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The great British pub crawl

We had marched beyond Hog Hill, across Ashton Farm and past Four Barrow Hill, bound for the Dorset Coast Path and surprised by the cool bite of the breeze on our faces. Suddenly, the English coast rested at our feet.

Or so it seemed from the crest on which we stood, gaping.

Straight ahead was Weymouth, the Isle of Portland and the English Channel. To the right, the coastline disappeared into the horizon, to the left, the same, and we could distinguish the shape of the land as it appears on maps. We were 160 meters above sea level, but it seemed like the top of the world, as if we could see all the way from Dover to Penzance.

The view
Want to plan your own walking tour of country pubs? Here's how we did it.

We had come expecting stunning views but weren't prepared for this. It was dazzling. And the fact that the three of us had hiked here and were sharing the scene with only a few sheep made it all the more extraordinary.

Although you often see advertisements for organized pub crawls and walking tours in Britain, you may not realize how easy it is to set out on your own. Rambling is the second-most popular hobby in the country, and England and Wales have more than 100,000 miles of footpaths, public rights of way that allow ramblers to traverse farms, golf courses and forests. Since walking is so popular, detailed maps and guidebooks are plentiful.

What's more, an English ramble can double as a beer vacation, although we hadn't planned it as such. Our intention was to find an England that foreign tourists usually neglect. We chose Dorset county because writer Thomas Hardy had immortalized its scenery in novels such as "Far From the Madding Crowd." Additionally, journeying in Dorset is a form of time travel, with sights ranging from Iron Age forts to Roman amphitheaters to Victorian seaside pavilions. When we learned Dorchester was home to Eldridge Pope & Co., brewers of Thomas Hardy's Ale and Royal Oak, we arranged for a tour. Beer gradually became a touchstone, as we anticipated drinking locally made real ales. And, after comparing hotel prices to pub lodging prices, we decided to sleep where we drank.

So it happened that we were in a busy London train station on Sunday morning and in a country pub called the Digby Tap on Sunday afternoon, sipping our Shepherd Neame Bitter and Smiles Best Bitter, watching a man entertain his young daughter while his mates rolled cigarettes and played darts.

Prelude to a walk: Sunday in Sherborne

A British Rail train took the three of us -- Stan, Daria and Stan's 16-year-old son, Ryan -- to the village of Sherborne, about 130 miles southwest of London. It is best known for Sherborne Abbey, founded in 988, and the abbey's 15th century church, which has an incredible Britannia Inn fan-vaulted roof, ornate crypts and tombs, and a monks' washing place. Also here are two Sherborne Castles, one built in the 12th century and now consisting of ancient ruins, the other built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594. Many of the town's buildings are between 200 and 500 years old. We stayed at the Brittania Inn, which formerly was a home for wayward girls. Our "family room" was clean and large, with a bathroom just down the hall.

We dined at the Brittania and drank Tetley's and Wadsworth 6X alongside locals who had come straight from church. Younger patrons played pool and listened to loud music in the smoky second barroom. Royal Oak and Dorchester Bitter were an after-dinner treat at the nearby Cross Keys.

Throughout the trip, we drank real ale, as defined by the Campaign for Real Ale. It is unpasteurized, cask conditioned beer with natural carbonation. Most pubs also offer keg ale, including various stouts, as well as keg lager and cider.

Day One, Monday: When you're on foot, 12 miles aren't 12 minutes, they are a day

After a full English breakfast -- bacon, sausage, cold cereal, eggs, toast with jam, coffee, tea, orange juice -- we restuffed the backpacks, slipped into hiking boots and set out for adventure. Since our destination for the day was 20 miles away in Dorchester, we took a bus eight miles south to Minterne Magna.

