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BrewDogging #87: Exeter

It took me ages to frame this to get the rugby on one side and the terrible neon sign on the other, so the least that you can do is click on the photo to see it big.Earlier this month, The BBG and I went into the West Country on Secret Business, and we can't tell you anything about it.

We want to, really. And if you know either or both of us personally, you're probably sick to death by now of the way we've been banging on about it for the last three months or so. But for reasons of privacy, we can't say anything about it here. Whose privacy? Well, that would be telling. Sorry. Frustratingly, it's one of the best days out we've had in years, and for a change I can't recycle it as content.

But I can say that it was relatively close to Exeter, which meant we could make a detour on the way home for something I could recycle as content.

In recent times, we've tended to make snap judgement calls about our BrewDogging locations based on the flimsiest bits of evidence. In Basingstoke, it was the way the gents urinals advised you to get yourself checked if you happened to be pissing blood. For Exeter, the alarm bells started ringing when I picked up a copy of the Saturday Guardian at Tiverton Parkway station to read on the final leg of our train journey there. Most of the time back home, the magazine is packed with advertising inserts for fancy holidays or water filtration devices. Here, we got an advert for a campaign to legalise assisted dying. Is this some sort of indication of the West Country mindset, we wondered?

We pull into Exeter St David's slightly unprepared, to the extent that we're surprised by the early discovery that Penguin books were invented in that very station. We've got a couple of meals pre-booked, and awkwardly spaced gaps either side of the first one, making it difficult to plan out a range of activities. If we'd organised our time better, I'd have been keen to see the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, even though the only film I've ever seen of his is Comrades, and that was close on four decades ago. However, the hour and a half we've got between our arrival and lunch isn't long enough to get to the museum and back to the restaurant, irritatingly located at opposite ends of the city.

We decide to go for a slow mooch from the station towards our lunch venue, observing along the way that Exeter doesn't really appear to have a centre. As a Londoner who'd never been there before, I'd assumed that as the London trains stop at Exeter St David's, that must be in the middle of everything - but it's not. Later on that same day, we'll encounter a station literally called Exeter Central, but even that is a fair distance from everything. What we have appears to be a series of pockets of interesting buildings in varying styles, but with nothing much connecting them. Is that unfair? Probably, but we're only here for a few hours and it's already raining, so we're not in the best of moods.

But things perk up along the way, as we start realising that today is Men's Walk day. (I'm not going to surmise how passive-aggressive it is having that the day after International Women's Day. 'Oh, do what you want, love, I'm going for a walk.') Following a route south towards the canal, we start meeting more and more guys in blue t-shirts doing a charity walk for Hospiscare, as well as lots of pubs with signs welcoming passing walkers. It becomes apparent how underprepared we are for this trip when we're surprised by the sudden appearance of Topsham Brewery, a huge building full of beer literally next door to the place where we've booked for lunch, and notable for swarms of blue t-shirts swinging off the canal path and directly into it. For most of the hour we're there, The BBG is the only person in the bar who’s neither walking nor a man - there's a steady stream of guys coming in, having precisely one pint, and then heading off again. We'll see this pattern repeat itself at other boozers later on in the day, leading us to suspect that it's unofficially a massive sponsored pub crawl.

Our lunch venue - which gives us a perfect view of just how many walkers are taking the Topsham diversion - is at Rockfish, Mitch Tonks' fancy fish restaurant, where we've discovered a lunchtime hack. Along with all the usual fresh stuff at market price, there's the option of Tonks' own variation on canned fish, served directly out of the tins - three for thirteen quid per person, with enough bread and pickles for two to share. It's positioned on the menu like a starter, but nobody bats an eyelid when we ask for it as a lightish lunch. Success!

It's certainly more of a success than the afternoon which follows, using the various self-guided walking tours to pick out odd architectural highlights - a bit of city wall here, a medieval bridge there, followed by a pit stop at Taste Of South Street once our legs have had enough of that. We grab a coffee there in preparation for our planned big event of the afternoon, a visit to the nearby Cathedral, only to discover that the place is closed all day for a gin, rum and vodka festival, in some sort of blasphemous parody of the holy Eucharist. With our plans for the next hour of the day banjaxed, we're reduced to looking around the Princesshay shopping centre, pausing as we do to ask the traditional question "what the hell is the HMV shop supposed to be now?"

The grim punchline to our window shopping comes when we realise that we're not meant to be at the Princesshay centre, we're meant to be at the Guildhall centre. Because, finally, it's time to visit BrewDog Exeter, and it's another one of their shopping centre bars. It feels a bit much just a few weeks after visiting Basingstoke, but it has to be said that it feels a lot less shopping centre-y than Basingstoke did, even though the circumstances are similar, all the way up to us visiting on a Saturday evening while the Rugby World Cup is on. England v Ireland, no less, which has attracted a small crowd of viewers around the telly.

Despite that, Exeter has the feel of a proper BrewDog bar, not just a shoppers' boozer that's had the company branding glued onto it. We have friendly and welcoming staff, good food and beer, and the usual craft beer wankers mingling happily with genpop. Even the decor of this relatively new two storey bar has the old school touch of a huge Fisher mural on the upper level, featuring all of his usual violent seafood motifs. Although we have to move a 'wet floor' sign out of the way to see his signature, as proof that the mural wasn’t by an imitator. Which is a pity, because I had a rather good line about it being ‘school of Fisher’ that I couldn't use any more.

I know I shouldn't keep comparing Exeter to Basingstoke just because they were two shopping centre bars we visited five weeks apart, but it has to be said that not only is Exeter a better bar, we also found more things to do in town there (even though it didn't seem like it at the time). So ignore the leaflets in your Guardians, Exeteronians! You've got so much to live for.

[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin, Warsaw, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead, Itaewon, Le Marais, Outpost Manchester, Perth, Edinburgh Airport, Carlisle, St Pauli, Old Street, Cambridge, Ealing, St Andrews, Chancery Lane, DogHouse Manchester, Bath, Reykjavik, Inverurie, DogTap 2.0, Waterloo, DogHouse Edinburgh, Upminster, Wandsworth, Hull, Dublin Outpost, Basingstoke]


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