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LONDON PUB OF THE YEAR 2014: ROGER’S BLOG


This is a personal weblog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the SPBW. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time. I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This weblog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time snapshot and manifestation of the various memes running around my brain, and as such any thoughts and opinions expressed within out-of-date posts may not the same, nor even similar, to those I may hold today.

DAY 1DAY 2DAY 3DAY 4DAY 5DAY 6DAY 7DECISION




WEDNESDAY 23 July

The Calthorpe

Good evening everybody and welcome back to the new round of LPotY judging. Is it really only 6 months since we handed the 2014 award to the Eleanor Arms? (And it was only handed over after I prised the plaque from Alasdair's vice-like grip).

This year 12 pubs have been nominated - 3 for the first time (Ivy House, Door Hinge, Mad Bishop & Bear) and there are also 4 past winners (Royal Oak, Harp, Ye Olde Mitre, Wenlock Arms); also in the mix are 5 likely locals (Calthorpe Arms, Blythe Hill Tavern, Sussex Arms, Hope, Old Fountain) so the competition looks as strong as ever. We have 6 judging sessions lined up with the final voting session set for 22 October. The judging panel looks much the same this year although John Rooth is breaking in a new knee and won't be out and about much before September, and I've not heard from Hugh. We do welcome James Grayson from Bethnal Green to add his expertise.

It's a sweltering evening and I take the tube to Blackfriars (not quite finishing the Guardian cryptic crossword) before strolling through the massed ranks of workers and tourists, via Ludgate and Holborn Circuses (circi?) and round the back of Mount Pleasant before I arrive at pub number 1, the Calthorpe Arms. I see Patrick ensconced in a corner and I'm immediately followed by Bill, who must have been lurking outside waiting for someone to come in and buy him a pint. Fat chance of that!

The Calthorpe is a regular LPotY nomination and quite rightly. This is an archetypal community local, superbly run by Adrian (who's been here yonks) and his excellent staff. It's a cosy one-room pub with the emphasis on conviviality and conversation; no background music and the TV in the corner is silent (except perhaps for major sports). It's been owned by Youngs for about 30 years and inevitably serves 'Ordinary' and Special; St Austell seems to be a regular here and another handpump is reserved for either a guest ale or a Youngs' seasonal. Tonight it's Hummingbird, a most agreeable summer ale.

Bill
Before long the early arrivals are joined by Aidan, Alasdair, James and hanger-on Bill O'Hara, mild mannered Glaswegian. There follows some lively banter, most of which was immensely forgettable. I should mention that the Calthorpe serves excellent and good value food and it was no surprise that Bill decided to stuff his face. I tried to avert my face from this ghastly sight, which was enough to drive one to drink (if the heat hadn't done so already).

So the Calthorpe - maybe not spectacular in terms of beer choice but the quality is first class and it's a pub I would unreservedly recommend.

Calthorpe Arms, 252 Grays Inn Road, WC1X 8JR.







Bill with healthy snack



Ye Olde Mitre Time to move on - we all make our various ways to the next pub and for some reason no one joins me on my short cut across Clerkenwell. When I reach the bar at Ye Olde Mitre, I'm surprised to see that Alasdair has beaten me to it - apparently he hijacked a bus on leaving the Calthorpe. Within a few minutes the entire gang has joined us. We congregate in the front bar which has a bit more seating room. Most of

us are able to use our Olde Mitre discount cards, which enable a 15% discount. The rest of us are immediately signed up to this excellent scheme (you need to be a CAMRA member to be eligible).

YOM is the SPBW LPotY winner (oh these acronyms!) before last and is another that should be visited by all discerning pub lovers. It has two quite separate rooms, a small and cosy snug area and an upstairs function room (used for our Beer & Buffet events in August) plus plenty of standing room outside. It's not the easiest to find, but plenty do - local office types, tourists and beer lovers. Try and avoid lunchtimes and early evenings if you want a comfortable drink and note it's closed weekends (except just prior to the GBBF). Food is limited to snacks (pork pies, toasties and the like).