Although Stan had been studying the walking maps for months, it was still a bit scary to be dropped off in the middle of a foreign land. Fortunately, we had bought a book called "Dorset Walks" in Sherborne, and it included our first morning's walk. The directions made it easy for us:

Field "Go through a waymarked metal gate a few yards in front and head straight across a large sloping field (no path), keeping roughly parallel to and about 100 yards above a fence to the right. Go through the next metal gate and keep in the same direction across the next field, parallel to a wire fence on the right, along a narrow but discernible path that bears slightly left to pass through another metal gate."

And so forth, taking us safely across meadows, under trees and through gates to the Cerne Giant. The giant, a 180-foot-tall, well-endowed man cut into the side of a chalk hill, is believed to be a prehistoric fertility symbol. He overlooks Cerne Abbas, another ancient town built around an abbey, and a former brewing center.

The fireplace in the Red Lion, one of the town's 13 original pubs, dates back to the 14th century. Today, 60 percent of its business comes from selling food, but the publican literally put his arms around four handpumps when he said, "These determine if I make money or not." The Red Lion is a free house, serving Wadsworth IPA and 6X plus two guest beers.

After a half-pint, it was on to Godmanstone and the Smiths Arms, known as England's smallest pub. We were no longer on the path in the "Dorset Walks" book, but relying on an Ordnance Survey map. Walking rights of way are marked by red dots on the map, but there were no red dots on the ground ahead of us. Sometimes the path looked like a trail, and other times it was little more than beaten-down grass. An occasional sign, such as a yellow or blue symbol posted Turnstile on a fencepost, horse droppings (walking and bridle paths often co-exist), or a stile -- a way through (turnstile) or over a fence -- indicated we were on the right track. We found six tables inside the thatched-roof Smiths Arms, with more outside by the River Cerne. The Ringwood Best Bitter is dispensed by gravity from casks turned on their sides. The food here, as everywhere in Dorset, was good to excellent.

The journey on to Dorchester was challenging. We completely lost the trail, had to backtrack and ended up reaching town via a busy highway. Those famous English hedges are no fun to walk beside when they take up the shoulder of the road.

By the time we reached town, the 35-pound backpacks felt like 135. Our lodging for the next two nights was at a bed and breakfast, which was as cheap as any of the pubs. Arriving at the door, anxious only to lose our gear, we were greeted by the smiling owner, June Priddle. "Do we want tea?" she asked.

It had been a long day, but after giving our feet time to recover, we headed out to explore the beer choices. At Tom Brown's, we drank Flashman's Clout and Midnight Blinder, made on premise in the Goldfinch Brewery. At the White Hart, we sat on sofas and quaffed Badger Best and Tanglefoot Strong from Hall & Woodhouse. Dinner was in an Italian restaurant where the "house bitter" also was made by Hall & Woodhouse.

Day Two, Tuesday: Opportunity knocks

eldrige Pope Brewery We spent the morning touring the Eldridge Pope brewery, then visited the Old Ship for lunch, Royal Oak and Thomas Hardy Country Bitter. That afternoon, we walked to Hardy's cottage in Higher Bockhampton and stopped at Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried. (The rest of him went to Westminster Abbey.)

We planned to spend the remainder of the day exploring Dorchester and dining at the Kings Arms, featured in Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge." When we returned to the B&B, however, Christopher Pope, the chairman of Eldridge Pope, called to invite us to dine with him and his wife, Sylvia, and to walk. Pope had called Stan before we left the States. An avid rambler, he was intrigued that we were walking on our own in a foreign country.

He and his dogs led us through a tree-lined valley where Hardy had once rambled and to the family hunting lodge. As the sun set, the sheep actually glowed. "Very Hardy-ish," Pope said. Back at Wrackleford, the Pope estate, we sat on the terrace and dined on pheasant eggs, Dorset knobs (biscuits) and Stilton cheese, while he helped plot our remaining walking days.

