Monday, 30 August 2010

Darlo Take Heed

A stress free journey from home to Darlington this weekend with all modes of transport running smoothly - it's just so nice when that happens - and so I was in the Quaker at 11:30am complete with a selection of pies from the covered market.

Tony and John were already there as was Pete Stockill - we've not seen him at a game for a little while but he's popped up from the Midlands to join us for a game.

It was very busy in the bar today - not with punters but with the erection of some stain glass panels above the bar. These have been custom-built for the Quaker and they were being fitted for a grand opening ceremony in a few days time.

(left) One of the three stain glass panels at the Quaker

We got a sneak preview of one panel and it had the Quaker ghost as the central motif - looked very good and it will certainly brighten up the bar.

There was a competition to see how many pieces of glass were used in the three panels. With the prize being 20 pints we all had a go. I suspect my estimates were too high but fingers crossed!

Beer-wise the following were on offer at the bar: Tyneside Blond, Tall Ships and Flotsam & Jetsam from Hadrian and Border, Black Dog Rhatas, Skipton Copper Dragon, Milestone Lions Pride, Hambleton Nightmare and Big Lamp Summerhill Stout.

I had been warned that Neil was in town with the family, including son Martin - or devil-child as he is known to some DAFTS who've seen him in action in local pubs and restaurants. John had even taken the precaution of bringing a bible just in case things got too demonic.

His mum Mari was visiting too - the first time I'd seen her since we'd played at Brentford a season or two ago. She knows exactly which of our buttons need to be pressed as after going to the bar to get some crisps for Martin, she got some pork scratchings for the rest of us. You're always welcome, Mari!

Neil and family then went back home to see Grandad Harry and so we moved on up to Number Twenty-2. Continuing the theme from our last visit, they had another rarely seen (in Darlo) Tim Taylors beer, Golden Best, which went down a treat.

There were only four of us so just a single taxi required to the Arena - the place was fairly quiet in terms of away fans when we arrived - I thought they would have brought more than the 400 or so fans that made the journey.

Whilst waiting at the tunnel for kick-off, I heard that Alan White was in one of the concourses with his dad - it seems he'd been released by Luton Town so no doubt there'll be rumours about him re-joining us.

(right) Mari, Martin and Neil join Block 11 DAFTS

I'm torn - he does bring that hard edge we sometimes lack at the back but he is more than a little prone (he says diplomatically) to making some very poor tackles. And he's not getting any younger so I think I'd opt to let him look for a club elsewhere.

The game itself is a tight affair - Gateshead have far more possession that they should have but thankfully they were unable to make it count and Russell had only one save of note to make in the first-half.

This was especially satisfying since the defence was missing captain Ian Miller but Joe Clarke, signed from Solihull Moors, proved to be an able deputy in a position which is not really his forte.

To be fair Darlo failed to create many clear cut chances themselves in the first half but just before the interval, Paul Terry slotted home from a few yards after good work by Arnison and Smith (M).

Things were little different in the second half after Darlo extended the lead after ten minutes when Clarke shot from close range after a ball into the Gateshead box was not cleared.

(left) Debutant and scorer, Joe Clarke

From then on it was a lot of huffing and puffing from both sides - Gateshead never looked like getting back into the game.

It wasn't until halfway through the second half that I even noticed Darlo old-boy Paul Heckingbottom was playing for the opposition. It was that exciting.

Darlo seemed more than happy to sit on the two-goal lead and play out the game and overall the crowd were happy to see a win without having any more fuss or anxiety.

Not for the first time this season, it wasn't a very exciting game but it was encouraging to see a confident debut from Joe Clarke - hopefully he won't need to fall back on his recent qualification as a carpenter for a good while yet...

Monday, 23 August 2010

Down The Rocky Road

As on most weekends in the past few months, there were no tubes running from my station which meant it was the bus, DLR and tube triple-combo that took me to King's Cross. The fact that for the first time in a while I've got my big bag with the full quota of camera gear means that the changing modes of transport prove to be even more tiresome than usual.

After breakfast I wander over to St Pancras and wait for my train to Kettering. Whilst there various members of the London Millers show up ready for their train to Sheffield and their home game against Cheltenham.

Chris T has turned up sweating like a pig - it turns out he has booked himself a weeks worth of 'Boris Bike' - the new cycling hire scheme that has been launched in the capital. For the princely sum of £5, he has the use of a bike for a week which seems quite good value. I think I'll stick to the tube for now...

