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Northern Lights Shine Bright....

I'd been driving for about an hour and a half, and decided I needed a pit stop. I'd spotted a Beer Guide pub in the village of Piercebridge, just off the A1 a few miles west of Darlington, and based on the write-up, it sounded pretty decent.

Unfortunately though, it turned out to be very much food-orientated, with an atmosphere not really conducive to calling in for a quick drink. Nonetheless there were 4 handpumps, which seemed to be supporting small breweries, including a beer from the local Mithril Brewery from Aldborough St John, which was pleasant. Piercebridge itself turned out to be quite an interesting place. It was originally a Roman town, and there are still the remains of a bridge and fort from those times which are worth checking out. The village's other pub, the George, is a rambling old roadside hotel. It was much more welcoming and I enjoyed another half of Mithril in the lovely beer garden alongside the river. The George's main claim to fame is that an old clock that used to be there was the inspiration for the song 'Grandfather's Clock', and there is a plaque by the main entrance that explains the story. So once again, I was reminded that there are so many interesting places with their own stories throughout the country waiting to be discovered.

I was staying in Newcastle overnight, and so duly got checked in and got the car and bag dropped off. I had decided to head over towards Byker, just down the river to try out a cluster of highly-regarded pubs that I hadn't been to before. Byker straddles the Ouseburn Valley, which has seen something of a revival recently as the old mills and workshops have taken on new uses as art venues and creative spaces. The first pub I got to, after around 20 minutes walk from the Quayside, was one example of this. This was The Cluny, housed in part of an old warehouse, which has become well known as a music venue as well as a modern-style pub with cutting-edge beers and New Orleans-themed soul food. I loved the atmosphere, live music was playing, and enjoyed some good beer from Almasty from Shiremoor, which I used to wash down a burger and fries. Across the way is another pub, The Ship, underneath a viaduct, and beyond are more bridges, this being another area where life in the city takes place on several levels. I didn't visit The Ship, instead I went down a path to the side of The Cluny, crossed a bridge over the Ouseburn Beck, and then headed up a cobbled path through a small wood. I could hear music and laughter, and it soon became apparent this was The Cumberland Arms, the second pub on my list.

It turned out there was a beer festival on, with live music playing outside to a large and appreciative crowd. There was a beer stall outside, with several more beers on inside this  historic gem. It seemed that a lot of the beers had gone, but I did manage to try a collaboration between Bad Seed and Northern Alchemy, whose brewery is based in a graffiti-covered container behind the pub. Very nice it was too. I liked this pub, there was a good atmosphere, and if you want to stop over they do have a number of rooms allowing them to provide bed and breakfast.

From the Cumberland, it was less than 10 minutes walk down the hill to my next port of call, The Free Trade Tavern. This classic triangular street-corner pub sits in a prominent position with excellent views over the River Tyne back towards the city, and with it being a lovely evening, it was a good place to watch the sunset. The pub is traditional in layout, with an area to the left of the bar as you walk in, with a further area in front and stretching beyond the bar. The beer choice, though was bang up to date, many on offer reflecting the rising stars of the local brewing scene, such as Tynebank, Errant, and Box Social. Again, another great pub, and I will definitely be heading back to Byker.

I walked back down the steps to the Quayside and headed towards the Crown Posada. I couldn't help thinking there was a lot of seagulls about, and it turns out that in the summer months kittiwakes nest on the High Level Bridge and immediate surroundings. This is amazing as unlike many other species of gull, kittiwakes are not scavengers, but real seafarers, only eating fish and other marine life, and this noisy colony is the furtherest inland of any in the world! Round the corner, the Crown was not too busy, I had time for a couple of excellent pints of Pennine Pale from Allendale. I picked up a copy of the local pub magazine, 'Cheers'. Now if you haven't seen it before, it is a free quality read produced 10 times a year and focuses on beer and pubs across the North East, but it is not a CAMRA publication. It provides an excellent insight into what's going on, and it is a shame similar magazines don't seem to exist elsewhere.

Once again, an evening in Newcastle didn't disappoint. I visited 4 excellent pubs, all different, 3 for the first time. There is a positive energy about the place, and it is right up there with Manchester as my favourite city to visit.

