"Haring for the Hartley's"
After over 30 years of travelling to search out interesting beer and visiting more bars, brewpubs and other licensed (or not...) premises than I can remember, I now look back and smile about some of them and cringe about others; some conjure memories for things apart from beer whilst others were so unmemorable I only recall visiting when I nostalgically go through old photos on the PC or happen upon an entry in my beer database.
So, here's another extract from my years of "beer hunting"; I've visited 5 continents, over 40 countries and countless cities in pursuit of great beer and have tasted almost 30,000 unique beers, but there's plenty more to go and I'm not stopping just yet!
It was early in my beer hunting career that I realised breweries were subject to takeover and closure when Robinsons of Stockport announced they were to close the Hartley's brewery in Ulverston which they’d bought in 1982. Hartley's were famous for their “beers from the wood”; the majority of their production was dispatched to the trade in oak casks and didn’t travel too far so, to catch it in peak condition, a trip to Ulverston was required, and quickly before it was too late and the beers vanished forever. Consequently September 1991, just a few months before the big wooden brewery gates were due to close for the last time, sees me on a train bound for the lake district knowing that this would be my one and only chance to drink these rare brews.
I was well up for a few beers before I reached Ulverston, just to get me in the mood, and the old traditional brewery of Mitchell's in Lancaster - where I conveniently had to change trains - sounded just the ticket to get the day underway. I’d visited Lancaster previously and so knew the rough lie of the land, hence I walked into the Slip Inn bang on opening time. Two beers were available so Mitchell's Best Bitter and Fortress were duly imbibed; the day was off to a good start! Heading back to the station for my train to Ulverston, I had time for a very quick half in the Three Mariners where I was presented with a beer which is one of those which, had I the powers of some supreme deity, I’d not hesitate to bring back without a thought of upsetting the future of the earth; the gorgeously nutty, toasty and sadly missed brew which was Mitchell’s Dark Mild.
The delicious mild added another notch to the day’s tally, but it was Hartley’s beer I’d come all this way for and so boarded a rattling old train for the short trundle along the coast to Ulverston. Half an hour later, with no gen to speak of except what was in my Good beer Guide, I was on the mean streets of Ulverston and heading for my first Hartley's pub. As an aside here, it’s difficult to believe that times existed when you couldn’t just fire up the internet on your phone and draw down street maps of anywhere in the world and then Google for a list of possibly decent pubs to visit; no, in those days the Good beer guide, and pre-trip planning, was the law!
My first call was the first Hartley's pub I encountered on my trudge into town from the station, the Globe, a squat whitewashed building looking very much like a child's drawing of a house. I wasn't sure what to expect, knowing that the brewery only produced four beers, but it certainly wasn't a solitary handpump dispensing XB; secretly I'd been hoping for the first pub to have all 4 beers on, bish-bosh, job done within 30 minutes! Ah well, that was my Hartley’s account off the mark and I supped the deep amber brew with it's malt and oak tastes, noticing the nutty and sweet flavours that the oak cask had imbued the beer with.
Even at the young age of 21 it was dawning on me, as I stood at the bar and drank my beer, that I was a witness to the passing of an age where local breweries supplied beers to a small clutch of pubs around the brewery town. Continuing into the town centre, I had a look in the next Hartley’s pub I encountered... and the next, and the next... all sold only XB and I was beginning to wonder where the ordinary mild and bitter and Fellrunners were sold, and even if they still existed! Next up was the Hope and Anchor so I decided on another half of the pleasant - if a little repetitive by this point - XB and casually asked the landlord where I could locate the standard mild and bitter.
“You tried t’brewery tap?” he asked, in broad Lakeland.
“No, not yet” I replied, “Where’s that, then?”
“Union Inn, just by’t brewery, along the way” came his reply. “If they’re not in there then ah’ve no idea where you’ll find ‘em” he concluded.
