December 7 2013 Latest news:
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
It might be hidden away on the platform of a west Norfolk train station – but the Railway Arms has today been named as the best cider and perry pub in Britain.
Judges from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) have spent the past year touring the nation trying to find the best venue for enjoying a good quality real ale.
None could top the Pinches family’s tiny watering hole on platform one of Downham Market railway station, which the judges fell in love with because of its “relaxing, friendly atmosphere” and because it is a “quirky, fun little place to be”.
Ian Pinches, who has run the pub with his wife Lesley-Ann and their son Callum, 20, for the past four years, said the family’s goal had been to make the Railway Arms “everything a normal pub isn’t” and be “the anitdote to the typical pub”.
He added: “What appealed to us about it was that it was different. It was not a normal pub, which didn’t interest us.”
The accountant had been a regular commuter at Downham Market railway station as he travelled into London daily for his job as chief executive and finance director at a London housing charity.
Having been on the nine-to-five treadmill for years, Mr Pinches was looking for change – and said running a railway station pub meant a “completely different way of life”.
The 49 year old said: “I knew I always wanted to run my own business but I had no idea what I wanted to do. This was a sort of mid-life crisis!”
The station’s former post office had already been converted into a pub by Andrew Archibald, who now runs the Chalk and Cheese restaurant in Shouldham.
After six months, the Pinches family took it over – and immediately set about making it different from just about any other pub you could walk into.
As well as its small and cosy setting, with an open fire burning in the winter, they decided not to play any music or have a widescreen TV showing sports.
“It can, if it’s too loud, stifle conversation,” Mr Pinches explained. “One of the things people come in here for is the conversation and banter you get from having a crowd of regulars.
Although there is the odd quiz and a few old-fashioned pub games, the entertainment is also a little different – the pub recently held a Come Dine With Me-style event where regulars could try each other’s home-made dishes.
There is also a book room, where people can read quietly, a cafe in the mornings and, instead of pulling drink from a pump, all the real cider, perry and ale is served directly from the cask or pin of the Railway Arms’ tap room.
“It’s all about the quality,” Mr Pinches said. “We want to make sure what we’re serving is fresh, well-made and is from good brewers and cider makers.”
Although some drinks are brought in from the West Country, the pub uses trusted nearby suppliers such as the Pickled Pig in Stretham, near Ely, and Cromwell’s Ciders in Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire.
“Another thing we do which is slightly different is that we don’t tend to have lots of beers and ciders,” Mr Pinches said. “Most pubs tend to have a range of beers and ciders which are on all the time. We would rather have a smaller selection which keeps changing. People come here knowing there’s going to be something different every time.”
The reaction when new customers walk into the pub, Mr Pinches said, is one of complete surprise.
“People that come and see us for the first time are just actually gobsmacked when they walk through the door,” he said. “They’re expecting a typical railway station cafe and this is not what they expect at all.”
Even though there are pubs in railway stations in the West Country, Mr Pinches said he does not know of another pub like the Railway Arms in this part of the country.
He also said people like the fact it is a family-run business. Callum runs the pub for two days a week, whereas at other times Mr Pinches is in charge, jointly running things with Callum or Lesley-Ann.
Yet despite its success from a string of CAMRA awards, Mr Pinches said: “It is difficult times for the pub trade full stop. Pubs that don’t have a unique selling point are the ones that tend to struggle more than most.
“That’s why we make a point of doing something different to other pubs in the locality. We deliberately go out of our way to do things that are a little bit special or different. It’s about what makes you different from other pubs.”
The Railway Arms will be presented with a certificate this afternoon by CAMRA representatives, who are arriving by train to enjoy a drink at the pub.
It will be given pride of place over the Railway Arms’ bar.