The UK’s national parks have their origins in a political rather than an environmental act.
In April 1932, several hundred ramblers and communists converged upon Kinder Scout, a moorland hill in Derbyshire, to protest that private landowners kept so much of England’s countryside dedicated to farming and the pursuits of the wealthy, cut off from its people.
The “Kinder Trespass” culminated in some violent scuffles with gamekeepers and a rally of thousands in Winnats Pass in favour of open access to rural areas. It is often said to have created the momentum that led to the UK’s national parks legislation of 1949, and indeed the Peak District, within which Kinder Scout proudly sits, was the first region to be given this designation, one week shy of the 19th anniversary of the event.
National parks are all about letting people in. They are not about keeping people out.
That makes the Peak District an appropriate flagbearer for the movement.
Squeezed between the great seeping cities of the Industrial Revolution—Sheffield to the east, Manchester to the West and Birmingham to the south—the region is cut through by roads and a railway.
The Peaks are not merely an occupied landscape. In many ways they are scarred by human contact.
On our first visit, my wife and I stayed in the village of Castleton, in the shadow of Kinder Scout and a short walk from Winnats Pass where the events of 1932 took place. Beyond the ridge of Mam Tor the moors of the Dark Peak stretch out, spectacular and often glowering with a genuine sense of wildness under heavy rainclouds. In reality, however, they are only beginning to recover from decades of ravaging pollution. Across both the Dark and the White Peaks, my wife and I felt the strange absence of birds of prey: while we heard the cries of owls at night, over two weeks we counted the number of raptors we saw on two hands.
These lands have been farmed intensively for centuries. Mining and quarrying have been an important part of the local economy for five hundred years. The dry-stone walls that are so characteristic of the landscape, some of which are said to date back to Roman times, are a subtle but potent symbol of humankind’s long dominance here, of its age-old project to scour, dissect, dam and reform these hills and valleys and rivers.
The Hope Valley, in which Castleton reclines, is watched over by Kinder Scout and Mam Tor. But it is also overlooked by the ruins of the medieval Peveril Castle, not to mention the soaring, hulking, glaring, 21st-century immensity that is the Breedon Group’s Hope Cement Works. Here is the true “Cathedral of the Peak”, not the parish church in Tideswell that currently boasts the epithet.
Given this longstanding industrial heritage, it is no surprise to find brewing prevalent in and around the Peaks. Burton-upon-Trent sits just 25km to the south, after all. Within the boundaries of the national park itself lie Thornbridge, Peak Ales, Taddington, Intrepid, Bradfield, Flash and the Wincle Beer Co. On its fringes there are a dozen or so more, including Abbeydale, Buxton and Torrside. And that is before we get to the thriving beer culture of Sheffield proper, or indeed Manchester.
With the exceptions of a day at Thornbridge’s Peakender Beer Festival, a visit to the taprooms of both Thornbridge and Buxton, and a few hours in the Kelham Island Tavern and The Sheffield Tap, my beer experiences over our two weeks on the Peaks were casual and in local village pubs.
These experiences were a stark reminder of how divorced the local pub has become from the UK’s beer culture, but also of how the cultural significance of beer and brewing is so caught up in a confusing, conflicted tangle of rural and agricultural associations on the one hand and urban and industrial associations on the other—rather like the Peak District itself.
Many of the local pubs on the Peak are affiliated either with Robinsons Brewery of Stockport or the ubiquitous, and soon to be multinationalised, Greene King. Quite often the best one can hope for on cask is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (brewed 30km north of the Peaks) or Thwaites’ Wainright (now brewed by Marston’s).
It often seems to me that cask ale is increasingly associated with rurality. This is perhaps partly due to the arrival of a keg-oriented craft beer culture in urban centres, partly due its being a self-consciously “natural”, live product, whose flavours tend to stay close to the base ingredients of beer (and indeed its natural spoiling agents), and partly due to the banal fact that wooden hand pumps look more bucolic than shiny keg taps.
When you get out into the countryside, however, you’ll often find that the cask beer on offer in pubs comes from large brewers situated in old industrial cities scores of miles away. The kegs, of course, will be dominated by multinational lager and cider brands.
The best freehouses—among which I would include Ye Olde Nag’s Head in Castleton—valiantly attempt a balance: hosting cask ales from more local brewers such as Bradfield, Abbeydale, Peak and Intrepid, and keeping and serving them with care. Even there, however, the kegs deliver the usual suspects. Astonishingly, I do not recall a single pub in Castleton or Hope serving a Thornbridge beer from cask or keg—not even Jaipur. Some kept bottles, but Castleton’s local bakery and convenience store stocked more.
