Saturday, April 22, 2006

A tribute to the public house

The English pub has fascinated me ever since I saw the two lost American backpackers in "An American Werewolf in London" stroll off the foggy moors into the village pub named 'The Slaughtered Lamb.' They remarked something like 'Hmm, now there's an inviting name for a pub.' The pub denizens were sipping ales and throwing darts and telling jokes; a warm fire burned in the background. There was no explanation for the inexplicably morbid name for the pub.

Imagine my joy, 20 years after seeing that film, I'm sipping a pint of real ale in a countryside pub in the West Midlands called 'Headless Woman.' I can't describe the feeling of relaxation and general satisfaction with life that I feel when I'm in a village pub in the countryside of any country in Europe. My first pint of the famous real ale was on this recent trip to England. I'd been to London several times before, but the metropolis is dominated by lagers, stouts and ciders.

'Real ales' on the other hand, enjoy a cult following and even have several advocacy groups espousing the virtues of the liquid (not the least of which are purity and health).

But like any scientific mind, I needed proof, samples and control groups. So, with the help of the locals, I embarked upon a Real Ale Pub Tour of the West Midlands area, which included Staffordshire, Derbyshire and several other 'shires' that I can't quite remember. The tour lasted several days, naturally, since this region is known for hundreds of independently brewed ales and pubs serving them. And the human body has limits.

One of Walsall's regional ales is called 'Banks's', an ale which comes in Mild and Regular versions. I guess the mild is for wimps, but in the interest of scientific study, I had a few.

A sturdy brick public house named 'Donnelly's' caught my eye. There's a photo of it in my previous blog about the joys of rainsoaked bricks. It was no 'Slaughtered Lamb', but it would suffice to begin my real ale studies.

It was completely empty inside except for the barman and his friend, who were busy playing some game in the corner. I can't remember what game because I was transfixed by the row of taps at the bar. Prague pubs usually have only one or two beers on offer. Choice is good. Somebody tell these poor commie Czech slobs I live among, please?

So I had my first pints of real ale by myself, while I was waiting for the rain to stop. Later that week I would have the pleasure of being chauffered by a seasoned real ale pub crawler.

Ye Olde Publick House, aka the pub, has a rich history, including several battles with rival booze such as gin and whisky. Don't just click the pub link above to learn about beer history, nossir. Learn the cockney rhyming slang for 'pub' as well (including, 'boozer', 'battle cruiser', 'nuclear sub' and 'rub-a-dub-dub').

I was well impressed that each public house was, well, an actual house. While any Limeys reading this might say 'Yeah, DUH!', I must confess that most pubs I'd been to before my West Midlands trip were just part of a row of buildings. But these recently-visited pubs were actually stand-alone two-storey brick houses, in most cases not connected to any other building--especially in the villages. This adds to the overall warming effect of the pub.


On my last day in England, the father of the couple I was staying with took me on a very memorable real ale tour. This included the obligatory fish and chips at one cozy roadside pub. The sheer size of the breaded cod served at one pub blew me away. It was bigger than the man's head.

I became quite addicted to the English chips, which are like American french fries on steroids. Imagine twice the size, twice the flavor, twice the grease and all the joy.




I'm salivating on my keyboard just THINKING about them. I'm not ashamed to say that I had chips each of the 8 days I was in England. One day I even had them twice.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Like a ton of bricks

In addition to photographing people, I like taking photos of old buildings. I've tried to take full photographic advantage of my location in central Europe by photographing its immense collection of stone and brick buildings. While I could usually be seen strolling through village castles and ruins snapping away, recently I discovered the brilliant textures and myriad shades of rusty reds in the buildings in the West Midlands region of England.

I was in the Birmingham area for wedding photography, so I decided to explore the relatively undiscovered town of Walsall and its environs. I have never seen so many brick buildings in one place in my life. 95% of all buildings in this region are made of brick. Even the new malls and shops are made of brick (though not as nice to photograph as the old weathered British brick buildings).

Here are some examples and a few comments:


A tricky thing about photographing England is the weather. It is often gray and dreary year-round. Even if the sky is an ugly gray, you can stick a tree in the composition as I did in the 1st photo. I had to expose for the bricks to get that rich red. In doing so the sky went almost pure white. The next two pics I took just after a rain storm. I had ducked into the Highgate Ales pub (2nd pic) to get out of the rain and have a pint (I love my job!). When a few rays of sun peeked out after the cloudburst, I set out once again to capture the now rainsoaked bricks. The hues and textures were beautiful.

I'm really amazed that one region can be so brick crazy. I guess it all boils down to what your resources are and how you utilize them. Living in Prague, I see almost no brick buildings. There is a tendency in Prague for buildings to be made of stone (the oldest ones), or with brick covered with plaster and paint. The few bare brick buildings in the Czech lands are dull gray and dusty red, whereas West Midlands brick buildings seem to have quite a variety of shades of red. Maybe it's the clay used, I don't know. But it certainly grabbed my attention on my first day in Walsall.

The last photo is a modern structure. Yes, you guessed it: we now have the origin of the expression 'built like a brick shithouse.'

NEXT BLOG: A bacchanalian soiree of real ales and fish and chips