(or a trip to Hartlepool)
The Easter break, and with it the advent of spring, symbolises a time for new life, regrowth and renewal, or at least that’s how it’s meant to work out. In the week leading up to the bank holiday AFC Wimbledon fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the spirit of spring had been misinterpreted somewhat, as Boris Johnson decided to ignore both Merton Council and his own planning officers by thwarting the plans for Plough Lane, temporarily at least.
The news from City Hall had cast a shadow over the week for everyone so by Good Friday we were all keen for a resurrection of both our spirits and our play-off hopes as we headed on the long trip north to Hartlepool. It was (unsurprisingly) another early start, not least as the first leg of the journey involved a rail replacement bus. The omens were not good as the bus took a wrong turn, ended up doing a three point turn to avoid a low bridge (after a conflab with his colleague and map) but was unable to get back on the route proper by a “no right turn” sign. We were rescued by a second rail replacement bus, with a driver who actually knew the route, and made it to King’s Cross in time for the 8.02 to Hartlepool.
The 8.02 Grand Central Train – London King’s Cross to Hartlepool
This was the third time we’d booked tickets on Grand Central but the first that there had actually been a train to get onto: progress. When we found our seats the numbering throughout the carriage was all a bit messed up but one of our seats was opposite fellow Dons Florian and Clara and with a bit of negotiation with others (who also wanted to sit with the people they had booked with) we managed to secure a table of four. The carriage itself was an old first class one (masquerading as standard class) so we had the added luxury of extra room.
Conversations, as always on long trips, covered a multitude of subjects: Boris Johnson’s incredulous decision, Johan Cruyff’s genius, Berlin before and after reunification and snacks in the former DDR. The latter was inspired when a plastic container was produced. When opened two boiled eggs (coloured for Easter) fitted inside, along with a tiny salt shaker and two plastic spoons. This, Florian and Clara explained, was a relic of the past, when snacks were not readily available in the east and so people took boiled eggs out with them. Utter genius.
We carried on northwards and as we scoured Eaglescliffe for signs of birds of prey a passenger opposite explained that the local town was called Egglescliffe, but the station signwriter got the name wrong back in the 19th Century and the surrounding area eventually became known by the erroneous spelling. At Stockton-on-Tees we discussed Stephenson’s Rocket and Harold Macmillan: this was all getting rather cultural.
Finally, we pulled into Hartlepool. Wimbledon fans emerged from the carriages into the bright sun. The weather was certainly springlike, although our southern softness meant that we were compelled to survey the summer dresses, t-shirts and complete lack of outerwear of locals with horror as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive a few minutes later.
Sean and Graham arrived with Joe on the train from Newcastle, where they’d all stayed the previous night. Joe was singing Fog on the Tyne, his earworm for the day, which meant that we’d be hearing a lot of it over the next few hours – when in Rome and all that. Just outside the station we found Grimsby Alyson who’d had her customary 5am start and 10am arrival. She’d spent the time waiting for us strolling around the Marina but was disappointed not to have found the statue of the unfortunate monkey (hanged as a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars). We decided to head for the Brewery Tap after a short discussion – it was Good Friday and before noon but hopefully it would be open anyway.
Our optimism paid off, the Tap was open and several locals were already in and seated. I ordered a pint of Northern Line Stout (a collaboration between Cameron’s and Portobello), Ian went for Strongarm and Sean, Graham and Joe all plumped for Gold Bullion. All were in decent condition (as they should be in a brewery tap) but the stout was generally thought to be the winner in the taste stakes. Discussion turned, inevitably, to the injustice of Boris Johnson’s decision on Plough Lane. This would be brought up again and again all day: that’s not surprising, it is the only decision with planning granted “called in” by the Mayor in eight years and his own planning officers had said that “there are no sound reasons for the Mayor to intervene in this particular case.” It is incredibly frustrating and the implications of who may or may not make the final decision (dependent on when the hearing is) were discussed in detail. There is no crystal ball of course, so for now all we could do was wait and see what the club advised fans to do (or not do).
