2016 | 2017 | 2018
A highlight of my social year takes place every October, the weekend of the Isle of Wight Beer and Bus and Walk weekend. For these two days the whole of the Isle of Wight is effectively transformed into a giant pub crawl with a fleet of classic 20th Century buses transporting you from pub to pub and town to town for free. The event is organised by the Isle of Wight branch of CAMRA, the CAMpaign for Real Ale, and the Isle of Wight Bus Museum. Two years ago there were 11 different bus routes, now there are 19 routes taking you to a choice of 971 participating pubs and licensed premises across the Island, with 95 buses listed in the vehicle programme as participating plus an additional six on static display in Newport and free access to the Ryde Bus Museum.
Having an Ale of a Time
All the pubs involved serve Real Ale, which gets from the cask to the glass either by tap or by hand-pump and has not had carbon dioxide added and still has live yeast. I go to spend time with my friends, who are far more interested in beer, whereas I like being able to jump on and off classic buses and driving around the Island's spectacular countryside admiring the view from the top of a double-decker bus. October's the perfect time of year to do this; later in the year in winter it is too cold, dark and wet to enjoy it while earlier in the year in summer the buses, which with their large glass windows are in many ways mobile greenhouses, are too hot.
While I would like to go to different routes and pubs every year and use the event as an opportunity to go to unfamiliar places, my friends are a bit more set in their ways and like to go to their favourites. My concern at this time was on what the weather was going to be doing; the forecast for the weekend was 'sunshine and showers'. As I didn't own a coat with a hood and was expecting to spend time outside waiting for buses in the rain, I bought a coat in preparation. Both would be experienced before the event ended.
Running for the Bus?
This year my New Year's Resolution was to try and achieve parkrun Gold. This is an unofficial challenge for parkrun obsessives – if you do 30-39 parkruns in a calendar year you have achieved Bronze level of obsessiveness, 40-49 you have achieved Silver and 50+ is Gold. This week marked both my 40th run of 2018 but also my 200th parkrun in total. Obviously I cannot miss it, however Medina IOW parkrun's winter home is Seaclose Park, which is pretty much next to Newport Quay in the centre of the Island where the Beer and Bus weekend's largest hub is located, so it worked out well.
I always whistle when running, because I can. I'll never be the fastest runner, but I'm always the fastest whistling runner as for some reason no-one else seems to whistle while running. Which seems strange to me as I've always whistled since I learned when cycling my paper-round as a nipper. When running you have to breathe, my nose gets blocked up so I have to breathe through my mouth, and if I'm breathing through my mouth anyway, I may as well breathe musically. The secret is of course to whistle on both the inhales and exhales and it becomes as easy as breathing, as that's what you're doing. So to celebrate my 40th parkrun of the year I whistled some Silver-themed songs including 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', 'Hi Ho Silver' and 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'. I also tried to think up the best bus-themed songs, making a list of my favourite five:
- Fifth: 'Magic Bus' by The Who
- Fourth: 'The Southern Vectis Bus Song' by Lauri Say
- Third: 'Magical Mystery Tour' by The Beatles
- Second: 'National Express' by The Divine Comedy
- First: 'Bus Stop' by The Hollies
I discounted Cliff Richard's 'Summer Holiday' as though it is a great song, the film is about a bus but the song isn't. My mates and I tried to think up more bus-related songs over the weekend, apparently John Lennon's 'Watching the Wheels' doesn't count, but Chuck Berry's 'Promised Land' does2. I thought Daniel's suggestion of '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover' didn't make the cut either, as 'Hop on the bus Gus' is a bit flimsy and in any case, I wouldn't want anyone to think that use of public transportation equates to divorce. It doesn't. My wife and I are still happily married. And the song doesn't list 50 ways in any case, only a handful.
Anyway, after the run3 I met my Dad and we planned to get a nice cup of tea in the Riverside Centre which is located in the middle of the quay, and would I thought be the perfect vantage point to see the buses. Sadly the Riverside Centre was closed due to a wedding so we went to the nearby Beefeater pub instead, which was nearby and you could see the buses in the distance. There I ordered two pots of tea though due to a mix up behind the bar between the person I asked for tea and the person who was on the till, we ended up with four pots of tea for the price of two. We only had 25 minutes before my mates arrived on the first classic bus of the day from Shanklin.
