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Published on April 5, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour

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Best in show

We take a look at a selection of the North East’s Pubs of the Year

A small North Yorkshire village pub, saved by its local community from bankruptcy and possible demolition has been named the nation’s best pub.
The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) has selected the George & Dragon in Hudswell, near Richmond as the 2017 winner of its annual Pub of the Year (PotY) competition from 52,200 entrants. After forming a cooperative and raising £220,000 to buy the pub, the local community reopened it in June 2010 and today it provides a hub for village life with a library in the corridor, a convenience store and community allotments.
Over this section, we’re taking a look at a clutch of pubs gaining 2017 PotY status, revealing why they have been picked out as something special.

THE FREE TRADE INN, NEWCASTLE
If the Free Trade, sitting high and handsome over Newcastle’s East Quayside, isn’t everybody’s favourite pub, it’s their second favourite. That’s the regard it’s held in. Regulars love its down-at-heel ambience, its old-sweater comfort, its views and the adventure in beer that awaits.
It’s one of those scuffed-at-the-edges, lived-in places that designers charge a fortune to achieve. The Free Trade has evolved this naturally and its tobacco-stained brown paintwork won’t be found on a Farrow & Ball colour chart alongside Book Room Red or Terre d’Egypte.
“We last won Tyneside PotY in 2013,” says landlord Mick Potts, who celebrated ten years in the pub last month, having been at The Strawberry across the city previously. The Free Trade was also awarded Tyneside cider pub of the year.
“We just try to do what we do – sell interesting beers in great condition. Our customers know what they want, but it just shows the diversity of pubs we have when we can win something like this with previous winners being The Bodega and Fitzgeralds in Newcastle. The winners are an interesting mix of pubs and bars – and look at The Curfew in Berwick.
“We get regulars from students right through to business people. Things might change from day to day and night to night, but it’s an eclectic mix that’s still the same as it’s always been.
“The biggest change in my time here was two years ago when we became fully independent which allowed us to offer more local beers and a lot more choice. We were tied in the cellar to Heineken but we bought them out of that and took all the national brands off the counter so we can now offer a lot more locally-produced lagers, for instance.”
The free jukebox is an obvious attraction where customers can choose Dylan to Hendrix to Cash then T-Rex to X-Ray Spex. Gents’ toilets are a masterpiece of graffiti with messages not repeatable in a “family” publication – save for the anodyne “Sleep Is For Dreamers”. Meanwhile, Craig David the house cat “sleeps, gets fed, gets loved”.
Events such as Wednesday pizza nights (Scream For Pizza), Meet The Brewer, Tap Takeovers, London Beer Weekend and Belgian specials supplement an amazing line-up of cask ale, craft keg and cider.
Rather self-indulgently – although a boon for us on this side of the bar – Mick can pick and choose from his favourite brewers, although he’s wise enough to know that Triple Hoppy McHopface might not be to everyone’s taste.
To celebrate his decade of Free Trade commitment – and the Camra award, of course – Mick has set out to offer all his favourite beers since 2007. There’s a cloud or two hovering over this part of Byker, however. Apparently, developers are circling once more, presenting plans for apartments between the pub and the Tyne Bar just down the bank. It reminds us of the renowned comment from several years ago when similar proposals were first mooted: “I want a view of the Tyne and the Quayside, not some rich bastard’s kitchen”.

THE VICTORIA, DURHAM
The Victoria has been named Durham Camra’s town PotY (with The Smith’s Arms taking the country title), which is no great surprise, given the respect it is held in – plus it’s heading to be a ten-time winner of the accolade. The Victoria is on Camra’s “endangered” list of pubs (The National Inventory) that should be preserved as they are; its five handpulls are fiercely local, and a range of Irish whiskies glinting on the back bar is a joy to behold.
Cheers editor Alastair Gilmour reviewed the pub in The Daily Telegraph in September 2014: “The grade II-listed Victoria – virtually untouched in getting on for 120 years – is a three-roomed idyll with six letting rooms. Its Family Department and Sitting Room, dripping with even more V&A memorabilia, speak of long-lost parlours. The timber flooring has been worn so smooth in parts it looks like linoleum, while the varnished wood panelling, shelving and mirrors blend with floral wallpaper in costume drama proportions.
“There is no television, no music and no food (unless crisps and pickled eggs are your thing) and the pub’s effect on a soul is such it’s said one customer was so moved he lingered over three pints – and he’d only come in to ask directions.”

