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The Tale of The Town Mouse and The Mean-Eyed Cat....

A couple of great finds in Newcastle, a wonderful brew-pub in County Durham, and, at last, a Wetherspoons worth writing home about....

It was sunny when I set off on my latest trip to the North East last week. Having enjoyed Rolling Blackouts the previous night at Leeds Stylus, I naturally stuck 'Hope Downs' on the CD player, and as their ringing guitars and catchy hooks filled the car, I made good progress as I made my way along the M62. All was good in the world...all, that is, apart from the fact that I'd woken up with a streaming cold!
Mouse about Town.....
So as I sneezed and streamed my way up North, I decided I needed to make a stop. I had hit County Durham in good time and headed off the A1 to Spennymoor. I needed some fuel, and from the petrol station it was only a couple of miles to the Frog and Ferret which, despite having a name like a Spoon's or one of David Bruce's former Firkin chain, is a "friendly, traditional family-run free house" on Coulson Street. The satnav got me to Coulson Street, where it is at the end of a row of terraces on the left as you turn off the main road. It doesn't look anything much from the outside, but you enter into a traditional, comfortable lounge with the bar straight ahead. The landlord was watching a re-run of the previous day's football, and as Riyad Mahrez scored City's 4th goal against Burnley, I ordered a half of Maxim Swedish Blonde. Not normally a beer to set the pulses racing, but it was nonetheless very pleasant and in tip-top condition. And then I sneezed....

It was on to Consett then. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing as I drove through the rolling countryside of County Durham, passing through the odd village, one of which, Lanchester, I used to visit regularly when I was buying wine, and I noticed an advert from Lanchester Wines in the copy of 'Cheers' I picked up later in the day. I arrived on the fringes of Consett, where the satnav quickly located the Grey Horse on Sherburn Terrace, the home of the Consett Ale Works Brewery, named to commemorate the steel works which closed in the town in 1980. Like the Frog and Ferret, it looks nothing special from the outside, but as you go in, the room on the left is a cosy lounge with a wood-beamed ceiling and a large mural on one wall. The brewery is round the back, and there were three of the CAW beers on handpump. I opted for a half of White Hot, a pale, refreshing 4% ale which was excellent and took my mind off my streaming nose. There were a few people and a solitary dog dotted around what was an unassuming, friendly and welcoming local. It was the first time I had tried a Consett Ale Works beer, and on this form I look forward to catching them again.
The Grey Horse, home of the Consett Ale Works
And then it was on to Newcastle. I had changed the music, and so the final part of the journey was done to the accompaniment of the new release by Scottish singer Kathryn Joseph, which is stunning. A remarkable album, with references to the likes of Agnes Obel, Kate Bush, Lisa Knapp, and O'Hooley and Tidow. I glided into the outskirts of the city, and before long I had parked up, picked my room key up, and discovered I had left my toiletries at home, thus necessitating a crawl involving some of the city's finest apothecaries as well as its pubs.

I decided I would head up to the top of the town and try some of the places I hadn't visited before. I passed the New Bridge, my venue for this year's World Cup Final, no longer in the Beer Guide and now closed, with a notice saying that is under refurbishment, although apparently it has been sold by the Sir John Fitzgerald Group, and is up to let by the new owners at £40,000 per annum if you fancy a pub in the city's student area within spitting distance of Manors Metro Station.

My first port of call - chemists aside - was the Town Mouse Ale House, a cosy little basement bar in a row of former town houses on St Mary's Place. It was busy with groups enjoying a teatime pint and getting over their day. The beer was good - although I can't remember what I had - and the atmosphere was good. I picked up a few listings magazines, sat by the window, watched the world go by above, and then had a burst of sneezing....

It was time to eat. I had passed a large Wetherspoons, the Five Swans, on the corner of St Mary's Place. I retraced my steps and ordered a steak, with a pint of Otter Ale to wash it down. The place was chocka, with the tables largely filled with students. My steak arrived on an enormous plate which was far too big for the contents - a small-to-medium jacket, a minimalist portion of peas, a tomato that was little more than cherry-size, and a small mushroom which appeared to have been flattened in a forlorn attempt to make it look bigger. In truth, the food was pleasant enough, as was the Otter, but I couldn't help thinking that this was one of those Spoons with a captive and transient audience which aimed to just about scrape to meet their customers' expectations, rather than aiming to exceed. Not all Spoons adopt this approach, fortunately, as I would find out the following day....

