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The Golden Fleece, 42 Market Place, Thirsk, North Yorkshire
When I was young my mother was a fan of the book All Creatures Great And Small, as well as the TV series which followed. Based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Darrowby, the stories by James Herriott, aka Alf Wight, were based on the author's 50-year veterinary practice at Skeldale House in Thirsk.
I was reminded of the stories earlier this year when Andrew and I were returning from our Tyneside holiday. After a brief visit to Ripon, where we stopped to admire the gorgeous cathedral, we pulled into Thirsk for lunch. Located in the Vale of York and with a name originating from the Viking Thraesk which means "lake" or "fen", Thirsk is best known for its horseracing track which dates from the 18th century and is still quite active. Thomas Lords, who founded Lords Cricket Club in London, was born here in 1755. And the 15th century Church of St Mary has been described as the most spectacular perpendicular church in the North Riding of Yorkshire, for what that's worth.
In a town located only 10 miles from the John Smith Brewery we managed to find the only pub that didn't feature John Smith beers: the Golden Fleece, a Best Western hotel located on the south side of the Market Square near James Herriot's surgery. One of the oldest coaching inns in England, today the Golden Fleece offers acccommodation, a restaurant, and cask ale in the Paddock Bar. If you've read any of the James Herriott stories, this bar was used as the Drovers Arms.
The Paddock Bar features an equestrian motif: framed jockey clothes, horseracing medals, drawings of jockeys, and paintings of horses. And the theme continues with the cask ales: the pub features the brews of Nick Stafford's horse-related Hambleton Brewery. At first we sat near the window by a very efficient radiator. When I began to worry that my socks were going to melt, we moved to a slightly cooler table. Since Andrew was driving he had a pint of the weaker Hambleton Bitter (3.6%, Nick Stafford Hambleton Ales, Holme on Swale, Thirsk, North Yorkshire) while I went for a pint of the stronger, hoppier sibling, Stud Premium Bitter (4.3%). These are two fine ales with a unique taste of barley and a surprising subtle touch of millet. Andrew described the taste as barley sugar without the sugar, but to me it was suggestive of barley malting on a bed of hay. Yes, I could definitely taste pastures and I could even hear clopping hooves, clippety-clopping along. These are definitely clippety-cloppety pints! My mature cheddar and onion marmalade bagel and Andrew's prawn sandwich both came loaded with homemade chips, a nice dry coleslaw and salad -- a huge meal when all we really wanted were sandwiches. But they were mighty good...
The next time we find ourselves travelling around North Yorkshire it's good to know there's a place we can spend the night and have good food and, most importantly, decent and interesting cask ale. Perhaps we should arrive on horseback next time.