Thursday, 20 October 2016

Keep Portland Weird - All the pubs pt.1

Listening to other peoples’ relationship advice is about as helpful as following centenarians tips on making it to a hundred; ‘have different interests’, 'be passionate', 'drink two bottles of Miller and a glass of whisky before bed’ etc. I’ll leave you to decide which answers match which question.

While I don’t have any invaluable tips (although I wouldn’t recommend squeezing your wedding ring with a pair of pliers in an attempt to resize it), if I had to distil the reason I’m still (mostly) happily married, it would probably come down to the Ewing’s reaction to my proposal of spending a few days visiting all the pubs on the Isle of Portland. When I saw her unbridled enthusiasm for an idea that even I thought was a bit ridiculous, I knew I had a keeper.

Which is how we came about traipsing around the limestone-tied ‘island’ - which is actually attached to the mainland at the eastern end of Chesil Beach, the impressive shingle tombolo that stretches 18 miles down the Jurassic Coast - while sampling the wares of the 15 hostelries on the Isle. These pubs being defined by the map on the West Dorset CAMRA page, minus the British Legion, as it’s really a club (mmm...attention to detail - TE), and with the addition of the Punchbowl, which I assume was omitted for not serving ‘real ale’).

Alongside a short write up of each visit, in case anyone should want to follow in our footsteps, I have also invented my own ‘sticky carpet’ rating - devised to celebrate all the wonderful quirks and eccentricities of a proper British pub. 

For a low rating think gastro pub with stripped back floorboards, scented hand cream in the loos, and a seasonal menu involving game and seafood. A high rating is reserved for a boozer with cigarette burns on the loo cistern, a resident dog curled up by the fruit machine and a menu of dry roasted peanuts and scotch eggs. There’s probably some metaphor for modern marriage in there somewhere, but I’ll just leave it as them both being perfect in their own way.

Before our first evening spent getting battered, we stopped for batter of a different sort at the island's most recently opened fish bar, Chesil Chippie - chosen as I was curious to try their more outré offerings of Lyme Bay Scallops, smoked cod goujons and battered samphire, as well as getting my fix of Southern chip shop favourite, the pea fritter. With our food freshly fried to order, and the friendly staff making our short wait much more entertaining, I was looking forward to our al fresco fish supper.

The original idea was to arrive to the last blazes of autumnal sunshine before picking up our supper and scrambling over the pebbles to watch the sunset somewhere over Lyme Regis, but clearly the British climate had other ideas. While the rain held off, the wind (as my Mother had been repeatedly warning me prior to our trip) was whipping particularly ferociously, even for the notoriously gusty Isle of Portland.

Luckily, unlike pesky sand, the pebbles here are far too big to be shifted by a stiff sea breeze and we managed to eat our first dinner on the beach - even if the Ewing ended up as cold as her leftover chips. All the food was well worth windburn, with my favourite being the scallops and the Ewing’s the cod, while we fought over crispy scraps of salty samphire dragged through their impressive homemade tartare sauce. The pea fritter was also particularly brilliant example of the genre and, luckily for me, I got it all to myself.

As we started to fear a side of frostbite with our fish, I was glad there wasn’t far to go to reach our first pub, the The Little Ship, situated almost opposite the chippy. While the temperature didn’t feel much warmer than being outside, the greeting was friendly enough and I was pleased to see a dart board, pool table and fruit machine, which I took as a hopeful portent of the sticky carpet standard of pubs to come. There was even a traditional wooden skittle alley, although it seemed to be being used to store old tables and chairs on our visit.

In what would become a depressingly constant theme to our trip, the cask ale was limited to one choice; Wadworth’s 6X – although we were told there were another couple of casks ‘settling’ behind the bar. Despite the restricted selection it was served in fine condition and made a pleasing first pint. The Ewing, after deciding moments before that she would never eat again, also picked up some lurid blue fizzy sweets that were purportedly helping support cancer charities – offset, no doubt, by the cost of the rise of type two diabetes (supporting charities really is a double edged sword sometimes - TE).

The Little Ship: 2x pints Wadworth 6X £7.00
Sticky carpet rating: 7. Higher than average thanks to the pool table, darts, fruit machine and skittle alley - not in use (oh what could have been...TE). Loos are SC standard, although at least they boasted both soap and loo roll.
Overall score: 5. All the attributes of a good old British boozer, but in a strangely disjointed setting, probably not helped by it being fairly quiet on our visit. My pint was well kept though, and an extra mark for a great soundtrack of Dylan, the Stones and the Doors.

The Cove House Inn - an atmospheric 18th century hostelry built of Portland stone, just two minutes’ walk from our first stop - was much livelier. Being there just for the beer, we were restricted to the bar, as all the tables in the restaurant areas were booked for dinner. No matter, we perched up on our stools and were entertained by our enthusiastic barman as he pulled our Pints of Adnams Broadside.

