Saturday 5th May saw myself and 'Nickolenko' heading for Warwickshire to attend a beer festival with a bit of a difference. Whereas most such events are held in one centralised venue, such as a town hall or a sports ground, the one at Long Itchington is spread across the village's six pubs - an commendable example of co-operation that means each pub gets supported at a time when many nationally are under threat. Add in calls at Southam and Kenilworth on the way home and the day became something of a record-breaking outing...
Catching the 09:15 Chiltern train from Birmingham Moor Street, we make our way to Leamington Spa to catch the 64 bus from outside the Parish Church - the lady bus driver instantly recognised us as beer enthusiasts and encouraged us to have a drink on her behalf. The route covers Radford Semele, Ufton and Southam for views of rolling Warwickshire countryside before dropping us off in Long Itchington by the quaint village duckpond - I feel very much at home already.
- Long Itchington Pond -
We have a bit of time to spare before the pubs open so Nick guides us on a little walk around the village, enabling me to get a few quick photos before the main crowds arrive. The Harvester and the Green Man both catch my eye as traditional-looking pubs and then we cross the fields where Nick has a nervous confrontation with a sheep with horns! After a bit of a staring competition the sheep backs down and we are safe to join an old railway walk (utilising the former line from Leamington to Weedon via Daventry) - this in turn leads us to the towpath of the Grand Union Canal as we wander up towards Stockton Locks.
- A Dinosaur at the Blue Lias -
Our first pub of the day is technically located in Stockton and isn't part of the main festival group, but it was well worth visiting. The Blue Lias has an enviable canalside location and takes its name from the local jurassic limestone rocks, hence the presence of a dinosaur on the pub sign. A half of Old Hooky whets my appetite and then we return to Long Itchington to begin the festival proper. The Two Boats and the Cuttle Inn face each other from opposing banks of the Grand Union and each boasts a healthy selection of brews to choose from. At The Two Boats we raid the basement bar for some Union (Wood Farm Brewery), sitting inside where I wallop my head on the low door frame (twice!) and Nick makes the acquaintance of an excitable dog. Belvoir's Whippling Bitter is our tipple from the Cuttle, a light blonde brew.
- The Cuttle Inn -
Making our way into the centre of the village, our next stops are the two pubs based either end of the duckpond. Indeed, the Duck on the Pond refers directly to said landmark and was a corporate Charles Wells roadhouse where we sampled some Birds' Natural Blonde, another golden ale. Decamping to the Buck and Bell, we switch to the darker stuff with some Acorn Darkness and O'Hanlon's Port Stout whilst watching a bit of World Championship Snooker - the pub has a certain refined atmosphere and we enjoyed chatting to a couple of other festival goers, exchanging tips and opinions.
- A drop of the dark stuff in the Buck & Bell -
Four festival pubs down means there are two to go as we switch our attentions to the afore-mentioned Harvester and Green Man. I really liked the Harvester as it had a certain quirkiness allied to a real sense of tradition; here we sampled some Third Switch (a London Porter from the Aylesbury Brewery) before bravely trying one of the buffalo burgers being sold on the pub's back yard, a curious but very tasty delicacy. All of the pubs were proving very popular by now so we literally had to squeeze our way into the Green Man to resurface with half an Ironbridge Stout. Judging by the amount of people around, the festival must have surely been a storming success and we just had time to witness a bit of Morris dancing before catching our return 64, the driver of the 15:48 departure admonishing us for leaving the festival so early.
We might have waved farewell to Long Itchington but there was still plenty more fun to be had as we launched into the second half of our Warwickshire itinerary. A few minutes up the road lies Southam, a place that had intrigued me when we rode through it earlier so we decided to stop off for a closer look. Using Nick's local knowledge, we called into the Market Tavern (part of the Warwickshire Brewery portfolio; a basic no frills type of place where we enjoyed some Castle Mild) and the Olde Mint (a historic pub with Civil War connections, reputedly being the place where King Charles I minted coins after the battle of Edge Hill; there were certainly a few beams and muskets about as we supped our Purity UBU). Southam as a whole really appealed to me actually, and I relished taking photos of other local landmarks including the Bowling Green, the Black Dog, the library and the old Manor House (now the town pharmacy).
- Market Tavern, Southam -
More history awaited us as we finished the day in Kenilworth, a place Nick has a firm affection for having lived there in his younger days. The combination of the 64 and an X17 takes us in and out of Leamington, with the latter dropping us off in perfect position to visit the Wyandotte, a pub seemingly named after a Native American tribe (the pub sign depicts one such member complete with headdress). Some Burton Bitter goes down well here as we find a perch to watch a bit of the FA Cup Final, a nice solid corner local. Nick then introduces me to the Abbey Fields and St Nicholas' Church, where he apparently attempted some bell-ringing as a lad.
- The Virgins & Castle -
We emerge onto Kenilworth's old High Street, a fascinating place with some lovely townhouse architecture. The street is also home to a couple more pubs, starting with the Virgins & Castle where we seem to have stumbled upon another beer festival. This was a most unexpected bonus so we happily availed ourselves of some Bateman's Salem Porter straight from the stillages whilst trying to keep track of exactly what we'd drunk and where we'd been so far. Nipping across the road, we simply have to visit the Old Bakery, a wonderfully relaxed bar setting for half of Old Prickly (we just knew Stephen would make an appearance somewhere!)
- View from Kenilworth Castle -
It had now become a beautiful sunlit evening and arguably our greatest treat was still to come. Wandering up to the top end of the High Street, we can savour views from the mound overlooking Kenilworth Castle and the nearby Castle Green. Preparations were well underway for a re-enactment event to be held at the castle over the Bank Holiday, so we took the opportunity to have a closer peek inside whereby Nick clambered over the Elizabethan ruins with considerable gusto. The stonework of the keep looked formidable enough in the twenty-first century so we could only imagine the impact it would have had in medieval times, and I must say the restored Elizabethan Gardens looked absolutely immaculate. Fantastic!
We had one final calling point before bringing the trip to a close, so just across from the castle we found the Clarendon Arms awaiting us. This was a place with definite gastronomic aspirations so we felt a little out of place just calling in for a drink, even though our Warwickshire Bitter hit the spot nicely. With that we cross the Abbey Fields once more and complete the homeward journey with an X17 to Coventry followed by the train through to Wolverhampton. With a bit of tally totting we reckon we did fourteen halves across thirteen pubs, surely setting a new personal record in the process (drinking responsibly at all times of course), thus ensuring that our day in Long Itchington was definitely up to scratch!