The bar in Ye Olde Mitre - SPBW award on the right

And the beer? Well, the pub is owned by Fullers and you'll see London Pride and 'Gales' Seafarer, plus this evening, Summer Ale. Adnams Broadside and Caledonian Deuchars IPA are also regulars and there are also two guest beers, one of which tonight is Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. The pub is expertly run by Scotty and Kathy plus another set of excellent staff - it makes such a difference to have friendly and efficient people serving.

Could YOM win again? Whether or not it does this is a pub I always enjoy visiting and I'm sure both my readers would as well. So ends a very enjoyable first judging session with the bar (so to speak) set pretty high. We reconvene on 6 August at the Mad Bishop & Bear.

Ye Olde Mitre, Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ

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WEDNESDAY 6 August

The Mad Bishop & Bear

And so to the second judging session. Travelling to Paddington for this purpose involves a simple journey from Bromley-by-Bow on the Hammersmith & City line. Problem is we seem to hit every possible red signal and so the journey drags rather. This has the effect that I alight from the train thinking that some refreshment might be welcome. On my way from the H&C line platforms I notice a new pub on the concourse called something like the Beer Shop (please do not correct me if I'm wrong) which offers a few handpumped beers plus a number of 'craft' offerings. However, our destination for starters is on the upper level of the 'retail' section of the station, namely the Mad Bishop & Bear.

Patrick and James have beaten me to it so I dump my stuff and head inside to see what's on offer. The MB & B is a Fullers pub and thus offers the usual Chiswick brews. It also had three guest beers this evening: Butcombe Rare Breed, Lancaster Straw and Tap East Tonic. I concentrate on the guests with a token half of London Pride for the sake of it. Before I sample the Tonic (from one of east London's many brew pubs) Patrick describes it as having a vegetable-type flavour with hints of hedge. When I actually taste it I'm almost disappointed to find that it's just a rather aggressively-hopped low gravity pale ale. Obviously he has a more imaginative palate than me.

At the Mad Bishop and Bear.

By this time Aidan and Alasdair have arrived - Bill is absent due to working late and delivering copies of London Drinker, presumably in that order. There is some discussion as to the pub's name - the bear is presumably Paddington and the theory was that the bishop was from a west country see. But to be honest I've not been sufficiently concerned to make further enquiries.

The pub is a large open-plan establishment and the area out front, known as 'the Lawn' serves a kind of mini food court also serving a couple of chain snack bars. Service was ok although a couple more staff might have helped. To be fair, as rush hour receded, the pub did thin out a bit. It seemed a decent place for a pint or two if you're travelling through Paddington station, but I can't imagine I'd want to drink here regularly otherwise. This is nothing to do with the quality or choice of beer (or even the price - although the guests were a bit above £4 a pint), it's just that, to my liking, it's not sufficiently pub-like. But go and check it for yourself.

Mad Bishop & Bear, Upper Level, Paddington Station W2 1HB www.madbishopandbear.co.uk



Harp We decide to leave at about 8.30. Our journey to the second pub should be very straightforward, except that the Bakerloo line isn't stopping at Paddington. Instead we use the District line to Edgware Road, a Circle to Baker Street and pick up the Bakerloo from there to Charing Cross. Somehow we all get dispersed from the train but in no time we all find ourselves at the bar of the Harp.

This highly-regarded pub was LPotY for 2008 and subsequently became CAMRA's national PotY. In the last few weeks however, there has been a major change: Binny Walsh, highly esteemed lady of the house, has sold the pub to Fullers (for £5 or 7 million, depending which report you read). Since Binny is no longer in the first flush of youth or in the best of health, you can hardly blame her for cashing in on a pub she has run so well for several years. In reality, the changes will be low-key* - Binny's excellent bar staff have been retained and only one or two pumps will be used for Fullers beers. So the superb range of beers will mostly be retained. Harvey's best and Dark Star Hophead are always on sale here and this evening were joined by the likes of Twickenham Naked Ladies, White Horse Black Beauty, Red Squirrel London Porter, Weird Beard Hitlights.
*Fullers also took over Ye Olde Mitre a few years ago and worked on the policy of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Being close to Charing Cross station, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and 'theatre land' there is no lack of potential clientele for this fairly small pub so it does tend to get rather crowded.

Alasdair, Aidan and James in full judging mode! My glass looks nearly ready for a refill.

