Darryl Williams, Social Secretary of Gwent Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is our guest blogger in this post and he has kindly researched the best places in Monmouthshire to get a great pint.
Over to Darryl:
Searching out the venues in Monmouthshire that serve the best real ale is an onerous task. Some places are off the beaten track, down long, winding, narrow roads, some in small, hidden villages, and a few can be found in the major towns. Various stages of quality can be found, from excellent right down to pigswill! Thankfully the latter is relatively rare, and such is the high profile of real ale at the moment, one is more likely to encounter the excellent.
In Monmouthshire this task is primarily the role of the Campaign For Real Ale‘s local branch – Gwent CAMRA. From a pool of just over 500 members, a small number of dedicated folk traverse the county, using the public transport system where possible, to identify outlets that consistently serve real ale at its best.
Part of Gwent CAMRA’s remit is to select pubs for publication in the Good Beer Guide (GBG) – CAMRA’s national publication dedicated to the real ale selling outlets of Great Britain, and an endorsement of the fine work done by publicans throughout the country. The 2013 Guide is published this September and will contain reference to over 25 pubs in Monmouthshire.
Gwent CAMRA also undertakes surveying of pubs to fill two annual awards- the Country Pub of the Year and Town Pub of the Year. The winner of each category goes forward to a Welsh regional competition and after more surveying by other CAMRA members could go on for national recognition in the National Pub of the Year – this year won by the Bridge End Inn, Ruabon, North Wales. Monmouthshire’s successful pubs were The Star at Llanfihangel-Tor-y-Mynydd (country) and the Coach & Horses, Chepstow (town).
As fine establishments as the aforementioned pubs are, they are by no means the only outlets worth visiting in Monmouthshire. From Chepstow to Abergavenny, Usk to Caldicot, Monmouth to Magor and the Wye Valley there are many well run public houses just waiting for your patronage.
While the best are listed in the Good Beer Guide, many others only miss the final cut due to publication restrictions. As much as we would love to promote more of the 570+ pubs and clubs in Monmouthshire, only a select few join the 4,500 others selected for inclusion from around the country. Some of the best reservists are listed below.
Chepstow, often being the first point of call for tourists visiting Wales, seems a fitting place to start the discovery of the Monmouthshire real ale scene. The Coach & Horses has been joined in the good book (GBG) for 2013 by the Chepstow Castle Inn, with the town’s athletic club continuing its presence.
However, another pub worth a visit includes The Boat, with its superb riverside location, and verandas aiding the local hobby of English-watching on the other side of the river! A maritime theme runs through the pub with various knick-knacks on display, hanging from the low beams and hidden niches. Food is a major feature here. The Five Alls is worth checking out for its connections with the local tug-of war team, regular changing ales and good selection of whiskies. The Three Tuns, in the shadow of the castle, has a retro feel to it with art deco touches and open plan layout providing a selection of good ales and will feature in GBGs of the future, have no doubt.
A short distance from Chepstow the Portskewett Inn offers hearty meals and a family friendly welcome, while neighbouring Caldicot offers the popular, town centre located Cross Inn. With the many local ale pump-clips displayed proudly around the bar an ever-changing ale policy is in evidence. The GBG listed Castle Inn is conveniently located near to the castle and has an enviable food menu to compliment its selection of good real ales.
Following the Wye Valley north through Tintern, Llandogo, Redbrook and Penallt to Monmouth, many pubs call for a visit. In Tintern the Moon & Sixpence has a natural spring running through its centre, and is worth sampling despite its proximity to the main road. The Royal George Hotel has fine, extensive gardens for summer dining, but comes at premium prices, though with exceptional beer quality.
Another nautical theme will greet you at The Sloop, Llandogo, named after the barges that plied their trade on the river, and roof beams possibly recycled from ships masts. Though Redbrook is an English village, it provides a car park and access, via a footbridge across the Wye, to the Boat at Penallt. This riverside pub, crammed into the hillside, has an outstanding reputation for its real cider with up to ten different ones available continuously, complementing its real ales.