THE CURFEW, BERWICK
The Curfew micropub is North Northumberland PotY – not bad for a pub that only opened its doors in June 2014. It’s owned by David and Gemma Cook who have an obvious passion for ale and hospitality.
David says: “We’ve now won this award twice – the first time two years ago. It’s testament to the fact that people in Berwick want to come to see what we’ve got on cask and in bottle.
“Berwick has got some good pubs in the town and around the locality – The Barrels Alehouse, the newly-reopened Brown Bear, and The Pilot up the hill which, along with The Curfew, forms a great ale trail.
“We do things a little different, though. There’s no point in replicating other great pubs. Instead of stocking North East and Southern Scottish products, we do a lot of research and look further afield to source our beers, taking a wee bit of a risk. In fact, I’m getting an Imperial Stout from a brewery in Manchester that will set us back the thick end of £200 for the cask.
“Choice is important these days. We always have a dark beer on, a stout, a pale ale and a gold IPA, so there’s something for everyone.”

THE OFFICE, MORPETH
The Office is a serial award-winner, gaining South East Northumberland PotY on its way to winning overall Northumberland PotY. The former bridge toll-house – a Grade II-listed building – is run by Andrea and Paul Johnson, one of the new breed of micropubs that have sprung up over the past few years, all with tiny premises and great beer. The Office’s capacity is 32 people, but five ales, two local craft keg beers, a cider fridge and four national keg beers keep the regulars entertained.
Paul also owns Acton Ales Brewery and the couple operate The Fox’s Den in Felton and The Narrow Nick in Rothbury.

THE QUAKERHOUSE, DARLINGTON
The Quakerhouse, Darlington Camra’s overall PotY 2017 revels in the sub-heading “real ale and rock bar”. The pub not only prides itself on the quantity and the quality of its ales but also its taste in music. There’s invariably something going on in the upstairs lounge featuring some serious blues, busking, bluegrass, folk, reggae, rock and acoustic talent.
It’s been an award winner on a local level countless times and it’s not hard to wonder why – big on exposed brickwork and divided into three small but distinct areas (mind the steps), it’s a welcoming pub populated by ultra-friendly regulars and much admired by visitors.

STEAMBOAT, SOUTH SHIELDS
South Tyneside Camra branch’s pub of the year on a regular basis and representative of the region in the national finals, this terrific pub is high on character and billows with ambience. It’s at its best when busy, with chatter and clatter coming from all directions and from a wide cross-section of clientele. It’s handy for the Customs House and visiting culture-vultures mingle happily with regulars and locals. As a multi-award winner it has a lot to live up to – and most beers on the eight handpulls come from independent breweries across the nation, plus a real cider.
Memorabilia setting the seafaring theme includes clocks, dials, pressure gauges, sailors’ knots, lifebelts, lobster pots and naval pictures.

BOATHOUSE, WYLAM
The pub signs say it all: “Probably the best pub in the world” and there are few people who could argue with the sentiment. The Boathouse has been covered in awards in getting on for 20 years, and is 2017 South West Northumberland PotY. It has represented the whole North East in the national finals of the competition on a couple of occasions.
The bar is one of those typically English pub rooms with a forest of 15 handpulls on the counter – real ale rules here with Hadrian Border beers well represented – and a large fireplace at one end. It’s comfortable, sociable and dog friendly, which is a boon for thirsty walkers. Many of the regulars come from miles away, an indication in itself of the Boathouse’s conviviality.

THE TANNERY, HEXHAM
The Tannery is serious about its beer and cider but manages to provide bags of fun at the same time, which in anybody’s book, is a winning combination.
Eight cask ales and numerous ciders from Swannay, Harviestounn, Anarchy, Thornbridge, Firebrick, Aspells and Circle feature regularly while and a dedicated lounge titled Frank & Bird’s Old-Style Fermented Apple And Pear Juice Parlour is a clue to why the pub has been named not only South West Northumberland Cider PotY but Northumberland winner overall.
The Tannery’s mix of décor and furniture is straddles the traditional and the progressive. There’s an eclectic food selection – Northumberlicious Sunday Lunch, for example (“for you, your mam and your dog”), board games and “brainy” books. What was that about serious and fun?

 


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Alastair Gilmour



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