Quay to the Island
After seeing my friends' bus arrive through the pub window I said a farewell to my Dad and headed towards the disembarking rank, photographing buses along the way. After the meet and greet I went to the merchandise marquee4 to ensure I had the full range of event publications and programmes. This included:
- Event Programme (100 colour pages), detailing bus times and details about the participating pubs.
- Vehicle Supplement (54 page) which provided more information as to the vehicles taking part and when they'd be operating which routes.
- Beer List (24 page) listing exactly what ale was sold at each participating pub.
Additionally different venues around the Island had walking guides provided by the Isle of Wight Ramblers Association as part of the Walks weekend and I was able to pick up a selection, although I suspect that the collection is incomplete as it misses the Island's towns of Newport the capital, Ryde the largest town as well as the towns of Sandown, Brading and East Cowes:
- Błyskawica Cowes Blitz Walk (8-page)
- Cowes Historic Pub Walk (24-page)
- Gurnard Historic Pub Walk (8-page)
- West Wight Historic Pub Walk (8-page)
- Shanklin Historic Pub Walk (8-page)
- Ventnor Historic Pub Walk (8-page)
While one friend joined the queue for the bus heading west Daniel and I decided to buy ourselves an official 2018 Beer & Bus Weekend Official T-Shirt. Both the 2016 and 2017 t-shirts have been perfectly fitting and comfortable and it is part of the routine. Sadly while Daniel was able to pick up a Large from the rack instantly, they didn't have any Mediums. I asked the man in the marquee by the van if he had any mediums and he got into his van and printed me a fresh t-shirt hot off the press as I waited.
In the last two years the West Wight had been the most popular destination, which had resulted in changes introduced for this year. Unlike when we first headed to West Wight when they were only running small single-deckers on the route, which could not cope with demand, this year the largest buses, 70-seaters, were timetabled to head west. This was an entirely sensible decision with the only drawback being that it meant the buses were predominantly 1970s and 1980s double-deckers which aren't as picturesque as the older, more beautiful buses used exclusively on the East Wight routes. There were also now 3 West Wight routes; B and C went from Newport to Carisbrooke, Shorwell, Brighstone, Hulverstone and Calbourne and back to Carisbrooke and Newport and vice versa, while the new route T went out and back from Newport to Yarmouth and, for the first time in a Beer and Bus Weekend, crossed the western Yar and into the Freshwater Peninsula to stop at Freshwater, Highdown, Alum Bay and Totland.
And so we decided that this year we would cross the Yar and head into the far West. Our first bus of the day was a 1969 Bristol VRT and we got off at the Highdown Inn, a pub listed in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide that is in the countryside near Totland. At Highdown we ordered our bus-themed pints, I had an Island Ales Busman's Holiday, one of the beers the award-winning brewery creates just for this event, while my friends sampled the Great Bustard, which technically is named after the bird but it has 'bus' in the name. I was looking forward to this, my first pint of the day, but the barmaid was unexpectedly joggled and jolted by a jostling jingleman and the pint went right down my t-shirt and over the camera; Morris Dancers had arrived on their own bus, and they had all crowded into the pub wanting a pint, each carrying their own tankard. Fortunately the barmaid gave me a replacement pint and I'd just bought a brand-new, replacement t-shirt so I went into the loo to change.
With the interior of the pub filled with Men of Wight Morris Men my friends headed outside. We were joined almost immediately by the troop of Morris Men, who had all downed their pints and proceeded to dance in the road. Now there are places where if you danced in the road, thus stopping the traffic, the motorists would get annoyed. Fortunately we're a bit more laid back on the Island and whenever the dancers allowed the traffic to resume at the end of each dance they were greeted by rounds of applause from the patiently-waiting drivers.
Yarmouth and the King's Head
We decided we'd jump on the next Route T bus heading our way, which was half an hour after the one we got off at, however although the bus stopped overright the pub, it didn't stop in the same place that the one that had dropped us off had, so though we had thought we'd be front of the queue, we ended up being at the back and the bus was too full to let us on. 'There's a relief bus just behind me!' the driver called, so we thought 'we may as well wait here rather than buy another round', but it was a lie – by the time we'd realised there was no relief bus coming it was too late to get a round in. So we were on the bus after that, a 1980 Bristol VRT, which took us to Yarmouth via Alum Bay.
