This weekend I was celebrating a significant Birthday for my Dad (I won't say which!) and as a birthday prezzie I'd purchased tickets & first-class train travel to the Twenty20 cricket game between England and South Africa at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. It was to be an overnight stay in Durham, travelling to Chester-le-Street on the Saturday and then a late train back to Glasgow on Saturday evening. Thankfully the weather forecast seemed great and although I was missing some of the Glasgow Beer Week opening events, family always comes first and there would still be lots of beery events to go to during the rest of the week.
View Durham in a larger map
Outward Transport was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Queen St to Edinburgh Waverley
Edinburgh Waverley to Durham (East Coast)
Because of its elevated position Durham Station must have of of the best panoramic vistas of its surrounding town/city centre in the country - when the evening light shines the Cathedral & Castle are seriously impressive.
We were staying quite close to Durham Station at the Kingslodge Hotel and I couldn't fault the service, the rooms or breakfast in the place - very good indeed. In addition the outside beer garden was a great place to have a local Hill Island Bitter - a more than acceptable refreshing bitter.
We headed out on the Friday evening to have a wander about the City Centre, try a few of the numerous pubs and get some food. My brand spanking-new Good Beer Guide 2013 had listed far, far too many pubs to attempt to try them all, but there didn't seem be be any pubs/bars in the centre serving beer from the excellent Durham Brewery. Thankfully help was on hand from their own web-site - they brew a house beer called the John Duck so it obviously had to be found in a pub somewhere in Durham and a quick search brought up The John Duck Ale House, only open since April 2012, and not on any review sites (although it and other Durham pubs are listed in the continually updated Newcastle Ale guide).
At first sight this would seem like a old fashioned small pub, but the frontage conceals a really long, narrow place which expands out at the back and then further to an outdoor balcony area. At the long bar 10 hand-pulls were providing 2 ciders and 8 interesting beers - including the afore-mentioned John Duck Ale & Black Velvet from Durham, and others from Black Paw, High House Farm, Northumberland and Hill Island.
The John Duck house beer was refreshing with some interesting/strange earthy bitterness from the new world hops and I have to say the barman bent over backwards to accommodate my Dad's orange juice, lemonade, ice and water combo - many thanks for that. We took seats at the back of the bar where the place expands quite a lot and makes use of some old & new brewery mirrors, has a couple of TVs, displays a lot of pump-clips on the beams and has some very eclectic pieces of furniture - I'm not sure if you could get this into the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow!
The outdoor seating on the balcony was also great, and probably the busiest part of the pub, although the view over a busy dual carriageway is perhaps not the best.
I also wanted to try a more traditional pub so we headed to the Dun Cow on the road out to the old University offices and named after the animal that 'showed' the medieval monks where to found the city of Durham.
The front bar has one of those strange sliding doors which I've only seen in a couple of places and it was packed with locals enjoying a drink or two after work, so instead we headed back down the corridor to the quieter back bar and lounge area. On here were Copper Dragon, Black Sheep and Castle Eden Ale, with the latter being a surprise - I thought it had completely disappeared off the beer map of the UK.
After the closure of the Castle Eden Brewery it seems that it was brewed by Camerons in Hartlepool, but now the rights have been purchased by an independent company for a possible re-launch. If so I'd say have to say they have some work to do since it was just about OK, but I didn't think it had anything like the almost creamy smoothness of the Castle Eden that I'd had in the North-East more than a decade ago, but then the mind does play strange tricks.
It's a nice old pub, with great pictures of Durham Cathedral and the old Durham Cricket Ground on the walls, but I'm not too sure about the seating/smoking area at the back - it's perhaps a bit too close to the outside toilets !
By now we were pretty hungry and so we headed off to an Indian restaurant that had been recommended to us, The Capital. This really was quite superb - the mixed starter was excellent and the 'Special Delight' chicken with accompanying side dishes outstanding - definitely recommended.
To round things off we walked back into the centre to try out one of the supposedly most haunted pubs in Durham, The Shakespeare.
It was pretty cramped in the small bar, but opened up to a number of larger, if fairly basic, seating areas at the back. I took a pint of Everards Sunchaser (an OK lager-like golden ale) and we waited for some ghosts to appear. That was never going to happen - a group of young lads up for the cricket had started to chat away to a group of local girls and there was no way any ghost was going to get a word (or woooooo) in edgeways.
On Saturday my plan was to hopefully visit Durham Brewery just to the south of the city, but with tours were only available in the afternoon and the T20 Cricket starting at 2:30pm, it just wasn't possible - a real disappointment, but nothing I could do about. Instead we walked up to the Cathedral around mid-morning for an up-close look.
