Sunday July 1st 2018
July will be limited in terms of drinking in pubs. At the end of the month I am going to The Alps for some serious cycling and I really need to try and get fit. Accordingly, I need to knuckle down, put in some miles and concentrate on ascending hills to get the legs in some sort of shape.
The first day of the month fell on a Sunday so I undertook a 107.7km circuit in the boiling hot sun. This helps with some weight loss! I headed to Bewdley to cross the River Severn before climbing up to Long Bank and onwards to Clows Top. Stanford Bank was the next leg-workout before heading towards Tenbury Wells, an odd place on a Sunday as it is largely closed. One of the most impressive pub buildings is slightly out of town close to the road junction dividing the routes to Bromyard and Leominster. I believe that the 16th century timber-framed building changed hands recently and, according to online reviews, things are a bit hit-and-miss in terms of food and service. A shame because it is a nice old tavern selling Hobson's beer. In the old days you simply had to sell decent beer and everybody loved your pub. Nowadays, punters rate the place on whether the peas were the right consistency. Plus, they all pile onto web review sites to tell everybody how rubbish their chips were and then post photographs of the plates. It's tough being a publican in the modern age.
The price of visiting Tenbury Wells is the climb up to Clee Hill with no tree cover to hide from the baking sun. There are easier routes but when one is aiming to improve fitness one simply has to face a sufferfest to see the roaming sheep. The 30 degree heat ensured that the sweat running off the peak of my cap was akin to water from a leaking downpipe. Over the ride I climbed 6165ft so, considering the heat and elevation, I was reasonably happy to come home with an average speed of 24.2kph. Could be better but could be worse. When I cleaned and prepared the bike for another ride I noticed that the rear right brake pad was rubbing against the rim and needed realigning and tightening - bugger, I could have gone quicker after all.
Thursday July 5th 2018
The warm summer evenings with extended light opens up more opportunities to visit a pub on your bike. One of the most popular destinations in the southern part of the Black Country is The Anchor at Caunsall. The pub's slogan is "well-known locally for well-filled cobs,"
The Anchor has a simple formula for success ... well-kept beer and cider which can be supped whilst chewing on a cob. They seemingly sell more cobs than a bakery here because the Caunsall boozer is always packed. We have been here plenty of times when it is simply impossible to find a seat! The Anchor has been run by the same family since 1927. The pub's owners, Pete and Jeanette Green, are newbies however as they have only run the place since 1972! I guess the one thing that everybody fears is the day that they decide to hang up the bar towel for the final time. So, if you haven't patronised this pub, don't leave it too late. As you can see, I have quaffed the Three Tuns XXX which is always great. Beers from Hobson's and Wye Valley are also served here.
Sunday July 29th 2018
Time is up. If the fitness programme has failed it is too late for worrying as today is the day to head to The Alps. The Eurostar train to Lyons departs from St. Pancras International at blip o'clock on Monday mornings so this means a Sunday night in London. I headed to the capital at midday in order to squeeze in a few activities during the afternoon. I headed towards Trafalgar Square to catch the Men's Classic race of the Prudential RideLondon event. I managed to nab a good spot at the top of Whitehall for the final bend through Admiralty Arch. However, despite some big names such as Elia Viviani, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, the event was a bit of a damp squib. Pascal Ackermann of Bora-Hansgrohe won the bunch sprint though I felt I may have been better off back in the hotel watching Geraint Thomas on the podium in Paris. Having watched G throughout his career, I had some tears when he secured victory in the final time trial at Espelette in the French Basque Country.
