My Top Five Pub Discoveries in 2023

I managed to go to about 60 new pubs in 2023 which is a fraction of those visited by the intrepid Good Beer Guide tickers, but was quite an achievement for me. It did mean it was very difficult to narrow the choice down to the top five, but I’ve chosen a varied selection from Norfolk in the East to Herefordshire in the west (of England) up to Glasgow in the north. I did have a trip to Hampshire in the south but none of them made the cut. All but the Nelson Head are in the 2023 and 2024 Good Beer Guides and two are heritage pubs.

Nelson Head, Horsey

Nelson Head, Horsey: Exterior & beer garden
The Nelson Head in Horsey from the pub garden

Horsey is a village on the Norfolk Broads, famous for its windmill and for the seals that gather on the beach. The Nelson Head is between the mill and the beach, and dozens of people pass the pub on their way to see the seals. Quite a few call in of course and it can be quite busy at lunchtimes. What surprised me on our Norfolk cycling trip in April was that most of the pubs we visited, including the Nelson Head, weren’t especially foody. All welcomed drinkers and usually had space for them.

It’s actually a traditional, relatively unspoilt Norfolk cottage pub with a wooden floor and a real fire. We both had a pint of the local Woodforde’s Wherry, and Nelson from the same brewery was also on the bar. We’d only planned to stay for a pint but then noticed a blackboard listing four more cask beers from the cellar. We decided we had to try at least one of them so I went for Moon Gazer Nibbler, a tasty but not too strong Old Ale from North Norfolk. The bar is decorated with ancient guns, including a very long blunderbuss thing, old fishing rods and assorted broadland artefacts. We had a good chat with the pub chef who had finished her lunchtime shift and was waiting for a lift home. It was good to find an old fashioned proper pub in a touristy area.

Olde Tavern, Kington

June saw me in Herefordshire on another cycling trip, this time accompanying a friend on a short stretch of his very leisurely and pub-focused John O’Groats to Lands End trip. We’d cycled from Craven Arms in Shropshire via the classic Sun in Leintwardine to Kington near the Welsh border where we stayed the night. The Olde Tavern is a three star Camra heritage pub and also in the Good Beer Guide so it wasn’t hard to decide where we were heading for the evening. We started in the public bar on the left with its Victorian bar counter and bar back and old cabinets filled with nick-nacks and pewter plates. Cask beers on the bar were Hobsons Bitter, Three Tuns Solstice and Ludlow Gold, all from Shropshire and we tried all three before we went home. We moved to a small newish room at the back for a tasty and good value meal.

We finished off the evening in the small smoke room on the right of the pub, with a flagged floor and very old bench seating. Until 2002 there was a high-back settle here which created an even smaller room on one side and a corridor on the other. It’s a shame its gone but you can see why the owners at the time saw the need to make more space.

Pot Still, Glasgow

The Pot Still is one of Scotland’s top whisky pubs, stocking around 750 different malts and blends, most of them displayed on an impressive gantry behind the bar. It became a whiskey pub in 1981 when John Waterson remodelled the existing pub and added the gantry. It’s an undeniably touristy pub, with visitors from across the world but it’s so well managed that you barely notice. The pub still has its high, elaborately plastered ceiling supported with iron columns, with a lower main bar and a mezzanine area at the back where we found a seat.

I’m fond of a smoky Islay whisky like Ardbeg or Laphroaig so I asked one of the staff if she could recommend something similar from another producer. She suggested Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old for me and for my wife who likes a Balvenie she proposed a Glen Elgin 12 Year Old. We both had half pint Broughton Glasgow Cross IPA chasers served from traditional, and now very rare air pressure founts. Our food was traditional too, with us both opting for Scotch pies with baked beans (though the pie was a posh variety with a potato topping covering the minced beef). Scotch pies are becoming harder to find in Glasgow pubs (no bad thing some might say) but hopefully the new owners of the Laurieston will continue to serve their mince-only pies from the heated cabinet. The whisky, ale and food at the Pot Still were all excellent and I’d thoroughly recommend a visit.

The Bell, Aldworth

The Bell in Aldworth, Berkshire

This was an August trip in some rare summer sunshine to visit two classic pubs that I was aware of but had never visited. One was the North Star at Steventon in Oxfordshire and the other was the Bell in Aldworth, just across the county boundary in Berkshire. Both could have made it into my top five but the Bell just edged it. This was Camra National Pub of the Year in 1990 and again in 2019, and like the Olde Tavern above, is a three star Camra heritage pub. It has been in the same family since the 1700s, has appeared in numerous national pubs guides and now has its own brewery. So I’ll admit it’s not a surprising choice, but because it fully lived up to expectations it had to be included.

All the pub is like a time warp but the star of the show from a heritage point of view is the Tap Room on the left with its red quarry tiled floor, huge inglenook fireplace and Victorian furniture. The bar has a serving hatch on each of its three sides and I started with a pint of Arkell’s 3B. Three generations of the family were around on our visit, including the landlady, now in her 90s, and full of tales from the past. Her son, effectively the landlord, was full of questions, and her grandson who brews in the small barn at the back allowed us a pint each of his Five Giants, not due to go on until the next day. We were welcome to park our camper van on the field above the car park, so we were able to dine on the famous pub rolls and have a few more pints before we headed off to bed.

Seven Stars, Rugby

Seven Stars, Rugby: Exterior
The Seven Stars in Rugby, Warwickshire

September was a later than usual date for my annual cycling and beer drinking trip with three friends. We decided on Rugby as a base this year, mainly because the rail station is reasonably handy for our different home locations. It turned out to be a good choice because it has some great pubs, with three being possible contenders for this article. I chose the Seven Stars mainly because its just a good all round proper pub. It’s very welcoming, even when the garrulous and slightly eccentric landlord Graham isn’t on duty. It also has Everard’s beers which I’ve barely seen since I lived in Loughborough over 30 years ago. It was nice to try Tiger again (better than it used to be?) and Old Original, their excellent strong bitter. There was a great choice of guests as well, with ales from Byatt, Deeply Vale and BTB on our visit.

The Seven Stars, appropriately enough for its location is a big rugby pub and there are regular coach trips to the Leicester Tigers ground. It was the start of the Rugby World Cup on our visit and it was the obvious, if crowded, place to watch the big games. You needed to be in early, not just to get a seat but to make sure you got one of Graham’s celebrated scotch eggs with a choice of chilli and garlic or curry and mango.

So that’s a remote rural pub, an old fashioned pub in a small town, a whisky pub in a big city, a classic village pub and a proper boozers pub in a large town. Quite a variety but all worth a visit.

See also:
My Top Five Pub Discoveries in 2022
My Top Five Pub Discoveries in 2021

2 responses... add one

A very enjoyable read. I’d highly recommend the Harrow at Steep – a Hampshire ‘must’. Been in the same family for years, like the Bell at Aldworth, now run by 2 elderly sisters. Both toilets (ladies & gents) are outside, across the road. Excellent, basic food – I’d go for the pea + ham soup.

Having already “discovered” for myself three of your five featured pubs, I’m going to use your piece as an incentive to get to the other two this year: the Nelson Head and the Pot Still.

Thanks for the suggestions! (I’m going to look back at your discoveries from the previous two years, too.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *