I’ve written about my passion for pubs before, often quoting from Orwell’s marvellous A Moon Under Water - a great read and a pleasant distraction from all the ominous quotes from 1984 that look so prescient at the moment – and it’s a love that remains as enduring as the smell of stale fag smoke clinging to a old bar carpet.
Trying to choose a favourite pub always feels rather like choosing a favourite child (not so much because of partisanship - more because, when you think you’ve found The One, they run out of scratchings or the beer’s flat), but one I always enjoy drinking at, and it seems I am in good company as it was awarded CAMRA'S Pub of the Year 2015, is the Sandford Park Ale House in Cheltenham.
The first time I visited was a dark Sunday evening, where we were too late for a roast but just in time for the dish of leftover spuds and a jug of gravy to be put out on the bar. While roasties aren’t my favourite (I didn’t get the moniker Amy One Potato for nothing) I could have eaten a barrowful of these, anointed with the finest gravy I have possibly ever eaten.
Which carb-heavy talk makes an apt lead in to our most recent visit, after attending a nearby Potato Day – which is what people do at the weekend when they get old, apparently. A surreal, although not entirely unenjoyable experience, where people rummaged through piles of knobbly roots, checking off their carefully compiled lists, and had chance to admire famous works of art that had been replaced by tubers.
Reckoning that standing in a muddy marquee juggling spuds is a thirsty business, I had also brokered a deal with the Ewing where she agreed that if I feigned enough interest in the allotment we could go to the Sandford Park for lunch.
As well as their ambrosial gravy, the beer is also kept in reliably fine nick with a solid cask offering (Oakham’s Citra, Wye Valley's Butty Bach and Purity's Mad Goose being stalwarts, alongside a roster of regularly-changing ales) as well as offering a big Belgian and keg selection.
Beers I remember from previous trips include Timmermans kriek lambic (a guilty pleasure), Dark Star Creme Brulee stout on cask and a 5 Points Railway porter on keg. This time I was excited to see Harvey’s Best Bitter, which remains one of my favourite beers, while the Ewing, who had being craving the Black Stuff, had a pint of Arbor Nitro Stout.
As it was Saturday, the roasts weren’t on (nor, disappointingly were the faggots, mash and and peas, replaced by haggis, neeps and tatties for Burns Night) so we decided to share two dishes featuring different incarnations of the potato, burger and chips and ham knuckle and boiled potatoes.
My descriptions downplay the dishes somewhat, as the burger - on a floury bun, topped with a thick doorstop of blue cheese and a pile of dill pickles, served with fluffy chunky chips and tomato relish - was the perfect pub fare.
One thing that amuses/confuses me here is the assertion that ‘note that you may order vinegar to be added to your meal in our kitchen but we do not put it out in the pub.’ Why are patrons no longer trusted with the non-brewed condiment? Have they been putting it in the beer, in an attempted sabotage of the hostelries good reputation? Whatever the reason, chip to vinegar ratio is a personal thing – so while I enjoyed the dousing ours had been given in the kitchen, the Ewing wasn’t as keen. Which, I suppose, wasn’t really a problem from my perspective…
The ham knuckle was even more magnificent – a behemoth of boiled pig served with sauerkraut, buttered potatoes and a light, glossy gravy that, while not up to the ethereal heights of the previous visit, was still cleared from the plate with the last forkful of DIY mash. And all yours for under a tenner.
A thoroughly decent pub, serving thoroughly decent beer and spuds (other foods are available) and, in the words of AA Milne; ‘if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a decent sort of fellow’.