A Haunted Pint of Old Peculiar
February 26, 2011

The fireplace at the Black Swan Inn

Within the tiny city of York, circumscribed by the ruins of the medieval wall, there are myriad pubs.  I have not been to them all, and will probably never get to all of them.  York is also the “most haunted city in England.”   And I would believe it.

Even my own cottage seems to have a ghost, or so one of my house guests claims- he came down from the ceiling to greet her.  She described someone who looked a bit like Minty off Eastenders.

Ghosts are a part of the tourist trade here– men in stilts and archaic clothing hawk nightly tours, and on any night you can see similarly dressed men spinning yarns for gaggles of tourists who gasp and laugh at their storytelling.

Many of the churches are haunted but if one were to do a ghost-for-ghost accounting I would bet pubs would win out.  Just the other night I was in the Black Swan, a beautiful 15th century inn inside of the city walls.  It has an archetypal look, like something out of a fairy tale, with  black beams and iron fireplace, decorated antiques of rough domesticity– kettles, pots, bed warmers.  The space is intimate and friendly– you can hear everyone’s conversations and on the night I was there it was a convivial, fascinating crowd– ramblers, older women in bright colours sitting together, a woman in a cocktail dress with her suited-and-booted date.

At one point the pub was packed with a ghost-trail tour which ascended the stairs looking for  “Legs”.  He is, you guessed it, reduced in the afterlife to a pair of limbs.  There are other ghosts here:  a woman in white (isn’t she always?) looking after the fire, a man in a bowler hovering by the bar, waiting for someone.

The woman beside me kept looking around– at the Toby jugs on the shelf, lit from beneath and looking like disembodied heads, jolly trophies.  The iron chandelier, empty of candles, kept swinging of its own accord.   Over a door behind the bar hangs a set of Morris Dancing knives, woven in the shape of a pentagram.

These knives first became known to me watching the Wickerman as a girl in the early 80s.  (My parents forbid me to see it, which of course made me even more curious, and in many ways this film has had a formative effect on my imagination but that is for another post.) The knives appear in the famous masked “chop-chop” scene, where the be-wigged Lord Summerisle, played by a histrionic Christopher Lee, sends foaming barrels of ale into the sea.

The woman next to me shuddered and declared the place “creepy,” staring at the knives which I suppose could be a bit sinister.

Sword Morris Men in Hastings, May Day 2010

But I associate them with the joyful virility of this style of Morris, where men weave and interlace using the swords in a snaking puzzle.  (If anyone knows the name of this troupe pictured above, let me know so I can credit them.  They were amazing.)

That night at the Black Swan I had a Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippen, malty and light with a delicate bitterness, perfect served though the sparkler.  Then I unwisely changed to Theakston Old Peculiar, one of my favourite beers.  This pint tasted sour, as if the lines were not cleaned properly.  Next to Landlord, Old Peculiar has to be the most wildly varied cask ale I’ve ever had– no two pints are ever the same.  But this one had none of the characteristic dried fruits and dark malts, all the sweetness siphoned out of it.  I blame Legs.

Life Through a Sparkler
January 18, 2011

House of Trembling Madness Illustration by Rebecca Wright

I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly two months, living in three different cottages and one hotel room.  My nomad ways are over (for a time) and I find myself in a little cottage (“Moonlight Cottage” it’s called on the door, in that affectionate way the British have of naming their houses) in a little village a few miles outside of York.

It’s the kind of place where people win prizes for floral arrangements and making elderberry wine.

Though I may not win any awards, I have begun a little private brewery in the Moonlight Cottage– the first batch is bubbling in the fermenter as I write, an American Pale Ale brewed on the Cold Moon from partial extract, steeped with Crystal malt and Northern Brewer bittering hops and lots of Cascade for aroma.  I’ll be dry hopping this batch with more Cascade or Amarillo hops– I have yet to decide.

In the two months of Northern living I’ve drunk many a beer from a sparkler, which is a particularly Northern way of serving cask ale.  It is a method of delivery that produces a denser head and a mouth-feel that is creamier, at least initially.  I like it, or maybe I just like the beer up here that seems to echo the laid back understatement and love of place– predominant Northern qualities, if I can generalize.

I’ve had some cracking pints, which must be fuel for a future post.  The House of Trembling Madness, a medieval drinking hall specialising in Belgian beers, has become my new York local.  Oh how I love it’s cozy strangeness.  But there are no handpulls– no cask ale.  Mr. Malting made the mistake of asking the guy behind the bar if they had any “real ale” on, and he returned with a perfectly straight face, “What do you mean by real?” Which just made me like the place more.  And in the Shambles there is Pivni, which always sets my heart racing as I peer in at the taps.  It was there I tried BrewDog’s There is No Santa, the standout Christmas beer (and I tried quite a few this year)– with its velvety-nugmeg-dark-comfort– unforgettable!

The other unforgettable pint was of the omnipresent Black Sheep Bitter.  Yes, it’s everywhere here, and I was loathe to try it as the pints I’d had in London were just not that great, but I found myself snowed in in the village of Hutton-le-Hole on the moors during the beginnings of the brutal winter snows.  The Crown pub had been closed due to the snowy roads but somehow on this night the landlord made it in, and this was the beer they had.  There were just a few of us there but he’d stoked a roaring fire and if that wasn’t the most beautiful pint of bitter I’d ever had, I’d be lying.  And I had two more, something I almost never do.  I commented that the beer was so much better than the Black Sheep I’d had in London and someone called out, “It don’t travel well!”

On that night, tucked up near the fire, all the moors coated in fondant and sparkling in the moonlight, I thought, “and why should it?”

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