Beer in Topsham, Devon
Last Updated : 14/04/09
A Topsham Totter - by Gazza
--- Updated NOVEMBER 2007 ---
t’s good to discover somewhere which is a great hunting ground for beer, but especially in the UK where we old hands at scooping tend to be blasé about knowing them all; one place which I've discovered this year to have a cracking set of pubs and, even more amazingly, a good range of beer for sale in them is Topsham, just south of Exeter, on the Exe estuary. This quaint little village (I hate to use the word and sound like a Yank but it's true - it really is a very attractive little place!) is home to an amazing ten pubs, all serving cask ale, and offers a very nice little evening out sampling some local Devon beers and is easily reached by train every half-hour from Exeter taking just 15 minutes. See an excellent guide to the pubs here which persuaded me to go and see for myself!
In keeping with the "niceness" of Topsham the village wine shop isn't the usual chain tat such as Threshers but is a privately-owned establishment with the imaginative name of "Topsham Wines" and can be found at the corner of High St and Follett road close to the rail station and seems to specialise in unusual wines including rare sweet whites from France and beyond. They also sell a decent range of local beers in bottle and Rodenbach too! It certainly fits the bill of "packing a punch for it's size"; highly recommended!
A good start.
My evening out was on Tuesday the 9th of May by virtue of me working in Exeter. I took the 17:54 train from Exeter Central (£2.30 return) and headed off for my first visit, the Exeter Inn, which is the northernmost pub in the village and I had high hopes for scoops as it apparently served guest beers. It's also the only thatched building left in Topsham (well, the front bit is - the rest is slated) so after a brief wander along High street I soon located the pub on the left-hand side by a pedestrian crossing.
The interior was nothing akin to what the affluent outside had lead me to expect with simple décor and seating areas with some after-work trade gathered around the bar. I saw, with relief, that of the three beers available two were Teignworthy (neither a scoop but almost certainly good beers) and the other an unheard-of (for me) local brewery named "Gargoyle" of Dawlish - this was some start to the evening!
I quickly acquired a half of Teignworthy Harvey's Special brew (4.6%) and Gargoyle Best Bitter (4.2%) and stood at the bar to sample my beers which were both good; the Teignworthy was, as is usual for them, rich and malty with some fruitiness and a toffee finish whilst the Gargoyle was deep brown, dry and bitter with some syrupy maltiness present and a dry malty finish. I got into conversation with the very sociable landlord who told me he likes to try local beers and always tries to have three on, one being Teignworthy, at all times. Happy with this excellent start to the evening I supped up and headed off for a look at the next pub on the list, Denleys, a short distance along High Street from the Exeter Inn.
Denleys is a strange sort of wine bar-cum-restaurant with a curry house to the rear and a posh bar at the front. I took a quick look inside and saw only two customers and no staff so, with time of the essence, (as I needed to be back in Exeter within three hours) I decided to decline the Branscombe Vale Branoc and Summer’That on offer and carry on along High Street; thinking about it I should have had a half just to scoop the pub but I thought time was shorter than it turned out to be, so my rapid departure wasn’t actually necessary… the benefits of hindsight, eh?
Next stop was the Lord Nelson 100 metres further along High street, which was badged as a Whitbread pub (can’t be many of these left!) and is mainly a restaurant with a bar for those who really insist on simply drinking – or so it looked from the door! I spied Otter ale on a solitary handpump before again deciding time was too short to bother and headed off towards the next pub, the Passage house, where I was determined to have a half of something!
On the way I passed Topsham Wines, a small wine shop, and cast a casual look inside. I decided ten minutes of my busy schedule could be spared to cast an eye around the wares stacked inside so around the aisles I went, gradually becoming more and more impressed with the wine selection on sale – I love sweet French whites such as Jurançon although they are really rare in the UK but obviously not in Topsham! – and when I eventually circumnavigated the shop and ended up at the till I was clutching four bottles of scoopable wine!