Don't be too put off as the service here is quite superb. There is a small upstairs room which this evening was deserted, quite a few punters preferring to imbibe al fresco, either in the street out front or in the alley way at the rear, which is a handy short cut to the London Coliseum. The beers, by the way, are served in the traditional London manner with a nice foaming head, but with a full measure. Take note, northerners!

While Alasdair ingratiated himself with some of the regulars, the rest of us found some seats and worked our way through the beer range. This is a pub I really enjoy (when it's not too packed) and I'm sure you'd all enjoy it too.

So, after another evening of hearty imbibing it was time to wend my way home, knowing that I would be a year older the next day.

The Harp, 47 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HS www.harpcoventgarden.com

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WEDNESDAY 3 September

Door Hinge Door Hinge

After a few week's break we're back in action, covering two pubs in south east London this evening. First destination is in Welling which, strictly speaking, isn't in London (it has a Dartford postcode), but it's within the Greater London boundary and that's good enough. On a pleasant evening I take the DLR to Lewisham followed by a squeeze on a main line train. How do people do this twice a day? At least I manage to get a seat after a stop or two so I can continue my assault on the Guardian crossword.

Once in suburbian Welling it's half a mile or so along the main road to the Door Hinge, our first pub of the evening. I'm the first of our team to arrive and as I stride purposefully into the pub a gentleman seated near the door says 'Hello, don't I know you?' This chap looked totally unfamiliar but he revealed himself to be Graham Austin, SPBW member (Campden Hill and Woolwich branches) from many a moon ago - in fact we decided it must have been a good 30 years since we last met. So I got myself a pint and sat down with Graham for a chat.

Now the Door Hinge is a micropub - apparently the first such in London - which means that, obviously, it's very small (just 4 tables), has a minimal bar counter and serves a very limited range of drinks - 3 beers straight from the cask, a cider or two and wine. Food is limited to crisps and the like. So no kegs, lagers or spirits, no tv or electronic machines and if you've got a mobile phone, keep it in your pocket - there are a few nailed to the wall by way of deterrent! In such a cosy set up it's hard to avoid being drawn into conversation. The pub has been open just 15 months and is presided over by Les, a former cab driver.

Beers available on our visit were Old Dairy Red Top, Kent Pale and Tring Kiwi - all in excellent condition and £3 a pint. The numerous pump clips covering some of the walls give an indications of previous offerings. Fresh hops also form part of the decor.

In time I was joined by Aidan, James and Hugh (making his first appearance this year). Patrick and Bill were otherwise engaged and who knows where Alasdair might have been. With a journey to Catford ahead of us we didn't hang around but said our farewells and headed back to the rail station. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the Door Hinge - it seems that several more micropubs are opening in south east London, so look out for them. Beware, if you're planning a visit, the DH has limited opening hours, so check the pub web site before travelling.

Door Hinge, 11 Welling High Street, DA16 1TR; www.thedoorhinge.co.uk



Blythe Hill Tavern So far so good, but things soon went (temporarily and metaphorically) downhill. It seems that signalling problems had buggered most train services on this line (which accounted for Mr Boyd's no-show). So plan B was a bus to Lewisham, then another to Catford, which helpfully stopped opposite the Blythe Hill Tavern. Crossing the road to the pub, who should I espy in the pub but my good friend and fellow Special Branch member, John O'Connor, who had not only nominated the BHT, but had helped to guide us there in our hour of need by text. And would you believe, John was sitting talking to Alasdair!

I hastened to the bar for a much needed pint of Dark Star Hophead, a regular fixture here. To get the beers out of the way, there was also Harvey's best, Courage best, Hog's Back TEA and Dark Star Espresso. Excellent beer quality is guaranteed and members of a beer campaigning group formed 8 years after SPBW get a 10% discount.

The BHT is a community pub par excellence, superbly run by Con and his team of highly efficient and friendly staff. The pub is neatly split in to 3 distinct drinking areas, there's a spacious patio outside and an equally substantial function room upstairs. TVs show sporting events (we were thankfully just too late for the England v Norway footie game) and there are regular quiz nights and occasional live music as well. No food here mind you, but I almost forgot to mention that cider drinkers are well catered for, with 3 or 4 selections on draught.

