Monday, 31 October 2016

Keep Portland Weird - all the pubs pt.3

After our previous travails on Portland had led to a well-needed day off the sauce - spent visiting the lovely Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door - we were feeling suitably refreshed and ready for our final leg of the tour. Auspiciously it was also my birthday, so we had already breakfasted on a feast of extra hot chilli sausages from Weymouth’s famous sausage shop and lardy cake from Sgt Bun’s Bakery in preparedness for the day’s travails.

Our first stop wasn’t a hostelry at all, but the statue of the Olympic rings found at Portland Heights which overlooks the harbour where the 2012 sailing events were held. We then headed East on the South Coast Path, past the Fancy's farm, with its field full of goats and wallabies and around to Balaclava bay, which gives wonderful sweeping views back around to Weymouth. 

From there it was just a short walk around the foreboding prison – originally opened for use of convict labour, to help construct the breakwaters of Portland Harbour, but now a young offender’s institution – to reach our first stop of the day.

The Clifton Hotel didn’t look particularly prepossessing when we arrived at a little after noon, but there was a blackboard outside advertising live music for the coming weekend and the sign behind the net curtains in the window said they opened at 12:00, so I remained hopeful that we were still on target for our first pint of the day.

As the Ewing’s hand went down on the handle of the porch entrance and she quickly turned to look at me over her shoulder, I knew we had been thwarted. ‘Travelling Manned’, as any fans of Road Food would be familiar with - or in other words finding somewhere that should be open is closed when you visit, named after a particularly unluckily contributor.

After the Ewing had tried around the back of the building - she's nothing if not persistent - and still getting no joy, I conceded that a beverage wasn’t going to happen. I also decided (my tour, my rules) that visiting the pub was as good as a pint, at least for the purpose of this challenge. So we ticked it off the list and set off up the road for a second attempt.

Marilyn Monroe thought everything happened for a reason, while I’m more of the mind-set that things happen as an improbable result of the intersection of independent casual chains. Whichever way you look at it, it so happened that the Clifton being closed meant we got to spend more time at the next pub, the George, which turned out to be a very good thing.

Clifton Hotel - closed
Sticky carpet rating -
Overall score -

Built in Jacobean times, The George is one of the oldest buildings on the island and it feels like you're stepping back in time as you wind your way through the comforting warrens that lead to the different bar areas. We sat in a wood panelled room that had pictures of all the King George’s hanging on the wall, alongside a macabre, but beautifully hand written, list of all the shipwrecks that had occurred on the islands up to the 1960’s.

Beer choice was limited, but they had Sharp’s Atlantic ale alongside the familiar Doombar, which is a slightly more interesting beer and was well kept. The Ewing, apparently having learnt few lessons from the previous leg of the tour, started on the Rosie cider, although this time it was Rosie’s Pig; a, mercifully, less alcoholic version that tastes dangerously like cloudy apple juice.

The improbable independent casual chains must have been aligned for the second time when we looked at the lunch menus and the Ewing noticed the ‘mid-week roast’,  an incredible concept that really needs to gain more traction. As it was a Wednesday there was no doubt what we were going to order and we soon had two piping hot plates of roast beef in front of us. For six quid I couldn’t have hoped for any better; a special shout out must go to the very good gravy and amazing spuds. So good that Amy ‘one potato’ ate three. Well, it was my birthday.

The George - 1 x pint Sharps Atlantic ale; 1 x pint Rosie’s Pig; 2 x mid-week roast £19.05
Sticky carpet rating: 6.5 a difficult one to rate, the George is more of a traditional hostelry than a sticky carpet special, but is still very down-to-earth. Seeing Sooty on the bar is always worth a bonus point.
Overall score: 9 a lovely, cosy pub and the midweek roast was proper home cooking and great value. Beer choice still not great, but my pint was in tip-top condition.

The Royal Exchange was a rum old pub, in more ways than one. When we arrived there was Palmers ale (from Bridport) on cask and a roaring log fire, which made for a promising start. Less promisingly, every gust of wind (this is Portland, remember) blew the front door open wide, despite all attempts to wedge it shut with various folded flyers and beer mats. 