I didn't fancy traipsing around London so headed back to King's Cross to hook up with my fellow travelling companions at Mildred's on Pentonville Road. This was my first experience of the growing veggie empire founded in Soho by Diane Thomas and Jane Muir way back in 1988. In the past I have generally relied on street food at Camden Market, Brick Lane or, indeed, the much-missed Beatroot Vegetarian Café in Berwick Street. I really like the relaxed vibe inside this branch and the customer service was excellent. Prices are pretty good too - around £12 for a main course which isn't bad for London. The dish featuring Caribbean Jerk Tofu, Guava Glazed, Coconut Rice and Peas, Mango Slaw, Hemp Seeds, Avocado and Fried Plantain was more than enough but my friends made me order a dessert on the basis that we would burn off the calories in The Alps, a doctrine they rigidly adhered to throughout our cycling holiday! By the way, I actually put on weight over the week-long uphill pedalling action. My carnivore peloton also warmly approved of Mildred's which is testament to the tasty meals on offer at a place I can heartily recommend.
From Mildred's it is only a short walk down towards King's Cross railway station and right into Caledonian Road for the Scottish Stores, a tavern with a Grade-II listed interior designed by the architects Oswald Wylson and Charles Long and completed in 1901. This date can be seen in a carved wood cartouche on the servery and forms part of an eclectic mix of wooden panelling within the building. The partners were renowned for theatre buildings but were seemigly instructed to deploy some dramatic allure to this structure.
According to the pub's website, the original boozer on this site took its name from the tradition of haunches of venison hung from the bar which were brought in and sold to local restaurants and businesses by visiting Scots traders. This is possible but it is more likely that the old tavern, a basic ale, porter and wine stores, was simply named after the road on which it stood. Formerly known as Chalk Road, the road was renamed in the mid-19th century after the Royal Caledonian Asylum, an institution that cared for "the children of soldiers, sailors and mariners, natives of Scotland, who have died or been disabled in the service of their country; and the children of indigent Scotch parents residing in London, not entitled to parochial relief."
Clearly there was a strong Scottish relationship as the boozer was close to the railway station connecting London with the north. However, in the 20th century there was a deep-rooted Irish community living on or close to the road known as The Cally. The Irish affiliation was further cemented when Shane MacGowan allegedly composed "A Pair of Brown Eyes" in the pub that changed its name to the Flying Scotsman. By this time the patrons of what became a popular strip joint sought prostitutes or a good punch-up - or both.
Following an extensive refurbishment, the pub re-opened under its former sign in 2015. Billed as a Craft & Cask Ale Specialist and listed on CAMRA's What Pub website as having eight handpulls, I was disappointed with the beer choice in here. As far as I could see there were only three cask ales on offer. Not to worry there was a pump clip for the Bethnal Green-based Three Sods Brewery. Great, we'll have three of that. "It's gone mate." WTF, the other beer is not so interesting. Indeed, they weren't. On the plus side, the bloke behind the bar was congenial and the interior is quite lovely. It was Sunday evening so perhaps they do not crack open casks until the busier trading periods. All in all, a bit frustrating in terms of beer choice but an excellent pub interior well worth appreciating in all its glory.
From the Scottish Stores we walked the short distance to Acton Street to visit the Queen's Head. The frontage is pleasing enough but they have dabbled with the ground floor and, consequently, it does not have the grandeur of the building when operated by Charrington's. Certainly trading in the 1840's, the pub, as its name suggests, is probably Victorian but the building dates back to the 1760's. The ground floor frontage with bow window was almost certainly a late Victorian insertion.
Today, the interior has one large room rather than the original floor plan. However, a glance at the floor pattern and ceiling joists provide an easily identifiable former layout. The Queen's Head still retains a pleasing ambience with its rickety furniture and old piano. The latter is not simply for decoration and is used regularly to bang out some classics. Live jazz is another feature here, along with other events. We were sat at a table where I noticed a tiled turquoise dado, possibly from a late 19th century refurbishment, along with a tiled cornice frieze.
Pub games are still played in the Queen's Head, a pub specialising in cheese and cider. Indeed, the place won the CAMRA London Regional Cider Pub of the Year Award in 2013 and 2016. A large array of pump clips suggests a busy rotation of cask ale on three handpulls. As I was drinking with two men from Yorkshire, I ordered three glasses of beer from the Saltaire Brewery. Their ales are normally great but here they were as flat as the cycling landscape of Lincolnshire. A great pity as this was a pub I wanted to fall in love with. I will try again in the future when hopefully a fresher cask will be on sale.