It was time to move on, my destination to be the Trent House, a long-standing guide entry close to St James' Park. However, as I turned up yet another windy side street, I came across a low wooden building, and through a big window I spotted an inviting bright interior with what appeared to be a bar with several beer pumps. It turned out that this was the Mean-Eyed Cat, and I decided to step inside and see what it was like.
Mean-Eyed Cat, Newcastle
Very welcoming. The bar, which is quite a large room in micropub terms, is painted in bright, warm colours, takes its name from a Johnny Cash song, and as I sat and enjoyed my pint of Almasty Session IPA, Americana was playing in the background. Owner Dave was telling me it was inspired by a bar in the States he had visited with his wife. After working for years in pubs around the area such as The Cluny in Newcastle and the Central, and the Schooner in Gateshead, they decided they wanted to do something a bit different, and this is the result, which has now been open for about 5 months. There was a steady stream of early evening customers popping in for a pint and a chat. There are 6 handpumps and 8 taps, plus a range of ciders, wines and spirits. They also sell a few bar snacks, and unlike a lot of micos, they open every day of the week. I asked Dave what he sold most of, is it cask or keg. At the moment cask sells the most, which is not surprising when you consider he sells 5 nines every week of his regular beer, White Rat! I enjoyed the Mean-Eyed Cat, which is situated on St Thomas' Street, a couple of minutes from Haymarket Metro Station.
Very welcoming...The Mean-Eyed Cat
I continued my journey to the Trent House, via a pleasant Georgian crescent. The pub is a lone building, situated on Leazes Lane, and I walked in to another busy pub, full of students as well as those who had come to watch the football on TV. I ordered a pint of Stella Street, from Blaydon-based Firebrick. I thought I had misheard the price. I hadn't, it was £2, turns out it was happy hour, and they have one every day between 8 and 9pm. Happy days! I sat down to savour my pint and watch the football. Despite the price, I decided to move on and try some other places. And this is where the evening became frustrating. I couldn't find the Bodega, nor the Newcastle Tap, and following a couple of halves at the Head of Steam, I found the Split Chimp to be shut. So it was down to the ever-reliable Crown Posada for a pint of the Allendale Pennine Pale before making my way back through the wind to the hotel and a reasonably early night.

Day 2, the sneezing had almost stopped, and I went down to the Quayside. The wind had become wilder, so much so that there were even waves on the Tyne. I decided to head out of the wind as best as I could, scooted up Grey Street, and after an abortive visit to HMV, I went for a coffee before deciding to check out an exhibition at the Laing Gallery, a photographic retrospective called The Last Ships by Chris Killip featuring black and white images from back in the 1970's when ships were still being built on the Tyne. Cue Jimmy Nail's Big River.*

I had arranged to meet my daughter at about 1, so with the sun out and the wind less fierce, I decided to go for a walk around the Ouseburn Valley. A team of volunteers were clearing rubbish the beck as I walked past. The autumn colours were out in full force as I headed up the path beside Ouseburn Farm and turned right on to the cobbles in front of the Cumberland Arms, which was closed. And then back down the hill, past the site of the former Ballast Hills Burial Ground, with the wind whipping up again. There was just time for a quick half at the Free Trade Inn, which was open, but due to the wind, the front door was shut, so entry was down the side. I opted for a half of Almasty Echelon, an extra pale ale, although it was tempting to go for the Jarl.
Decisions, decisions....
Good choice. It was excellent, very clean and refreshing, and over the couple of days the Shiremoor brewery had scored very highly with me. I love the Free Trade Inn - its wonderful and free jukebox (when was the last time you heard Procul Harum's Salty Dog in a pub?), the excellent beer, the iconic gents toilets, and the wonderful view up the river towards the bridges, the quaysides, and the Sage.
Wonderful pub...
...and wonderful views
It was about 10 minutes walk back to the hotel pick my car up, and then it was about 20 minutes drive to my daughter's, through Gateshead and on to Washington. We decided to go out for lunch to the local Spoons, which I had not visited before. My granddaughter fell asleep in her pushchair as we walked to The Sir William De Wessyngton, which is named after a Norman knight, some of whose descendants emigrated to America. It is situated in Concord, and is one of 3 GBG entries for Washington. First impressions are of a typical Spoons at first, but it turned out to be one of the best I have been in for a long time - decent beer - my pint of Salopian Hop Twister was in fine condition - friendly, polite staff, good service, a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere, more than acceptable food, and spotlessly clean toilets. So credit where it's due.

We said our goodbyes after a most enjoyable couple of hours, and then it was back down home after another great trip up north. Although it would have been a lot better without that cold....

Twitter: @realalemusic

*And here is Jimmy Nail with Mark Knopfler performing Big River....


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