Day Three, Wednesday: Reality exceeds expectations

The day began with a trip to Dorchester's weekly market, where the bargains include vegetables, white socks and antiques. We made room in the backpacks for a Flowers Best Bitter advertising light, an Eldridge Pope & Co. pitcher and five pub towels. Next stop was Maumbury Rings, a Roman amphitheater where gladiators battled, then on to Maiden Castle. No stone turrets here, for this is an Iron Age fort, enclosing an area of 47 acres with triple ramparts more than 60 feet high. Roman invaders drove the Durotriges tribe from the fort in 69 A.D. Today, the castle is left to those who make the steep climb to the top and sheep who tend to the grass.

Another great view The Hardy Monument was our guidepost for the rest of the morning. It honors Admiral Thomas Hardy, Lord Nelson's right-hand man at the Battle of Trafalgar, and not the author. The towering obelisk, perched on a hill that makes it seem even taller, would fall from view as we dipped into valleys to walk beside cows and sheep and reappear as we mounted hilltops. Passing through a wheatfield, Daria sent a startled pheasant flapping up as loudly as a helicopter, and a huge hare sprang out in front of us.

Soon after we reached Ridge Hill and first saw the spectacular coastline, we spied a group of monument-bound walkers coming up another path. Below the tower, a couple stood near a station wagon, cutting bread and cheese on a table loaded with food. Having already calculated we wouldn't make it to the pub in Portesham in time for lunch, we might briefly have wished we were spending $600 a day to walk with the pampered. Instead, we munched cookies from the Dorchester market and drank water from a canteen.

We crossed pine woods and pastures and saw a sign that read "Hell Stone Only" on the way back to high ground. Every couple of hundred yards, Ryan would declare the current view of the Sheep's view of Abbotsbury coast the best yet. From afar, our destination of Abbotsbury resembled a village from a fairy tale, with its shimmering swannery and ancient St. Catharine's Chapel perched regally on a hilltop. Upon reaching town, however, we encountered a tour bus lumbering down the narrow main street. Fortunately, the town's tourist attractions don't detract from its charms, among them a giant tithe barn, where 14th century Catholics delivered crops and livestock to support the church.

We stayed at the Ilchester Arms, Abbotsbury's only inn, where a reserved table for dinner came with the room. The walkers who had lunched at the Hardy Monument showed up at the bar. Two of them complained about always having to stay with the group, while another was amazed to learn we were walking on our own. "It seems like we're just walking across fields," he said.

After a fine meal of seafood and beef-and-Guinness pie, we settled into plush sofas and had more Boddingtons and Flowers while admiring some of the 1,000 prints that decorate the walls.

Day Four, Thursday: Good for what ales you

Up and back down We headed up a path monks once traveled, then west to Abbotsbury Castle. The "castle" is nothing more than a mound of dirt with a superb view. June is a fine time to travel on the Dorset Coast Path, because wildflowers decorate the countryside: bellflowers, dandelions, poppies, Queen Anne's lace and more, running the spectrum from vivid red to delicate lavender to deep violet.

Our plan was to hike on the beach into West Bay, the day's destination. Once we reached West Bexington and beach access, however, we discovered that "Chesil Beach" is composed of sea-smoothed pebbles. Walking on it is like plodding through snow, difficult even without backpacks. "That looks like work," a fisherman observed. We agreed and returned to the Coast Path.

Around lunchtime, Stan was stung by something unfriendly, and his right arm began to swell and itch unbearably. He applied salve and suggested we find a pint, for medicinal purposes. We hiked through a caravan (mobile home) park and into Burton Bradstock. At the Three Horseshoes, we had our first taste of Palmer's Centenary 200, a wonderful strong ale specially brewed by the Bridport brewery to celebrate its 200th anniversary. Nostalgic World War II veterans wearing their old uniform shirts reminisced at the bar.

The walking path led us to the West Bay golf course and alongside fairways. We felt goofy passing the golfers as we headed to the edge of the cliff, from which we could see the West Bay beach, the thatched roof pub where we'd sleep, and the curve of the coast to Lyme Regis.

