Just back from visiting my Aunt in Eaton Bray, a plain Bedfordshire village rescued by it’s proximity to Dunstable Downs on the edge of the Chilterns. Now in her mid-80s, my Aunt is still very sharp, and had quite a bit to say about housing developments in southern Leighton Buzzard, which has usurped Dunstable as the main shopping destination round here.
My impression of Leighton Buzzard had always been pretty much the one you get from the eponymous (but unconnected) post-punksters minor hit from ’79, with grotty garish pub-cum-nightclubs and charity shops characterising a town that suffers from proximity to Milton Keynes and Aylesbury. It was good enough for the great Bob Monkhouse though.
That impression is going to have to change though. Leighton has been revitalised in the last 5 years to such an extent that it could now compare well with Oxfordshire neighbours like Thame or Bicester. There’s always been some handsome Victorian architecture here, but it’s much more appreciable now the High Street has tidied itself up. The Wetherspoons, with it’s unlikely hotel, is a good example.
There’s a number of attractive cobbled alleyways off the High Street with attractive specialist shops, and a superb new coffee bar in North Street. It’s in the pubs, though, where revitalisation is most apparent.
I remember central Leighton having no Beer Guide pubs not long ago; now there’s four, and a new micro-pub has just opened. Two of these are so good that I’d seriously consider the town as great pub crawl material. If that sounds daft, look at how quickly Thanet has become the centre of the pub world.
The new star is the Black Lion, a local Pub of the Year which feels a bit like a Joules pub internally, but with an expanded beer range. I can’t resist Bass though, and this was magnificent (NBSS 4), my best since the Coopers Tavern. Trade on Monday lunchtime was brisker than in most Cambridge pubs, with the Bass clearly appreciated by locals. Bar snacks looked particularly impressive here.
The other Leighton gem, the Red Lion is 2 minutes but several decades away. Without being cluttered, it feels like the living room you wished you had, with a bar thrown in. An ideal place to hide away with a book, and an unpretentious range of well kept beers (Banks NBSS 3). My closest comparison would be the Robinsons pub I fell in love with in the 90s like the Spread Eagle and Tiviot. You don’t often see fresh flowers in pubs these days.
The micro-pub was closed, and I’d suggest visiting on a Tuesday or Saturday, when you will see the town to best effect on Market day. The cheese stall is a classic.