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Previous Pint Pleasures - April 19, 2009

guinness eileen

Old Poet's Corner, 1 Butts Road, Ashover, Derbyshire

Since I have neither the time nor the money these days to get out of the city, a recent excursion into the Derbyshire countryside promised to be a real treat. I'd been wanting to check out the village of Ashover ever since a friend recommended a pub there. As often happens, our potentially peaceful drive in the country turned into somewhat of a nightmare as we kept trying alternate exits from various Chesterfield roundabouts in search of elusive A and B roads as the increasingly violent rain bashing against the windscreen turned into sleet. Finally a light broke through the angst and tears: the B6036 suddenly appeared, leading us directly to our destination.

Situated in the Amber Valley between Chesterfield and Matlock, Ashover was originally called Essovre, which translates as a village near an ash forest. The Church of All Saints with its 128-foot spire dates from the 15th century, as does the lead mining industry at the nearby Gregory Mine. By the 19th century dairy farming had become a major industry. More recent times brought Ashover's two claims to fame. The Ashover Light Railway was the last narrow gauge passenger rail line in Britain. It started in the 1920s and ran 25 years. And former Ashover residents the Bassett sisters invented Liquorice Allsorts in a village cottage.

The best reason to visit Ashover today is to stop in for a pint at the Old Poet's Corner. Originally called the Red Lion, this big stone pub dates from the 17th century. On the Sunday lunchtime of our visit the pub was very crowded. As we entered from the carpark our noses were instantly greeted with the lovely smell emanating from the two coal fires. From where we entered the layout seemed to suggest a Y shape, or perhaps more of a T shape, with a dining room leg off toward the left and a main lounge leg off to the right, and the bar straight ahead at the centre.

There were quite a few cask ales available, including 3 from the local Ashover Brewery. I had to try a pint of the eponymous Poet's Tipple (4.0% ABV, Ashover Brewery, Ashover, Derbyshire), which was wonderfully bitter with a taste of burnt caramel. Andrew thought it might be brewed with a double roasted malt. It was definitely poetic: I could hear an old crusty poet reciting verse about stormy seas and shanty towns and dancing in graveyards and nighthawks at the diner and hitching rides on boxcars travelling through St Petersburg and Mandalay. It was like Tom Waits in a glass.

We took our pints into the lounge and sat in the corner by the main fire. As we had come for lunch we ordered the carvery, which was a bit pricey at £7.65 a head but which came with more trimmings than one could imagine. My nut roast was excellent, with lots of crunch from halved hazelnuts and almonds and seeds and rice and other grains. It was seasoned with sage and thyme and served with a red vegetable gravy. Andrew said his pork tasted local, perhaps freshly picked that morning from Derbyshire pork vines.

As we sipped and dined we observed the crowd who were mostly older, perhaps because they could more easily afford the expensive lunch. The ceiling is decorated with a multitude of beer mats, and dried hops hang from the beams, which is a popular decor in Kent and Sussex but something you don't see much of in the North. And there is a lovely pastoral view out the back windows. At one point we heard a tiny tot crying. But only one, thank god, and it was tucked away in the dining room leg, far away from our right toes all toasty warm by the fire. The coal briquettes lent a uniquely nostalgic, ancient smell to the pub, as if we were miles and miles away in a remote part of this big island. And I'll swear my Tom Waits In A Glass had developed deep red hues, like salmon skies at sunset.