UPDATE FOR THIS PUB
I returned to the Queen's Head much sooner than I imagined as I was back in the locality in September 2018. And, after this second visit, I now declare this boozer as THE WORST PUB IN LONDON. We wandered in during a tour of the pubs around Euston and the handpulls featured another beer from the Saltaire Brewery which, to be fair, was very nice. However, things went seriously downhill when I ordered a previously untried beer, Lady Liberty, an American Pale Ale made by the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery. The young woman behind the servery asked if I would like a taste but I declined as I tend not to ponce about with snifters in fear of looking like a complete moron. I have seen some idiots holding up a busy bar by asking for tasters of almost everything on sale. I mean, F.F.S., these hand-jobs should simply ask for a flight of third pint glasses and get on with it. So, I said that wouldn't be necessary I will just have a half to give it a whirl. Besides, I was confident that I would like this beer as I have been impressed by the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery, a company that has won the Champion Beer of Wales accolade in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Rob Maddison, the brewer at VOG, would have been horrified by what this pub was dispensing on the brewery's behalf. Utterly rank, this was close on vinegar. Now, I DO NOT like to make a fuss at the bar but I simply had to tell the young woman that this was bad beer and quite undrinkable. She replied that, because she had offered a sample, she could not replace it with another drink. I was rather taken aback and said that a sample was simply to see if a style of beer was to a customer's taste and NOT a quality control or health and safety check! She then gave the glass to a young man who was seemingly in charge of the pub that evening. He just about looked as though he was old enough to drink. I am confident that his knowledge of real ale is hovering just above zero because, to our amazement, he took a tiny sip and stated that this is how it should taste because it is an American Pale Ale. I suggested to him that he should walk a short distance to the Scottish Stores where they were also selling an American Pale Ale and see how such a beer should taste. He refused to replace the beer and was adamant that it should taste rather sour! Any sensible person working behind a bar would simply replace a half pint as it is not worth the hassle but, no, the staff here dug their heels in and would not budge. We were frustrated, affronted and simply annoyed by their dogma. In all my years of drinking in pubs, and that is a very long time, I have never been treated like this anywhere. And this was inside a pub that is listed in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. So, after long consideration, I am reiterating my declaration that the Queen's Head is THE WORST PUB IN LONDON.
Monday July 30th 2018
The journey to The Alps went very smoothly and without hiccup. Travelling at speeds of around 300kph, the Eurostar arrives at Lyon in no time at all. It was a very comfortable regional train to Grenoble from where we had a short journey to our base at Le Bourg-d'Oisans.
My stay at La Clé des Bois was very comfortable and enjoyable. This is a perfect base for cycling with several iconic climbs within easy reach. Moreover, the accommodation provided by Peter and Marie includes, living room, garden, bike parking in a garage, washing machine, sauna, hot tub and jacuzzi. The excellent breakfast is a communal experience during which you get to chat with fellow cyclists from around Europe which is an opportunity to make new friends. At the end of the day's ride it was really good to sit in the hot tub in the garden and gaze at the mountains whilst enjoying the jacuzzi. Peter is a dab hand in the kitchen and offers dinner on selected evenings. This is worth considering, particularly if you are a veggie like me, because the restaurants in Le Bourg-d'Oisans offer little excitement in terms of non-meat dishes. Another surprise is the number of pizza offerings in the town. Rice and pasta, the staple for many cyclists, is not widely available in what is a cycling town during the summer.
Tuesday July 31st 2018
Our first day in the mountains was a route taking in the iconic L'Alpe d'Huez, the zig-zag road that has featured on many editions of Le Tour de France since its introduction in 1952 when the Italian rider Fausto Coppi won the stage.
