Funny name for a pub, The Ale Wagon? Maybe that’s what they call a Dray in Leicestershire? On a recent tour of ten Leicester pubs, it was by far the best of the traditionals I visited, and rightly falls into the category of ‘proper pub’.
It’s not often you come across someone reading Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan) in a quiet old fashioned boozer. The chap was impressed I’d heard of one of Éire’s most revered authors, even more so when I told him which ones I’d read. We chatted about O’Brien, his life and style, before the conversation moved onto the Leicester pubs of yesteryear. Turned out he’d lived in Leeds for a while (the chap in the pub, not O’Brien/O’Nolan), up Meanwood Road, just at the back of the farm.
Just before I left, he came over and handed me a leaf of paper. I’d seen him jotting something down in a notebook. As he handed me the full bibliography of O’Brien’s works, he told me he hoped I might be able to find all of them in a place like Leeds. He didn’t think Leicester was any good for books. I was touched by his thoughtful act of kindness, this near Dalkey Archive episode, it’s something that’s going to remain with me; I wish you well Sir, in everything you do.
I could see why he’d come here to read his book. The beer was excellent and the pub was a little remnant of the past, in a place that didn’t seem to have cared too much about what had gone before, the city centre came across as a patchwork quilt, sewn together without any thought as to whether the scraps of fabric matched or complemented each other.
The Ale Wagon is owned and run by Hoskins Brothers of Leicester and their own Hob Bitter (4%) and IPA (also 4%) was on the bar. I plumped for the IPA, and it was good, very good (NBSS 3.5+), and £3.10 a pint. In between literary discussion, the old fellah told me that Hoskin’s didn’t brew beer any longer and Belvoir in nearby Melton Mowbray contract brew for them. That explained the presence of Belvoir Old Dalby Ruby ale OTB, they also had Holden’s Black Country Bitter, Burton Bridge Tear-arse Two, and Thistly Cross Cider on draught from the cellar.
To be right honest, the boozer doesn’t look much from the outside. Don’t let that put you off though, there’s a mixture of old parquet floor and red tiles on the floor, depending where you walk in the two rooms. The long public bar has red moquette banquette seating, heavy cast iron tables with plain wood tops, along with the remnants of a micro brewery at the far end. The ‘better’ side of the pub had some nice ceiling detail and an oak staircase. In fact there was oak everywhere, the long public bar had been made from an old screen, the jovial barman explained. There were a couple of real fires which, the presence of two bags of split logs told me, were obviously in use, and most of the pub was very original.
At just after 12pm there were seven people in, rising to ten before I left. All pint drinkers and book/daily paper readers, apart from one younger bloke who was in and out like a yo-yo on his mobile phone.
Everything reminded me of The Junction at Castleford; town centre boozer, proper good ale, real customers, traditional setting.
Verdict – Highly recommended, proper gem, and I can see why it’s had 16 consecutive years in GBG, including GBG2018. Definitely one I would go back to.