I’ve just made an overdue overnight trip to Darlington, a Durham market town which I’ve always had unreasonable affection for, largely based on the atmospheric Feethams ground and some excellent pubs. 3 new entries in the Beer Guide, the first changes in some time, and a newish cheap Travelodge made my mind up.

To be honest, Darlo didn’t look to have changed much in the last 6 or so years.  It’s a spick and span town with attractive but unexciting architecture, with character coming from the shops, pubs and restaurants rather than any great civic buildings.  A simplistic comparison would be with Bury, which also has steam trains as its main visitor attraction.

On a sunny Saturday lunchtime Darlo’s Market Square offered traditional Northern (?) entertainment in the form of a Town Crier competition, an excellent Brass Band and some 1945 styled vocal groups, with some excellent continental market stalls in attendance.  It was a great shame that there was no Tourist Information Centre (it had apparently been rehoused but I failed to track down any leaflets),but apart from the Train Museum Darlo is poorly served by museums and art galleries now.

It is, however, magnificently served by pubs.  Its half dozen or so allocation of Beer Guide entries have also, over the years, included the full range of real ale outlets.  The excellent Snooker and Cricket Club Bars still feature, and for many years the bottle shop at Binns was included.  Darlo is very well served by small Italian, Mediterranean and more exotic restaurants, and Cajun and Tapas bars both serve real ale in the Guide entries.  The Voodoo Café had 2 local beers on cask as well as a Mikeller; all at decent prices.

Darlo’s stand-out pub for me is a recent club-conversion.  The Old Vic near the station is as basic a bar as you’ll find, but with great cellarmanship providing one of the best drops of stout I’ve had (Newporter).  In light of blog discussions about beer quality, it was noticeable that the Landlady pulled through 2 pints and checked the beer herself before handing it over.  As she then said, “I need the first beer you taste to be great, otherwise you won’t come back, will you ?”

The local CAMRA newsletter gives some strong hints as to their focus on quality v choice, and I would certainly put Darlo, along with Cambridge and Manchester, at the top of my list of towns with high beer quality.

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