I arrive at Kettering station just a few seconds after Colin and Trevor - and with them are John, Rich and Andy who tend to be the first arrivals from Darlo.

(left) First beer of the day in the Earl of Dalkeith

We wander off to the first pub of the day - the Cherry Tree - but as we approach it doesn't look good - the curtains in the bar are still drawn and there is no sign of life.

The opening times on the door suggest it should open at 11am but we're told they actually open at noon. Curses - foiled at the first hurdle.

We decide to head to the local Wetherspoons and we wander off aimlessly along the streets in search of it - fortunately for us, we bump into John Wilson who just happens to be spending the weekend in Kettering and was on his way to join us. He gets us moving in the right direction.

Wetherspoons get a lot of stick but some of their pubs are not bad and the Earl of Dalkeith seems perfectly OK - quite a few people having a late breakfast which looks very filling - and it has a decent selection of guest beers including Milestone IPA and Warwickshire Brewing Co's Darling Buds, both of which prove to be good openers.

John was not at his best though - he'd been on the Pedigree the night before and he was suffering for it. He stuck to coke.

As noon approached it was time to move on to the Alexandra Arms which had come very highly recommended. And quite right too as it turned out.

We received a very friendly welcome from the barmaid and the landlord as we bowled into the pub.

And what a welcome sight before us at the bar - J Church Parsons Nose, Blackwater (Salopian Brewery) Mod, Harwich Town Redoubt Stout, Quercus Oak Wood, Wyre Piddle Hey Diddle Piddle, Gadds She Sells Sea Shells, Derventio Augustus, Beer Rocks Summer Loving, Dales Golden Daffodil, Buntingford Twitchell, Acorn Tower Power, Nobbys Best Bitter and Deuchars IPA.
Of these, I had the Golden Daffodil, Augustus and Redoubt Stout and they were all excellent.

(right) The Alexandra Arms

By this time of day we'd have run into Lance but I'd had a text to say the trains had been messing him around but it wasn't long before he finally joined the merry throng.

Today was going to be the day when he actually went to a game instead of just coming along for the pre-match social. His first game in three years.

Brummy Tony turned up a little later - complaining about the map I'd sent out showing how to get to the pub - however rather than print out the map, he'd written out the directions yet he still tries to blame me for him getting lost! You can take the boy out of Brum...

We leave the pub plenty of time for the walk to the ground - and just as well as it does seem further than it should be. We decided against a taxi as it is the Kettering carnival and the traffic is all snarled up.

On arrival at the ground I pick up my press pass and head off pitchside. For some reason, an over officious steward seems very keen to see proof of my licence - he's not willing to believe that the Kettering office have checked it out already. I show it to him and he wanders away looking rather disappointed.

The Darlo fans have all been put in the main stand rather than the end behind the goal. There is no sign of Lance so presumably this move has scuppered his plans to watch the football and have a fag.

(left) Crunch time for Arnison

Darlo manager Mark Cooper is given a very warm welcome as the teams come out on the pitch - hopefully we'll have cause to think well of him when he eventually moves on from Darlo.

The first-half is a tight affair - debutant Aaron Brown is given the task of marking Kettering's tricky striker Serge Makofo who looks to be their main threat. Makofo has a habit of going down rather easily though and the ref seems happy to accomodate him.

Kettering made most of the running in the first half though keeper Sam Russell was never put under any great threat and had little of substance to save. Darlo were pretty unambitious and don't offer much at the other end and it was a far from exciting forty-five mins.

The second half started in much the same vein though Darlo eventually start to make headway up front - Hatch was the busiest of the forwards but ultimately was hustled off the ball without getting the same protection that the ref afforded the Kettering forward line.

Former Darlo man Martin Smith came on for Kettering in the second half - I thought he'd retired through injury but apparently not - he was rather anonymous, much as he was in many of his appearances for us.

The game continued to limp to a stalemate though at the death, Ian Miller put in a great shot at goal which looked to be heading for the top corner before Nathan Abbey tipped it acrobatically over the bar.

Another clean sheet for the Quakers - certainly a vast improvement on last season - but a cutting edge needs to be developed soon so we can start turning draws into wins.

(right) Gaffer says 'No more beer - get yersel home!'

Having remained dry during the game, it now started to rain heavily as John and I walked back to the Alexandra Arms for a few more beers.

John, Rich and Andy were already there when we arrived and we got talking to a few friendly locals about the best pubs in Darlo (they seemed keen to know).

I get a text from Liz letting me know I've missed a ten-goal thriller. Since she never seems to text me when they've lost, I assume they've won. Rich confirms that they beat Chelters by six goals to four. But as we know, it's not quantity that counts, it's quality...though there was precious little of that on display today.

After further conversations with the locals - including did I know which Darlo pub was run by a transvestite - I only just tore myself away to get to the station in time for my train only to find it was delayed by 25 mins.

By the time we reached St Pancras though I was snoozing merrily and had to be woken by the cleaners. No more beer for me today - time to go home.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

County Ground

King's Cross is buzzing - elderly couples in beige and taupe are waiting for the steam excursion to York whilst more colourful young trendies and luvvies await their train to take them to the fringe at Edinburgh.

As I scan the departure board to check all is well on the route, I bump into London-based Quaker Steve Wilkinson on the concourse. We used to see Steve quite regularly on our trips to games but in recent seasons he seemed to have lost his mojo.

However the thrill of the conference has obviously tempted him out of the woodwork for our opener against Newport County - not that he is anything but his usual cynical self in respect to our chances this season.

I pop off over the road to Da Vinci for breakfast - Martin is already ensconced - and I tuck into the first official fry-up of the season. As good as ever though the waitress has obviously still not been to her "Smile Nicely At The Customers" training course - she's never impressed when Martin orders "just a tea".

(left) Hmmm, I see they do them in DAFTS-sized packs now

The journey is uneventful - the only excitement is when I get a glimpse of the Darlington-built Tornado pulling the excursion to York - and we arrive on time at Bank Top.

The town centre is very busy today as there's an international market in town - there is a stall with giant sacks of pork scratchings but I resist the temptation and go straight to the Quaker.

Most of the gang are already there - Tony and Ray Waters, Trevor R, John W and John B - and I peruse the choice at the bar: Titanic White Star, Kelham Island Red Corvette, Derwent Brewery Late Summer, Mordue Pale Ale, Idle Brewery Idle Bodger, Captain Cook Slipway, Elgoods Cambridge Bitter, Blindmans Icarus and Jarrow Rivet Catcher.

Brian and Colin join us after a while and Tony passes out season tickets to some and match tickets to others whilst we discuss future away days. Wrexham away is one fixture no one seems keen on so alternative trips are on the cards that day with York and Sheffield looking more tempting.

We pop up to Number Twenty-2 in dribs and drabs - in addition to the usual suspects there are some good guest beers on today - Dark Star Hophead, Taylors Ram Tam and Goose Eye Over and Stout in particular catch the eye.

It isn't often that you see Ram Tam these days so I tuck into a couple of pints before moving onto the Goose Eye which seems to be a semi-regular here and deservedly so as it is has all you want in a stout.

We're joined by our old chum Doug Embleton who has brought along Mission Impossible editor, Steve Harland, who is now involved with the Redcar Bears speedway team. They're currently bottom of their division - must be just like watching Darlo.

(right) Brian points out a typo

Down at the ground, we find that the club has underestimated the number of programmes and they've all sold out. To his delight, Brian finds a poster of the programme cover showing a glaring grammatical error. He gets his excitement where he can these days...

Now that we're in the Conference I've been able to get a licence to take photos and as such will be helping out the club's new PR team with action shots for the programme. I've just got the one camera with me today but it's nice to be back out on the touchline and closer to the action. It probably means it is also a little less sweary at the back of block 11.

Although the team is mainly made up of new players, there are a few notable returnees - Sam Russell, Liam Hatch, Tommy Wright and Richard Offiong.

And it only takes Hatch - sponsored by the Capital Quakers - a few minutes to reaffirm his popularity with the fans as he heads Darlo into an early lead following a cross from Paul Arnison. Hopefully it's not a case of PTE (Peaking Too Early).

Darlo continued to apply pressure on County but fail to add to the lead - gradually the Welsh outfit start to get a rhythm going and look less shaky than they did but it remains one-nil at the break.

In the second half, it's a slightly different state of affairs as Newport are proving to be a very decent side - let's not forget they won the Conference South by 28 points and are certainly no slouches - they more or less constantly harry our defence who are only just managing to repel most of their forays.