The BHT was runner up in this competition a couple of years back and it's hardly changed. I can unreservedly recommend a visit here; if you can't trust the train, this area is very well connected with bus routes.

Blythe Hill Tavern, 319 Stanstead Road, SE25 1JB; 020 8690 5176.



Despite visits to two excellent pubs we were not quite sated. Alasdair was in the mood to visit another pub so John led him, Hugh and me, via a short bus ride, to the Catford Constitutional Club, close to the rail stations. This is actually a pub, part of the Antic chain, the premises being the former Tory club. Antic had originally bought the former Copperfield pub, right next to Catford Bridge station, renamed it the Catford Bridge Tavern, and made a good go of it, until they were gazumped. That pub is now closed but the CCC is a decent substitute, offering 5 or 6 handpumped beers and a cider. But it's not on our nominated list so I won't go on about it any further. Suffice to say that I ended up consuming a bit more than I had planned and didn't get home until well after midnight.

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THURSDAY11 September

Let's start with a correction from last Wednesday's drivel: the proprietor of the Door Hinge is Ray Hurley, not as reported; my mistake. Whatever his name, the DH is a fine establishment, worthy of your custom.

Anyway, another night's judging, and I can claim complete or partial responsibility for both nominations. I rarely take a conventional route to these pubs and this evening I begin the evening at the Calthorpe Arms (see first blog in this series) where I need to confirm arrangements for the forthcoming Tony Littler Trophy event. While supping my pint of Youngs London Gold I polish off the Guardian crossword and,having polished off the pint, set off eastwards to the first of our designated pubs tonight, the Wenlock Arms. The Wenlock is a former LPotY winner, back in 2003 and has been a regular haunt of mine for many a year.

Wenlock A few years back the future of the Wenlock was in serious doubt. Will and Steve, who had converted this back street pub into one of London's premier beer venues, wanted to retire and it seemed that the only likely buyers were property developers - there has been a lot of office/residential development round about of late. The pub was saved thanks to Hackney Council who extended the border of the Regents Canal Conservation Area to include the Wenlock (which is about 300 yards south of the canal), meaning that the interior had to be largely preserved.

Under the new ownership, the pub has been very well refurbished - the (almost) island bar is intact but there is a new floor (no longer any danger of losing your change through the hole in the floorboards) and the partitions have been taken away, making the pub seem more spacious. Also the pub has been extended back where the old and rather unsavoury toilets were. The beer range remains impressive - 10 handpumps dispense a range of beers from a mild up to strong ales; a number of taps serve some of that crafty/keggy stuff and there are some real ciders as well.

The Wenlock is quite busy when I arrive and, as I order my pint of Burning Sky Plateau I notice that Patrick has beaten me to it and grabbed a table in a corner. On the next table is a somewhat noisy party of about 8 'youngsters' - only one of whom is male (oh lucky man!). Another reason for the increased custom tonight is that NE London CAMRA is launching the annual list of pubs, meaning that unsuspecting drinkers are harassed into buying copies of the GBG.

After a while we're joined by Aidan, Bill and James and we work our way through the beer range. The general thumbs up was given to 5 Points Railway, another fine Hackney brew and I can never resist Dark Star American Pale Ale. Alasdair eventually turns up but prefers to socialise with the CAMRA types.

I seem to have gone on a bit here, but suffice to say I like the Wenlock a lot. I'd prefer if the 'background' music was a bit quieter (or turned off) but this is still a community pub attracting local workers and residents as well as beer lovers from further afield. What a relief it survived.

Wenlock Arms, 26 Wenlock Road, N1 7TA; www.wenlockarms.com



Old Fountain We drink up and head for pub number 2. After last week's public transport traumas it's a relief that this is just a 10 minute walk away, past the Eagle (of 'Pop Goes The' fame) and the Bavarian Beerhouse, not to mention Moorfields Eye Hospital. Just off City Road we find the Old Fountain. This is quite busy as well but it's primarily an 'after work' pub so it gets a bit quieter and we find a table no problem.

The OF is another bastion of real ale and a worthy near-neighbour to the Wenlock. Fuller's London Pride is the one regular here but the other 7 handpumps serve an ever-changing selection of beers from small and micro-breweries. My scrawled notes remind me I tried two pale ales: Oakham Inferno and Summer Wine Cirachi and two dark ones: O'Hanlon Port Stout and Green Jack Lurcher Stout. There's also one cider on handpump and a few beers not served by handpump. Purely for the sake of research I sampled a half of Magic Rock High Wire which was pleasant enough, but noticeably gassy and cold compared to the real ales.

This is another pub I've been using regularly for a number of these years and these days it's also meeting place for Wantz branch. It's split into two sections on different levels, with doors on different streets, and there's a popular roof terrace upstairs (well it would be, wouldn't it). Again I could do without the canned music - at weekend evenings you can catch live acts - but there is no doubting the pub's popularity with local workers, plus beer lovers.

As we enjoy our beers we're joined by Hugh (working late) and Alasdair and we enjoy some pleasant conversation.

Old Fountain, 3 Baldwin Street (or via Peerless Street) EC1V 9NU; www.oldfountain.co.uk

So that's 8 out of 12 pubs visited so far and the standard is very high. I couldn't predict what would be my first choice so far, let alone my fellow judges.

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SUNDAY 21 SEPTEMBER

Royal Oak Well, it's not really. Sunday was the official judging day but filial duties precluded my participation. However, I made a special journey to visit one pub, the other being very well known to me (and many others). This latter pub is the Royal Oak in Borough. Since it was reopened as Harvey's first pub in London, back in August 1997, I've spent many a happy hour there - not to mention piles of money and a few million brain cells. Formerly a run-down keg-only Courage house, it was expertly refurbished with two separate rooms and a small 'bottle and jug type area, around a large island bar. You can usually expect most or all of the Harvey's range here, plus a rare brew from the Fullers portfolio. Oh yes, there's real draught cider as well. Food is of the wholesome and hearty kind and the bar staff are usually friendly and welcoming. On my most recent visit I enjoyed Wild Hop, a light and hoppy 3.7% brew.

I'm sure that most of you in the London area will be familiar with the Royal Oak; if not, this pub has to be on your must-visit list. It won this competition in 2004, 2006 and 2012 and also has numerous awards from CAMRA as further testimony to its excellence.

Royal Oak, Tabard Street, SE1 4JU.



Ivy House Last Wednesday I took the Overground south of the river to pay a first visit to the Ivy House in Nunhead. The pub is fairly remote from train or tube lines so I got off at Brockley and worked up a thirst by walking the long way round, past Peckham Rye common, rare green space in this heavily urbanised area. The Ivy House was built by Trumans in the 1930s as the Newlands Tavern. In the early and mid-1970s it became a well-known venue on the 'pub rock' circuit. I spent many a happy hour in pubs such as the Hope & Anchor, Islington, and the Lord Nelson in Holloway Road, drinking rubbish beer and watching some pretty decent live acts, but Nunhead was somewhat off my manor. But the likes of Ian Dury, Dr Feelgood, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Graham Parker all strutted their stuff on the stage here, with its ornate gold curtains. The stage is in the middle one of three separate and adjoining rooms, which feature some good honest traditional furniture (not the rickety rackety stuff that the likes of Antic put in their pubs). There is plenty of evidence of Truman's former ownership around the walls.

All this might well have been lost. In 2012 the pub was closed and would have been sold to property developers (sound familiar?). However, the local community weren't about to let the pub go lightly and the Ivy House Community Pub Ltd was formed, now with 371 shareholders. A million quid was raised to buy the leasehold and the pub was reopened with its new name last year. Nowadays the beer drinker is very well catered for. My beers of choice were both locally brewed: Brockley Pale Ale and Hop Stuff Pale from Woolwich. Also on were Truman's Swift, Dark Star Hophead, Clarence & Frederick Cascadian Black, Cottage Deltic Gold and Hobson's bitter. Traditional cider was also available. This late lunchtime the pub was very quiet, at least until the arrival of the local art club which meets here. Just one example of how a pub can be a key part of a community - if it's allowed to be.

Pubs like the Ivy House deserve to survive and prosper; it may now be the easiest to get to if you're not local, but why not make the effort. There's plenty about the pub's history on its website, but please don't contact me if any of my blurb above proves to be incorrect!

