie sometime soon. Looks and sounds amazing, even without the lure of all those microbrews!

  2. The Tobie does indeed look good.

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