Friday, 1 May 2009

Bath’s best pub beer gardens

It is an official sanctioned bank holiday, the Met Office has promised a sunny summer and we live in a nation where the ‘retail experience’ passes for high culture and our national pastime is panicking about the forthcoming aporkalypse. So what is there left to do for those of us whose spare time hangs heavily like a whore’s guilt? Get drunk, obviously, but with the twist of getting drunk outside.

But where to can you go to enjoy the cool breeze against your skin and the cold sting of real ale against your liver? Because while Bath is a beautiful city with its narrow cobbled streets, widescreen Georgian vistas and even wider tourists, the choice of beer gardens is still distinctly small.

Most of Bath’s great pubs are what could euphemistically be called ‘winter pubs’. From the dark wood dominated Star and the gloomy Salamander to the almost windowless Old Green Tree, they only make sense as a retreat from the outside world, not a place to embrace it.

Instead to find a good pint and a beer garden in Bath you need to do something the tourist never do and most of the locals will rarely attempt – to leave the city centre.

The Hop Pole
Hidden between the greenery of Victoria park and the equally green River Avon, this Bath Ale pub’s secluded beer garden is far and away the best in the city. The problem is that most of the other residents know that too.

Instead of being a converted car park or adjunct to a busy junction, it is a designed and planted blend of greenery and gravel. Pergolas and flowering climbers contort with patio heaters and wrought iron furniture to persuade that it you are in the formal garden of a country house, and that a jelly in Laura Ashley is about to approach you about the wellbeing of her Tricky Woo.

Except that your peace and quiet has as much chance of remaining unbroken as a Frenchman's wedding vows because its swing and slide proximity means that The Hop Pole is where parents drag their beloved for regular Nutrasweet re-ups.

And what a delight it is to see Jocaster and Lexmark, kids whose free-spirited nature sorely needs a few boundaries imposing primarily through the medium of a clenched fist. However, you can mostly ignore them since the beer is good, if predictable, and the food is decent, if pricey.

The Royal Oak
It might only be the other side of the bridge from The Hop Pole but The Royal Oak is a world away from its sedate seclusion. For this is a pub for drinking in, not really using the toilet in or eating in. But while it’s rougher around the edges, with bench seating and the odd weed poking between the paving stones; it’s also far more innovative and interesting.

Here the ten beers on offer are all from SIBA breweries, ensuring a selection of some of the most exciting and strange ales from around Britain, along with Budvar light and dark and four local ciders. It’s also home to the fledgling Art Brew of North Chideock in Devon.

Despite the garden being only a fence’s thickness from a busy road where Novas with neons drown in seismic bass, it still manages to be quiet - primarily because the pub remains mostly child-free. That isn’t because this slightly scruffy freehouse isn’t nipper-friendly, more because it is a less pretentious pub created, for and by, people who love beer.

The White Hart
Instead of a thousand words, here is a picture and they are meant to be interchangeable after all - unless you attempt that substitution during an A-Level English exam. It is one of the pub's own pictures too, with all their rights reserved and such.

Like the rest of Widcombe this former locals’ pub has been scrubbed and bleached to fit into a street newly filled with Aga shops, piano merchants and an organic-coffee house. And it is solid and pleasant, much like the Butcombe they serve.

The Bell
If The Royal Oak is worn, The Bell has spent most of its harrowing life stuffing purloined cans of White Ace into its string-supported trousers. Favoured by multi-coloured bowler mad-hatter drinking Westons Organic, its narrow collection of benches attracts all social classes from street drinkers to upper-middle class trustafarians playing at being street drinkers.

The beer is as varied as the conditions it is kept it. Otter, Gem and Pitchfork are among the seven regulars but everything from the green Sign Of Spring to Spingo have appeared alongside a good selection of very strong Belgian bottles.

Everything about this pub is bohemian, so if you are looking to get served quickly the best way is to strike up a decade long friendship with the staff before attempting to order.

Coeur De Lion
With no greenery, no space and no actual garden, the Coeur De Lion’s strip of pavement probably doesn’t tick many of the boxes you might look for in outdoor drinking. But if you can get one of the eight or so seats on offer it can be a wonderful place to spend an evening.

For with this tiny pub, concealed just metres from both the Guildhall and the Abbey, you get all the benefit of the glorious architecture of the city centre - and views of the stained glass front window - all in a location that many residents still struggle to find. And if all the seats are taken, try the almost as diminutive Volunteer Rifleman’s Arms for a similar effect.

Anyway it is probably better to spend your time outside as this one-room pub, as it is far too small to actually go in, except to order from one of the well kept Abbey ales.

The Rest
With its position beneath the historic Pultney Bridge and next to their weir, The Boater almost has one of the best locations in Bath. However neither are actually visible from its endless rows of tree-shaded tables populated either by rugby thugs or the underage. Like The Boater, The Crystal Palace uses its tourist-trap position and walled garden to entice but its over-priced and often ‘creamy’ beers should repel. For a much better pint try the The Pig And Fiddle but be prepared to drink it sat in the warm backdraft of traffic and the splash-range of warm vomit.