Circular Pub Walks: When Transit Can’t Reach

This blog has always been about craft beer and the breweries who produce it. It has also always been about walking and using public transit in conjunction with the beer. Back in Seattle there was a ‘fit’ between brewing, walking and transit that made them natural companions however here in the UK these three elements come together very differently…

Seattle Craft Breweries

Seattle’s Craft Breweries

Fueled by Beer’s original concept leveraged the fact that Seattle’s current crop of 45 craft breweries are located in a densely populated urban area measuring just 16 miles from north to south, and they all have some kind of taproom where beer can be tasted and purchased. The vast majority are grouped together in local neighborhoods within a short distance of one another and they are all easily reached by transit and on foot. A transit trip to visit a cluster of breweries invariably provides ample opportunities for urban hiking.

This still applied even when coverage expanded to include breweries in Tacoma, Bremerton, Poulsbo, Everett, Bellingham and beyond; there were very few instances of a brewery being located in an area so rural as to be inaccessible via transit. Such was the lay of the land in the Puget Sound region and so the ethos of Fueled by Beer – to explore craft breweries on foot and by transit was born.

Reading's breweries - 20 mile radius

Breweries within 20 miles of Reading

Here in the UK, however, with the notable exception of London and a few other cities, Fueled by Beer faces the reverse situation: as the map at left shows, most breweries are located in the middle of nowhere. Assuming they even have a brewery shop or taproom where beer can be sampled, to get there will require a long hike and a rural transit line hobbled by infrequent, limited service. More often than not there is no taproom and the brewery is simply not accessible by transit.

What this means from a Fueled by Beer perspective is that a different approach is needed for the majority of UK breweries, along with a relaxation of the blog’s original ethos concerning walking and transit as essential elements. In considering this situation Mr Fueled by Beer has concluded that there are two preferred ways to experience what the UK craft brewers have to offer.

Maidenhead Beer Festival

At CAMRA’s Maidenhead Beer Festival

You must either visit a local pub that is supplied directly by the brewer or you can attend a CAMRA beer festival where the brewer showcases his or her wares to a local, regional or national audience. Local festivals such as Ely, Gloucester and Winchester; regional events like Cambridge and Reading; and the national Great British Beer Festival, have all received the critical eye (and tastebuds) of Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer.

There is a third option: buying the brewery’s beer in bottles. However this is not considered viable because the grocery store chains and other retail outlets are currently too far removed from the brewer, and they generally cannot incorporate the transit and walking elements. This could change in the future though.

Alt-Hörder Biersiphon

Alt-Hörder Biersiphon

If the UK follows the lead of US grocery chains – like the Whole Foods and QFC stores already do in the Seattle area – then Mr Fueled by Beer may one day be able to fill his 2 litre Alt-Hörder Biersiphon with draft beer at his local Sainsbury’s Superstore. He brought the fancy German ‘growler’ over to the UK for just such a purpose; it was originally filled at Icicle Brewing in Leavenworth, Washington, with Real Snow their Oktoberfest Märzen lager spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, and orange for Christmas celebration. He still lives in hope.

However, back to the present: of the two preferred options beer festivals easily offer the path of least resistance: they tend to be located in an urban centre, usually close to a train station, so most of this blog’s UK output so far has been about these events. They certainly incorporate the transit element however they don’t usually involve much walking. Consequently Mr Fueled by Beer has been looking for ways to explore the local pub scenario and incorporate at least the walking element, if not transit. Enter the circular pub walk…

One thing that sets England apart from most other countries, including the USA, is the legal protection afforded to public rights of way across private land. This makes available over 118,000 miles of footpaths and bridleways for off-road walking throughout the countryside, and it provides a unique opportunity for a Fueled by Beer experience.

OS Explorer Series map

OS Explorer Series map

In England the practice of hiking the countryside using these public rights of way is known by the quaint term “rambling”, its practitioners are called “ramblers”, and many are organized into local groups under the national Ramblers Association. The rambler’s bible to navigate by has always been the OS or Ordnance Survey map, particularly the 1:25000 scale Explorer series.

These topographical maps show all public rights of way as green dotted lines and they include details such as field boundaries so you can see exactly where the path goes. The example at right shows the area surrounding Calleva Atrebatum, the site of the Roman town located 9 miles south of our house. Look at all the green dotted lines; a wonderful place to go hiking.