At midday sharp the staff brought out plates of fish, chips, peas and bread and butter to most of the locals. Alyson was intrigued and managed to procure a plate for herself at the bargain price of £3. “It may have been a pensioners’ special,” she explained, but the staff had been happy enough to sell her the lunch so she wasn’t complaining (and who would?)
The bar was covered in memorabilia from the brewery and we noticed a mention of “Hartlepools”, which led to the question of why the football team was once Hartlepools United, but now a singular Hartlepool United (but still nicknamed ‘Pools)? The answer was that the original name referred to the towns of West Hartlepool and Hartlepool, but when the two became one borough in 1968 both the “s” and “United” were dropped (the latter was restored in 1977). Who says football trips aren’t educational?
There was more to be learned too as we marvelled at the huge heads on the pints of Strongarm that the guys next to us were drinking. “They’re called bankers,” explained one of them. The impressive-looking (but ultimately inconvenient) heads are native to the north east (where sparklers are commonly used) and were, apparently, once lined up on bars in anticipation of the arrival of thirsty workers.
The Tap had certainly been entertaining but we decided it was time to move on and headed for The Causeway, which was around the corner.
The choice of beers at the Causeway meant that we all ordered Strongarm (the other options being a Hobgoblin guest and Banks’s bitter). There were bankers all round. We stared in wonder at the enormous heads yet again. Joe took a break from Fog on the Tyne and said that all the away games he’d seen this season had been wins for Wimbledon and we generally agreed that this was a good omen. Yet more friendly locals started to chat to us and we were all encouraged to partake of the bar snacks that were brought out: quiche, sausage rolls, sausages, cheese and tomatoes. “Don’t youse get this in London?” asked one old boy. I explained that The Willoughby was pretty good on snacks, albeit the locals brought them in, but commended The Causeway on its impressive range.
Graham and I strolled around some of the other rooms in the pub, with lots of original features and furniture. The landlady told us that they had purposely left one of the rooms with its smoke-stained ceiling and walls, as well as an enormous number of pictures and posters. I love pubs like this that you could spend hours in, reading and admiring and learning – and what was really nice was that the landlady clearly shared in her punters’ delight.
We arrived at Victoria Park and joined the queue at the the turnstiles. There was much muttering about the £25 price advertised above the entrance, but word soon filtered through that there was a piece of paper inside saying that the actual price was £20 (which is what the website says). This appears to be somewhat flexible though, one Northampton Town fan said that he was charged £24 recently – a figure that doesn’t correspond with any home area and as a result would be a highly dubious practice.
A minute’s silence was held following the attacks in Brussels and I found myself wondering why people would take photos (as several were) during what is meant to be a moment of reflection? I still wasn’t sure when the game kicked off and Joe’s renditions of Fog on the Tyne were replaced with some non too complimentary songs about Boris Johnson. On 21 minutes a bungled clearance led to a home goal and there we were again, losing to a team near the bottom. There were chances at both ends, the tributes to Boris Johnson continued, while the home fans (dressed, as Ian put it, in the highest density of tracksuit bottoms since Crawley) responded with something no one could understand.
Half time came and went (with some Stowford Press to dull the pain) and the second half saw a lot of Dons’ possession but little real penetration. Elliott came on for Murphy and made a difference to the potency of the attack but still there was no way through. We noticed that home substitutions were sponsored (but not the away subs) as were the officials’ details on the scoreboard – in short, Hartlepool were flogging anything they could to sponsors. Azeez and Akinfenwa came on, the possession continued, as did the lack of goals. At one point Bayo was pulled down by two home defenders, one of whom gripped him round the neck with his arm, but the sponsored officials saw nothing. It was not to be (again), Joe’s impressive away record was over, and 259 away fans trudged off having seen a pretty one sided defeat (with that one side not being the victors).