The sociable owner seemed very impressed with my selection (I suppose he does that to everyone but I thought he carried it off without this appearing so!) and I filled my small rucksack to bursting with the wines and a six-pack of Flemish Rodenbach which I was sold at a knock-down price of £2.60 to make the total up to £50! With my rucksack’s spindly straps groaning under this unaccustomed weight I headed off down Follett road towards my next stop and vowed I’d have a beer there - unless there was no micro beer available, of course…
Down by the River.
A short walk later I was at the Passage House on Ferry Road whose carpark abutted the river and offered glorious views of the sun setting behind the bobbing boats moored there so I took advantage by taking a few photos of this tranquil scene. Once inside the pub I saw it was obviously doing a roaring trade in fish dishes of rather high class but was still evidently a pub rather than a restaurant with a bar attached. I was most put out to only see Adnams and Fullers on the handpumps but closer inspection of the bar area revealed casks of Otter ale stillaged there; my choice made, I rested my shoulders for a few minutes by removing my by now leaden rucksack whilst my beer was poured.
The otter was rich, malty, complex and in excellent condition but didn’t last long due to a thirst brought on by my hectic schedule and the still-warm weather outside. Casting a final look round the interior, thinking I’d like to try the food out if I was ever in the area again, I drained my glass, shouldered my rucksack again (which felt even heavier now) and departed for the Salutation on Fore Street for, hopefully, some Topsham and Exminster brewery beer. Outside, I had one last gaze along the estuary before wandering along the delightfully narrow and picturesque Exe street which brought me out on the “main drag” (if Topsham can be said to have such a thing) of Fore street.
Only a few metres along here I found the looming bulk of the Salutation which proudly declared “Bass for sale!” – rarely a good omen, I though to myself, as I pushed open the door. Inside was a cosy dimly-lit pub although my hopes of scoring the most local beer were dashed as I saw only Otter Ale on sale, which the barmaid assured me it had been freshly pulled through, but I decided that if there was going to be only one beer on sale this would do fine and ordered a swift half! The beer was slightly hazy although it tasted absolutely fine, but I was still flapping about the time so quickly emptied the glass, made my excuses and left with my disappointment at missing Topsham beer mollified by the very agreeable flavour of the Otter I’d just drunk.
A mere three minutes later I was walking into the imposing Globe hotel on Fore Street which snaked along the road in a very grand manner as befits a quality hotel in an exclusive riverside village. The beer range in the bar was probably the best on offer in Topsham with six beers on handpump – St Austell Darmoor, Sharps Eden, Butcombe bitter and some other regional products which I totally failed to register as by now my “micro-filter” was well and truly operational. With no scoops on offer but a few decent beers on the bar, and with time now on my side, I allowed myself the luxury of both the St Austell (mellow and toffeeish) and the Sharps (hoppy and well-balanced) whilst I studied my map to work out the best way to cover the remaining pubs in my remaining time.
Beer choice goes downhill.
By this time it had become abundantly clear that I had miscalculated the time required to complete the crawl with any modicum of ease; the time was now 19:30 and my train departed at 21:05 so I didn’t have long left to scoop the remaining four pubs in although if I maintained my current rate then I’d be fine. With this in mind I finished my citrussy glass of Sharps Eden and continued along Fore Street with it’s cutesy narrowness and lining of old houses and modern-looking restaurants until my next two visits hove into view and I wasn’t expecting much beer-wise from them, with the Lighter Inn being a Badger tied house and the Steampacket having only Bass and 6X!
On my last visit to Topsham in 1993 a friend from university and I had spent most of the day ensconced in the Bridge Inn (which would be my last call of the evening) and had consumed a fair amount of beer by the time we reached the Lighter. How we ever found it still evades my memory but find it we did and, surreally, I met a bloke who I’d been cellarman for a year previously back in Northwich there too – although what he must have made of my pissed-up shambolic appearance is another matter entirely. As for the rest of that day, I vaguely remember throwing up in the toilet and staggering back along the railway lines to the station, narrowly avoiding being flattened by our train which managed to sneak up behind us… bloody students, eh?