In addition to showing rights of way the maps display contours to show the lay of the land, whether flat, uphill, or down dale. Areas of woodland, marsh, etc. are shown too. And, not forgetting that this is a beer blog; pubs are indicated either by a blue mug symbol or the letters “PH”. Find a pub, plot a circular route starting and ending there, and away you go.

Rambling past Calleva Atribatum.

Rambling at Calleva Atrebatum – click to view.

Of course old-school ramblers like to buy paper maps to carry with them but OS maps are not cheap. Fortunately for the more cash-strapped among us there are now excellent free electronic options perfectly suited for today’s mobile devices.

First there’s the streetmaps website which uses OS natively then there’s Microsoft’s Bing maps which now incorporates an OS viewing option too. When viewing in OS mode zoom in until you see green dotted lines criss-crossing the land – that’s the OS Explorer series. Print the map out or better yet, save a tree. Capture the map image as a jpeg and  save it on your mobile device.

Another option – the one Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer is currently exploring – is iFootpath – the free website and the mobile app (£1.49 for IOS and Android). The beauty of this option is that walking routes have already been researched, documented and stored in the iFootpath database. You can search the website by postal code to obtain a list of walks in ascending order of distance from your location. When you use the mobile app your location is detected automatically and a list of walks is presented on the first screen.

A particularly powerful feature when using the mobile app is that once you choose a walk you download it to your device. All of the walk details, including the route map, are stored on the device, so when you are out on the walk, and possibly in a dead zone, it doesn’t matter if you lose Internet connectivity. Since the map integrates with your mobile device’s GPS function, as long as GPS is working you can track your progress if needed.

Screen shots from Mr FBB's iFootpath App (Android)

Screen shots from Mr FBB’s iFootpath App (Android)

There is only one downside I see with the iFootpath map and it is that the route is plotted on a Google map so there is no OS Explorer view to show the surrounding footpath network. It is for this reason that I recommend saving a jpeg copy of the OS map showing the area covered by the walk to your device as a backup. This way, if the iFootpath app says something ambiguous like “at the end of the tree line where a footpath intersects from the right then take the right fork”, and when you get there the way forward isn’t clear, then having the OS map as well can help avoid making a wrong turn.

In fairness to iFootpath, on the walks we have taken so far the directions have been clear and accurate. In fact on the Leather Bottle walk there was one direction to turn right on a footpath that didn’t look right. But when we let ourselves be guided by the directions rather than our gut feeling it turned out iFootpath was right and we were wrong.

So far Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have walked two routes: the Leather Bottle walk and the Theale & Sulham walk. Both were very accurately described with detailed directions and map. Some photos from both of these walks as well as the pub stops at the end are shown in the gallery at the end of this post.

In case it isn’t obvious from what I’ve been saying so far, it is necessary to drive to the pub before taking the circular walk. However once at the pub the amount of walking you do can be as little or as much as you like. Even if the iFootpath walk is only, say, 3 miles – such as the Leather Bottle walk – by having an OS Explorer map handy you can improvise additions to the route since the parts of the footpath network iFootpath is using will be clearly visible.

Now, some words about our pub stops. Our visit to the Leather Bottle was the first in more than 20 years and we were not disappointed. Two new Wild Weather Ales were on hand pump – Cumulo Citrus and Warm Front, both excellent – and there were a couple more ales I don’t remember. The pub has a very nice restaurant and Mrs Fueled by Beer perused the menu during our visit. The Leather Bottle offers much more than simply being the hub for a circular pub walk; it will almost certainly serve as a future walk & dine destination.

The Theale & Sulham walk begins and ends at Theale High Street, where there are four different pubs from which to choose: The Bull; The Falcon; The Crown Inn; and The Volunteer (sadly the Red Lion is now shuttered). At the end of our walk we chose the Crown. While we enjoy the Bull (Wadworth) and Volunteer (Fullers) the Crown just suited the moment. It is Theale’s only CAMRA LocAle accredited pub and therefore the only one to satisfy the local brewery and walking elements of the Fueled by Beer ethos. We enjoyed an excellent pint of West Berkshire Brewery’s Good Old Boy best bitter and a couple bags of crisps. After coming in sweating from a 5 mile hike on a warm sunny afternoon that’s what does the job.

As we make more walks using the iFootpath app we will post our experience here on the blog.



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