In his guide to the climbs of the Tour de France, climbing guru Simon Warren states that "It's not the longest, not the steepist, and certainly not the hardest, but Alpe d'Huez is THE mountain all cyclists want to climb. I had ridden up a couple of years ago but my three riding companions were making their debut on the slope. One went off in pursuit of Strava glory but three of us [above] rode up together on a social ride chatting along the way. This is a great way to really enjoy the climb, taking in the views and noticing everything going on around. We had however agreed to ride up without stopping, opting to take photographs during the descent.
Our climb was undertaken in very warm conditions. With the temperature hovering around 32 degrees, it was essential to measure hydration so that one did not run out of water on the climb but gauge it so that two bidons lasted to the finish line. I perspire quite a lot so this can be a tricky task if not wanting to stop for re-supplies. A strategy around this is to carry an extra bottle of water in the back pocket and, when empty, pass it to a tourist whilst asking them to dispose of it responsibly on your behalf. Most people are happy to help during your effort and a small crowd on Bend 7 gave great encouragement to us as we pedalled by. I waved in appreciation and they responded with further applause and cheers.
The climb to the official finish line is 13.8km with an average gradient of 8.1% so it isn't too painful. If you wish to post a fast time then it is best to wait until the end of the day when the traffic calms down. Construction of hotels and chalets at the ski resort seems to be an ongoing project so it is possible that lorries laden with building materials will be chugging through the 21 hairpin bends.
The tour peloton had ridden up Alpe d'Huez a fortnight earlier so the tarmac was covered in fresh paint with messages of support for the likes of Romain Bardet, Adam Yates, Jakob Fuglsang, Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin and, as can seen above, Dan Martin, the Irish rider who had an eventful tour with crashes and a stage win. The finish at Alpe d'Huez in 2018 was won by eventual tour winner Geraint Thomas who became the first rider to win the Alps d'Huez stage while wearing the leader's yellow jersey. His brilliance means that he'll never have to buy another beer in Wales throughout the rest of his lifetime.
I couldn't persuade my cycling friends to venture inside the remarkable Notre-Dame des Neiges [Our Lady of the Snows], a church built in the late 1960s largely through the efforts of the parish priest Father Jaap Reuten. I spent some time inside in 2015 and have posted the above photograph from that visit. The funding and impetus for the project was helped by the Winter Olympic Games of 1968, though the structure was not completed until 1970. Designed by Jean Marol and decorated with colourful stained-glass windows by Jean-Marie Pirot, the structure is supposed to appear like a church-shaped tent but, to me at least, the roofline conjures up images of a ski-jump ramp. The interior of the church is uplifting. Designed by composer Jean Guillou and the German organ builder Detlef Kleuker, the central pipe organ is quite unique and takes the form of a hand drawn up towards the sky.
Following a pleasant lunch at the Artisan Boulanger Patissier at Place Joseph Paganon, we rolled back down Alpe d'Huez, stopping to take photographs en-route. WARNING : Be careful when selecting the wash cycle when using the washing machine at your accommodation - select the wrong programme and you could end up shrinking your kit. Either that or I need a bigger bike frame! I am not sure if this, along with other giant bikes on Alpe d'Huez, are the work of Didi Senft, a crazy German bike fan and inventor who is also known to cycling fans as The Devil.
We left Alpe d'Huez at the ancient village of La Garde-en-Oisans in order to follow the magical road known as Les Balcons D'Auris, otherwise called Route de la Roche, a spectacular road cut into the side of the mountain. It is no exaggeration to call this a vertiginous road because the drop over the side is close to vertical and it is hard to imagine anybody surviving a fall over the side of the road. The reward for riding along here however is the magnificent views of the plain and La Romanche. The descent to Mairie d'Auris is great fun and then it is a largely gentle downhill ride all the way back to Le Bourg-d'Oisans. This circuit makes for an excellent introductory ride in this region and affords the luxury of not being so tiring as to spoil the next day's adventures.