Well, not too much news on the southern front...my schedule for departure is starting to firm up, though. It appears that I will be flying down through Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, around October 17. From there, weather permitting, I shall fly into Rothera station for a few days, where I'll do some training and see some great scenery. I will then continue on to Halley, where the view is a bit less breath-taking, but more what one would expect an Antarctic research station to look like. At least, when I picture it.
The return trip is a bit up in the air, but will happen sometime in February, and will probably come back through South Africa. I have some can't-miss wedding dates in March and April that appear to be safe, at the moment.
And now, to our darker purpose.
British pubs are the best public places to congregate in the world. If you find the right ones. I've done my best to find good pubs in the UK - most of my favourites tend to be on the west side - the Cotswolds, down in Devon/Dorset, etc. London, regrettably, has yielded few that I like. Guides such as the Good Beer Guide and the Good Pub Guide are helpful in this respect; however, naturally everyone's criteria for a "good" pub are wildly different. I shall list mine below.
Criterion 1: The Floor
The floor of a pub is a massive component of the overall aesthetic appeal of a pub interior. Can you really settle in and commune with an environment where they've put down cheap indoor/outdoor carpeting? Or ratty threadbare crap from the sixties? Carpet has no place in a proper pub. New-fangled wood laminate is slightly better, but provides a sterile environment.
Tile is acceptable. But what you really need is a well-weathered wood plank floor, that still has the dents from a brawl that occurred 80 years ago. That's character, my friends. Better yet, how about stone? Big flagstones. One pub (Ferryboat inn, Holywell) actually has a stone lid of a coffin as part of the floor, below which are the remnants of a serving girl from the 9th century. See if you can find that in a suburban strip-mall.
Criterion 2: The Fireplace.Next piece of a proper environment is a heat source for that typical cold rainy night in February (the perfect time to visit a pub). Again, let's look at the worst options first: electric heaters. Especially if you've ripped out a better alternative to stick one in. Yes, they are cheap and safe. But have you ever heard of anyone curling up to an electric space heater with a good book?
No. Better to conceal your method of heating, if it comes down to that. Radiators are permitted, if they have some character. A nice cast-iron one, for instance. That's the minimum, though.
A closed wood stove is better, and still relatively efficient in heating. However, to play with the big boys, you need a proper open fire. And the "open-er", the better. Some open fireplaces are fireplaces that merely have the front exposed; others look like they are caves carved into a massive bulwark of rock. The open-est ones are just a tray on the floor with coal in it, and a hood. The Fleece in Bretforton, one of my overall favourites, is an example of this.
Criterion 3: The taps.
The CAMpaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has done a fantastic job of getting real ales back into the pubs in the last twenty years. Long gone are the days - in the UK, at least - where you have to go into a pub and choose from a selection of fizzy, sub-zero beers that taste too poor to enjoy at a reasonable temperature. Now, your typical pub has at least one handpump with some type of ale. (note to Canadians: this page gets into the real ale scene in Ontario.)
Now, the mostly likely ale you'll find on the pump is a Greene King - IPA, Speckled Hen, Ruddles, Abbot, etc. I'm not personally a fan of the Greene King, mainly because the publicans who are obliged to sell them often don't keep the taps well - they're at the wrong temperature, or not clean, or whatever. There are obvious exceptions to this gross generalisation - the Free Press in Cambridge is one example.
However, a free house is certainly preferable, where a landlord can be more choosy with his/her ale selections. And the more, the merrier - provided that all can be maintained. The Live and Let Live in Cambridge is a good place for breadth of ale selection; the Mill has most of my big-volume favourites (Hobgoblin, London Pride, Deuchars, Tanglefoot, and Old Rosie).
Rosie must be mentioned at this point. Old Rosie is a proper scrumpy cider, and for me personally it is the crowning achievement of tap selection. Rosie is a cloudy cider that has been around for 100 years (or Weston's, its producer, has) and bears no resemblance to the crap fizzy ciders that most people are familiar with: Strongbow, or the heretically named "Scrumpy Jack". A proper cider is opaque, flat, served at cellar temperature, and is not sickly sweet. It can be bought by the jug at Waitrose. It is a marvelous thing.
Criterion 4: No flashy distractions or lights.
This one's pretty simple: no unnatural lights or sounds should be present. These typically come from one of three sources.
- Actual fluorescent lighting. Sorry, I know it's environmentally preferable, but if I can tell that the light is flourescent, I'm basically drinking in a hospital. No thanks.
- Video Gambling terminals. A cheap way for a publican to rake in a few extra pounds. They function by constant visual and audible attempts to get your attention. "Look at me!" "Lavish attention upon me!" "Give me your money!" "Stop having that nice conversation with your friend and look at me!"
- A television, showing Sky sports, or anything else. To be fair, though, most facilities designed to accommodate the football fans don't bother to meet many of the other criteria on this list. It's just a different business model, and I'm not the target market.
Criterion 5: No plastic menus.
The North American stereotype of pub grub is a severe disservice to many of the pubs in the UK. All of my favourite pubs have menus that are seriously hard to match across the pond - especially since the chains appear to be dominating. And a chain, even a good one, achieves financial success by buying food (often frozen) in bulk and replicating a formula over and over again. This replication and efficiency is so predictable, they can replicate the entire menu, coat it in plastic, and share it across all the pubs that participate. Ugh.
Good pubs, however, can avoid this. Some pubs focus upon local cuisine, or certain themes of food, and still have originality on their menus. My local, the Red Bull, built a reputation for good local food (like burgers from the local butcher) with a bit of a South African flair.
However, concentration upon food leads one down a dangerous path that may cause a publican to go "gastro" - the infamous "gastro-pub" tries to go upscale, plays "cool" music like St. Germaine, and puts in lots of modern furniture. This change basically takes out all of the "pub" and turns a place into a restaurant that's not a good socializing venue. I'm looking at you, Rupert Brooke in Grantchester! And you, Plough in Coton! Although the latter reno really wasn't a big loss; the pub was smoky and crap carpeting, and the food is now really good. However, it is a shame when a village local loses its casual-comfort factor. A village local, if properly preserved, can really provide the cohesive force to the overall village (Dyke's End in Reach, I'm now looking at you!).
Criterion 6: Dogs must be allowed.
I'm not going to attempt to justify this one, it's just an axiom you must accept. The perfect pub has a big dog sitting beside the fire. So long as you don't have carpet in your pub and you vacuum, there's no problem.
Here endeth the lesson. My all-time favourites, which completely satisfy all these criteria, are the Fleece in Bretforton, mentioned above; the Pilchard on Burgh Island, a 13th century pub on a rocky tidal setting; the Turf Tavern in Oxford, which would be fantastic if it wasn't jam-packed full of students and tourists all the time; and there's a whole swath of pubs in the Cotswolds that I don't remember individually. Cambridge is a bit light on pubs that hit all my criteria; the Live and Let Live, as mentioned above, and the Kingston Arms are quite good. Just outside town, the Queen's Head in Newton hits all the criteria, too.
I may set up a website to track my pub selections by these specific criteria, and let other people contribute as well. I'll put that on the things-to-do list, which is getting pretty long. Maybe I'll do it on the ship leaving Antarctica. Hm.