Palmer's Brewery Our room at the Bridport Arms opened right onto the beach, and Ryan was delighted to discover topless women bathers. The guest register revealed it had been several months since another American had stayed there. West Bay is a tourist town, with fishing excursions, fish-and-chips stands and souvenir shops, but the tourists are all British.

Stan and Daria walked a few miles north to investigate the pubs of Bridport, passing Palmer's thatched roof brewery. Our favorite pub was Ropemakers, where we had more Centenary 200 and watched Wimbledon. We ate the most expensive meal of our trip (including London) at an excellent seafood restaurant in West Bay.

Day Five, Friday: Expect the unexpected

As we left the Bridport Arms, the owner asked, "Where are you off to today?"

"Lyme Regis," Stan said.

"Oh, lots of this," he responded, making up-and-down, hilly motions with his hand.

He wasn't kidding. The packs never felt heavier than when we climbed up and down those windy Dorset cliffs. By now, Daria had lost all feeling in her upper back, the pack having temporarily deadened some nerves.

Our first high point was Thorncombe Beacon. "That's a bit steep of a one there, eh?" said a passing walker.

Leaning tree, sheep Nestled below the cliff was Seatown and the Anchor Inn. We sat on the beachfront patio and drank more Palmer's. Then it was back up, to Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast. Although 626 feet above sea level sounds modest, the climb was so steep that even the sheep stood at a slant. Golden Cap offered 360 degrees of the scenes we had savored throughout the walk, from seacoast to chalk cliffs to rolling farmland. Having scaled the heights, we looked forward to a leisurely hike into the resort town of Lyme Regis.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Signs just past Charmouth reported that part of the path had been washed out since 1989, and we would have to detour. Dismayed at having to leave the pastoral for the urban, we trudged, clueless, through residential neighborhoods, along a busy highway and across a motel parking lot, looking for the detour path. We eventually discovered it in the woods and followed it across the Lyme Regis Golf Course and down a steep street into town. Thankfully, the Angel, our pub for the night, was easy to find.

The Angel keeps traditional pub hours, closing every afternoon as all pubs did before 1989. That afternoon, the owners needed the rest, for a busload of CAMRA members had stopped by at noon. Yet publican Ed Bignal still took time to step out the front door and point out the sights, such as the Leper's Well a block away. Lepers once lived along the Angel's street, Mill Green, a narrow alley on which monks had led horsedrawn carts centuries ago.

We eagerly explored the town, the setting for John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and the film of the same name. We scaled steep, twisted, narrow streets, walked along the beachfront promenade past a Victorian pavilion and strolled on the Cobb, the stone barricade that Meryl Streep trod in the movie. We even heard Lyme Regis' traditional town crier proclaiming the day's news.

Narrow street Town pubs included the Royal Standard, which had an enclosed outdoor seating area, and the Harbour Inn, with a patio opening onto the beach. Both welcomed children and served high tea. Dinner was at the Volunteer, a free house with several new-to-us real ales.

We returned to the Angel to find it bustling. Patrons constantly paraded between the skittles alley out back and the back door to the pub, where they refilled their pints. When the skittles shut down, the singing began. It sounded like something out of a bawdy English musical, with the leader singing the verses and the rest of the crowd joining in the choruses.The two house dogs barely stirred, and while most patrons participated in the singing, one couple sat at a table and played cribbage.

Near closing time, townsfolk headed home after a night out walked by the Angel. Alerted by the din, one pressed his nose to the windowpane, then turned to the others and said, "It's just the skittles crew."

Epilogue, Saturday: Is there real ale at Stonehenge?

On the train back to London, we eavesdropped on another group of Americans making plans for their remaining stay in London. Their trip to the country had been a race against time -- two hours at Stonehenge, an hour in Salisbury, etc.

We, on the other hand, were already wishing we were back in Dorset, far from the madding crowd.

This story was written after a trip to England in 1994. Here are some tips to plan your own.


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