Of course, unaware of this issue, I had elected to sit by the door, and despite the efforts of the friendly locals to leap up and assist us every time the door thudded open, there was an awful lot of beer mat origami going on at our table as the easterly wind swirled outside.

Still, the disruption wasn’t enough to stop us ordering another round of rums, especially after the Ewing spied they had cherry flavoured Old J. Wary that it might taste like cough medicine (it did), I stuck with the eminently more sensible Pussers Gunpowder at 54%. A rum based on the strength of the tot all naval officers used to receive every day at twelve noon. I’m surprised we recorded any victories at sea.

The Royal Exchange - 1 x pint Palmers 200 ale; 1x pint Palmers Copper Ale; 2 x pints lime and soda; 1x Old J Cherry rum on the rocks; 1 x Pussers Gunpowder rum on the rocks; 1x Shakey’s scratchings; £15.40
Sticky carpet rating: 8 - darts, pool, a weekly meat raffle and a great big jar of pickled eggs on the bar next to the scratchings.
Overall score: 5.5 ok beer choice, lovely log fire and friendly staff and customers but the layout is bit cavernous and probably suited to being a bit busier. Just don’t go during an easterly wind…

Staggering from the pub we seized on the golden hour of the afternoon - after post-lunchtime pints and before pre-dinner drinks - to complete our loop of the South Coast Path around the island. The route took us past Rufus Castle, a blockhouse built for William II, and down a precariously steep path to Church Ope Cove; a small secluded bay on the sheltered eastern side of the Isle.  

Historically it was a famous smuggler's spot but nowadays, due to being sheltered from the wind by the cliffs on three sides, the beach is home to the far more staid pursuits of swimming and snorkelling. It also made the perfect place to settle down on the shingle and contentedly watch the Atlantic ocean crashing onto the shore (and eat an impromptu picnic of Ritter Sport and Haribo. Well, we needed a fillip to help us climb back up the cliff again).

Our apres dinner stop was the Punch Bowl, a pub that was missed off the West Dorset CAMRA map for, presumably, not having any real ale. While this might be so, it completely overlooks something even better - a huge bowl of sweets on every table. There must be something about this neck of the woods as the last time I remember seeing something like it was at a pub in Weymouth a few years back, when the Ewing appeared from the loos shouting; 'they had a dish of peppermint creams in the toilet and I gobbled them all up', before passing out in a pile of chips back at the B&B. Still one of my favourite memories.

Anyway, back to the drinks; no ales meant Thatchers cider for me and the house white rum on the rocks (yeah, I didn't think that was a great idea, either) for the Ewing. While we supped our drinks we also had a chance to drink in the decor, with the liberal amounts of bunting and Chelsea memorabilia, and the punters who were thirstily debating the meaning of life in between throwing a few arrows at the dart board. 

The staff and customers seemed to soften to us the longer we stayed, especially when we got into a conversation about the best flavour of Cheddars - prompted by a mastiff that was sitting up on a stool at the bar next to his owner, eating the cheesy biscuits from the counter on demand (if you're interested, although the classic flavour is very good, I think I might just prefer the cheese and pickle flavour).

The Punch Bowl - 1x Thatchers Gold cider; 1x Expedition rum on the rocks; 1 x pint lime and soda; 1 x Cheddars cheese and pickle flavour; £8.60
Sticky carpet rating: 8 – bowls of mints on the tables; a dog sitting at the bar; luminous vodka shots in test tubes; a separate room for pool; snooker on TV, need I go on…
Overall score: 5.5 a pleasant enough pub with a lively after-work atmosphere but no real ale on offer and there's only so much Chelsea memorabilia a Spurs fan can endure. 

The New Inn was our dinner stop, lured in by the ten pound moules frites special on a Wednesday night and the fact that - apart from crisps, sweets and  the ubiquitous Shakey's scratchings -  no other pub in Easton sold food. Still, it seemed a a very civilised choice for a celebration dinner.

We started with Black Cow vodka (they were out of Dorset Conker Gin) tonics and a dish of garlicky olives and soon progressed on to the vino - the perfect accompaniment to the plump, cantaloupe-coloured line grown local mussels. As good as the molluscs were, the real draw was the creamy West Milton cider and bacon sauce they had been cooked in; which I took great pleasure drowning my dish of chips with after every nugget of seafood had been extracted. 

