I love a good pub crawl, me, and in these restricted times a trip out somehow seems even more special. So on a sunny Saturday, what could be better than gathering together a group of six for a crawl around some of Reading’s finest establishments?
Strictly speaking, our tour of Reading actually began over the Thames in Caversham, at the much-vaunted Fox and Hounds. It’s literally a walk in the park to get here, crossing over the Christchurch bridge from the back end of the railway station; it takes about ten minutes, a journey made even more entertaining by seeing a great headed goal from a peach of a cross in a boys football match, and the dad of one of the players falling off his son’s bike whilst trying a few moves.
We scanned and sanitised our way in, and were offered a seat in the covered courtyard, where we scanned the beer menu (the Untapped app) onto our phones. All this scanning is fine if you have the technology, but if you don’t, this can be a problem. The pub has five real ales and a whole host of keg options, which would be nigh on impossible for your server to remember and repeat to you. Which also then begs the question of how a brewery can promote its beer over another in these circumstances? However catchy or bold your pumpclip, bottle or packaging, nobody can now see it. The marketing goalposts have been very much moved.
Our app informed us that the beers included Big Smoke Solaris (session IPA), Wild Weather Full of Beans (coffee stout) and Storm in a Teacup (IPA brewed with tea) which got us started, the pints arriving in traditional dimple mugs and halves in nice Left Handed Giant stemmed glasses.
We could quite easily have spent most of the day here, but we had plenty more to see – and drink. Table service is inevitably slower than popping up to the bar, so we had only enough time for one on this visit; we paid our bill and left. We will be back, that’s for sure.
Retracing our steps to the station, then through the underpass, brought us to a perennial favourite, the Greyfriar. This has only recently reopened but still has a decent choice of ales: Storm in a Teacup (again), plus Loddon Citra Quad, Tiny Rebel Cwtch and a Windsor & Eton best bitter. Great to have it back, as it also serves as my station waiting room on trips to Reading. The pub was quite quiet at this time, but the welcome was warm, a table for six being quickly assembled for us and an order taken. No waiting time here. The speed of the service allowed some of us to have several beers, and the conversation tuned to where we should visit next. “The Butler served a great pint of Pride when I was last there”, remarked Tony, adding for clarity that this was 30 years ago. It was on our route, is in the current Good Beer Guide, and it’s a historic building, so it became our next stop.
Of all the pubs you’d expect to get table service, it’s one called the Butler. But there was no liveried flunky with a silver tray here; in fact, there was nobody at all here except a rather lonely barman, who asked us to order at the bar, presumably not wishing to overdo the excitement too early in the day. The beer choice was Proper Job or Good Old Boy, both good beers, but not in the same league as the choice in our first two pubs. On my previous visits here the pub has veered between being absolutely fantastic and whatever the opposite of fantastic is; today was the latter. It might well have been great 30 years ago, Tony, but not any more. Such was the level of custom, we had to unbolt the one-way system exit door to get out.
There’s very little to be said about the Nags Head that hasn’t already been written, but if you’ve not been here recently, the rear car park has been transformed into a stunning beer garden, with astroturf, gravel paths, marquees with heaters and plenty of seating, probably about five times as big as is in the pub itself. The investment here is substantial and commendable. If you’ve never been here at all, then you should.
You can still go inside the pub – a few tables are available here, as are the toilets. We’d not booked an indoor table, so got to appreciate the new garden, sensibly opting for a table under cover, as the heavens opened about ten minutes after we sat down. The beer menu was once again on the Untapped app, revealing a list of 12 cask, 15 keg and 15 ciders. Despite such a long list, our server, who wrote down the order on paper, old-school style, seemed to know every beer/cider we mentioned, and was even able to offer some basic tasting and colour information, even though we were choosing from a list of around 40+ drinks. That’s impressive service.
We stayed for two rounds here (or was it three?) as there was so much to try, and apart from a dodgy Maggs’ Mild (exchanged without question, and removed from sale immediately) everything we had was superb, the Vibrant Forest Black Oktober Russian Imperial Stout being the stand out amongst many gems.
Once the rain had stopped, or nearly stopped, we made tracks to the Castle Tap. There are few pubs you’d leave the Nags for, but the Castle has become one of my Reading favourites, not just for the beer: you can play darts here! Of course, you can’t play darts any more, because that would be dangerous, so we just had to drink instead. We were ushered to a table – reserved, we noted, for later that night - and picked a beer, most of us being tempted by a session pale ale from Lord’s brewery in Huddersfield. Most of the beers we’d seen on our crawl had been local(ish) so this might be why I plumped for it, though it felt a bit thin compared to my last beer at the Nags, coincidently the other Yorkshire beer of the day, the wonderfully-named Vamos Leeds Carajo! (their exclamation mark, 8.5%) from Five Towns Brewery. Probably did these two in the wrong order. No apps at the Castle, just the regular blackboard with the added bonus of the staff reading it out to you because beer blindness has begun setting in.
We only stayed for the one, not just because we couldn’t play darts, but because the staff needed to clean the table before the pre-booked crowd arrived, so we retired to the garden of the Allied Arms for a pint before the train home. I don’t remember what I drank, in truth, I don’t remember how we ordered, but I think the chap who served us probably reeled off the list of ales and we said yes to any one we could remember. I love the Allied. I miss being in the pub itself, so much so that until its post-lockdown re-opening I didn’t know it had such a great garden, which is currently the only seating area. Despite everything, I was sober enough to leave the pub in just enough time to make the train, and to find my way back to the station. And to get off at the right station, which is always a bonus.
So how was it, what had we learned? Well, firstly, Reading is up and open for business, and there are several more great places to go in addition to those we did. Table service takes some getting used to (I’m not there yet); I miss the visit to the bar, looking at what’s available, the occasional taster, checking out all the options. And snacks too! At the bar you’re tempted by seeing the peanuts, crisps, pork pies and the like, but by sitting at a table, you don’t see them, you don’t order them. Another pub revenue stream depleted. We also learned that beer buying seated at tables is now generally in rounds - you can’t really go Dutch, you can’t expect the staff to scan a different card for every drink. You do seem to spend a lot of time sitting around, too.
But most of all we learned that you can’t beat a day out with great beer, superb pubs and good company. Oh, and that we shouldn’t base our pub choices on Tony’s three-decades-old memories.