Ten minutes later I’d located the Union Inn which was opposite the surprisingly small brewery with it’s impressive brick chimney. Inside was an oasis of calm and quiet, but what put a smile on my face were the handpumps serving the magical combination of Hartley’s mild and bitter (plus the ubiquitous XB); result, three down and one to go! The bitter was very delicate and woody, whilst the mild may even edge out Mitchell’s as one of the finest examples of mild I've ever - and probably will ever - drink; wooden casks seem to add that extra dab of magic which mild needs in order to shine, and this didn’t just shine it positively gleamed with a fragile, woody nuttiness.
As I supped these two delicious ales I reflected on styles of beer and regional variations; this trip to the lakes was opening my eyes to how diverse beers from different regions could be. Previously I’d never really given the subject much thought but, as I stood by the bar of the Union Inn with a pint of mild in my hand, my youthful brain began to form beery theories and opinions which I like to think aren’t that much different from those I hold now, although I now have the added bonus of an extra 30 years drinking - and travelling - experience to back them up, and the beer scene of pretty much every country has changed for the better!
So, with three of my four Hartley’s beers sampled, I asked the amiable landlord where I could find the final elusive one, Fellrunners, which I'd had not a whiff of thus far.
He laughed loudly, and shook his head; that wasn’t a good omen.
“Fellrunners?” he guffawed, shaking his head at the naivety of such a question.
“You’ll be bloody lucky, lad!" he continued, "It’s only sold in a couple o’pubs up in’tlakes” he continued with what seemed to me to be a unnecessary amount of schadenfreude.
"Ah think it's some keg beer they stick into cask, but I dunno, ne'er even tried it me'sen!" he concluded, with a final shake of his head.
My spirits sank; this was my one and only chance to get the beer, but now it may as well be on the moon as twenty miles up in the undulating hills which I’d seen from the train just a few hours ago... ah well I thought, three out of four wasn't bad, and the mild in particular had been stunningly good, so I reconciled my disappointment at not completing the full set with swigs from my pint of superb mild.
Suddenly, the landlord remembered some nugget of information he’d neglected to tell me.
“Eh, I'll tell you where else you’ll get it” he proclaimed, “Black Horse in Preston; it’s a Robbies’ pub in’t centre of town”.
My mood immediately brightened; this was an unexpected lifeline! I knew I could easily stop off at Preston on my way home and a quick time check confirmed that the day was still young so, indulging in the spirit of the moment with beers which would cease to exist in a couple of months' time, I had another pint of both ales… it would be my last chance, and they were both stunning examples of what is now an extinct part of British beer culture: low-gravity mild and bitter beers brewed for the immediate area around the brewery and sent out in wooden casks. As with a time before the internet on your phone, this now seems a very long time ago, a different world even.
My drinking in Ulverston at an end, I thanked the landlord for his help and trudged off towards the station for the next train to Lancaster where I could change for a Preston-bound service in order, I hoped, to sample my final Hartley’s beer. It all seemed so easy; I’d get off at Preston, find a map to locate the pub (that seems comical to imagine 30 years later!), stroll along to it where the beer would be pouring from the handpump in perfect condition. I’d drink a pint to celebrate having all my Hartley’s beers, then I’d walk back to the station for a train home; what could possibly go wrong?
As the train left Preston I noticed the carriage lights suddenly come on; there were no tunnels en-route, so why – at four o’clock in the afternoon in September – had that happened? The answer came within seconds as the sky turned an industrial shade of black and huge raindrops began slapping into the window: great, I thought, I was off for a walk around a town I didn’t know in the middle of a downpour! I readied my flimsy portable umbrella and decided I’d just have to take whatever the skies - literally - threw at me… after all, this was my one and only chance at sampling Fellrunners and I wasn't going to let a bit of rain stop me!
