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Previous Pint Pleasures - December 13, 2009

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The Golden Lion, 30 Market Place, Barnard Castle, County Durham

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The Coach & Horses, 22 Galgate, Barnard Castle, County Durham

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The Teesdale Hotel, Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham

A few months ago, as the result of a very short holiday, we found ourselves driving along the A69 between Carlisle and Newcastle. On an impulse we turned off onto the A689 and then onto the even smaller B6277, driving through the scenic Yorkshire Dales with no particular destination in mind. At some point we decided to stop and spend the night in the Teesdale town of Barnard Castle.

Located on the north side of the River Tees and 21 miles southeast of Durham, Barnard Castle is named after the castle ruins on the western edge of town. Founded by the Normans, the castle was owned by Bernard de Bailleu in the 12th century and passed 3 centuries later into the hands of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. In 1477 during the War of the Roses the Duke of Gloucester, who was to become Richard III, took over the castle, and it eventually fell into the ruins one sees today.

Besides the residents of the castle, the town of Barnard Castle boasts several other famous visitors. Walter Scott's epic poem "Rokeby" mentions a guard standing on the tower of Barnard Castle, and Charles Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Browne stayed at a pub in the town while doing research for Nicholas Nickleby. A clock Dickens saw in a shop opposite the pub inspired him to name his new weekly Master Humphrey's Clock.

Looking for our own inspiration, we stopped into the Golden Lion for a pint. Dating back to 1679, this former coaching house features a timber frontage, low ceilings, and curiously sloping floors. There is a big fireplace, although as this was August it was not in use, and the friendly landlord was wearing shorts even though it seemed a bit cool and blustery to us. He poured us a pleasant enough pint of Cumberland Ale (4.0% ABV, Jennings Bros., Cockermouth, Cumbria) that we took out to the big beer garden with its peek-a-boo view of the castle ruins so that we could get a signal for our mobiles.

After successfully receiving a texted photo from a friend enjoying the music and mud at a festival on Solway Firth, we retreated back inside to finish our pints in the comfort of the front room. On the wall was a poster suggesting what might be hindering our phone signals: the pub hosts regular Psychic Nights every Tuesday featuring tarot, runes, and "psychards", whatever they may be. As we sat back wondering if any ghosts ever showed up on Tuesday nights, I noticed the big overstuffed leather chair in the far corner. Does it have a regular's name on it? A Barnard Castle cryptic expert, perhaps? Or a local historian? Perhaps a football savant? Maybe it's there for the tarot card reader.

Down the road and around the bend was the pub where we spent the night, the Coach & Horses. Long and skinny from front to back, this pub is deceptively large, and the staff were again quite friendly. As we were in a holiday mood we mistakenly started off our evening with double Smirnoffs with Martini and soda which were, if I don't mind saying so, a bit too "wee-ahd" for me. Actually I don't mind saying that at all: they were definitely "wee-ahd" beyond my tolerance. It was while we were drinking these extravagantly priced and oversweet drinks that we fortunately learned the place down the road called Andalucia, which I had spotted earlier, was an ornament shop and not a Spanish restaurant; so we avoided the embarrassment of phoning them to ask for a dinner reservation. As there isn't a lot of culinary variety in Barnard Castle we settled for a recommended Indian restaurant for our dinner.

When we returned to the Coach & Horses we discovered the Cumberland Ale is very good and well kept, very crisp and cheering. We sat in the back by the pool table and Andrew played a few frames with the regulars while I put some money in the jukebox. By the end of the evening my earlier impression that the residents of Barnard Castle are very friendly held true. But I couldn't help wondering if it was a Coach & Horses rule that all pool players must be bald. I guess that leaves me out...

Earlier in the day, before we reached Barnard Castle, we stopped for a short break in Middleton-in-Teesdale. This small stone-built market town is located in Upper Teesdale, the most northerly of the Yorkshire Dales, by the River Tees and the Pennine Falls and not far from the High Force, England's largest single-drop waterfall. In the 19th century Middleton was the northern headquarters of the London Lead Company that brought prosperity to the town. There is still a cattle market by the river where local farmers sell sheep and cattle.

We popped in for a quick half at the Teesdale Hotel, an old coaching inn which proudly advertises its food and ensuite accommodation. We were instantly drawn to the name of one of the cask ales on offer: Yard Hopper (4.0% ABV, The Yard of Ale Brewing Co., Ferryhill, County Durham). I suppose it was the "hopper" that caught our eye, coupled with the fact that the landlady said it was pale and very popular. So we nestled down at a table with our half pints and mouths full of anticipation. Sadly it wasn't another pale hoppy beer. The flavour was a bit insipid, like a beer brewed for people who don't like challenges or inspiration. It was in good nick; but considering we'd been driving through gorgeous moors and dales all day, it was a bit disappointing. Ah, well, we should have tried the Black Sheep Ale instead.

As we sipped our unexciting halves we observed the hotel clientele, mostly elderly people and families with children, and we browsed through the food menu which seemed uncreatively British and a bit overpriced. But the cask ale was well kept. Sometimes that's all that matters.