Eaton Socon & St Neots
Last Updated : 26/08/09
Eaton Socon, eh? Where the fuck was that? These were my words when I learnt that I'd be working over in Eastern England for a week, so I quickly fired up the nearest internet browser and checked out my prospective beer supping destination.
Five minutes later and I wore a frown worthy of an ogre, and a particularly narky one at that; this didn't sound good, it didn't sound good at all... Eaton Socon was right in the heartland of Charlie Wells (or Wells/Youngs as they call themselves these days) and every pub seemed to sell either Greede Kerching or Wells, although after a frantic appeal on Scoopgen I had a couple of leads to some decent-sounding pubs which may just make my stay slightly more endurable than it otherwise might be. After all, both Greede Kerching and Wells are on my ever-expanding boycott list and therefore couldn't be drunk anyway even if I wanted to – which, obviously, I didn't.
Double or quits.
Thanks to an hour at work spent in a far more useful pursuit than intended - searching the net for pubs rather than actually working - I made an executive decision to expand my evening into nearby St Neots as well as Eaton Socon. When I say “executive” let's just clarify right now that I didn't don a pinstripe suit, red braces and frantically hammer on a blackberry (the PDA, not the fruit, as any confusion here would be really messy and might get pips all over aforementioned red braces) whilst shouting into my mobile in an extremely twatty and self-important manner... no, I use the term purely as a figure of speech and can assure everyone that at no point did I even contemplate turning into a Tory wanker.
Right, that's that cleared up, on with the gibberish! Having abandoned the car at my Travel Inn it was a quick five-minute yomp past a boarded-up pub and curry house in a lovely old pubby timber-framed building to the bus stop where, thankfully, the bus was delayed in traffic and I had a few minutes to ogle at some gorgeous Polish lasses waiting for it, although what they made of my badly-disguised letching they didn't let on. Shortly we were crossing the Ouse and that was it, I was in position to begin my trawl of St Neots, although I held out very little hope of finding anything worth drinking whatsoever...
Passing the Corner House with it's Sky Sports and Carling adverts – and therefore not even worth a look – I headed along the High Street towards my first target, the Old Sun. On the way I passed yet another closed pub, this one now a house and bearing an “Old Wheatsheaf” plaque outside, before discovering the Old Sun was badged as a Whitbread pub (remember them?) and served a pair of boycotted beers in the form of Greede Kerching “IPA” and London Shame. Passing swiftly on past the Tudor Rose club complete with huge Czech flag in the window (I assumed no decent Czech beers would be on sale, although maybe I should have checked it out?), I soon reached what I guessed would be St Neot's highlight pub-wise, the Lord John Russell, a Batemans tied house… it really says something about a place when a Batemans pub might be the best options beer wise, eh?
As I walked along the street towards the pub I suddenly had a deja-vu moment as if I'd been there before... I frantically tried to remember if this was the case but nothing matched in the memory banks and I reasoned that I'd either paid the pub a flying visit back in my desperate days or it looked just like another pub which I'd been to. Once through the door, however, the feeling was even stronger and I really think that I've visited this pub previously although I have no idea when or why!
A beer festival was being set up although it didn't begin until the following day, but a quick glance through the beer list revealed nothing required even if a few of the beers would gladly have been consumed had they been available. With Batemans beers only on sale I went for their XB purely to see if it still tasted as much of peardrops as I remember it doing back when I wasn't quite so militant in my drinking habits and, predictably, it did – yeuch! I've never really liked Batemans' beers with their lack of hop and sticky-sweet peardrop toffee tastes but this really reinforced to me exactly why I don't drink many beers from Regionals: bland dross! I risked a half of mild for similar reasons as the XB but was given instead a half-pint of sarsons masquerading as cask ale.
Grimacing, I glared accusingly at the barman who immediately asked if the beer was, as he put it, “on it's way out”. I informed him that if that were the case then it must have left some considerable time ago judging by the taste of it and a fresh half was duly drawn from the new pin racked on the dinky stillage behind the bar. This wasn't off, that much was a bonus, although the sweetness and caramel tastes were just as sickly as I remember and only a lively condition prevented it from being nauseatingly sweet.
All downhill from here.
With little else in town to look forwards to I attempted to acquire a half of Salem Porter but was informed that the pin had blown it's keystone (and all it's contents) across the floor a few hours previously and so, denied my final choice, I took my leave and plodded off back towards the river. I soon passed the Hyde Park, a corner pub with only Directors and John Smiths on sale, although it did sport an amusing plaque by the door which declared proudly “St Neots' most improved pub 1993-94” - well excuse me if I don't look impressed, but I'm not!
I stomped past the Wrestlers (keg only) and then the Falcon which sported a sign declaring that it was a “Business opportunity”; well, maybe if it wasn't tied to Greede Kerching then it might be but somehow I think not! The New Inn was a nice old coaching inn which would definitely have warranted a visit had it not been owned by GK, the Priory was a bad McSpoons rip-off without the cask ales and, finally for this side of the Ouse, the Bridge House – one of my best chances of something suppable – had only GK beers on sale, or at least that's all I could see on the pumps. (thanks to Hughie for the gen that the Falcon is now the Pig & Falcon with 8 real ales on sale! Well, shame that wasn't there when I visited, that's all I can say... Aug 09)
Across the river I passed by the Barley Mow on account of it being yet another Greede Kerching pub (just how many do they need in one town?) and settled into my yomping mode for the walk back into Eaton Socon. Passing the cringingly-named “Eaton Plaice” chippy - oooooh, the wit – I soon came to the Waggon and Horses with it's offerings of Old Speckled Hen plus other GK tat and then the Old Sun (yet more GK) before turning left towards what I hoped would be the best pub of the evening, the River Mill Inn, a free house situated, as the name implies, besides the river and serving three guest beers from mainly local breweries... or, at least, that's what I was hoping for and by this point of the evening praying for beery salvation was beginning to seem a very attractive proposition...
