- Towards the Peak District -
Rail Rover is my chance to cast the exploration net slightly further afield, so come Tuesday 23rd April I arm myself with a Heart of England ticket and dip into Derbyshire courtesy of the Derwent Valley line. This picturesque route connects Derby with Matlock, offering rugged views of river and crag - a popular journey during the school holiday it seems. Matlock itself lies within the Derbyshire Dales and is close to the Peak District, so I can admire the scenery (and try to catch my breath!) when climbing up a steepish hill to the Thorn Tree Inn high above the town centre. This pub was highly recommended by Britain Beermat earlier in the year, the Draught Bass rewarding my exertions and worth every step.
- Mosaic Moments at Belper -
Tuesday afternoon is spent in Belper, not a place I've ever stopped off at before but it soon grabs my attention with its station set in an obdurate cutting. I have a soft spot for traditional unpretentious market towns so I quickly feel at home, teasing out photos of landmarks such as the Lion Hotel, St Peter's Church and Colledges Furniture Stores. Pub-wise I'm drawn towards the Market Place area where the Nags Head has a St George's Day promotion on pints of Pedigree - £2, that'll do nicely. The Pedi also scores well in the Old Kings Head, a lovely timeless backstreet boozer that I happened across on Days Lane.
- Isis Lock -
Rail Rovering is usually a solo occupation so it is great to have some company when Wednesday 24th April heralds an Oxford outing. Nick and Ken have come along for the day and we begin with a gentle wander along the Oxford Canal, investigating Isis Lock which provides a waterways link towards the River Thames. We then exit the towpath near Jericho Wharf in order to sample the Old Bookbinders, a quirky backstreet Greene King establishment bedecked with nicknacks aplenty. Here Ken ponders the plight of print newspapers as we sample the Betty Stogs and Black Sheep ales.
- The new intake at St John's? -
Continuing into the centre of Oxford, we're keen to soak up some of the rarefied educational atmosphere of the 'City of Dreaming Spires'. A call into the Lamb & Flag thus seems highly appropriate - the pub is owned by St John's College and has a dimly-lit snug where we wonder how many fumbling romantic assignations may have taken place down the years. St John's itself is practically next door and was founded in 1555; a sharp shower cannot dampen our enthusiasm for exploring the prestigious surroundings, making sure not to tread on the lawn!
- All Souls College -
Our quest for collegiate culture takes us next to All Souls where the sun appears just in time for some pictures of the historic quadrangle architecture. Our pub tour comprises calls at the Chequers (for dirty chips of dubious delight), St Aldates Tavern (quaffing 8 Porter from the XT Brewery) and the Castle (relatively recently renovated in becoming Hook Norton's Oxford flagship). Arguably the most memorable boozer however is the Bear, a Fuller's gem on Alfred Street which hosts a remarkable collection of club ties from around the globe. Add in some crossword action on the way home and a rare Wolves victory over Arsenal, I doubt things could have gone much better!
- The Pryce Jones Warehouse -
Thursday 25th April isn't strictly speaking a Rover day as I'm using a separate ticket to venture into Wales (i.e. going beyond the bounds of Heart of England validity). Newtown in Powys is my desired destination so I travel across using the Cambrian Line via Shrewsbury, pitching up at a neat provincial station with a lattice footbridge. I'm instantly taken with the Pryce Jones Royal Welsh Warehouse, dating from 1879 and historically home to the world's first mail order catalogue company. The building is nowadays utilised as a business hub but still has a very striking presence.
- Robert Owen's Statue -
Newtown came to prominence as a centre for wool, flannels and textiles, and is also famed as the birthplace of the philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858) who has a sculpture and museum dedicated to him. I enjoy a breezy stroll beside the River Severn and make sure to sample the Sportsman, taphouse for Monty's Brewery - the Dark Secret Stout and customer service from the expert publican are both impeccable. I can't resist breaking my return journey with a pit stop at Welshpool, finding more exceptional beer at the Green Dragon on Mount Street; they only usually have one ale on at any given time but the Clun Loophole is absolute nectar!
- Kingsholm Stadium -
I resume my Heart of England remit on Friday 26th April by getting to grips with Gloucester. The city's railway station is a bit of a disappointment (think 1960s whitewashed office block) but at least the hideous former bus station has been demolished. I'm not entirely sure of my bearings so it's something of a happy accident that I stumble across Kingsholm Stadium, the headquarters of Gloucester Rugby. Naturally there are quite a few pubs in close proximity to the ground, including the White Hart, the Queens Head and the Coach & Horses.
- Gloucester Docks -
Aside from such sporting settings, Gloucester Cathedral is an unmissable principal landmark where I line up various angles from across College Green. The weather is threatening to take a turn for the worse but I simply have to examine Gloucester Docks, rain or no rain. The warehouses are a monument to the industrial age and have been repurposed for leisure and retail uses; my intended walk along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal is curtailed due to the elements so I console myself with some Six Malts Porter in TANK (the dockside tap of the Gloucester Brewery). Last but not least comes the Pelican, a Wye Valley house that is a multiple CAMRA award winner - the Aethelflaed's Ale is a perfect way on which to end a stellar few days of terrific train travel. Cheers!