The Rowbarge: a Brunning & Price Pub

You can say what you will about Facebook but one thing it’s certainly good for is reuniting long-lost friends. Such was the case recently for Mr Fueled by Beer and one of his earliest childhood friends: Facebook brought us back together at The Rowbarge more than 30 years after our lives took us off in different directions…

When Mr Fueled by Beer was a mere Shandy drinker Steve lived nearby and we started school together at Ridgeway Primary. This was back when the year still had a “5” in it (and I don’t mean the 4th digit). Living so close together back then we must have been pals before starting school but Mr Fueled by Beer’s memory doesn’t stretch back that far (too many Shandys perhaps).  For the longest time we were inseparable: we attended Cub Scouts together; we moved on to secondary school together; and we picked our first girlfriends from the same pool of Southlands ‘talent’. But we inevitably drifted apart and the rest, as they say, is history. So, during our recent reunion, we had an awful lot of catching up to do and the pub was extremely accommodating.

Considering we just showed up without a reservation on a Saturday night the manager really bent over backwards to find us some seating where we could enjoy our first round, renew our old friendship and peruse the menu while a table in the dining room could be found for us. And of course the reason the place was so busy quickly became very evident: The Rowbarge is one hell of a good pub.

In 2012 The Rowbarge underwent an extensive refurbishment and is now a Brunning & Price pub. This group, based in the northwest of England, has been selectively acquiring properties in the south. Their pubs are unbranded and  not tied, favoring a free house approach. From the Brunning & Price website…

We think the best pubs of all are those that are run by owner-operators, so we try to keep as close to that principle as we can. Our pubs are run as free houses, owned by their managers, and our head office functions as a service to support them. What this means in practice is that the pubs choose their own staff, they write their own menus, choose their own beers and wines and how much to sell them for, and generally operate independently across the board. In truth, they get all the fun bits of running a pub, and the office does the boring bits.

Because of this relaxed business model inevitably some Brunning & Price pubs will be better than others and some reviews I’ve read reflect this however based on our experience The Rowbarge has to be one of the better ones. Things we appreciated:

  • Chef prepared menu that changes daily.
  • Locally brewed cask ales that rotate daily.
  • Interior design aesthetically tuned to unique characteristics of the building and its surroundings.
  • No tacky ‘brand’ to conform to. Example: horrible 1.5 m high posters emblazoned with “Two for a Tenner” in massive neon green lettering (you know who you are).

Our dinner at the Rowbarge was excellent. All of our menu choices met expectations and the cask ale selection deserves special mention. This aspect, for me, was the most pleasant surprise of all. Five cask ales of which two were LocAles from Binghams and Wild Weather. The other ales comprised a very good house bitter brewed for Bee & Pea by the Phoenix Brewery of Haywood near Manchester: unusual to get a north country craft-brewed ale down south. The other two were Milk Street’s Usual and Cotleigh’s Owlzatti, both from Somerset. A nicely balanced selection covering diverse regions of England.

With this focus on serving well kept cask ales, including some from local brewers, a thought has occurred to me. I wonder if The Rowbarge plans to apply (or is applying) for Cask Marque and/or CAMRA LocAle accreditation. I believe they would have no trouble acquiring both.

The Rowbarge will be a great pub to visit any time of year but its canal-side setting and extensive outdoor beer garden beside the Kennet & Avon Canal makes it especially attractive during the long summer evenings. And it makes a great Fueled by Beer trip too: by bus or train. The #1 “Jet Black” bus stops in Woolhampton on its journey along the A4/Bath Road between Reading and Newbury, or take the train to Midgham (Woolhampton’s station) from Reading or Newbury. It’s a short walk across the canal to the pub.

Finally, how about that reunion? By the end of the evening it was as if the last time we had seen each other was only last week. The Rowbarge at Woolhampton: Recommended 🙂


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