“Oh! You’re from Nottingham!” the smiling, bearded barman bellowed as he loomed over my table, the tang of some powerful herb tingling my nostrils. “I went to the Poacher last year!”
Sitting in an alley on the edge of Amsterdam’s red-light district talking about the Lincolnshire Poacher has a surreal kick to it, especially when you’re getting passively stoned. We all know it’s one of Nottingham’s magic little corners: the huts, the cubby hole, the regulars, the irregulars, the live music tinkling around the yard when the door’s left open on a warm summer night.
But these are our dusty little secrets, aren’t they? How does some Viking-esque beer-pourer in Holland know and love the Poacher?
For that, he has to thank a towering Dutchman called Henk Eggens. Striding up Mansfield Road in the summer of 1989, on a short trip to Nottingham, Henk found himself at the door of a newly christened Lincolnshire Poacher. Henk knows a thing or two about pubs; he has his own little ale joint, In De Wildeman, in a seventeenth-century gin distillery in the centre of Amsterdam, founded on his own staunch principles of real ale, good service and a friendly, neighbourly, music-free atmosphere.
Something about the Poacher and its founding landlord Neil Kelso struck Henk. And vice versa. Neil runs The Vic in Beeston these days, but the memory of his first meeting with Henk is still vivid. “There were just so many similarities between the pubs, and between us,” Neil tells me over a coffee at The Vic. “We had the same spirit.”
With that, an invisible connection was formed. One that’s lasted nearly thirty years. Henk came back, Neil made a trip over to In De Wildeman, and somewhere in among all the ales, the two decided to “twin” their pubs with an unofficial ceremony that was written up in the Evening Post. “We’ve been going back and forth ever since,” Neil tells me.
They even exchanged plaques, which is where I come in. I’ve been in the Poacher I prefer not to recall how many times, but I’d never noticed the brass plaque on one of the walls until one slow, winter evening this year. Sitting at the long table, I found myself reading:
The Lincolnshire Poacher
In De Wildeman
In any other place, this might stand out as eccentric. But somehow, sitting there in among the warm wood, the mirrors glazed with the branding of breweries gone by, trophies and trinkets, dog-eared books on the shelves, the hubbub of this mad mingle of Nottingham life, young and old; the plaque was just another marvellous detail gleaming from out of the haze.
I had to know more. So, after doing some research and chatting to Neil, fool that I am, on a grey afternoon in May, I lugged a rucksack on my shoulder, stopped for a swig in the Poacher, and set off in search of In De Wildeman.
There are far easier ways of getting to Amsterdam than a train from Nottingham to London, London to Harwich, a ferry to the Hook of Holland and then a train to the finishing line. But there was something about doing it that way that was far more in-keeping with the trip.
You wake up a touch disorientated to find the Stena Hollandica slowing to a rest on the Dutch coast. From there, you have a truly magical train journey from Hoek van Holland to Amsterdam. It completes the link in a way flying never can, with that sense of truly transitioning from one space to another.
You glide through the little, unremarkable towns and farms, glimpsing a hundred little human scenes. You see the sights of the platforms in all the towns in all the world: the reunion hugs, the parting waves, the worn commuters, the children skipping along the concrete chasing the slowly departing train. The unknown lives in places you will never set foot.
I arrived in Amsterdam on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far. Drenched in sunshine, the whole city hummed with a mellow refulgence. The last of the spring blossom was still falling, and with each little gust of wind, hundreds of sun-faded petals were scattered into the air like confetti, coming to rest on the twinkling surfaces of the waterways. I can’t remember ever seeing so many people just loafing around, outside cafes and pubs, laid back on boats drifting along the matrix of canals, sipping beers and smoking joints.
When it’s not kicking back, Amsterdam is on two wheels. Bicycles are part of the architecture and cyclists are the moving parts. All day and late into the night, the locals tinkle and rattle around, side-by-side nattering, in long lines snaking over bridges and along a thousand towpaths. Take a seat at a cafe and watch a steady stream of people pedal past, like passengers on a train, your lives criss-crossing for a gentle second.
I got a little shiver down my spine when I took a turn down one of the city’s little alleys and saw the words In De Wildeman on a dark, wooden sign. Outside, it’s all neon lights and not too far away ladies stand in doorways like mannequins in an adult shop window; inside In De Wildeman, it’s another world altogether. The place has a warm, woody, low-light ambience. The walls are crammed with old photos in old frames, faux gas-lights, carved wood, tiled mosaics, chalkboard menus, beer mats, brewery-branded mirrors and mementoes; a thousand little trinkets from hazy nights and in-jokes. And there it was, the plaque:
In De Wildeman
The Lincolnshire Poacher
I ordered a little ale and parked myself on a table outside. The bearded barman emerged during some lull in service, and with a bit of a flush, I introduced myself. “I’m from Nottingham,” I said. “I’m writing an arti-”
“Oh! You’re from Nottingham!”
As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to visit our fair city last year. Seventy of them – staff and regulars – all piled on a plane headed our way to celebrate 27 years of the twinning (The Vic has since been unofficially included in the twinning). But, anniversary or no, the boozy exchange trip happens every year, and when the Amsterdam crew comes to Nottingham, they mark another tradition: a good old day of it at Trent Bridge.
You could say this is a travel article. As I sit here scribbling in the garden of the Poacher, I’m definitely recommending you get yourself to Amsterdam by the Dutchflyer “rail and sail” ticket, and if you’re there, whatever you do, drop into In De Wildeman. But you don’t need to go there to find the spirit of the place. You can stride up Mansfield Road as Henk did 28 years ago, sit in among the trinkets and mirrors, and take a moment to look at an old, brass plaque commemorating the link: a tiny thing in life’s grand scheme, but a lasting bond between two cosy corners of the world.
I travelled along the invisible line that Henk and Neil drew all those years ago, and I found a little corner of a foreign city that feels just like home. I found warm people with fond and hazy memories of nights in Nottingham, of days in the Trent Bridge sun, and of good times at the Lincolnshire Poacher never to be repeated, the notes of live music tinkling around the yard when the door’s left open, on a warm summer’s night.
Lincolnshire Poacher website