Published on May 3, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


From back yard to cathedral

County Durham, once known for its coal mines and heavy industry, is now an area of regeneration and promoted as a tourist destination. Rightly so.

The Durham Dales consist of some of the nation’s most attractive uplands, the Durham coast is little short of stunning, its towns – Durham City, Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton, Spennymoor and Bishop Auckland – are thriving retail and cultural centres. Pubs and breweries enjoy a terrific reputation with the choice ranging from corner bars and microbreweries to a regional giant and a Michelin-starred gastropub. County Durham has it all, so let’s take a close look at what’s on offer.



According to owner Danny McColl, the eponymous McColl’s Brewery is a bit like The Queen – enjoying multiple birthdays. Although the business was incorporated on September 26 2016, it wasn’t until May 17 2017 that it produced its first beer.

“We’re calling that our official birthday,” says Danny (an enthusiast if there ever was one). “Our first beer was Golden Ale, but for our birthday this month we’re brewing something completely different. It’s been a year but it doesn’t seem that long.”

McColl’s is opening a new brewery tap for the general public to come and try the beers and have a glimpse of what’s behind the liquid in the glass, which a lot of people are still not that much aware of, despite the rising interest in beer and brewing.

“The tap is nothing outlandish,” says Danny. “We’re opening the place up on the last weekend of each month – Friday and Saturday – and along with our beers, there’s a street vendor for food.

“Business at the moment is the best it’s ever been. We had teething problems to begin with and a few hiccups but we’re now in a much better position than we were even three months ago. We just kept going at it as best we could and now a lot of people know we’re here. It’s all positive.”

McColl’s has high hops for its Blood Orange IPA (xx% abv) which has been selected for the official beer of the Orange Pip Market that will continue to run over the summer around Middlesbrough, taking place on the last Saturday of every month.

“It’s a great show,” says Danny. “We just had to go for that.”

The McColl’s aim is to be like a Thornbridge, Marble or Hawkshead brewery where the fundamentals are in quality. He appears to be getting things the way people want them.

McColl’s Brewery, Unit 4, Randolph Industrial Estate, Evenwood, Bishop Auckland, County Durham, DL14 9SJ. Tel: 01388 417250. www.mccollsbrewery.co.uk



The Three Horseshoes is a family-run business and as such takes great pride in the pub and the microbrewery that serves some of its beers. Manager Matthew Frankland has such a knowledge and enthusiasm for what goes over the counter that he is building the offer up steadily and reckons there will be nine handpulls on the bar by the year end.

He says: “We’ve gone from never being placed in Durham Camra’s awards to being Country Pub of the Year this year. It’s about the relationship we have with other brewers and partly down to the open-door policy we have with our Working Hand Brewery. Anybody can come in and see how we make beer and experience how a small brewery – a 2.5-barrel plant – like ours works.

“We’re very hands-on so they can appreciate things behind their beer like temperature control and fermentation in a small area. The staff in the pub now know more about the beer and that’s half the battle. We actively seek out small brewers such as Roundhill from Billingham and Great North Eastern Brewing Co and I’ve met the brewers of the majority of the beers that we sell, which is important.”

The Three Horseshoes is a sparkling, tidy pub. Its bar and lounge area (the Select Room in days gone by) are traditional country pub style with marble-topped curved counter, exposed floorboards and highly polished back bar.

The pub is renowned for its food, served in a separate restaurant area and conservatory looking out onto farmland. This all adds up to a whole experience that feels right, feels solid and feels like a proper pub.

Matthew says: “I work here and I drink here, so I have an insight into what people want. Sometimes younger people don’t appreciate how good a pub can be.”

The Three Horseshoes, Leamside, Houghton le Spring DH4 6QQ. Tel: 0191 584 2394. www.threehorseshoesleamside.co.uk 



The Courtyard Café Bar at Washington Arts Centre is as busy on a damp Tuesday lunchtime as many pubs are on a Friday night. It’s non-stop with couples lunching, groups catching up (while their menfolk take the opportunity to have a couple of pints) and gallery visitors wondering whether to join in now or view the current exhibitions first.