This is one of the great peculiarities of UK beer culture, and arguably of British culture in general—a tenacious kind of false consciousness.
At the Buxton Brewery Taphouse, we drank Gatekeeper Porter and Lupulus x Ekuanot, followed by Costa Rican Coffee Extra Porter and Original Raspberry Ice Cream Pie, a collaboration with Omnipollo: this was a journey, then, into the more extreme realms of modern craft beer.
The first was a solid, coffee-accented black beer and the second a dry, vinous pale with a pleasant balance of bitterness and fruity aromatics. The third was the stand-out beer, delivering a luxurious, creamy coffee-and-vanilla experience that tasted far more indulgent than its relatively modest strength would suggest.
When the bartender served the fourth beer, he asked if I would like the “soft scoop” on top. At first, I looked back at him blankly. Then I replied, “I… I don’t think so, thanks.” Then I confessed. “What on earth do you mean by the ‘soft scoop on top’?”
It turned out to be a frozen version of the same beer—which was a nondescript pale ale mixed, apparently, with some kind of raspberry syrup—whipped up inside an ice cream machine and deposited into the glass to create the beer’s foam. His technique is something of an Omnipollo staple but it was the first time I had seen or tasted it. It transformed an otherwise uninteresting, even slightly irritating drink into something fun and appropriately desert-like.
It is almost impossible to relate this product to the Peak Ales’ Bakewell Best Bitter that I drank in Castleton’s Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. Is it any easier to relate Lupulus x Ekuanot to Bakewell Best?
Thornbridge Brewery, appropriately enough, spans these divides with uncommon poise.
Unlike Belgium (perhaps), England does not really have a history of farmhouse brewing. Despite the bucolic imagery and the arable ingredients, beer is a highly processed product tightly associated, economically and historically, with urban concentrations of heavy industry. What England does have, however, is a tradition of country mansion brewing.
Thornbridge’s origins in the grounds of the faux-Jacobean country house Thornbridge Hall were a nod to this tradition. Success and expansion forced it to relocate to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bakewell 10 years ago, maintaining its original premises as an experimental brewery, and today its distribution strategy sees its bottles lining up on supermarket shelves across the country, alongside the big national and multinational brewing brands.
It has managed to achieve this without even a hint of compromise or irony by virtue of the fact that it was a genuine pioneer in many of the things that now define UK craft beer, from bold hop flavours, through barrel ageing and the wide range of beer styles it tackles, all the way to the steampunk Victoriana of its branding; and because the quality and consistency of its brewing has been almost unmatched since its inception 15 years ago.
Of the handful of beers that we tasted at the brewery taproom, all of which were excellent, the Mango Smash Milkshake IPA exemplified the Thornbridge philosophy. It was not a half-hearted, lactose-shy iteration of this most archly youthful of the craft-beer styles, but in its balance of sherbet sweetness and vibrant fruit aroma and bite, it instantly achieved a kind of grown-up nostalgia rather than a cheap and cloying childishness.
Did any local-pub cask ales stop me in my tracks in the same way, while I was up on the brewery-dotted Peaks?
They did, and the brewery I have to thank is Abbeydale, located on the fringes of the park in the southern suburbs of Sheffield.
The two beers were Deception and Voyager IPA, both setting a stage for Nelson Sauvin and both made with a level of expertise that denotes a history with southern hemisphere hops that extends back long before they were fashionable.
The first is extremely pale and crystal clear on the palate, letting the vinous Muscat and Riesling aromatics run freely into a moderately dry finish. The second was more complex, with a slightly fuller malt profile and grape flavours joining with hints of citrussy lychee and lime, backed by a substantial bitterness.
A lot of credit must go to Castleton’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn and Ye Old Nag’s Head, which served these subtle, bright and zingy beers up without a hint of spoiling or oxidation.
It can be done, then.
Does that make its scarcity even more dispiriting? Does it matter that modern craft beer is so concentrated in urban bars and brewery taprooms, and so rarely found in community pubs? That even the best cask ale brewers appear to struggle to claim a pump in one out of five of those pubs? That you’re more likely to find Buxton beers in a bottle shop in Brixton or Stockholm than in a Peak District inn?
Perhaps not. Nature favours niches, after all.
But I can’t help feeling that it reveals some failure in the economics of our beer distribution, just as the scarcity of buzzards and goshawks over the undulating hills of the Peaks reveals decades of failure in our husbandry of the rural environment.