Yarmouth is a town with three participating pubs, the Wheatsheaf, the 16th Century King's Head and 16th Century Bugle Coaching Inn. They all participate in the Yarmouth Real Ale Experience in which they co-ordinate to ensure that they always have different ales so that there is a choice of 18 different ales to sample, with the neighbouring Wheatsheaf and King's Head both run by the same man. Sadly he runs the King's Head as a tenant of Enterprise Inns. This is the pub with the excellent reputation for food that we had eaten in back in 2016, though we were back again for a very specific purpose: the pub had announced it was due to close.
Types of Pub
It is time to explain the different types of pub:
- A pub is a public house that is licensed to serve alcoholic drinks.
- A tavern sells food and alcoholic drinks, usually concentrating on wine rather than beer, but does not provide accommodation.
- An inn is a pub that also offers accommodation.
- A brew house is a pub that brews its own beer on or near the premises.
- A tied house is owned or run by a brewery company. These usually rent the pub to the landlord on the condition that they sell the brewery's drinks and buy other drinks such as soft drinks through the brewery.
- A free house is a pub that is able to choose what drinks it sells.
Enterprise Inns, now trading as Ei Group, is the UK's largest pub company. Formed in 1991 it aggressively expanded, buying up pub chain after pub chain until at its height according to its website it owned over 8,500 tied pubs across the UK. However its expansion came at the cost of a vast debt, following which it promptly sold off half its pubs and is squeezing its remaining pubs for every penny it can.
A typical tied house Ei pub is owned by Ei but run by a publican who rents the pub as a tenancy. The tenant is required to buy all its drinks from Ei, who charge over two and a half times the industry standard price in order to maximise their profit, as well as charging extortionate costs to the landlords to rent the premises. CAMRA have long campaigned against Ei, considering it an organisation that uses unfair cartel methods. This is well known nationally, as The Guardian reported, that Ei make it impossible to make a profit running a pub, a concern that has been raised in Parliament and with the Office for Fair Trading.
Ei have recently substantially raised their prices again to the extent that the Isle of Wight County Press reported that the Isle of Wight branch of CAMRA concluded that 'only a suicidal billionaire would take on one of their leases'. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Isle of Wight but is being experienced nationwide. In the last few months the Pier View in Cowes, where we enjoyed a lovely meal back in 2016, has closed, followed by the award-winning New Inn in Shalfleet in mid-September and just before the Beer and Bus Weekend it was announced that two more Ei pubs, the King's Head in Yarmouth and Castle Inn in Newport, were closing imminently. So it was our duty to go there for last orders.
Since then, on the Monday morning following the Beer and Bus Weekend it was announced that a fifth popular Ei tied pub, the King Lud on Ryde seafront, had closed because the economic impossibility of running a pub under the conditions imposed by Ei.
Since the Beer and Bus Weekend the Isle of Wight's MP has discussed Ei's behaviour with the Treasury Secretary and promised to raise the issue in Partliament, saying,
Pubs are being pushed to closure or the brink of bankruptcy and it's not acceptable. They have had a bad deal at the hands of unscrupulous chains with ethically questionable business models. Our pubs are important to tourism and their communities.
There have also been several 'Save our pub' Facebook groups set up, however we urge you to sign up for the Fair Pint Campaign. In response to the recent pub closures the Ei Paublican Partnerships Managing Director released a statement, saying,
As the UK's largest pub company, we are dedicated and passionate about providing quality local pubs at the heart of their communities and the Isle of Wight is no different.
It should be noted that Ei did not also release photographs of the director's nose before and after issuing that statement to help us compare its size.
Sadly it occurs to me that the Buses, Beer and Walks event guide can be seen as a year-by-year record of the closure of the Isle of Wight's pubs, especially considering how within the last month those run by Ei are falling like dominoes.