When County do break through, Sam Russell - sponsored by this very blog - pulls off some wonderful saves and prevents Newport from scoring what we fear must be an inevitable equaliser.

(left) Sam points the way home for Newport County

Darlo fail to make much headway in reply - subs Tommy Wright, Chris Moore and Michael Smith are brought on to bolster our attack but make little impact.

The ref blows the final whistle to the collective relief of the Darlo faithful and the matchday sponsors adjudge Hatch to be the man of the match. He played very well but the majority of those in attendance would give it to Russell.

It's not an emphatic win but it is three points we would have given away last season and it offers an element of cautious optimism...

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Last Crawl Of Summer

It was slightly odd to have Liz leave the house before me for her opening game of the season but having an extra weekend before the Conference kicked off meant I had time for a final close season Saturday crawl.

As ever, London Miller Chris was keen to come along me (though he should really have joined Liz and co. cheering on the Millers) and we met at the Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey. This was his first visit and he was tasting some of their beers when I arrived, including their latest brew, Amarillo Pale Ale.

We then split a bottle of their White beer which is my favourite of theirs at the moment - an extremely drinkable and more-ish brew.

Brewer Evin told us that his wife had given birth to a baby boy but they'd not yet got a name. I suggested that simcoe (a hop he uses in his ales) would be a good moniker. We'll see whether his other half agrees...

After Chris had bought a few bottles, we wandered off to Lou Farrow's, the local pie and mash shop.

I opted for double pie, double mash which was in hindsight a tad optimistic as their pies are quite filling and I ended up not finishing my mash. Bad form, don't you know...

(left) The Oakdale Arms - doomed?

The first pub of the day was to be the Oakdale Arms in Harringay, north London, which meant a three-tube journey.

This pub is part of the Individual Pubs chain and is sister pub to the Pembury Tavern. It has been under threat for the past few years and is now supposed to be closing for good.

As such the place is looking a bit run down and there are only two beers on - Spartacus and Tiki from Milton - apparently most of the handpumps have gone to the Pembury in Hackney. We opt for the Spartacus - it's not in brilliant condition.

Manager Rob sees Chris looking into one of the glass cases holding a variety of reptiles and takes out one of his Bearded Dragons. They look fearsome little beasts but don't apear to mind being handled so I pick one up and am surprised by how soft they are. Apparently all they need is one good meaty feed per week and then they're happy on salad. Not my sort of diet.

Rob said he is taking each day as it comes and there is hope that the current planning permission will expire before any work is done to convert the pub into housing. Fingers crossed it does survive.

From here we travelled across north London to Gospel Oak where the heavens opened as we got off the train. Once we'd taken the correct route (after I headed off in the wrong direction), it was just a short walk to the Southampton Arms and so we didn't get too wet.

This pub sits on Highgate Road and as we approached it was clear the road had been cordoned off by police cars. What was occurring?

It turned out that a car had somehow turned over on top of a zebra crossing just a hundred yards down from the pub.

Fortunately the driver was not badly hurt so we didn't feel too bad rubber-necking.

(right) Hmmm, bet you couldn't execute that manoeuvre again, squire...

The Southampton Arms has a great range of beers and ciders and thankfully is not too busy.

As ever I have to remember to ask for a straight glass in here otherwise you're given a jam jar.

After a few pints, it's time to get the football results - there is only one that really matters today and Chris is pleased to hear Rotherham have started the season with a victory against Lincoln (who had simian-featured Clarke Keltie in their ranks).

We move onto the nearby Dartmouth Arms where the Leeds -v- Derby game is in full swing on the TV with only a dozen or so interested punters watching it.

I'm quite surprised to see the pub has three Westerham beers on the pumps : British Bulldog, Grass Hopper and Finchcocks Original.

Both of us opt for the Grass Hopper - Chris quite likes it but I'm not keen as the condition is a bit poor.

(left) The Southampton Arms

Once the game is over, we move on down to Kentish Town and a nice back street boozer called the Pineapple which is the local CAMRA current pub of the year.

The place was very busy as we arrived but we managed to grab a couple of seats at the bar. Also in residence was Jeremy Paxman's understudy, Gavin Esler.