The following morning, after a wander around the toon and breakfast, I headed north on the A1 in to Northumberland. It was a glorious sunny day and by the time I arrived on the coast, there were plenty of cars parked on the approaches to Low Newton-by-the-Sea. I managed to find a spot in the tiny car park and walked the 50 yards or so down to the village. Now it is a lovely spot, consisting of a low whitewashed cottages grouped over a green looking out to the beach. In the corner is a pub, The Ship, which since 2008 has had its own brewery. When I first visited 20-odd years ago, its opening hours were limited, but nowadays it opens all day, every day, to cope with the increased demand. I queued for a pint and spotted that Plumhall (Michelle Plum and Nick Hall) are appearing on August 6th. So if you're in the area, why not check out some quality music? I ordered a pint of  blonde 4.4% Indian Summer brewed on site and went outside. The tables were busy and many more were sat on the green, but I spotted a free chair and sat down to enjoy my beer and the view over the sea.

I enjoyed my pint, but it was too busy, so I went for a walk on the headland overlooking the lovely bay, before going back to the car and moving on to High Newton-by-the-Sea. Here is located the Joiners Arms, which I'd never visited before, but decided to give it a try. It is a hotel, it is clearly successful with food, but for someone who just wanted a half of beer I was made to feel very welcome! And the beer I had was very good, from the excellent Anarchy Brewing in Morpeth, a house ale named after the local parish church, St Mary's, a 4.1% blonde with more than a passing resemblance to their Blonde Star. Well worth a visit, with friendly, welcoming staff.

I was staying at the Victoria Hotel in Bamburgh, just up the road from the magnificent castle, so I headed up to check in, dump the car, and get changed. At one time the Victoria had a lovely pub-like back bar, with several real ales on, including the long-gone Longstone Bitter from nearby Belford, but it has since been refurbished with the result being the back bar went. Real ale is still available in Baileys Brasserie, but it consisted of 2 disappointing options, Black Sheep Bitter, and Village Copper from the VIP Brewery in Alnwick. I tried the VIP with it being from a small local brewery, but sorry, it was nothing special. Other than that, the hotel was a great place to stay with friendly staff, nice facilities, and a good breakfast, all at a reasonable rate. Down the road the Castle Hotel, or 'Middle' as it is known round these parts, still retained a pubby feel despite its focus on food. They sold a couple of beers from the Alnwick Brewery. Whilst they don't brew themselves and contract it out to Daleside and Cumberland, I did enjoy the Alnwick Gold, though whoever is responsible I don't know!

I checked out the bus timetable and found there was a service that en route between Berwick and Newcastle stopped at Bamburgh, Seahouses, and various other places. So I decided to head down to Seahouses for fish and chips and a beer. Seahouses, the nearest thing for miles around that resembles anything like a typical  seaside resort with arcade games, fish restaurants, and gift shops, is home to the wonderful Olde Ship Inn. I have been in here countless times over the years, and after a gap of several years, it was reassuring to go into the bar and see that virtually nothing had changed. The maritime paraphernalia, brasses and knots in profusion, still decorated the walls and ceilings, the figureheads, the model of the SS Forfarshire, and the old photographs of fishermen long gone welcomed me in. This place is a must-visit. Yes, they definitely make the most out of their location, but this busy pub and hotel reflects an essential part of what makes this part of the country so special. There were 8 hand pumps, dispensing a mix of national, regional, and local beers. I enjoyed a pint or two of Pullet Please from the High House Farm Brewery in Matfen, just to the north west of Newcastle. The Ship is one of these places that exudes character, a solid place, rooted in a prominent location above Seahouses' bustling harbour with a commanding view over the Farne Islands a few miles out to sea.

A couple of other places to mention. I spent an afternoon at Beadnell, a lovely village that is sadly getting overwhelmed by new holiday home developments. It has a huge beach and a tiny harbour which still has the remains of some old lime kilns which relied on the local resources of coal and resources. The village is actually a good walk from the beach and harbour, although the distance isn't that far, but sadly the developments seemed to have focussed purely on drivers so that footpaths have been overlooked. There are 2 hotels in the village, the posh Craster Arms adjacent to the village church, but just around the corner is the Beadnell Towers. The bar here, apart from some daytime TV quiz dominating proceedings, was friendly, and was serving Anarchy Blonde Star with a couple of others. Turning a blind eye to the fact that my beer had been poured into a John Smiths glass, I headed out to the small beer garden. The beer was very good, and it is good to see that some of the new breweries from the North East are appearing in what is quite a conservative area for beer. I only had time for a quick pint as I needed to get my bus back to Bamburgh.

The journey back through Seahouses and North Sunderland took 17 minutes, and when I got off the bus I decided to try the bar at the posh-looking Lord Crewe hotel which I couldn't have been in for 25 years. And guess what, they were selling Anarchy Blonde Star! Happy days.

Based on past visits, I hadn't come to Northumberland for the beer, but it was good to have a few pleasant surprises, hopefully next time I visit there will be more!

The Free Trade Inn, Byker


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