40 Stuart Road, Nunhead SE15 3BE; www.ivyhousenunhead.com

Bidding farewell to the Ivy House I return to Brockley station the quick way (about 15 minutes walk) and go back to check out a couple more pubs in Hackney - but as they're not LPotY nominations I'll spare you any further indulgences. Only the Hope in Carshalton and the Sussex Arms in Twickenham now remain to be visited.

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WEDNESDAY 8 OCTOBER

Sussex Arms I wake up this morning feeling rather less than 100%. It's not just the after-effects of a lengthy session the day before, I seem to have picked up a bit of a cold. This evening's judging will take us to far-flung outposts, Carshalton and Twickenham and I'm not sure if such a night out is in my best interests. In the end I decide to compromise and drag my weary body out for the first half of the evening.

It just so happens that a couple of weeks I was in west London (or Middlesex if you prefer) and decided to visit the Sussex Arms in advance of the official judging visit. Having overcome my lack of knowledge of local bus routes and forgetting exactly where the pub was I arrived soon after 2pm and the place was fairly quiet (though better populated than the Ivy House in my visit).

Coming in the front door you're in the main bar area with the counter before you. There is a further drinking area round to the left. This is a real beer drinker's paradise with 18 handpumps (6 dispensing ciders and perries) offering beers from all manner of small breweries. Sadly I've just discovered that my notes from this visit have gone AWOL so I can't recall exactly which beers I sampled. I know I started with Oakham Citra, which seemed to be very popular. Live music features regularly here and, my colleagues discovered that there is a Wednesday night quiz. The Sussex Arms is just to the west of Twickenham Green, a very pleasant location, with a few other pubs of note in the close vicinity. As a matter of interest, the owners have recently taken over the Express at Kew Bridge, the first ever LPotY winner. If you find yourself in the Twickenham area, the Sussex deserves your time and custom.

Sussex Arms, 15 Staines Road, TW2 5BG; www.thesussexarmstwickenham.co.uk



The Hope Anyway, back to the present. Not wishing to go into central London and take my chances with the commuting hordes, I take the Overground to Peckham Rye and then a main line to Carshalton, the train being almost empty. Sadly, I'm unable to complete the Guardian crossword (my poor health, you know) by the time I arrive. My pub destination here is the Hope, just a few minutes' walk from the station (right and left). As I enter the premises I see James has arrived and is well into his first pint. He demonstrates various forms of torch and other lighting, following my earlier complaint about being unable to read in ill-lit pubs. No complaints in this area in the Hope and I find my way to the bar without mishap. I push Clive (SPBW member and local) out of the way and inspect the beer selection; this is written on a chalkboard elsewhere to save such behaviour. My first selection is Surrey Hills Shere Drop, always a good choice, though I can't vouch for its medicinal virtues. For the record, the other beers were Kent brewery Simcoe and Brewer's Reserve, Downton New Forest, Windsor & Eton Knight of the Garter, Red Squirrel London Porter and Boggart Rum Stout. All served in oversized glasses and in tip top condition.

The Hope is a former Charrington and Punch pub that in danger of being closed down when the locals fought back, forming a co-operative (now with 32 shareholders) and reviving the place as a beer-led pub, with great success. There's no tv, 'background' music or other electronic distraction. There's a bar billiard table in the back room and a large garden beyond that.

Eventually, Alasdair, Aidan and Patrick arrive and another local member, Peter, comes in carrying a small drum. With a lengthy journey to Twickenham, we leave the Hope by 8.30 for the train. Another pub well worthy of your support.

Hope, 48 West Street SM5 2PR; www.hopecarshalton.co.uk

The rest of the gang get off at Clapham Junction for a train to Strawberry Hill and the Sussex (where they find Bill and Hugh at the bar). I carry on to Victoria and home to bed with some hot totty (sorry, I mean a hot toddy, hallucinating again).

This brings to an end the official judging sessions. We had intended to meet on 22 October for the Final Reckoning. However, due to the tardiness of some of our team, we've had to postpone this until they've dragged themselves round every pub. So I've no idea when we'll decide the winning pub, but keep your eyes open.

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