“This is normal,” says Martin Thompson, who has managed the place for around 15 years. The beer selection is impressive, too, with a range – eight handpulls, four craft keg lines and a clutch of bottles – of local products and others from the other side of the Pennines rarely seen in the North East.

“We try and keep a blend between the two,” says Martin. “I like to give customers a choice and the chance to try something they might not get elsewhere. The paler ales go best, such as Ossett Yorkshire Blonde or Titanic Iceberg.

“Our Easter beer festival was a great success and the next one is in August which is always popular. They always work well with the Arts Centre programme and that’s where our biggest footfall comes from, plus the courtyard surrounded by craft studios is quite a sheltered corner for drinking outside when the weather’s right. Functions are great too and we’ve got a lovely mix of custom – musicians, thespians and others just coming for a good night out.”

Both the bar and the Arts Centre complement one another well and the cultural bias is evident from the contemporary prints on the walls. The modern-style bar is long and narrow which is offset by a high pitched, beamed ceiling lending it an airiness.

With a collection that includes Bad Seed Five Degrees, Box Social Sky And Thunder, Durham Paramorph and Silhouette Stout from the Republic of Liverpool Beer Company, there appears to be a beer festival every day.

The Courtyard, Arts Centre, Biddick Lane, Fatfield, Washington NE38 8AB. Tel: 0191 417 0445.



When you ask a pub manager or head brewer how things are going they tend to be positive, but cagily positive. The same question put to Alastair Wild of Caps Off Bottle Shop & Bar brings the reply: “Brilliant. Going really, really well. Spot on”. Can it get much better than that?

The Bishop Auckland Station premises benefits from the travelling public but not as much as from the town’s drinkers who seem to have taken the place to their hearts.

“It’s great the local support we have built up,” says Alastair, a former peripatetic Wetherspoons manager. “I’ve lived in Bishop Auckland all my life and there’s nothing else in the town like this. There’s lots of money coming into Bishop what with Kynren (the summer tourist attraction open-air live-action history of England), the castle which is being refurbished, the Spanish gallery about to open, and the Mining Art Gallery. Bishop Auckland is a beautiful town, but it’s been neglected for the last 30 years.

“Yes, we’re doing well; I’ve taken on two new members of staff and we’re now open seven days a week. It’s a lot of work but a nice problem to have. It’s evolving weekly and custom has increased 400% from when we opened, including off-sales.

“It’s different. We’re trying to build a community as much as a business; people pop in just to say hello which is odd for a bar – in a good way – and it’s a really friendly atmosphere.”

All Caps Off beers are locally-sourced from bottles to craft keg and the spirits are all from the UK.

Alastair says: “We put the bar on at the monthly street-food market in the town and we’ve bought a former horse-box to develop that side further.

“We keep three cask beers on and six keg taps plus small-batch spirits – gins and vodkas – and we’re moving more into events with regular street food Saturdays. We’re getting a name for being a great little spot.”

Caps Off, Bishop Auckland Station, Bob Hardisty Drive, DL14 7TL. Tel: 01388 603095.



A yard of ale is a three-foot long tapering glass with a bulb at one end holding around two-and-a-half pints of beer. Across the yard from the Surtees Arms in Ferryhill Station near Darlington is a small brewhouse. Yard Of Ale – get it?

It’s been run for the past ten years by Alan Hogg with the pub itself being under his and wife Susan’s great care for a year longer.

“The brewery is almost at capacity,” says Alan. “We’re happy at that level, plus we’ve got the pub to run which we try and balance – it’s better to have two businesses doing well than supporting one and neglecting the other. The Surtees Arms is a traditional front-street, no frills pub which is well supported by the locals who drink a bit of ale. We do well on that level.”

Like in a lot of dual-purpose businesses, Alan Hogg has to work hard on both profiles, making people aware of who they are and what they do – and keeping them high on their agenda, acting as one unit but keeping them separate at the same time. Surely a difficult trick?

