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Ring my bell

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake

Posted June 04, 2012
the old bell tavern in harrogate uk
Ding dong! The Old Bell on Royal Parade. © Ignatius Rake

Any beer lover passing through Harrogate could do a lot worse than paying the Old Bell Tavern a visit.

The charming Georgian spa town of Harrogate is a much frequented stop on any tour of the Yorkshire Dales.

It's most famous landmark, though, is not the Royal Baths, with its Chinese restaurant and giant dome, nor the huge great obelisk on Cambridge Road.

Rather, the place most visitors seek out is Betty's Café Tea Rooms, which sits in the shadow of the said stone cock of Osiris.

When I hear the word 'Yorkshire', though, I don't think tea, I think bitter.

Consequently, whenever I find myself in town my first port of call other than Graveley's excellent fish and chip shop is not Betty's but the Old Bell Tavern on Royal Parade, undoubtedly one of the finest real ale pubs on the planet.

Located within a text-book Georgian terrace just up from the Royal Pump Room, the pub dates back to just May 1999.

However, taking its name from the Bell Tavern that previously stood there before calling time for good in 1815, the Old Bell is no cheesy plastics kit pub.

Yep, it may be a relative youngster but this place has pedigree stamped all over it.

guest ales and pump clips in the old bell tavern harrogate uk
A lot of guests: More pump clips for the collection. © Ignatius Rake

Interior-wise, the pub is suitably Spartan yet comfortable with a bar that you were just born to lean against.

Meanwhile, the ceiling is adorned with beer clips from the literally hundreds of guest ales that have so far graced the pub's hallowed beer engines.

And grace them they frequently do.

When I arrived on a Tuesday for a three-day assignment in town, the guest beers on tap consisted of Summer Wine Teleporter, Goose Eye Black Moor Mild, Great Heck Brave New World and, from across the Pennines, Fallons Lancastrian Gold.

When I returned two days later, they had all been replaced by equally tasty tipples.

"We have four new ales on each week," an off-duty barman, told me as I plunged into a pint of Great Heck, a 4% Yorkshire brew that is seriously more pleasant than the dystopian hell Huxley detailed.

With no annoying TVs or piped pop crap prattling on in the background, he didn't have to shout as he explained the lengths the pub goes to in order to maintain the perfectly poured, stored and aged pint.

Sadly, I was too engrossed in my beer to note down all the finer points but put it this way: what they do is a true craft, marrying the precision of science with the intuition of the artist.

Thermometers probably come into as well.

Or maybe not.

Either way, the result is a selection of pints that seem almost too good to drink.

But drink 'em I did.

a perfect pint of yorkshire bitter in the old bell tavern harrogate uk
Perfect pints: Notice the northern head typical of using a sparkler. © Ignatius Rake

In addition to draught local ales, such as Roosters Yorkshire Pale Ale (YPA), an understandably popular regular on the board, the Old Bell also keeps a number of foreign beers on tap, including an export version of Belgian-brewed Duvel1.

Indeed, on one visit I was standing at the bar when a fellow soft southern shite walked in and asked in Estuary English whether they had any draught lagers on.

"We certainly do," said diffrent barkeep.

"We've got Warsteiner Pils, 4.8, or Kaltenberg Hell, 4.1."

I think the punter went for the latter but what impressed me was his inclusion of the ABV.

If only more pubs did that then you'd avoid the risk of getting something piddly when you want something beefy and vice versa.

And when it comes to a liquid Geoff Capes, this particular hack unreservedly recommends the Durham Brewery White Stout they had in as a guest bottle.

At 7.2%, this ain't for shandy drinkers but neither does it taste like some rank trampy soup where all you can discern is methanol mixed with antifreeze.

"Have you had it before?" he asked when I ordered a bottle. "It tastes a lot like a Belgian tripel."

And indeed it does.

However, much to my initial disappointment, when you pour it out you don't actually get a negative Guinness, viz a pint of 'milk' with a black head.

Rather, out comes a pale, slightly fizzy brew that can quickly turn your cheeks red.

The word 'stout', you see, has only come to be associated with black beers (porters) since the Victorian era having until then simply meant 'strong' (as in 'stout pale ale').

But if something strong enough to floor an elephant is not to your liking, don't worry.

Most Yorkshire ales weigh in at around the 3-4% mark, making them ideal session beers.

As a result you can knock back a fair few of the Old Bell's gems and still be able to focus on the wondrous sight of beer being poured through a sparkler – a much loved gizmo in Yorkshire that produces a foamy pint with an almost Guinness-like head2.

Then, when you've climbed the stairs to the khazi, you can also fully appreciate the beauty of the original Georgian sinks in the gents3.

While the staff of the Old Bell clearly take their beer very seriously, they aren't snobs, up their own arses or anything like the Real Ale Twats in Viz or the subject of Half Man Half Biscuit's CAMRA Man.

Instead, the ones I met and chatted with were friendly, easy-going and blessed with a good sense of humour.

They also happened to really love their beer.

Fortunately, they were not alone in this.

Harrogate, I'm glad to report, is also home to the excellent Tap and Spile, with its nationwide selection of quality real ales; the Coach and Horses, where you can also enjoy a hot pork pie floating on a sea of mushy peas; and Hales Bar, the town's oldest pub that as well as boasting its own specially-brewed beer stays open late if you can handle all the stuffed wildlife staring down at you.

All three pubs are well worth a look and by rights deserve articles of their own.

However, each time I left the Old Bell to pay them a visit my notes suddenly became indecipherable or, worse still, completely invisible.

Weird that.

It must've been the peanuts.


1) The export version of Duvel has an ABV of 6.8% and is thus a tad less potent than the 8.5% standard brew on sale across Belgium. Meanwhile, the Old Bell also stocks bottles of 8.1% Belgian Kwak complete with its trademark bulbous glass and wooden 'test tube holder'.

2) Coming from Cornwall, I'm used to pints without a head so for me when I'm up north this is always a big-time novelty.

3) They really are ace. In fact, Lovejoy would probably cut off his mullet to get his grubby hands on them. Or in them, for that matter.

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