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Published on December 6th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour

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Little Belgium takes pride of place

One Gateshead pub is working hard to serve its customers with something different – and something they’ll really enjoy – while at the same time promoting its beer with a unique historical tie. The Railway Hotel in Birtley has begun stocking beers from Blaydon-based Firebrick Brewery. Both lie in the Blaydon parliamentary constituency, but that’s not the main reason landlady Karen Timney decided to invite Firebrick to take up space on the bar. 

The heritage-led brewery has produced Little Belgium, named in honour of the “Birtley Belgians” who were recruited from their homeland to work in armaments factories during the First World War, principally to a purpose-built township called Eisabethville – part of Birtley. Belgium had long been renowned for the quality of its armaments, mortars, artillery and landmines.

Little Belgium (4.7% abv) is a Witbier (white or wheat) style; pale and opaque with a crisp wheat character and refreshing orange peel notes laced with spicy coriander.

So, when Corbridge-based Cheers readers Chris Roberts and Sheilagh Matheson heard about Little Belgium, they offered to take samples to Belgium’s National Hop Museum in Poperinge, near Ypres. The couple spend two weeks every year on a working holiday at Talbot House, a WWI museum, close to the museum which features 2,300 bottles of beer, all brewed in Belgium.

Little Belgium thoroughly impressed Peter Cleenewerck who runs the museum and has encyclopaedic knowledge of each exhibit. Poperinge is the centre of hop growing in Belgium, with 18 farms in the vicinity which have been growing hops for generations. 

Peter said: “Firebrick’s witbier is a very good example of this Belgian style of beer. It is the only British beer we have ever received.”

Inevitably, another Cheers reader took up the Little Belgium story. North East historian Chris Kilkenny tells us that Poperinge (previously Poperinghe) was well known to North East folk since many fought nearby with the Northumberland Fusiliers during the First World War. 

Chris says: “It was a place for rest and recreation and had a hospital and a main station for the Ypres Front. Deserters were shot in the town square.  

“Some stories were tragic, such as that of Basil Knott, son of shipping magnate Sir James Knott who built Knott’s Flats in North Shields in the 1930s (to house low-income families displaced by slum clearance on the Fish Quay). Basil arrived at the Front on September 5 1915, was wounded on September 6, and died at Poperinge on September 7. His father built St James & St Basil’s Church in Fenham, Newcastle, in honour of Basil and his other son James.

“However, we can say that hundreds of Geordie lives were saved by hops. The German artillery

bombarded any movement on the road and casualties were high. So the men ‘borrowed’ hop poles from the surrounding fields and made screens to conceal any movement of troops.

“This and many other amazing and interesting facts will feature in the upcoming seventh and final volume of the History of Northumbrians.”

Chris tells us that the previous six volumes are available on Amazon, along with the popular “Singin Hinnies – The Story of North East Song” plus the e-book Innheritance – the story of local pub names.

Now it’s the Railway Hotel’s turn to take its place in the amazing story of the Birtley Belgians.


About the Author

Alastair Gilmour



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