I have to admit I was surprised when I got a tweet from an internationally famous celebrity, volunteering to review of all places, The Bugle. In fact, she claimed it was the one pub in Reading she most wanted to see reviewed. It seemed implausible, but who am I to turn down the opportunity?
So who is this international celebrity? I can tell you that in the last month alone she has featured on the BBC, the Guardian, CNN and more, but to respect her privacy, I’ll refer to her simply as Zoë. Despite having a passion for good beer and good pubs, Zoë was keen to help me review one of Reading’s lesser-known pubs. Although I say lesser-known, in reality it’s a pub that most people in Reading will have seen, but seen and hurried past in the same way as you do when you see someone on the street trying to get you to convert you to their religion. It’s one of the few “real” pubs left on Friar Street. Everything else is part of a chain that really wants to sell you food, or part of a chain that wants you to come to their party night where they will sell you five bottles of Corona in a bucket for fifteen quid, a mini surf-board of Jägerbombs or a cocktail for four in a tiki head. The Bugle is none of those. In fact it couldn’t be further from those.
The Bugle is in principle an Irish pub. But it’s not an Irish pub like The Gateway or O’Neill’s. Sure, there are a few cut-out crepe paper shamrocks on the wall (like a primary school celebration of St. Patrick’s day), and ten or so signs to places in Ireland (north and south), but there wasn’t really any sign of the craic. Some pubs have frosted glass windows, and that can put you off going in – you don’t know what to expect inside. The Bugle has clear windows, so from the outside you can see exactly what to expect inside. In their case that’s not necessarily a good thing. Zoë and I walked into the front bar, and there were just two people in there, slouched miserably over their beer, in a room that had been badly decorated 20 years ago. Thinking it might be better in the back room, we wandered through…
and as soon as we did, we were pounced on by someone in the same manner as those people you avoid on the street who are trying to get you to convert to their religion. “Hello! Can I ask yoose a quick question?”. We’re British. It’d be rude to say no. It didn’t help that the barmaid followed us into the back bar and asked what we wanted, so we couldn’t use the excuse of buying drinks to retreat back to the front bar. And that’s when our evening being held hostage by Jack (not his real name) began.
The beer was incredibly uninspiring – Carling Extra Cold, Guinness, Strongbow, Strongbow dark fruit, Kronenbourg, Stella, John Smiths, and Fosters. No Cask beer at all. Still, the prices were good – £7.40 for a John Smiths and a Kronenbourg. And it tasted absolutely fine. The glasses it was served in had been through the wash so many times that the logo had come off, but at least they were clean.
Jack was not on his own. He was drinking with Ted (also not his real name) who was from Ireland. We inevitably, in an Irish pub with an Irish guy, got on to talking about Ireland. That sort of awkward conversation started where we’re talking about the Irish troubles, and you’re not sure which side the Irish guy in the conversation is on. Best to keep sympathetic but not declare a side just in case. Anyway, it turned out that we were exactly the excuse Ted had been waiting for to escape. Zoë described him as having the look of Terry Waite being held captive against his will, and he leapt on the good fortune of us turning up to take the opportunity to run.
Jack explained to us that he doesn’t like drinking in good pubs – he likes crap pubs that are preferably not right next to his work, so that he can have a quick 12 pints after work without anyone seeing. He wasn’t the only person in the pub like that. We spent an hour talking to Jack about old Reading pubs and things like that when he decided that we were so unusually coherent that he simply had to introduce us to the folks in the front room – I’ll call them Dougal and Joan (not their real names, and if you haven’t spotted the theme by now, shame on you). It turns out they were also in the least attractive pub they could find so that they could drink an obscene amount of alcohol without being judged. Well, except by me and Zoë that is.
So, the beer was OK tasting, the selection was very limited, but the prices were good. It was cash only, but I suspect the customers don’t want their Monzo card telling them how much they spent on booze. Despite that, the locals were very friendly. Not in the sort of overly friendly #MeToo way you’d find in other bars on Friar street, but just rather too pleased if someone turns up who’ll talk to them. The pub itself is a bit of a dive. It wouldn’t take much to fix it up – replace the lino floor with some wood, swap out the worn-out chairs, and strip the woodchip wallpaper from the walls and re-paint it in anything from the Dulux Heritage range. But I suspect the regulars don’t want that. They don’t want a pub that other people go in. And this is why Zoë wanted to go back there. She accidentally went there years ago on a stag party and was wondering if her memory of the occasion was flawed, and how could it possibly keep going if it was. Well, we answered the first part – it was indeed the same. The second is still a mystery to us. And when Jack offered to buy us a drink, the barmaid gave us a look that said “just get out of here while you still can”, and we scarpered.
|Beer Quality||Fine quality|
|Beer Selection||Really limited.|
|Drink vs Food||They don’t do food at all.|
|Music||A jukebox, a bit loud when the pub is empty|
|Snacks||KP nuts, Golden Wonder crisps. Nothing fancy|
|Atmosphere||Overwhelmingly one of people who want to drink a lot without their spouses or work colleagues knowing how much|
|Price||A bargain for the middle of town – £7.40 for a John Smiths and a Kronenbourg|
|Space||Loads of room|
I’m sure there are people who love The Bugle, but I’m not one of them. However, everyone was friendly and the booze is cheap, so go for it.