We’d noticed the Rat Race micropub on the station when we arrived, but it didn’t open until 12.02 (in proper railway timetable fashion). On the way back it was open so we squeezed – quite literally – in. We stood in what we thought was a queue until the landlady told us to sit down wherever we could and came around to take orders. We all went for the Mordue’s Amarillo, which was pretty tasty and like every other pub we’d visited incredibly cheap (especially when you are used to London prices). Sean mentioned that a Hartlepool manager was once rumoured to have paid ten pounds and a box of kippers for a player – we didn’t doubt that was possible. The pub had a capacity of 24 but a decent selection of beer and quirky details like old train seats for the customers to use.
The landlady added more colour, at one point shouting out: “If anyone’s getting Grand Central it’s in,” to which some wit replied, “What strength is it?” The arrival of the London train saw most of the Dons’ fans (including Joe and Alyson) disappear, with a few of us waiting for the slightly later Newcastle service.
Northern Rail – Hartlepool to Newcastle
A journey only memorable for providing us with some much needed toilet facilities.
As we walked to our second micropub of the day the Boris Johnson songs emerged again. Newcastle needed to know about the vile man. The pub itself was housed in a railway arch, it felt almost like being in Hackney. It was quiet for a Friday night, with just a couple of locals in but they, like almost everyone else we met, were incredibly friendly and the place had an instant warmth about it. We ordered Three Kings’ Ring of Fire and Tempest’s Cascadian, both of which were good. We chatted to the locals about football and beer, then Graham and I had a game of Connect 4. I won. Graham suggested a best of three. I won again. “Best of five?” suggested Graham. He won. 2-1 to me. We played again. I got the all important third victory. SCENES.
After all that excitement Ian and I thought we’d better check in to our hotel, The Premier Inn where Graham and Sean were also staying. Or so we thought. When we arrived the receptionist explained that we were actually booked in to the brand new hotel up the road. She called us a cab and we all piled in. I told the cab driver where we were going. “There’s no hotel there, there’s only a cinema.” He replied. I showed him the address and explained that the hotel themselves had directed us (and him) there. He made a noise of disapproval and said that he wasn’t allowed to go there as a minicab. This seemed odd, it was in the city centre, but when we were just down the road he refused to go any further. Google maps got us where the cab couldn’t – or wouldn’t. We checked in and got another cab out to The Cumberland Arms in Byker (cue Ant and Dec gags).
This cab didn’t seem much better and after directing him towards our destination he stopped at the end of a road and declared he couldn’t go any further.
We trudged up to the pub, which had a beer festival on over the Easter holiday. We joined a queue of ten or more to get to the bar. It didn’t move. We waited some more. No movement. We decided to give up and head to The Free Trade Inn down the road. The beer and pub looked nice but long queues aren’t much fun.
We’d hoped to catch up with Dons’ fan Newcastle Tim (and Hugo the sausage dog) here but by the time we arrived it was past Hugo’s bedtime and they’d had to leave. The Free Trade Inn is very well known on the Newcastle beer circuit, and its reputation has been well earned and maintained. Well kept beer, great staff, comfy surroundings and a pub cat called CraigDavid. What more could you want?
There was the remnants of a London beer festival going on (brilliantly illustrated by “Boris bad, beer good” posters) but we avoided the southern ale and ordered Fyne’s Jarl and Roosters’ Roots, Rock, Reggae. The latter is a tropical (pineapple and grapefruit) IPA, but well balanced and not too sweet. The people on the next table got up to leave and as they left handed us a pile of beer mats and told us we must look after them. We agreed, and indeed I still have the beer mats – but for what reason I have no idea. More beer was ordered and I tried North Riding’s Black Horizon, an Imperal Stout which was perfect for the late hour.
The pub was emptying and as it was Good Friday we presumed it was closing. I called a cab from a number the barman gave me and he said they were still open until midnight. “Even on Good Friday?” I asked. “It’s a Friday isn’t it?” came the reply. Marvellous.
The Newcastle Arms
Our final cab of the night took us to the final pub of the day, The Newcastle Arms. It was quiet but friendly. We drank Sonnet 43’s Bourbon Milk Stout and discussed our day out. A fine one, we concluded, despite the football.
Pub of the day: a tough decision between The Split Chimp, Rat Race and The Free Trade Inn but The Split Chimp edged it.
Beer of the day: Northern Line Stout