By the time my train reached Preston the rain had transitioned into a steady downpour and so, with my trusty umbrella in hand, I set off into the raging torrent which passed for a road towards the siren-like call of my final Hartley’s beer. Back in those days Preston didn’t have many decent pubs and there weren't even that many micro breweries around, 1991 being in the middle of the lean micro-brewery drought from 1988 to 1993, so it was Black Horse or bust. Gastons, the town’s only free house, was closed as I squelched past and, anyway, the Little Avenham brewery there wouldn’t exist for another six months which, in itself, now sounds bizarre as it's been closed for 24 years!
Through the torrent I sloshed, the rain gleefully finding its way into my shoes and down my neck, towards my oasis-like target of the Black Horse. Imagine then, given the monsoon conditions, my reaction when I finally reached the pub to find it in darkness with the door bolted; afternoon closing, I’d not considered that, and it was still only twenty past four! I now faced a stark choice: stay and wait for the pub to open and have my final Hartley’s beer, or cut my losses, accept the fates were against me, and get the next train home. You may think this is what’s nowadays termed a “no-brainer” but, as I stood outside the locked door with only a flimsy umbrella and porch roof for shelter from the full fury of the wind and driving rain, the latter option suddenly seemed very appealing!
After evaluating the options, and checking the opening time, I soon came to my senses; there was no point in getting even more sodden traipsing back to the station with nothing accomplished when I could shelter under the pub’s porch - and my lamentably permeable umbrella - for half an hour until the pub opened and, anyway, this was my one and only chance to try Fellrunners! I pressed my dripping face against the glass and saw - with a surge of relief - a Fellrunners pumpclip adorning one of the handpulls and, delirious with rain madness, it was as if I could almost hear it entreating me not to give up…”If Hillary and Tenzing had given up at the Hillary step they’d not have climbed Everest” whispered the pumpclip, and I agreed with it; if they could put up with frostbite and lack of oxygen for the cause then I was confident that a young lad of 21 such as myself could survive a bit of rain…
Half an hour later, this train of thought rang very hollow as I shivered in the pouring rain under the pub’s tiny porch roof and my inadequate umbrella (which I'd found on a train in London a few years back and was clearly intended for soft southern drizzle but totally unsuited to proper Northern rain); what the hell was I doing here, getting soaked to the skin, when I could easily have come back next week, I lamented to myself?... Convinced that hypothermia was setting in I huddled myself closer into the doorway in an attempt to avoid the worst of the lashing torrent which still hurled itself in my direction, whilst my watch seemed to have slowed to a crawl or, maybe, even gone into reverse…
All of a sudden the pub’s lights blazed, a key rattled in the lock and the door swung open. The landlord's eyebrows raised; he obviously wasn’t used to opening the door to a queue, never mind a sodden beer enthusiast, but he graciously offered me a bartowel to dry myself as he busied himself with pulling the beers through. For one stomach-churning second I thought I was to be denied the Fellrunners as it spluttered and spat it’s way from the pump, but the flow soon settled down into a gleaming jet of amber as it filled my glass with one of the hardest-won pints I’ve ever had.
So, eventually, I was stood at the bar - dripping rainwater onto the carpet - with my final Hartley’s beer in my hand, and you may legitimately ask whether my biblical soaking was worth it? If you consider the satisfaction in drinking all the beers from a brewery in one day, then definitely yes, if you consider the soaking I’d endured to have this last beer then perhaps not... "Mellow and malty" say my tasting notes, damning with faint praise, which puts it firmly in last place of the four Hartley’s beers I sampled that day with the mild firmly in top place... but that wasn't the point!
Very few beer tickers I know had Fellrunners, the rarest of the four Hartley’s beers, and so - looking back 30 years - I’m very happy that I persevered outside the Black Horse in the pouring rain for half an hour to get it and therefore complete the "full set"… so yes, for the rareness value alone, it was very worth it and it turned out I was just in time with the final brew at Hartley's being done on the 8th November, a mere 6 weeks after my visit. The Globe remains a pub, but the Union is closed and the brewery, a mere 30 years after closure, is only now to be redeveloped as housing.
And yes, I did come down with a raging cold from my soaking, but again, it was worth it…