Anyway, 13 years later I was here again and a lot had changed – for a start it was now more of a food-pub than a pub-pub and I’m sure they wouldn’t have taken too kindly to me vomiting in their nice toilets, so I behaved myself impeccably as I drank my half of Badger “K&B” Sussex bitter (actually a scoop!) and thought how strange it felt to be here 13 years after a drunken student binge had somehow brought me here before leaving after wishing the barman thanks; maybe I was still subconsciously trying to make up for that puke in the bogs?
I didn’t have far to walk for my next half so I crossed the road and entered the Steampacket. This pub had the most “locals” feel of any that I’d been in so far and although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was unwelcoming it certainly felt as if I were entering a pub where everyone knew everyone else. The beer choice was as bad as I’d been expecting and I made do with a very swift half of Bass – in any of the other pubs I’d have walked out faced with such a choice but I had a bit of a walk ahead of me, I needed a slash, and I didn’t really want to annoy the locals too much just in case they got nasty! The Bass was as bad as I remember it to be; thin, toffeeish, bland, dry and very uninteresting; I almost wished I’d gone for the 6X instead, or even the cask cider… now that’s desperate.
The home stretch.
Gulping down this appalling beer made me wish I’d just poked my head around the door and quickly withdrawn it again whilst making a run for it, but it was too late for that now and I grimaced as the last of the toffee-tasting shite went down my throat. Two seconds later I was out of the door and making for my penultimate pub, one which I’d forgotten to visit on my outward journey, so back along Fore Street I plodded until I found Drake’s ale house almost opposite the Salutation on the corner of Exe Street – D’oh, I’d walked right past it not very long ago! I was now more relaxed as I knew I was going to reach the Bridge with plenty of time in hand for a few beers so, seeing Otter Ale on handpump, I was in through the door like a very thirsty ferret which sought to wash the taste of industrially-made slops from his tongue with something of a far more artisanal nature.
The pub was a bit of a strange place as it seemed to have a curry house upstairs (I suppose Denleys does too, so maybe it’s a Topsham thing) and some interesting characters at the bar – again, this is very much a local’s pub although the beer was a hundred times better than my last port of call and I drank the malty, fruity beer down a lot quicker than I normally would have done was I not following multinational slops with local micro-beer. My glass was soon empty so, checking the curry house menu for Nargis kebabs (don’t think they do them), I was off towards my last call of the evening.
I cut up through a surprisingly well-hidden council estate (or maybe the houses just weren’t as nice as the ones along Fore Street) and crossed the railway at the foot crossing where we’d staggered along the lines all those years ago under the influence of Hard Tackle, Bishop’s Tipple and Branoc, although I’d like to think that this time I crossed the line with a bit more diligence and due care for my personal safety than I had done back then. I was soon at the top of Bridge Hill and could see the river Clyst down in the valley; I then knew that I was finally arriving at the last pub of the evening and, better still, I had a good hour to relax and drink the beers; not that the crawl had been a chore, but I’d had time constraints hanging over me all evening and it felt good to have that lifted and be able to simply enjoy the beer and surroundings.
The Bridge Inn was exactly as I remembered it and, I think, I sat in the same seat as I had done in 1993. One thing that hadn’t changed was the gaggle of Morris dancers performing on the carpark by the river and I wondered to myself if this was actually the same troupe that had never quite got away and now performed permanently to keep any lager-drinking undesirables away! I sampled some Teignworthy Pippa’s Pint (4.7%) which was a tangy, dry, fruity and interesting beer with the usual malty character of Teignworthy beers and a dry, toasty grain finish.
There were some amusing locals in the back bar and I overheard one particularly amusing anecdote when an 86-year old bloke was recounting to his mate, in a slow Devon drawl, the time he’d been to see the doctor recently,
“’ee saaayzzz” he murmered, “thaaat oi ‘aaave to loose three stone, so oi saayz to ‘im, whaat the ’ell for – oi’m eighty bloody six and oim stayin’ as oi aaarm!”
Contented chucking went through the pub like a Mexican wave and I smiled; this is what makes such places special and long may it continue! Before I left I decided to brave the Morris-dancer infested carpark to make use of the facilities and saw the cause of their piercing music – they had a tuba and a fiddle along with the usual squeezebox and all were blasting out with the help of a small PA! I’m sure electric amplification isn’t traditional for Morris dancers… or did I imagine the amplifier? I’d had a fair bit to drink in a relatively short time so maybe I did!
My evening done, I walked the five minutes back up Bridge Hill then into Elm Grove Road (with the Morris dancers’ music still audible) before turning left into Station Road and thence onto the platform. My train arrived bang on time and, with the branch line being single track, we had to wait for the Exmouth train to arrive before we could depart for the short run back to Exeter. I was soon back in my hotel and tucking into what was the reason for my early curfew – my paid-for evening meal – although if I get the chance to do the move again I’d definitely consider eating in the Passage house as the food looked very good indeed. A quick pint of Otter Ale in the hotel bar later and it was time for bed, very happy and satisfied with the evening’s exploration, and wanting to do it all over again…
Topsham is a ludicrously pretty little village on the banks of the Exe although only one of it’s pubs is well known (the Bridge) even though a few of the others deserve to be. Taken as a whole the 10-pub crawl, allowing for beer variations, should provide around 20 different beers if you should so wish to try them all although a liking for Otter beer is a distinct advantage when taking on the crawl with it being so widely available. There are three pubs with decent beer ranges and the rest mainly have something vaguely drinkable (with the exception of the Steampacket and, arguably, the Lighter) so a decent evening wandering around looking at the scenery, buildings and supping local beer can be had only a short hop from Exeter on the train or bus.
Trains run every half-hour or so (direction Exmouth) from St Davids and Central stations in Exeter and take around 25 minutes to reach Topsham. The station is a short walk away from Fore Street and all pubs are within a five-minute wander of each other apart from the Bridge, which is probably ten minutes from the Globe yet just five minutes from the station. A return ticket is only around £2.50 and the trip is a great little jaunt from Exeter which, let’s be honest, isn’t the best city in the UK for beer drinking although there are a lot worse places! The last train back is a very sociable 23:54 but, as usual, check the timetables first… Buses also serve Topsham; the No.57 from Exeter Bus station runs every 12 minutes or so throughout the day to Exmouth, stopping outside the Lord Nelson, whilst the “T” bus runs half-hourly until early evening – check the 57’s timetable here.
To sum up, even with my time restrictions I had a good time exploring the village and sampling the (mainly) locally-brewed beers and will certainly try not to let 13 years elapse before my next visit to Topsham! I’d recommend this crawl to anyone who’s not desperate to scoop beers (although I did score two!) but simply wants to enjoy some good ale in a peaceful atmosphere and explore somewhere not on many scooper’s maps of the UK. Give Topsham a go the next time you’re in Exeter and let me know what you find there…
Exeter Inn, 68 High Street
Denley's, 62-64 High Street
Lord Nelson, High Street (really a restaurant, so you may have to eat to drink!)
Passage House, Ferry Road
Salutation, 68 Fore Street
Globe Hotel, Fore Street
Lighter Inn, The Quay
Steampacket, 1 Monmouth Hill / The Quay
Drake's Wine and Ale House, 4 Fore Street
Bridge Inn, Bridge Hill (by river)
November 2007 update
I'll run through our findings quickly as not that much has changed...
The Exeter Inn is probably the best pub in town and had the only scoop on sale, a Teignworthy special, and all beers were in excellent condition and at very reasonable prices. Denley's wasn't open when we passed, although the wine shop was and we spent rather too much on the diverse wine range and also bottle-conditioned Red Rock beers! The Passage still has Otter Ale on gravity, the Salutation's beer range is now only regional crap, the Globe still has the same beers and no guest on our visit, we didn't bother with the Lighter, Steampacket or Drake's and finished at the Bridge where we scooped in the back barn-like room (via the cellar!) but were disappointed by the mere 6 beers on sale and nothing really interesting so one beer was enough.
One good find was Darts farm village (in reality a huge tourist honeypot) just over the Clyst and up the hill from the Bridge. Despite being aimed at extracting as much money from passers-by as possible the beer range was excellent (around 150) and included loads of local brewers such as Red Rock, Ringmore and the like - highly recommended - and it even sells Burts crisps and Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek!!!
V1.2 © Gazza 30/11/07.