As posh as the New Inn thinks it is, it’s still a Portland pub, and I mean that in the nicest way; friendly, quirky and grounded in its Dorset roots. While an islander we got chatting to said it was a bit too fancy to be his regular local any more, as an outsider it was a great place for dinner and is definitely the pub you would take home to meet the parents, even if it might not be the most fun.

The New Inn - 2 x Black Cow vodka tonics; 2 x sauvignon blanc; 1 x mixed olives; 2 x moules frites; £50 (inc. tip)
Sticky carpet rating: 3 - A predominately eating pub - the Xmas menu features fancy dishes such as beetroot risotto and grilled hake with lentils, -  the New Inn gets the lowest SC rating on the island
Overall score: 7.5 lovely service and great value mid-week deals, although the rest of the menu is on the pricier side. The beer selection looked one of the best on the island.

The Corner House had been chosen as our last stop as I wanted a good, old fashioned, sticky-carpeted final fling before we headed back up the causeway to reality. And on paper it ticked all the boxes; furniture backed in plush red velvet, a shelf crammed with second hand books and board games, free roundels of slightly stale looking bread topped with slightly rubbery melted cheese on the bar,  a resident dog, a pervading smell of open drains unsuccessfully masked with a generous spritz of Pledge…

Unpleasant scents aside, I did really warm to the Corner House, helped when the Ewing ordered the Cane Trader rum, another dodgy house special. After consulting the leather-backed instruction book, the barmaid announced ominously that it only came in double measures, charged at the rate of a single (yeah, me neither). Added to the fact that their measures were a more than generous 35ml – versus a standard 25ml – and she ended up with a nearly triple measure of spirit with her cola. With my Mountgay cola and a final packet of Shakey’s scratchings the whole bill totalled £6.60. 

In all, it was probably a good thing that the persistent aroma and our flagging spirits (not literally) lead us to the decision that one round was enough. With spirit measures this strong, combined with the unholy array of drinks we had already consumed,  we would still probably be trapped on the island now. A shame for me, as I was enjoying drunkenly crooning the 80’s soul soundtrack to the Ewing, but a merciful escape for her who had grown tired of my tuneless singing and become distracted by the large bag of prawn crackers the barmaid was studiously munching her way though.

The Corner Inn - 1x double Cane Trader rum and cola; 1 x Mountgay Eclipse and cola; 1 x Shakey’s pork scratchings; £6.60
Sticky carpet rating: 8 stupidly cheap spirits, free snacks on the bar, wines dispensed from a giant box on the wall; furniture upholstered in plush red velvet that made me feel like I was in my Nans’ front room.
Overall score: 6 – I liked the Corner House, even if I was feeling giddy from all the rum (and fumes from the air freshener). This is potentially a cracking little pub and one that I would love to revisit in more fragrant circumstances.

As our attempts at catching public transport throughout our trip had consistently been thwarted by First Buses’ risible Number 1 service, I promised the Ewing that we could walk the final five miles back to our apartment. Walking also meant we had to pass several Chinese takeaways, with my wife’s plaintive cries getting persistently louder until I reasoned that any money saved skipping pudding earlier in the evening would probably only end up being spent on prawn crackers anyway.

Which is how we ended up in Ocean Bay, directly opposite the Chesil Chippie where we had started our adventures a week before. In another serendipitous twist a fellow customer began chatting to the Ewing, entranced by what he described as her ‘mountaineering outfit’, seemingly unable to believe the only hiking we were doing was between drinks. As it turned out, he was an islander who had also visited every pub - although, from the sound of it, rather more times than we had - and he told us a fascinating potted history of the hostelries as we patiently waited for our prawn crackers, spare ribs, sweet and sour sauce and seaweed.

In fact, his words got me thinking. If the pubs had already changed so much in recent memory, not to mention all the openings and closings that were constantly occurring, what would they be like in the coming years? I began to muse out loud - maybe we could plan another pilgrimage around the island; maybe we could make it an annual trip… But as I turned to consult the Ewing, she was already rapidly disappearing towards the mainland in a trail of prawn cracker crumbs; her screams swallowed up by the now infamous Portland wind.

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