“Choice is a great thing,” he says. “There’s a synergy between the pub and the brewery. The North East pie is small and there are more people now taking bites out of it, but we’re consistently being seen. We’re constantly looking at change and how we approach it.

“We brew a couple of times a week with two specials a month which sell well – in fact it’s gone a bit mad this year with our tenth anniversary.”

Sunday lunches at the pub are a real family affair with Susan and her parents doing everything in the kitchen.

“Everything fresh, sourced locally, cooked simply and done well,” says Alan.

Synergy at work.

The Yard of Ale and Surtees Arms, Chilton Lane, Ferryhill DL17 0DH. Tel: 01740 655933.



Hill Island Brewery enjoys a magical spot in Durham City, on Fowler’s Yard behind the main shopping attraction, Silver Street, and the steep banks of the River Wear. Virtually the only sound is from the busker on Framwellgate Bridge. The long, low building houses artisans that include printmakers and jewellers but Hill Island is also a gem, not only brewing beer on a 1.5-barrel plant (two with a squeeze), but hosting around 15 events a year to tie in with city attractions and regular extravaganzas such as the annual Miners’ Gala, the Lumière Light Festival, Durham Regatta and the upcoming Jazz Festival (June 1-3).

Although the Hill Island portfolio has six core beers – Cathedral Ale included – Michael produces specials for each of them with ’Alf A Scarg Ale being a particular favourite among ex-miners.

“It also has a touch of ginger in it,” he says. “I like fun names.”

Fun names extend to ThaiPA, a spice and herbal-influenced ale, and Stout For The Count which is fairly self-explanatory. He’s also playing around with the latest version of Fizzy Gillespie for the Jazz Festival.

Michael Griffin has run Hill Island, virtually single-handed, for just over 15 years. “The competition from new breweries is getting greater though,” he says. “But I’m still here, Woolworths isn’t. I often walk around the centre of Durham with a banner saying who and where we are. You sometimes have to swallow your pride and just do it.”

His pop-up bar in Fowler’s Yard is a regular event with a loyal following, normally on a Saturday (see facebook.com/hillislandbrewery) but over the weekends of bank holidays.

Hill Island is the straight translation of Dun Holm, the ancient name for Durham. The brewhouse sits down a precipitous flight of stairs where eventually a bar will be installed with seating on the level above. It’s in the dream, but for now it’s on with the jazzy BrewBeck.

Hill Island Brewery, Fowler’s Yard, Back Silver Street, Durham City DH1 3RA. Tel: 07740 932 584.



Station House has been open under the vast railway viaduct below Durham Station for two-and-a-half years or so. The quirky bar, a former antique and furniture shop, sits over two floors – three if you count the narrow snug down a few steps. It’s a pub with unusual features, one of them being there’s no actual counter for serving, simply a stable door-type hatch with a sill for presenting pints drawn by gravity from a stillage in the cellar and all set out clearly in front of you.

“Things are going really well,” says Susannah Mansfield, who owns the micropub with husband Chris. “We now have five members of staff and a lot of our custom comes from people popping in on their way to and from the station. We’ve got a good relationship with the newly-opened Waiting Room pub on platform 2 – he sends people here and we send people there. We’re also looking forward to the Head of Steam reopening. It’ll be a great circuit for this end of town.”

Susannah is something of a beer educator; she enjoys coaching people in beer’s finer points – students mainly – and explains styles and flavours well.

“Young people have no preconceptions about what beer they like,” she says. “Others might want something malty and traditional or something with a lot of hoppiness. There’s a myth that you can’t sell dark beer in Durham and some people find it a bit strange that we serve beer straight from the cask.”

There are normally four beers ready for pouring with another eight waiting in line in an ever-changing sequence. These can include Bad Seed Kiwi Pale Ale, Abbeydale Stuntman Pale Ale, Durham Divergence Rich Amber Bitter or North Riding Banoffee Porter, which does as it promises. Ciders are a joy – Bodendens Dry, Lawrences Medium and the sweet Somerset Harry’s Cider.

