Monday, 14 September 2015

The Donnington Way

In the early days of CAMRA, Donnington Brewery in the Cotswolds was widely seen as the ideal of the small, rustic, country brewery. The brewery stood in a picture-postcard location by a pond with a watermill, it brewed some distinctive, although maybe a bit rough-edged, country beers, and had a small estate of classic stone-built Cotswold pubs all within a few miles. It was owned and run by Claude Arkell, a member of the Swindon brewing family, as an individual sole trader – it wasn’t even a limited company.

In the early 80s, I lived for a few years in Surrey and so regularly travelled up to visit my parents in Cheshire. The Cotswolds were roughly half-way, and so it often seemed a good idea to stop off at a Donnington pub for a pint and a bite to eat. The Coach & Horses at Ganborough, on the A424 just north of Stow-on-the-Wold, very close to the brewery, was a particularly convenient location. They used to do a very good Stilton Ploughman’s.

Over the years, I managed to visit 12 of their original 17 pubs, which must be the highest proportion for me of any brewery in the country. I’ve been to four or the original “Bathams Eight” and, over a long period of time, have been in about half of Robinsons’ much larger tied estate, but that remains a personal record. Since then, they disposed of two of the 17 – the Bell at Winchcombe and the Merrymouth Inn at Fifield – leaving 15, of which I have visited 11, or 73%.

The pubs were mostly venerable buildings of Cotswold stone, and had a distinctive, welcoming, down-to-earth atmosphere with beer prices well below the local average – this in an area noted for its snobbiness and wealthy residents. The picture on the right is the Golden Ball in Lower Swell. However, it seems that in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated. The Black Bear in Moreton-on-Marsh was particularly notable for this.

Also they had a flirtation with keg (or probably top-pressure) beer that persisted into the CAMRA era. The beers were the rare Mild, the “ordinary” BB and the “best” SBA. They were good, enjoyable beers, but, as said above, maybe a touch rustic and artisanal. In itself, that is no bad thing, but they were never going to be the best beers in the land.

I moved back to the North-West at the end of 1984 and so wasn’t passing through the Cotswolds so regularly, but I’ve tried to make the effort to visit at least one Donnington pub if in the area. For a time they seemed to have something of a beer clarity problem – I remember one particularly hazy pint in the Mount Inn at Stanton – but this appears to have been resolved, and my most recent example was fine.

In the past few years they have largely dropped off my radar, and I included them in this blogpost amongst the list of family brewers now largely ignored by CAMRA. Their pubs also feature much less in the Good Beer Guide than they once did. However, in the same week Tyson posted a review of bottled Donnington Gold, which alerted me to the fact that they had now entered the Premium Bottled Ales market. They have always brewed the old-fashioned half-pint bottled beers for their pubs.

A bit more digging revealed that they now have a website, although they haven’t yet made an appearance on Facebook or Twitter. Claude Arkell died in 2007, and the business has passed to two of his cousins, who seem to have cautiously taken a more enterprising approach. They have acquired three additional pubs just outside the fringes of Donnngton’s original trading area, and have introduced an additional beer in Donnington Gold.

I still have a little booklet from the early 1980s entitled “Donnington Brewery and the 17 Cotswold Inns”, illustrated with black-and-white photos which, from the cars depicted, probably date back at least a further ten years. It’s accompanied by a foldout map which, bizarrely, lists the pubs at the bottom with grid references, but doesn’t actually show them on the face of the map itself, so I have written them in myself by hand.

It’s a pity we don’t have more small, quirky country breweries with their own distinctive, tight-knit tied estate, whose beers can only be found in their home territory and don’t turn up in every multi-beer pub the length and breadth of the country.

The Donnington Way is a walking trail connecting all the pubs. The Wikipedia article says that “a ‘Donnington run’ means visiting all 15 pubs in a single evening.” Hopefully with a designated driver!

11 comments:

  1. Ive done 16 Donnington tied houses,i did four in the late 80s and 12 on 7th May 2011.

    Regarding your local brewery Robinsons,i have tried to get most done in Cheshire,Greater Manchester and Derbysire,i have missed the odd one,i have done 247 Robinsons tied houses.

    Joseph Holts brewery was the one i really tried to do after the closure of my local breweries Shipstones and Home Ales,i managed to do 114 Holts tied houses before i stopped visiting Greater Manchester.

    I really like going in a proper tied house which just has their local beers on the bar.

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  2. This is music to the ears of a man who (a) likes old fashioned beer and pubs (b) loves walking and (c) is retired and has nothing better to do with his time.

