CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> Four York Pubs

Previous Pint Pleasures -June 24, 2005

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The Punchbowl, 7 Stonegate, York, North Yorkshire

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The Three Cranes, 11 St Sampsons Square, York, North Yorkshire

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The Blue Bell, 53 Fossgate, York, North Yorkshire

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The Old Grey Mare, Clifton Green, York, North Yorkshire

The first time I passed through the ancient city of York I managed to catch a quick glimpse of the outside of the castle walls. Which means I didn't actually see York itself. But earlier this year we spent a night in the historic city and had a very enjoyable (and tasty) tour of some of its pubs.

I won't go into the history of York because it would take pages and pages and I'm anxious to get on to the beer. So here's an extremely brief summary: Originally called Eburos by the Romans (which is commonly believed to have something to do with a yew tree), the name was corrupted in the 6th century by the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons into "Eoforwic" meaning "wild boar settlement", because apparently the Anglo-Saxons had some difficulty distinguishing trees from pigs. Then the Danes took over, and then some Norwegian Irish Vikings, and by medieval times the name York was finally used, although some people insisted on calling it Yerk.

York Minster, famous for its pointed arches and luxurious decoration, had its origins in 627 AD when King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised on its site. The Norman cathedral was started in 1070 by the Archbishop of York, and the current Gothic church was built starting in 1220 and finally completed and consecrated in 1472. It has the highest proportion of Medieval stained glass of any cathedral in Europe. And it looks quite awe-inspiring during a winter sunset.

Sadly we had to find our York accommodation outside the city walls, but it was only a ten-minute walk. As we entered the walled city we passed York Minster on the left and found ourselves in Stonegate where we had our first pint at the Punch Bowl. This ancient pub features a large food menu and live music on Wednesday nights. On this particular late Tuesday afternoon the pub was full but not crowded, with soft vocal music in the background and a small fire in the fireplace. We sat in the small but cosy wood panelled front bar and had pints of Yorkshire Terrier (4.2% ABV, Yorkshire Brewery, York, N Yorkshire), a welcome friend to sip while the rain belted down outside. This is definitely not prissy yippy dog piss, let me tell you -- not a beer on which you could tie a pretty little bow. This is a fine, loyal, dignified terrier of a bitter which I would proudly drink in any establishment. This is a beer that could stand up and defend itself if anybody tried to mock it or call it Sweetie-Poops or Snuggums.

Supposedly the name of the pub derives from the Whig party's favourite drink in the late 1800s. The Punchbowl was a victim of fire twice in the last 150 years, the second fire claiming the landlord whose ghost is said to haunt the bedrooms and, most understandably, the cellar. There's also the ghost of a broken-hearted lady who committed suicide in the 16th century, although some stories say the pub was once a brothel and the lady was a prostitute beaten to death by a patron. Apparently this pair keep the pub so haunted that the BBC have installed a live GhostCam (active after hours only).

Moving on we walked around the town a bit more and finally found ourselves escaping from a very loud and irritating building alarm into the Three Cranes, where I found the latest issue of the Ouse Boozer, the local CAMRA publication which conveniently happened to feature a map to the good city centre pubs.

The Three Cranes is a very friendly pub full of locals who seem to range in age mostly from 30 to 70, and the jukebox was playing songs by Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, and Little Richard. On one wall was a case displaying dominoes and darts trophies. On the recommendation of one local we had pints of Iceberg (4.1% ABV, Titanic Brewery, Burslem, Stoke on Trent), which was very light in colour with a very snow white head, and just a bit murky, like a melting iceberg. Could the murkiness be from a bit of wheat? Ahhh, it was so soothing, especially because somebody had finally deactivated that horrid building alarm outside. I imagine some passing tourist was probably packing one of those handy traveller's semiautomatics which come in handy when you're on holiday and you have to deal with irritations like pesky car alarms, early morning roadworks, and the like.

Leaning against the end of the bar was a very intense-looking man with a shaved head who looked as if he were deep in thought. Just what was he thinking about? Should he get the blue bath towels, or the green ones? The green would match the tiles, but blue would be more manly...oh, he's just bought drinks for those two ladies in black leather jackets. He suddenly looks a lot less intense now.

The Three Cranes probably dates from the 18th century and was supposedly named after 3 lifting cranes rather than the 3 birds depicted on the sign. The pub once had a landlady in the early 1900s who was charged for allowing patrons to sing and dance in an unlicensed room -- proving the entertainment licensing laws which plague many cities in which I've lived are not just a recent problem.

Next we checked our new pub map and decided to try the Blue Bell, which is the tiniest pub in York. The original Edwardian interior dates to before World War I, when English pubs started to become more sociable, with rooms available for respectable women and families as well as working men and ladies of the night. We found the last seat in the very tiny front bar and drooled momentarily over the nice range of cask ales before ordering pints of Adnams Bitter (3.7% ABV, Adnams and Co., Southwold, Suffolk). On the wall was an array of awards: Yorkshire Evening Post Pub of the Year, National Inventory of Pub Interiors, and CAMRA awards galore. And the landlord, Jim Hardie, seemed strangely familiar, reminding us quite a lot of the landlord of another pub down in Folkestone. I even asked Jim if he had any relations in the south, but he swore he didn't.

Our pints of Adnams were excellent and very well-kept. It's obvious why there are so many awards displayed: you can get a great pint here. I took an extremely short exploratory journey down the tiny corridor to the back Smoke Room, which is nearly as tiny as the front room. And both rooms have fires and no music, making them wonderfully cosy. There's even a good spot in the corner for curling up with a pint and a good book if you're so inclined. Or perhaps some knitting, which is suddenly becoming very popular, probably because of the Extreme version where people knit and purl while parachuting and the like -- which may have grown out of the sport of Extreme Ironing. But please, one word of advice: because of the extreme lack of space at the Blue Bell I'd recommend leaving your ironing at home.

After our enjoyable city centre pub crawl we had a nice Italian meal and then caught a taxi back to the Old Grey Mare, a 17th century coaching inn close to York City's football ground, where we had booked our room for the night. We sat in the front bar and ordered pints of Theakstons Cool Cask (4.2% ABV, T.R. Theakston Ltd., Ripon, North Yorkshire). Unfortunately, after our big meal, these pints were a bit sweet, so I convinced myself to have patience and to try to ease slowly into this different taste. We'd entered the pub right smack in the middle of a quiz, so we played along by ourselves and realised, after scoring 22 out of 30, we would have lost it anyway (the winners scored 25). By the time the quiz was over I realised I didn't have the strength to persevere with my pint: the Theakstons was simply too treacly for my already indulged stomach. So we moved back into the pool room and drank overpriced shots of Bushmills. As Andrew played pool with the rather possessive young locals I played 5 songs on the jukebox, including the somewhat relevant "People Are Strange" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?". When the pub shut we retreated to our tiny room for the night, sleeping on what felt like a linen-covered grilling rack. I have to admit I've never slept on such a lumpy, spring-protruding mattress in my entire life. Fortunately after my years down south, curling my torso each night around the sproinged springs of an antique mattress, I've become expert at positioning myself just right so that I was able to get to sleep. One thing I have to say for the room: at least there were none of those typical cranked-up radiators blasting away and the window opened easily, so my sinuses were happy for the fresh air.