A mix of flagstone and exposed timber flooring sits well with high tables, tall stools and even a couple of rocking chairs in the prime window slot. Couple those with Gwatkin’s Perry at 7.0% abv and you’ll definitely miss your train.

Station House, North Road, Durham DH1 4SE. www.stationhousedurham.co.uk



Orb Micropub Ale And Whisky House was previously a hairdresser’s shop with a front styling area, steps up to a back room and an upstairs which is now earmarked for an events space. A large cellar could easily be pressed into use as a microbrewery, given owner Ian Clough’s homebrew expertise and the fact that Orb is an abbreviation of Orchard Road Brewery; a dream that could evolve into reality. Large mirrors left behind by the previous owners make the place look bigger although these days they’re are a far cry from the curly lob and straight bob with bangs that they once reflected.

“Most of the beers we stock suit my palate but there are a few exceptions from customer recommendations and suggestions,” says Ian Clough, a former NHS employee who decided on early retirement to follow his dream. “My aim was always to have six handpulls, the majority from North East breweries, with the odd exception providing a good range of styles and changing regularly.”

The finishes in the pub, particularly the counter, and the attention to detail are exceptional, displaying the mark of a man who will not cut corners in any respect, which is encouraging for beer drinkers to say the least. Ian also intends to build up the whisky offer, being a Scotch lover himself, so the plan was always to create a dedicated Whisky Corner tucked away at the rear (but within mirror view). He has some rare expressions available for which customers are willing to dig deep.

He says: “This is a place to relax, talk and meet old and new friends with a glass of exceptional quality ale, beer, cider, or whisky.”

Chalk boards list beers coming soon with suggestions from regulars, along with recommendations to visit similar pubs in the region – from Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Newcastle. But isn’t that inviting people to go elsewhere? Definitely not.

“These pubs are also doing the same for us,” says Ian.

Like all orbs – concentric spheres – what goes around comes around.

Orb Ale And Whisky House, 28 Coniscliffe Road, Darlington DL3 7JX. Tel: 07903 237 246.

SONNET 43 BREW HOUSE TAPS in county durham

With each Sonnet 43 Brew House venue comes the guarantee “for the love of beer”. All three County Durham sites proudly show off their Sonnet 43 name, through quirky branding on the walls and to ensuring each dish on the menu is perfectly paired with a cool pint of something outstanding – not to mention close connections with their sister brand Poetic License, means each venue is permanently stocked with world-class, award-winning gins.



Located in the rural areas between Consett and Stanley, The New Plough is a cosy yet contemporary pub. Whether it’s to relax with craft ales in the dog-friendly bar area, relish tempting soul food in the farmhouse-style restaurant, or enjoying live music every Friday night, The New Plough is the perfect local. In addition, the outdoor Enchanted Tipis and intimate Loft area also add up to a dream destination for a rustic, country-inspired wedding.


Toronto Lodge can be found neatly tucked away in the heart of Bishop Auckland’s countryside. This cosy pub offers an extensive menu of hearty dishes that range from Sonnet 43 beer-battered fish and chips to fillet steak and Stilton pie. With stunning views of the North East countryside from the conservatory and terrace area and late-night drinks in the intimate corners of the bar, Toronto Lodge is the perfect pit-stop for tasty grub and quality ales at any time. It’s also handily situated just five minutes from the world famous Kynren live-action history of England set.

THE LAMBTON WORM, chester-le-street

Classically comfortable in the heart of Chester-le-Street, The Lambton Worm is renowned for its country pub-style bar area where you can enjoy hearty food and great live music – plus its legendary pub quiz. If something more formal is on the agenda, the rustic restaurant offers an extensive à la carte menu serving the best of British cuisine. The Lambton Worm also accommodates 14 modern boutique bedrooms at 4-star quality – the perfect venue for a mini getaway.

Sonnet 43 Brew House, Durham Road, Coxhoe DH6 4HX. Tel: 0191 377 3039.

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Alastair Gilmour

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