In the Market Square (mostly) food, cake & jewellery stalls had been set-up as well as a rowing machine demonstration from a local sports club - I didn't really fancy participating in that after my curry & beer the night before.
There's also a large indoor market with more conventional shops - butchers, clothes shops, 2nd-hand computer games & music etc... Hiding away at the side of the Wee Curry Shop stall I found the outlet for the very local Hill Island Brewery.
Apart from the Bitter in the Kingslodge the previous night I hadn't tried any Hill Island beers before so I was somewhat stuck for choice. My problem was that I could really only take one bottle - in theory no alcohol at all was allowed into the cricket ground, but I thought I could probably hide a single bottle in at the bottom of my rucksack (it did cross my mind to give my Dad a bottle to take as well, but thankfully I shook off that temptation!). Eventually I plumped for the ThaI P.A. to see how it would compare with the Thai Pot I'd had before from TinPot Brewery at Bridge of Allan and I duly wrapped it up inside my cagoule at the bottom of my rucksack.
We then climbed the hill to the station and waited for the (very) infrequent train to Chester-le-Street from Durham. Not surprisingly the train was packed with cricket supporters and lots of people heading into Newcastle (the next stop) but we managed to squeeze into 1 of the 3 carriages (years of ScotRail training comes in handy!). Thankfully it was less than 10 minutes before we decamped with the cricket fans and headed into Chester-le-Street's main Front Street. The majority of people seemed to disperse into the large Wetherspoons or a couple of the wine bars with pavement seating but that meant they missed the far more interesting Butcher's Arms, literally only 20 yards from the Front Street precinct.
We blagged a corner table in the bar and ordered from the lunchtime menu (2 for £8.95, great value). It's definitely a Marston's pub with offerings from their breweries (Marston's, Jennings, Banks's & Wychwood) available so I went for Banks's summer seasonal - Sunbeam, a pretty decent hoppy, citrusy ale. The bar is set-out in a large a U-shape with a small elevated dining area at one side & is one of those pubs that has people's names above certain seats at the bar (sit there at your peril!) as well as a 'Bullshit Corner' - some pubs in Glasgow should also definitely have that. There also have very large collection of water jugs, lots of military prints and Belgian beer bottles dotted around the place - it's a really nice place. And I must say the staff here were great - responsive, chatty, polite & really helpful.
After having finished our lunch it was about a 20 minute walk to the Emirates International Cricket Ground (previously just 'The Riverside' which sounds a lot better), although we did trade some banter with some guys dressed up as Mario, Luigi, Yoshi etc... for part of the way. At our entrance to the ground my rucksack was searched but they were really only interested in finding 6-packs of beer or bottles of wine and my single bottle of ThaI P.A. remained undiscovered.
Inside the ground there was a nice relaxed, fun atmosphere - play areas were available for kids, brass bands were playing and cake-stalls were selling home made baking for the local charity.
From a beer point-of-view there was only Marstons Pedigree (kegged) or Carlsberg so I took a pint of Pedigree (and waited for it to warm up) as well as a number of chocolate cup-cakes.
The ground itself and its surroundings are great - a glass fronted media centre, a new heath & fitness complex, the occasional glimpse of the River Wear and Lumley Castle overlooking all this. However cricket-wise it didn't quite live up to expectations. England didn't score enough runs and South Africa were always in control after they'd weathered the opening few overs - disappointing, but still a more than enjoyable way to spend a sunny late summer afternoon.
Because of the infrequent train service from Chester-le-Street we decided to take the bus back to Durham. This meant we could head into the Head of Steam just across from Durham bus station before getting our train connection back to Glasgow. We just had to make sure to budget a good 10 minutes for getting back up the steep hill from the Head of Steam to Durham train station.
The Head of Steam is a modern 2 level building with outdoor seating and upstairs was quite a sun trap that early evening. There are lots of benches and diner type seats inside with 3-4 hand-pulls available and also a dedicated Belgian draught tap (chosen by request from the customers). I chose a nice malty Sinistar from Brew Star (it was good to have a dark beer for a change) and we sat down to admire all the Belgian beer trays & prints around the walls - anywhere that has a Delirium Tremens print has got to be OK by me.
There was also a large selection of bottled Belgian, Continental & US Beers listed in a separate beer menu - nice, and these were available for take-away. This was a far better alternative to on-board train beer and I was even allowed to drink on the train in Scotland after 9pm.
Train: Durham to Chester-le-Street
Bus: Chester-le-Street to Durham (21)
Train: Durham to Glasgow Central (Cross Country)