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Monkeys, Mackems, and Dragons....

Hartlepool is not a place I have visited many times, and situated off the A19 at the end of the A689 as the Durham coastline gives way to the sea, it is not really on the way to anywhere. An old rumour has it that during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship sunk nearby and the only survivor was a monkey, which the crew had dressed in a French sailor's uniform. The locals, never having seen either a French sailor or a monkey, assumed it was the former and proceeded to execute it by hanging, which gave rise to the derisory nickname for the locals of 'monkey hanger', particularly used, not surprisingly, by inhabitants of neighbouring towns!

Hartlepool though is well worth a visit, having a fine industrial heritage, plenty of history, a marina, and some interesting old buildings. And, situated in a room at the town's railway station it also boasts one of the original micro pubs, the Rat Race, which opened around 2009. In the intervening period over 1,300 beers have been sold, with many of the pump clips adorning the walls and ceiling. There is no bar, so drinks are despatched from a tiny room within the main room which acts as the cellar. Beers are listed on a chalkboard, the staff come and take your order, and return a few minutes later with your beer and your change. There were 4 beers on plus a couple of ciders, and I had a very nice pint of Snowstorm from the Northallerton Brewery. The place was very friendly, and with Hartlepool FC being at home, it was rammed, the few tables were full and many of us had to stand in whatever gap we could find. I enjoyed my brief visit, and maybe it won't be that long before I make a return trip to Hartlepool....

I picked up the A19 and headed north from Hartlepool. I was going to a family do in Washington that evening, but had decided to stay over for the night a few miles away in Sunderland. I checked into the Premier Inn, and then went for a walk around for an hour. I was not far away from the Stadium of Light, the home of Sunderland AFC, and as I walked into town I passed the Empire Theatre, one of the largest in the country, where comedian and star of countless 'Carry On' films, Sid James collapsed and died on stage in 1976. Across the road was a classic town pub, the Dun Cow(a common name around these parts), formerly part of the Head of Steam group. I had a pint of Clearwater IPA from the Credence Brewery based up in Northumberland at Amble, which was very good. The Dun Cow has a wonderful dark wood and glazed interior and with 8 hand pumps, a great range of traditional beers from both old and new breweries.

I got a taxi to Washington, had a lovely evening with the family at my youngest granddaughter's naming ceremony, having caught the tail-end of my elder granddaughter's birthday party. On the way back to Sunderland, I got talking to the taxi driver about real ale and he asked if I had any plans to visit the Ship Isis, which according to him and the beer guide was a fantastic pub. I said I had, and he dropped me off there, where, it turned out, it was a mere 2 minutes walk back to the Premier Inn! The pub was warm, welcoming, and busy, with the customers having a pretty varied age range, boasted a traditional layout, and featured a healthy mix of cask and craft on the bar. I had an excellent pint of Spring Pale from Allendale, and then decided to visit one more place.

My beer-loving taxi driver had also mentioned another pub, the Kings Arms, which had also been recommended by a friend. It is situated less than 10 minutes walk away in Deptford, a little closer to the River Wear which runs through the city in a deep valley. This is a classic street corner pub, very friendly, and very busy with a mixed age profile. Whilst there were 8 hand pumps, the beer choice was a bit uninspiring, but there was no problem with the quality of the pint of Castle Rock Harvest Pale I had whilst watching 'Match of the Day'.

I enjoyed my visit to Sunderland. Whilst a lot of its traditional industries like shipbuilding have gone, there is a positive vibe running through the city with some great pubs and very friendly people, known historically as 'Mackems', a term which supposedly refers to the fact they used to make the ships. Today Nissan is the major employer in the town, but there is also a growing high-tech presence. It also has a fine brewing tradition, with family brewers Vaux having been a major regional brewery for many years until a succession of disastrous decisions and poor owners following its purchase from the family ran it into the ground. It closed in 2000, and sadly the old site still stands empty in the heart of the town, although the names of their core range of beers live on courtesy of the Maxim Brewery from nearby Houghton-le-Spring. However with Brewlab, a major provider of training courses and guidance for brewers founded by Keith Thomas, a senior lecturer in biotechnology at the University of Sunderland- who also set up Darwins Brewery - the city is helping shape the future of the brewing industry.

Heading home, I decided to make a slight detour and visit the George and Dragon at Hudswell, which has just been crowned CAMRA National Pub of the Year. It is a couple of miles south of Richmond, high above Swaledale. I left the A1 at the Scotch Corner turn-off, where at the moment there are some major roadworks, and chugged along for a few miles behind a horse box until I arrived in Richmond. A lovely market town, with a well-preserved castle, it has some amazingly steep streets on the way down to the River Swale as I was reminded on my way to Hudswell!

Hudswell is a reasonably-sized linear village, and when the only pub, the George and Dragon closed in 2008, there were no other facilities apart from the village hall. So the locals clubbed together, bought the pub, and set about making it a hub for the village. It re-opened in 2010, and is now also home to a village shop and a library. And unlike some of the supposedly 'best' pubs I have visited previously, it is warm and welcoming, relaxed and comfortable. I bought my reasonably-priced pint of Brinkburn Canny Sculler and went off to the beer garden, where there are  some fantastic views over Swaledale. As I left, the place was filling up with the Sunday lunch crowd who had come for the highly-rated food, but it still felt like a friendly country pub, not a restaurant paying lip service to beer drinkers. This is a great pub, with a real community feel, and I think, worthy winners of National Pub of the Year.

Until the next time, keep on rockin' in the free world....

The Kings Arms, Sunderland


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