Pint Pleasures: "Four pubs in Leicester / Green Swans and Horsy Pubs

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Previous Pint Pleasures - June 25, 2006

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The Black Horse, 1 Foxton Street, Leicester, Leicestershire

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The Swan & Rushes, 19 Infirmary Square, Leicester, Leicestershire

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The Old Horse, 198 London Road, Leicester, Leicestershire

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The Donkey, 203 Welford Road, Leicester, Leicestershire

A few months ago we spent a weekend in Leicester. Located in the middle of England, Leicester is famous for its university, its green spaces, its rugby team, its dinosaur, and its nightlife, and also for being the childhood home of Gary Lineker, Joe Orton, Richard and David Attenborough, Emile Heskey, Englebert Humperdinck, Thomas Cook, and others.

We arrived in the city on a Friday afternoon and went out that evening with Calder, who is currently living and working in Leicester. He took us down into the city centre to the oh-so-trendy-and-inflated Braunstone Gate area, with all its pseudo Indian restaurants and clubs with bad bands and expensive drinks. Since Andrew kept pronouncing it "Branston Gate" we decided to call it "Branston Pickle Gate" from then on. Our first stop was the Black Horse which, according to my CAMRA guide, is the only known pub in Leicester with 2 swingboards outside.

The Black Horse is a small, fairly basic pub which consists of a small front bar and a tiny snug which can be reached through the maze of a back passageway that leads to the toilets. The landlord seemed typically Leicester, or at least what has been described to us as "Typically Leicester" by Yorkshire-transplanted Calder. To our pleasure there were 8 cask ales to choose from. But even with such a formidable decision ahead of me I instantly knew I was going to try a pint of Triple Hop (4% ABV, Brunswick Brewery, Derby, Derbyshire). This is another golden hoppy beer with a distinct Czech zing. Andrew had a pint of Natterjack (4.8% ABV, Frog Island Brewery, Northampton, Northamptonshire). This beer is definitely English, made of English hops, with the suggestion of apples: a beer garden in the literal sense. And the apples would be good English apples, of course. Perhaps Cox? Or Braeburn? No, more bitter apples, definitely. (Could Braunstone Pickle be made from bitter apples?)

The next day, after a pleasant spin around the countryside, we came back into town and stopped for a pint at the Swan & Rushes, a large triangular 1930s pub situated on a corner. It was quite crowded for a Saturday lunchtime. There were 4 cask ales on as well as lots of Belgian lagers and bottled beers, and flavoured gins were advertised as well. This pub was the Leicester CAMRA Pub of the Year in 2001.

We sat in the front bar at a big raw wood table and had pints of JHB (3.8% ABV, Oakham Ales, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire). I hadn't had this beer in several years. It's another straw-coloured, perfect noon pint, in perfect form. Andrew described it as a "classy little brew", like that essential simple black dress -- which of course is so important in his wardrobe.

As we enjoyed our pints I noticed there is a lot of green in the pub: a green ceiling, green doors, and green benches. I don't think I've ever seen green swans, but I suppose rushes grow green, ho, according to the old song. (And don't ask me about the 'ho'...) And there's a nice big ceiling fan which I'm sure would be quiet welcome on a muggy summer day. On the wall in the corner is a photo of the pub dated 1900 and advertising Hole's Newark Ales. I don't suppose that has anything to do with the Seattle band...

The Swan & Rushes is located not far from the rugby and football grounds and right next to the Infirmary, which is comforting to know just in case you drink too much Belgian lager. Stick to the JHB and you can't go wrong.

That night we decided to go to the cinema to see A Cock And Bull Story. Before showtime we took a walk down London Road to the Old Horse, a pub that seems to be populated with and run by students. It was quite crowded and busy, with dirty spills on the tables and dirty plates everywhere. The decor seems to be ceramic teapots and jugs and gremlin mugs and skeletons -- including a life-size skeleton in a graduation cap -- and goth images and Halloween and floral wallpaper and the occasional old horse. We had pints of Everards Original (5.2% ABV, Everards Brewery Ltd., Narborough, Leicestershire) which was very nice with good character. Although quite strong it was a good restorative pint, a reasonably good pre-cinema quaff. But at 5.2 percent I would want only one before seeing a movie, because I hate the feeling of nodding off in the cinema late at night.

As you might expect in a student pub, there are many signs offering a selection of very strong and puke-producing drink specials. Oh look -- there are even a couple of horse brasses. But of course, I nearly forgot that old horse! But what do horses have to do with Halloween? There's a garden in the back as well. There were no tables in the garden, but there was some potting soil and a sign that announced GARDEN. But why not do better than that? Perhaps instead, in a non-Magritte manner, they should have a sign that says THIS IS A GARDEN.

On Sunday afternoon, continuing our equestrian theme of the weekend, we headed over to the Donkey for the Sunday afternoon jazz session. Formerly known as the Fuzzock & Firkin, the Donkey is a very inviting pub, a roomy L shaped with hardwood floor, high ceilings, a few leather sofas, and wood tables. Of the 3 cask ales we decided on Old Mill Bitter (3.8% ABV, Old Mill Brewery, Goole, East Yorkshire), which is simply a good session beer. Andrew described it as "inoffensive, accommodating, willing, gentle, unassuming, and modest -- just the thing if you're feeling a little jaded." It seems to have the same sort of comforting purpose that Bass can have, and it's just the right session beer for an afternoon of music.

Aside from these regular jazz sessions the Donkey also features quiz nights and Sky Sports, and new Song Club acoustic night was about to start on the first Thursday of every month. And there is a pool table over in one leg of the L -- but the pub is so roomy and airy that you barely notice the table is there. In the crook of the bar we were sitting in it was so comfy and so easy to have lounge conversation. Those of us sitting on the sofas, the people sitting on stools at the bar, and the pool players were all so noninvasive of each other.

So where did this pub get its name, anyway? Why the Donkey? I've imbibed inside various Cocks and Bulls and Horses, but never in an As---ah, well, who knows? The food is quite good and reasonably priced as well. I had a lovely goat cheese and roasted red pepper baguette, and Andrew had a delectably curative smoked fish risotto. The place started to fill up, so we were glad we'd grabbed a big coffee table and two sofas for us and our friends. At one point I noticed the pool table didn't look very balanced, as if one corner was too high, or was the opposite corner too low? Was it just an optical illusion? Is it just the Pool Room of Mystery?

At the end, as we were leaving to start our journey back to Yorkshire, the jazz ensemble was kind enough to play my favourite song as their encore: "What A Wonderful World". Ahhhh, yes!!! Sometimes it almost seems as if it is...

Black Horse Updates
(Last updated 21 September 2008)
Donkey Updates
(Last updated 3 November 2012)