Yardbird in Yarmouth
So we ordered our dinner, which again was excellent and this year I was delighted to see that it arrived on a plate. Call me old fashioned and set in my ways, but I really think you can't beat a plate when it comes to having something to eat dinner off. Daniel said he'd buy the round and he bought us all a pint of Yardbird, which came as a surprise as when he went to the bar I looked up what ale they had according to the beer guide, and they had Watneys. Daniel collects Watneys memorabilia so I know for a fact that it is one of his favourites, so when he learnt that they had Watneys on tap, well, we just had to stay for another round.
After that we went back to Newport on the Route T. Although normally we'd visit the Newport Ale House instead we went to the Castle Inn. This is Newport's oldest pub having been licensed since 1550 and the end wall dates from 1300 when it was the only building within site of Carisbrooke Castle. It is the second oldest pub on the Island and there are claims that King Charles I enjoyed a pint here now and then too. And now it is about to close, not because it is unpopular or poorly run – indeed it is a popular pub - but because Enterprise Inns have raised their prices so that landlords, who cannot source their supply elsewhere, make a loss on every drink sold, making it impossible to run. Here we enjoyed a pint of Island Ales' Hop Aboard before they called 'Time'.
The Foolish Hotel Chain Builds Upon the Sand
We went back to Newport Quay and jumped on a 1960 Routemaster heading to Ryde on Route X, where the bus pulled in to the second biggest transport hub of the event at the Isle of Wight Bus Museum, which we enjoyed a walk round. From there we caught the Route G bus, a Leyland Olympian, south to my home town of Sandown. We headed uphill and inland towards Sandown's Castle Inn, which like last year was celebrating a Halloween Ale Festival. As well as a choice of 16 real ales the standard of spooky decorations from Brading Wax Museum's former Chamber of Horrors really was something to behold. This was the last pub of the day before we headed to Daniel's home to sample his latest home brew.
The next morning Daniel and I caught the Island Line train (which dates from 1938) from Lake to Shanklin. Sadly, Lake still doesn't have any pubs participating in the weekend and doesn't have its own stop even though several buses go through the village. Last year I had wondered wither the change in franchise from South West Trains to South Western Railways would result in a change of livery as the trains really needed a fresh coat of paint, however instead they seem to have just slapped a new logo on the carriages. In Shanklin we met up with another friend and waited at Shanklin station when the heavens opened and we experienced a downpour for 20 minutes, making me glad I'd brought a coat after all. While we were waiting I bought a Beer and Bus weekend 2018 commemorative pin badge and we then caught the Route L (Shanklin to Newport via Lake) bus, a 1977 Bristol VRT.
In Newport we met up with another friend. My friends are, as I said, set in their ways and wanted to go to the same places as last year. So we headed north to Cowes via routes N and P (Newport, Porchfield, Northwood, Gurnard, Cowes), which use the smaller, 30-40 seat single-deckers. We caught a 1953 AEC Regal IV in London Transport red, changing bus at the Sportsman's Rest where we enjoyed a drink. What we hadn't realised is that the 62nd Isle of Wight Marathon was taking place that day and the route went right past the Sportsman's Rest. When the next bus pulled up, a 1972 Bristol LH that is the same model as ran on the Island in 1969-1982, instead of stopping overright it pulled up a short distance down the road where there was more room. This meant that in order to catch it we ran a few yards down the road at the same time as the advance guard of the marathon runners, making it feel as if we too were part of the race for a few moments.
We travelled on to Gurnard where we stopped at the Woodvale to enjoy their Sunday roast. After a very filling dinner we walked along the front back to Cowes. In the summer Cowes is filled with the red-trousered, brazenly walking around sockless in their deck shoes, but by October Cowes is a much sleepier place to be. The sea was crashing against the prom, foam moderately spraying over onto the esplanade. If you are unfamiliar with water levels, here is a quick guide:
- Slightly Moderate.
After the walk we went into the Cowes Ale House, where I enjoyed a final pint, in this case Yates' 'On the Buses', before we went our separate ways to head home in time to watch Doctor Who. The new series of Doctor Who has attracted a degree of controversy as, for the first time in its 55 year history, it is being regularly broadcast on Sunday despite being a fundamentally Saturday evening sort of programme5.
So, what is my infallible way of getting a small fortune running a popular pub in only one year?
Start with a gurt big fortune.
Please ride buses responsibly