CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> 3 Durham Pubs
The Half Moon, New Elvet, Durham, County Durham
The Swan and Three Cygnets, Elvet Bridge, Durham, County Durham
The Shakespeare Tavern, 63 Saddler Street, Durham, County Durham
A few months ago, on the way home from Newcastle, we spent a night in the city of Durham. This medieval city, which was the seat of power for the Saxon Prince Bishops, features a castle dating from 1093 which now houses University College. Also dating from the same time is Durham's Norman cathedral which features the tomb of St Cuthbert. After his death in 687 AD St Cuthbert's body supposedly didn't show any signs of decaying. As a result his body was exhumed and replanted several times during the Saxon invasions, his burial locations including Lindisfarne Priory, Chester-le-Street, Ripon, Durham, back to Lindisfarne, and then back to Durham Cathedral, where he was finally left alone in 1537. This is probably why his grave became such a popular shrine for pilgrims.
When we arrived in Durham it was lunchtime; so instead of searching for St Cuthbert we ventured out from our hotel for a pint and some grub. Down the street from our hotel and directly across from the Royal County Hotel we found the Half Moon, a pleasant pub with a listed interior featuring a long L-shaped bar and lots of windows. On the hand pumps are Bass, Landlord, and one guest ale. This visit was before this year's Comic Relief, so we had yet to experience the Peter Kay video of Tony Christie's "Amarillo". But for some reason we were still drawn toward pints of the White Amarillo (4.1% ABV, Durham Brewery, Bowburn, County Durham). The first sip of this very pale beer was excitingly good, featuring that Durham Brewery character. Yes, this is a pure gold beer resembling a Belgian or Czech Blonde, a beautiful first pint of the day which mirrors the sunny calm between storms and gales. The landlady seemed to be very proud of her cask ales which are kept beautifully. This is a true CAMRA pub.
Since the Half Moon wasn't serving any food this day we ventured across the road for lunch to the Swan and Three Cygnets. We had pints of the only cask ale available, Samuel Smith Bitter (4% ABV, Samuel Smith Old Brewery, Tadcaster, N Yorkshire), which was such a letdown after that lovely Amarillo. But we decided to sit down and give it a chance. The food at this pub is fairly ordinary: my tuna melt on a baguette was just that -- tinned tuna and cheddar melted on a baguette -- and the chilli in Andrew's giant Yorkshire pudding was fairly bland and ordinary. Neither of us could really get excited about the Sam Smith, either. But we did have a pleasant and bizarrely mysterious chat with a local about Long Island.
As we walked across the River Wear and up toward the cathedral, we passed the 12th century Shakespeare Tavern and were drawn inside by a sign claiming it was the most haunted pub in England. Inside we found a slightly musty pub with walls covered with beer mats. We were the only customers there, and there was not even the slightest hint of music or any sort of sound. A rather bored young man served us pints of Over the Moon (4.5% ABV, Hydes Anvil, Manchester, Greater Manchester), which is a very odd beer with a distinct taste of honey, much sweeter than wine? Yes, it's certainly much sweeter than Timothy Taylor Landlord or White Amarillo or anything else I would normally drink. But if you like sweet beer you might find this quite interesting.
The narrow Shakespeare is a maze, with the Fives Room in back, a small room crowded with tables, another snug, and a tiny room with a shelf and one barstool and the walls covered with graffiti. Everything is very, very old and musty and totally, completely, absolutely SILENT. I quickly became self conscious of my footsteps, and eventually of the cacophonous clatter of my own breaths and circulatory system. According to the two men on staff that afternoon the ghosts don't come out till 2:00am, so you probably need to be in some sort of lock-in situation to meet them. But I couldn't quite convince myself that the young barman wasn't a ghost himself...
YIKES! Sorry, I was a bit surprised, because somebody else just came in! This slightly portly man sat at the bar and nervously drank a half pint and then made a quick call on his mobile. When he realised how loud his voice must have sounded in this deathly quiet room he looked over at us, blushing, and immediately left in shame. A short time later two young men and a young woman came in and sat in the corner whispering to each other before finally retreating to one of the back hollows. Another man came in and sat at the end of the bar, staring at the beer taps intently like a guard dog and obviously wondering if he was ever going to be served. I felt like saying, "Don't worry, he just ran upstairs to commit suicide. Does every day at this time. He'll be back shortly." Just as the suspense was getting unbearable the barman finally re-appeared, served the man a pint, and immediately disappeared again. In the calm of the silence Andrew discovered just how tired he was and drifted off into a light drowse as I wandered around and browsed the photos on the wall. I learned that Elvet, the name of the nearby bridge across the River Wear, derives from "Aelfet Ee" which means Swan Island. Unfortunately this fascinating tidbit of historical information wasn't enough to elicit any enthusiasm from the slumbering Andrew.
The man at the end of the bar finished his pint, nodded at me self-consciously, and departed. I finally managed to rouse Andrew, and we headed out into the real world where Andrew suddenly darted into the kitchen shop across the street, proclaiming loudly, "I WANT TO BUY A KNIFE!" Fortunately it turned out he was simply contemplating a good quality carving knife for our kitchen...