    I'll do the Donnington Way.

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  3. I've never had a really good pint of Donningtons (tastes like homebrew) and I've visited the 8 pubs that have been in the Beer Guide over the years. The pubs were really good though, not posh at all and with plenty of drinkers (Queen's Head in Stow stands out). I look forward to Stonch's report; think a Joules trail would be more fun.

    Well done Alan - 12 in a day some achievement.

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  4. @Martin - I've sort of hinted at that in the article. I wouldn't go so far as to say the beer tastes like homebrew, but it is a bit rough at the edges, like a beer equivalent of farmhouse cider.

    The Joules estate is considerably more spread out, of course.

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  5. I've always enjoyed Donnington BB and SBA over the years. I recently revisited the Queens Head at Stow on the Wold and thought both beers really fine. Far superior to Arkells Ales of Swindon.
    I have been to Yorkshire this weekend and enjoyed a number of pints of Samuel Smith Old Brewery Bitter in the Old Hall Heckmondyke. A wonderful pub, no music, very busy and great conversation. I couldn't believe how reasonable the price of the beer was. The beer was in superb condition and drawn from an oak cask. A wonderful, heartening experience. Well done Sam Smiths !!!!!

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  6. Fair points Mudge. I may have been a bit harsh on Donningtons. Interestingly, their only pub in new Beer Guide is the Fox in Broadwell, which I do recall as pretty good ( high turnover). Of course inclusion in Beer Guide affected by branch preference for variety - there's hardly any Arkells or Wadworths houses either, quite a contrast to your patch.

    On Joules, I guess the fun would come from trying to co-ordinate buses throughout Staffs and Cheshire - best stick to Donningtons walking trail.

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  7. @ Stonch Beer,

    I do like walking and visiting proper pubs,but i am not retired,wish i was,i work in a factory making springs for seating which you are probably sat on now,i get up early and get very dirty doing my job,ime only 53 years old and dont have enough time to run a blog like you do.

    I did the pubs with my brother who was driving,i would never walk that far to do 12 pubs,i do walk quite a lot and did 23 pubs in Bradford on Saturday and almost walked it to Shipley.

    I was'nt trying to boast on my post just to give some information of what i have done.
    Pub crawling is my hobby,and have now done just under 12,000 pubs since 1980 and took photos of just under 10,000 of them.

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  8. Alan -you should start a blog. It neednt be that time-consuming. I'd love to read about 23 Bradford pubs in a day.

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  9. Martin: Don't think you are being harsh about Donnington at all. Lovely pubs - but the beer was when I last had it about four years ago - bobbins as the might say in Oldham. Bad home brew. It was the same four years before that, but hope springs eterenal in the human breast. It may be brilliant now.

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  10. @ Martin Taylor,

    I would not have the faintest idea how to do a blog,my son who has now married wrote things down on paper so i could use a lap top,got other older grown up children and grandchildren to contend with.

    I do post reviews on Pubs Galore,but i am about 40 odd pubs behind on the site,due to being to busy in my home life.

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  11. I’ve been meaning to comment on this post Mudge, since I first read it, even though it’s been 30 years since I last drank a pint of Donnington’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen their beers at a beer festival, or in the free trade, although I accept they may now distribute their beer to free houses within their immediate trading area.

    I honestly can’t remember what their beers taste like, but when I last drank them back in the mid 1980’s, I wouldn’t have described them as being like “home-brew”. I wrote quite a lengthy post about the week I spent in the Cotswolds, during that time; camping and cycling.

    The post is on my other Blogsite, Paul’s Beer Travels, and you can read it here, http://paulsbeertravels.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/cycling-in-and-around-cotswolds.html, but in it I describe how the previous Mrs Bailey and I set off with the intention of visiting all 17 Donnington pubs by bicycle. In the end we only managed 8, but that took some doing, even 30 years ago when I was half the age I am now!

    From memory, my favourites were the Plough at Ford; the Fox Inn at Broadwell, the Snowshill Arms at Snowshill and the Queen’s Head in Stow-on-the-Wold. It’s good to know that in these days of mergers, takeovers and closures, Donnington’s is still going strong. I would love to re-visit some of these pubs, and the Donnington Way footpath looks the ideal way to do so. I don’t fancy camping these days, but I’m sure a bit of online research would throw up some suitable bed and breakfast places.

    Btw. I too have got that “Donnington Brewery and the 17 Cotswold Inns”, guidebook hiding somewhere in the house. I must see if I can find it.

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