Apr 14, 2011

I'm afraid you are not getting a sense of country pubs in England

Once I told someone from UK that I used to live in Ipswich, he replied: “Ooo, I’m sorry”. As you can guess, Ipswich in sleepy Suffolk is not the most exciting part of England. When I first moved there, I was seriously bothered by the fact that “it rained only in the weekends” and that after 6 PM, streets were empty. Thank god London was close enough (one hour to Liverpool Station) to escape from all this but then I discovered the dreadful train system in the UK and the expenses associated with spending the weekend in London. Feeling totally frustrated, I really started to question the wisdom of accepting a job offer in Ipswich. Luckily someone (RIP Mark Jennings) at work pulled me aside and asked the crucial question: “Idil, do you know what the real English beer is called?”. While I was wondering what kind of a question that was, he added: “I am afraid you are not getting a sense of country pubs in England”.

Another spot in the list Woodbridge, UK. 

My understanding of a pub was limited to North Shields in Istanbul (bad). So next thing I know, Mark starts telling me that the real English beer is called bitter. It is not like all that Lager beer we drink, it’s not Beck’s, it’s not Corona, it’s not Budweiser. First of all, it is darker. And hell no -insulted by my analogy-, it is not like Guinness. It’s not even drunk cold. Further, it is ordered in pints or half a pint (but that’s for sissies). As an Istanbulian stranded in East Anglia and completely bewildered by this new terminology, he told me to go to Tesco’s and do some sampling. When I liked the Boddington’s 6 pack I bought, Mark gave me a list of the best country pubs around Ipswich that I should visit. So this post is dedicated to this famous list that really made my time in Ipswich a special one.

The pub to be visited in Woodbridge in UK is Kings Head Inn.

First of all, I discovered that pubs were indeed Britain’s "national pastime" with three-quarters of the population drinking and a third considering themselves regulars.  I also discovered that my list included pubs that were pure tradition, not decades but of centuries. Indeed, flat, quiet and windy at the North Sea shores, Suffolk as county “is” tradition: It has over 500 mediavel churches, more per square mile than in any other county in UK. Further, this was one of the regions that got rich with wool trade in the Middle Ages. According to the legendary political scientist Barrington Moore, this simple trade is considered “the” thing that led to capitalist democracy in England. In Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, he brilliantly describes how the English traders brought their wool across Europe and acquired wealth, allowing them to buy land while gaining mobility. This landed (read property rights) upper class (read nobility) was crucial in the later established powerful legislative body and a relatively weak executive (unable to suppress people).

At Pin Mill, UK the low tide is landing boats on sand.

Pin Mill, UK at the River Orwell.

While the Industrial Revolution meant that the region lost its popularity to industrial towns in the North, luckily it helped to keep all these old villages, churches and pubs intact for today’s visitors. In my opinion, what makes these places so special is not only the tranquility of surroundings but also the people. People from all walks of life, the young, old, rich, not so rich, women in plain clothes and their overweight husbands, families with kids crwod the pubs. And unlike their cousins in urban bars, the bar tenders -for once- did not try to be cool or sexy but were just the family guy or woman.

On the road to Pin Mill, the Suffolk countryside.

Now let me start the list with Kersey,a place apparently well served at the time by the wool trade. Today the tranquility of the village may lead you to think that it is yet to be discovered but it already is famous. As you pass through the Splash where ducks are wandering around, look at the cottages and country houses and wonder how the hell this place can exist in the country where the Industrial Revolution took place. Then head straight to The Bell a pub dating back to 14th century.

Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill in UK.

Second place in the list is Pin Mill on the River Orwell, one of my favorites in all seasons. Given the proximity of the North Sea (and Holland) this place used to be a paradise for smuggling. While ferries operate between Harwich and Hook of Holland and bring the two countries together, small boats can still moor in the high tide amid signs in many languages that await them at the shore. The pub to be visited here is Butt and Oyster which according to its website commemorates the oyster fisheries, originally a major export from the river. The Suffolk guide by Mark & Elizabeth Mitchels says that the landlord of Butt & Oyster obtained his license to run a pub at 1553! After you liqueur yourself up, indulge in scenic walks around Pin Mill while enjoying the view that changes according to the tide. In the old days the pub would be full of bargemen and sailors enjoying a pint. 

This is the  train station for old sleepy Ipswich, UK.

And on those dreadful trains I spent hours in UK. 
The list continues with Lavenham, another Medieval spot that got wealthy with wool trade. Today, it is also a touristic attraction with shops and old timber framed buildings. Here the spot is the Angel Hotel dating from the 15th century which is perfect for a weekend get away. One of my favorites was Moon & Mushroom in the tiny village Swilland, with its mythical crumble puding. Lastly, in Laxfield visit Kingshead, one of the very few pubs left in Britain that has no bar-counter. Thanks to the atmosphere in these pubs, I never read so many books in my life as in those seven months in sleepy Ipswich. And as the people in all over UK discovered in 2006, Ipswich was not that sleepy after all. As they say, looks always deceive.