A trip “oop north”, well to the Midlands, which is up north for me, intending to highlight the delights of the importance of Burton on the world of beer with good friend and drinking buddy the Reluctant Scooper himself. What we also did was go to Derby. I was blown away just how good the local ale scene was, the quality and diversity intermingled with real history. As is my way, considering that I am nor a “proper beer writer” and simple fear of butchering the English language and the delights that Derby presented, I took the chance and offered the space to said good friend to champion this great beer town.
I’m lucky enough to live close to some of the best pubs in England. The cities of Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester and Sheffield, all bristling with drinking dens historic and modern, are all less than an hour’s train ride away. The rugged Peak District and the verdent Trent and Derwent Valleys, with their eclectic village inns, take about the same time to reach by bus. That’s the joy of living in the English Midlands and why I’ve almost learned to love the city where I live, Derby.
Only almost, as it’s always been a love/hate relationship. I was born and raised in Nottingham so my reluctance to live and work ‘over the border’ was immense. Nottingham had a vibrancy, a style, a sense of ambition; Derby had the country’s largest indoor market. But when you’re called upon to undertake missionary work amongst the heathens, you adopt a daft accent and get on with it. Ten years here being married to a Derby County fan had knocked the rough edges of me and I’ve come to find things to love about the place. Mainly, it’s excellent transport links to other places. But the thought occurs; whilst I’m on the station platform waiting to escape to pubs in neighboring counties, plenty of beery explorers are heading the other way. Why would they be want to come drinking in Derby?
Perhaps it’s for the brewpubs. They may not make it out of the city centre to visit the Falstaff, but Derby is topped and tailed by pubs where the beer is brewed on site. On the northern edge of the ring road sits the Flowerpot, home of the Headless Brewery who specialise in light and hoppy. Their glass-fronted cellar bar often has up to six of their own brews alongside another dozen from near and far. Just down the road, the Royal Standard by Exeter Bridge serves as the brewery tap for the Derby Brewing Company; they serve ‘The Rack’, a flight of the brewery’s beer along with some local cheeses. Back by the railway station, The Brunswick Inn offers half a dozen of their own brews in a broad range of styles alongside another six guests. With its flat-iron design, multiple rooms, stone-flagged floor and proper open fire, it’s renowned for the quality of its pub grub as well as its beer.
Then again, perhaps it’s for the history. Ye Olde Dolphin Inn dates back to the sixteenth century and is reputed to be haunted; bodies were dissected in the cellar of what used to be a doctor’s surgery before the pub expanded. With a properly-small snug, a wood-paneled lounge and a multi-level bar, it’s certainly a pub that seeps history from every crooked beam. The Old Silk Mill may be from the 1930’s but it’s next door to the cradle of English industry – the first silk mill in Britain built in the early eighteenth century. A mural on the side of the pub commemorates another industrial first for Derby – the Silk Trades Lock Out of 1833 was the first organised industrial action. Inside, Purity beers are always available alongside guest beers, a weekend stillage and, from behind the bar, Bass poured straight from the cask.
Mind you, it could be for the idiosyncrasies. Down by the River Derwent, the Smithfield seems stranded from the rest of the city but was once next to the cattle market and a bridging point over the river. The bow front building with ex-convent gothic gates carries a range of beers from the Headless Brewery alongside regulars from Oakham and Whim as well as guests like Thornbridge, Marble and Brewdog. The Alexandra, birthplace of Derby CAMRA, is a Castle Rock pub festooned in railway memorabilia which enjoys a keen sporting rivalry with the Brunswick next door – the landlords are brothers.
It may even be for the Wetherspoons. No, really; the Standing Order is a grand old bank with a huge ornate ceiling and sold more beer than any other Spoons during their 2008 festival. The Babington Arms is renowned for it’s beer choice with 17 handpulls, occasional brewer-themed weekends and numerous CAMRA pub of the year awards. Even the recently-opened Lloyds Bar, the Thomas Leaper, is impressing with its eight rotating beers that often showcase local microbreweries.
But perhaps it’s for the same reasons that I love drinking in Derby. A great diversity of pubs in a compact city centre, offering a wide range of well-kept beer. The chance to toddle along the riverside with beer in your belly and the sun on your back. Only for me, there’s one better reason – Derby is on my doorstep. When pubs and beer are this good, it’s actually quite difficult to get on a train and leave it behind. Except for the fact that I’ll be back for last orders.