There were five beers on including the likes of Bass, Redemption Urban Dusk and Sambrook's Wandle Ale. We both had the Redemption which was OK but not outstanding - not a surprise as it then ran out.

We arranged to make a final pit stop at the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras where we'd meet Liz after she got back into town. As I got there I couldn't find my phone and then Liz turned up to tell me that the Pineapple had rung her (last number redial) to say I'd left it on the bar. Doh!

The beauty of having a crappy five-year old Nokia is that the smart young things of north London wouldn't think twice about pocketing such a primitive device.

Hopefully I'll not be quite so forgetful over the coming weeks and months of the season. Bring it on!

GBBF 2010

As the new season finally approaches, there was a week of drinking to be done at the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court.

Normally I just take a few afternoons off work and pop down to drink with whoever has come down to London to visit the festival but this year I decided to try my hand at being a GBBF volunteer.

I opted for working the set-up weekend before the festival opened and then a couple of sessions working on the bars themselves.

I turned up bright and early on the first Saturday at 8am and after signing in, I was given a hi-vis jacket and told to go and find some work on the floor. I wandered off and found the nearest group who turned out to be Sarah Durham and her Wet Stock Control team.

This team are responsible for the arrival of the beer at the festival - first the large consolidated orders from the major beer wholesalers on articulated lorries and then later from individual brewers themselves.

(left) Setting up the Belgian & Dutch bar

The barrels are unloaded, checked off against what we're expecting and once we're happy we've got what we want, the beers are borne away by forklift to their bars.

It may not sound very exiciting but it was great fun meeting the brewers who brought their own wares. All of the wet stock team were hardened GBBF volunteers and were very welcoming to a newbie like me and it was a fun weekend.

The festival opened on Tuesday afternoon - this is trade session when all different parts of the brewing and pub industry get in for free - and I was working on the BSF (Bier Sans Frontiere) bar, specifically the Belgian and Dutch beers.

This is the bar where I've spent a lot of my time at previous GBBFs so there were quite a few familiar faces around when I turned up at 8:30am. Plenty of work to be done filling the cool cabinets with beers - mainly rearranging them to allow for the Italian beers that had turned up late.

I didn't make a great impression when I knocked a bottle of Orval out of one cabinet and it smashed all over the floor but they're a forgiving lot. I'm sure I'm not the first to have made this faux pas.

There were a few familiar beers from Holland - Ij and De Prael in bottles and draught plus three huge barrels from De Molen - plus the usual suspects from Belgium.

There were some good beers from the Italians too - the West Coast IPA was very good (Steve liked this so much he went back for more) whilst the Revelation Cat Single Hop Lambic divided opinion although the geuze-hounds I know really enjoyed it.

And when the festival opened I met quite a few familiar faces - Steve, landlord of the Pembury Tavern; Evin from the Kerney brewery; James Brodie from Brodies beers and Steve Freer, occasional Darlo fan and publisher of the Tynemill Times.

(right) The three huge barrels from De Molen

I also got to meet Tandleman, one of my favourite beer bloggers, who was working on the German bar of BSF. A nice chap, it was good to finally put a name to a face.

In the evening the public were allowed in so Liz joined me from the other side of the bar whilst she waited for various London Millers.

I was at the festival next day too but that as a punter - Steve had come up from Cardiff and had bagged a couple of seats as I joined him for a steady afternoon of drinking.

Steve and I were back the following day - I was working again whilst he continued from where he left off the previous night.

By this time, we all knew that Castle Rock Harvest Pale had been crowned Champion Beer of Britain - a beer well known to quite a few of DAFTS from our visits to the VAT & Fiddle in recent seasons.

Not the most complex or ground-breaking beer in the worked but it is a very good, consistent session beer and from that perspective as good a winner as any in recent years.

Later in the day I met Trevor, my chum from the Macclesfield festival, and I helped him to try out a few beers with a view to next year's beer list. Unfortunately he went to the loo and lost his notes which rather spoilt his day and so he trudged off disconsolately for his train home.

(above) Punters and Pints

I was left chatting to Dave, one of the brewers from Kinver Brewery, who was down for a few drinks. Coincidentally we had been drinking his beers when we met him - and very good they were.

And then it was all over for me too. The volunteering really enhanced my enjoyment of the festival and gave me a greater insight into the scale of the organisation behind it and the number of volunteers who make it all possible.

I'll be back to do my bit again next year...