The building was rather impressive, being a converted mill besides the river, but I was soon cursing my luck with the beer selection as instead of local micros gracing the pumps (as the rows of pumpclips stuck above the bar suggested they generally did) I was faced with Youngs, Adnams and Theakston Black Bull alongside GK's standard products; cheers then! I sipped my way through the Theakstons, thinking it tasted vaguely of fabric dipped in bleach, before stumping disconsolately off back towards the hotel via the final few pubs in the village, none of which held out much hope of decent beer.
The Millers Arms was Greede Kerching, the Wheatsheaf a tapas bar without any real beer to be seen (although there might have been had I looked closer but the appeal of Charlie Wells didn't really light my fires) and finally the White Horse, an admittedly impressive Ivy-clad coaching house of some pedigree, had five handpumps but the only beer I'd have considered drinking, Landlord (now that shows you how desperate I was by this point), was off and the Hobgoblin, London Shame and Flowers managed about as much attraction as Pluto.
Calling into the Akbar curry house on the way past to check they didn't do Nargis kebabs (they didn't, but the building is very impressive) I finally arrived back at my hotel, the Crown, an old-fashioned Chef and Brewer where I found Black Sheep and Landlord on the pumps! Risking a half of Landlord I discovered that it was the best beer I'd had all evening and could have saved myself a tenner and a couple of miles walk had I simply stayed in the hotel and had a few pints of Taylors... but I'd never have known just how crap St Neots and Eaton Socon were had I done that, now would I?
Yet again on my trips to random rural backwaters it's a case of “as you were” - in other words, don't bother going to St Neots or Eaton Socon in the hope of getting scoops as, unless you've been living on the moon for ten years, you probably won't get much – if anything. However it must be said that I was unlucky at the River Mill and maybe the White Horse too, so some decent beers could be available if you do find yourself here, it's just that you've not got a lot of choice as to pubs and/or beer.
Many pubs have closed in the two communities and I feel it's only time before more follow suit; I honestly can't see many village pubs which rely purely on “wet” trade surviving unless either they diversify, we get a government who understand what pubs do on a social level or people suddenly decide to spend more of their GDP on drink, and I think you'll agree that the first option is the one with the most chance of succeeding.
Both places don't have a lot of unbranded pubs – ones where the owner is filed under top secret and there are no clues anywhere as to which generic chain actually owns the place – but unfortunately that means lots and lots of Greede Kerching and, to a much lesser extent than I thought, Wells & Youngs. In some areas the local regional (if there is one) having a near monopoly may be thought of as a good thing, but here this is certainly not the case and the range of cask ale is pitifully small. The Batemans pub brings some relief but, it must be said, only if you like Batemans and being served vinegar wasn't particularly impressive even thought it was changed immediately. I feel that a Wetherspoon in St Neots would either kill or cure the pub scene, as they do in many towns, and it's probably only a matter of time before some bank or supermarket vacates suitable premises.
So, another experience to file under “piss-poor” and another couple of places to knock off the list of towns in which to go drinking micro-brewed beer... I tried, really I did, but sometimes there's just nothing to find worth drinking for the militant beer scooper with too many boycotts than is good for him! If you're comfortable supporting a company such as Greede Kerching then you'll be fine as most pubs serve at least one cask ale from them, but that's a big “if”.
Pub and Beer of the trip.
Where to start... well, actually, it's dead easy: the best beer I had all evening was Taylor's Landlord (I don't really like Landlord that much...) in the Crown Brewer's Fayre, although this is akin to saying that Josef Stalin would win a “most compassionate Communist” award if no-one else bothered to turn up. Let's just sum up by saying I had a pretty rubbish evening although, as I've said, I was unlucky at the River Mill which does seem to serve local micros when I'm not around and in that situation would be a decent place for a few pints... although after seeing so much Greede Kerching I was beginning to think that drinking Donoghues Hard Tackle sounded more and more appealing! See, delirious...
As for pubs there are some lovely old coaching inns in both places – not surprising as both sit on the old “Great North Road” - but a good pub for me needs good beer too and I'm struggling to recommend any on the strength of this visit, although it seems that if some Buntingford beers had been on in the River Mill my opinion of the evening would have been very different indeed! So, on this basis, the River Mill in Eaton Socon must be my recommended pub of the evening although, if you like proper backstreet locals pubs and Batemans, then the Lord John Russell in St Neots must be worthy of your consideration... I just hope you have better luck in both pubs than I did!
River Mill Tavern, School Lane, Eaton Socon, PE19 8GW. GK IPA, Abbott, Adnams broadside and two guest ales.
Lord John Russell, Russell Street, St Neots, PE19 1BA. Batemans XB plus others on gravity.
...although the Pig & Falcon on New Street, St Neots, with it's 8 cask ales sounds the best bet now!
(c) Gazza 26/08/09 v1.1