Despite not being a local beer – the other cask ale offered was Doombar – it was a decent enough pint, but I was more tempted by the food menu, with seasonal offerings such as crab tagliatelle and haddock chowder to compliment the sweeping views of Chesil Cove (had it not already been pitch black by this point). The Ewing wanted a slice of banoffee pie to go with a second pint but, with two stops still to go I checked out the loos (in the name of research - clean but no lights in the cubicles?) and dragged her back into the hoolie raging outside (SO unfair, that banoffee would have been good - TE).

Cove House Inn: 2x  pints Adnams Broadside £7.60
Sticky carpet rating: 5 - with its uneven floors, low-beamed ceilings (mind out if you’ve had a couple) and prime spot on the sea front, the Cove Inn is the sort of charmer that would happily woo your mother. No darts or pool here, but they do serve scratchings and welcome dogs into the bar (and the barman LOVED  my woolly hat, that makes it an 8 for me -  TE).
Overall score: 6.5 - based on our fleeting visit, although the score would have undoubtedly been higher if we had returned for food.

Our next stop was to Castletown, to the far north east of the island, where we hit the The Royal Breakwater; a good looking building that, as its name cunningly suggests, is also a hotel. Inside had a funny kind of atmosphere, somewhere between a holiday club – with parents trying to finish their meals while the children, threatened with bedtime, ran merrily amok – and a proper boozer. The guy we met at the bar was certainly already very well lubricated as he attempted a hilariously disjointed conversation with the, far too accommodating, Ewing.

It was at this point when, after looking at the uninspiring beer selection, I made my move on to the rum and coke. I’m not normally a big spirit drinker, but being as we were in the right neck of the woods, rum seemed as good a choice as any and I eased myself in with a Mountgay Eclipse. A beverage chosen as Bond orders it with soda in QoS, just before he wins the Aston Martin DB5 in a game of poker. The Ewing tried to get her Malibu with pineapple, but the high winds had obviously felled all the palm trees on the island, so she ended up with Coke too.

Royal Breakwater Hotel – 1x Mountgay eclipse and Coke; 1x Malibu and Coke £5.20
Sticky carpet rating: 6.5. Pool table, dart board and fruit machines, plus a trail of ketchup across our table from abandoned sachet, set the scene, while the Malibu added nicely to the retro feel. The loos are accessed by walking across a strange kind of indoor alleyway, but were commendably clean.
Overall rating: 5.5. A friendly place, and I would have been happy to stay for another, but a slightly odd layout and didn’t feel quite ‘pubby’ enough for me.

Moving almost directly next door to our final stop of the evening, (ooo, our fave - TE) The Green Shutters was the pub I had most been looking forward to visiting; attracted by both the reviews and the name - sounding, as it does, like a ‘proper’ boozer, amidst a sea of forgettable generic monikers. Walking in I felt cheered that this was going to be a good stop, reinforced by the ale which, although small in stature, included the local DBC Pilsner, interestingly served on cask.

The Ewing sampled a pint of the above, while I stuck with the Mountgay and coke. Both solid choices, but the real excitement came with the snack we chose to accompany them – Shakey’s Black Country scratchings. I had seen bags of this strange looking snack, with its little yellow cartoon pig on the front, behind all the previous bars we had visited; and now, my hunger slowly returning, decided it was finally time to sample them.

Despite the midlands moniker, these are proud Portland pig bits, and very good they were too, despite the ominous health warning ‘only recommended for people with strong, healthy teeth’ on the back of the bag (now I don't remember seeing any piggies on the isle...suspicious - TE). They also must have had some magical effect on our inebriation levels, as we had suddenly perked up enough to start considering the range of top shelf whiskys as a nightcap, helped no doubt by Europe slowly beginning to claw back their second day deficit at the Masters, which I was following on the TV in the corner.

I picked the Auchentoschan American Wood, an easy-going lowland whisky I first tried on the overnight sleeper to Edinburgh, which knocked me out ‘til well past Carlisle. The Ewing was very excited to see Black Cow vodka - the world’s only vodka made from milk – which is also made just down the road in West Dorset. Not only did her choice, a double on the rocks, cause a stir amongst the regulars, but the barman also gave it to her at the bargain price of £2.50 as ‘it isn’t really that popular’ (sheer madness - TE). Which pretty much made up for the golf, and the fact we still had the windy walk back to the mainland to contemplate....

Green Shutters - 1x Mountgay Eclipse and Coke, 1x pint DBC pilsner; I x Shakey’s scratchings; 1x double Auchentoshan American Oak; 1x double Black Cow Vodka £14.30 (I mean, Oh. My. God. - TE)
Sticky carpet rating: 8.5 A solid score thanks to pool, darts, fruit machines, and a decent collection of charity tins - including 80s favourite Sooty, which the Ewing was particularly excited to see (collecting for the RNIB no less, well done Sooty - TE). In fact, we probably spent more money donating to these than on our beverages.
Overall rating: 9. Great pub with great staff and a lively atmosphere and somewhere I’d like to go back for a quiet daytime pint (the Ewing would like to go back to finish the vodka). I’m taking a point off for the beer selection being a little lacking, but the cheap top shelf spirits goes someway to make up for it.

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