Photo credit: mfajardo
Monmouth has a growing reputation for its real ale scene and though only the King’s Head Hotel (JD Wetherspoon) has qualified for the 2013 GBG, several others are close behind. Two SA Brains outlets, The Old Nags Head and The Punch House, offer good ale in totally different environments. The Old Nags Head is acquiring a Bohemian-like reputation for music with open-mike nights being particularly well attended, while the Punch House caters for the town centre tourist trade, but neither outlet allows its ale quality to suffer. Not far from these pubs is the Queens Head Hotel, with its Oliver Cromwell connections and also home to a Thai Restaurant. At the bottom end of town, overlooking the spectacular Monnow Bridge is the Gatehouse, again offering tourists meals and good real ale, but with an interesting quirk in the gents WC!
The Beaufort Arms in Raglan offers an upmarket dining experience and suitably upmarket prices, but good-quality ale, and is close to the stunning Raglan Castle, rumoured to be connected via a long-lost tunnel. The White Hart in Llangybi is a firm favourite of the fine-dining fraternity because of its quality food served at reasonable prices, and Sunday lunches here are popular. The pub has a connection to Jane Seymour (dowry), Cromwell (Civil War HQ) and TS Eliot (his poem ‘Usk’) and oozes charm and antiquity. The recently refurbished Inn at Penallt is another country dining experience, offering good ale and food, with a flagstone bar and extensive views over the Wye Valley from the patio and garden.
Usk offers some excellent GBG pubs with the King’s Head, the original winner of Gwent CAMRA’s Pub of the Year award in 1987, still present in the good book 25 years later. The Castle Inn has multiple awards for its food, as well as good real ale, and the Three Salmons Hotel is a former 17th century coaching inn with a menu specialising in fish. Just north of Usk, at Bettws Newydd, is the Black Bear, a 17th century cosy village inn with a Norman mound rising up behind it, and also offering a fish-inspired dining experience.
Moving north to Abergavenny, there are multiple outlets offering quality ale in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons. The Plas Derwen is usually the first pub seen on entering the town from the busy A40. A Brains pub with an occasional guest ale, this former town-house has recently been upgraded to hotel status and offers an airy conservatory as a dining area. The Swan Hotel, near to the bus station, has recently changed ownership, and offers a good selection of ale and cheap food for those on a tight budget. The King’s Head Hotel has a couple of guest ales available and is usually popular at weekends, as is the Coliseum (another JD Wetherspoon), but recently offering an improved quality of real ale.
Overlooking the River Usk is the Bridge Inn at Llanfoist, with two local ales on offer and a large outdoor area for those summer days watching the fishermen while the Bridgend Inn at Govilon offers good food and ale on the bank of the Monmouthshire & Brecon canal. Just along the canal is the Corn Exchange, another favoured watering hole at Gilwern. The Pandy Inn and The Rising Sun at Pandy offer good ales, food and accommodation for enthusiasts walking the Offa’s Dyke Path and the Angel in Grosmont has benefited from the purchase by a consortium of locals.
Finally, there is the pub with arguably the best beer-garden in the country, the second most northerly pub in Monmouthshire and set in a tranquil valley far from bustling towns. The Llanthony Priory Hotel may only be open at weekends in the winter, but the ruins of the 11th century monastery make this a pub that should be on everyone’s list. Set in the heart of the Black Mountains the hotel offers a deafening silence as a backdrop to stunning scenery. The cellar bar in the former abbot’s house has accommodation reached via a spiral stone staircase in one of the old abbey towers.
There are many more pubs to be visited throughout Monmouthshire and Gwent that offer good ale, good food, good company and good conversation. Friends will be made, relationships forged and revisiting encouraged. Gwent CAMRA’s dedicated activists will continue to keep an eye on the availability of real ale throughout the county, so please visit, patronise and enjoy the great ales on offer.
Full address and contact details of any pub listed here is on the Gwent CAMRA website.