The travelling ale trail conundrum

Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue
-Werner Herzog

Traipsing through the back streets of quiet Berkshire towns on the Camra Reading ale trail it occurred to me that it was a fine contemporary interpretation of the flaneur’s haphazard act of drifting. The ale trail is a collective challenge to visit a number of pubs in order to unlock some kind of cryptic reward. Real ale has undergone an eager renaissance in recent years, as the nation is gripped by a stranglehold of extreme alcoholic localism, thirst sated by curiously named beverages such as Dog’s Bladder, Old Belter and Bishop’s Rage. The ale trailer walks a tightrope between peril and suburbia, what Thomas Berger described as ‘encounter(ing) a werewolf, or at least a derelict who will vomit on their shoes‘. The shuffling packs of hop lovers trace a score of drunken zigzag trails which results in a bewildering matrix form engrained into the urban landscape.


Reading Ale Trail Matrix Map © Liminal City 2012

There are echoes of the morris mens’ arcane rhythmical rituals, under the gaze of the ancient Green Man, dancing to demand a tepid pint of bitter, weaving their vivid ribbons through the lush green lanes of merry England as they hunt down their favourite public house. Orwell in his famous essay The Moon Under Water lovingly described his ideal pub, but he writes ‘now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water’,  sadly the hostelry did not exist anywhere within the grimy streets of London, however the quest to identify this ideal continues.

The solemn granite tors of Dartmoor are home to another wandering puzzle, that of letter-boxing. Anorak clad enthusiasts plunge across icy streams and scrabble up perilous shards of rock in order to seek out hidden boxes and claim the stamps within. The only purpose is fierce competition, that is to solve the riddles and complete their collection of imagery. Their adventure mirrors the ale trailers, clutching battered guides and stickers, eagerly plotting the next comfortable seat and oddball stout.

Writer WG Sebald, notable for his epic solitary walking tours through the haunted and crumbling landscapes of East Anglia (documented in The Rings of Saturn) skirted towns where ‘everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone… …as if I were in a deserted theatre.’  He wrote of the desperate melancholy of travelling and drinking alone, of slumbering in weathered hotels unsettled and sinking, ‘shuddering a little on the crest and then with a sigh subsiding into the depth’ as he failed to sleep alone upon the metaphorical high seas. Geoff Nicholson wary of this narrative counters this solace and notes ‘my own suspicions about Sebald’s stage-management comes from knowing that he used to drink in a pub in Southwold called the Crown. I only went there a couple of times, and it seemed to be full of full of media folk up from London, drinking Chardonnay, savouring the local Suffolk “fayre” and talking about their latest projects’. The psychogeographer’s landscape is a stark void, a romantic dream state of inward morose contemplation. In reality the pubs are perhaps social lenses, helping focus the tribes of eager ale trailers ever onwards towards their inebriated and triumphant goal.

Mark Dredge writing in the On Nature compendium describes the geographical seasonal life of real ale, as brewers respond to the subtle localities of temperature, water chemistry and plant life. The ale trailer is given the opportunity to dive into these varied strata of tastes and develop a coordinated flavour based map of their region, navigating by tongue and nostril. Dredge observes ‘that’s when beer and the countryside come together, when we understand how closely they are aligned and appreciate them at the same time’.  Navigating the paths in order to explore these fabulous regional beverages however comes at a price. The CAMRA fan is at the mercy of both the climate and an intense mathematical conundrum called The Travelling Salesman Problem, where one must calculate the most efficient route to visit all the points on a map. This dilemma lies at the heart of one of the most dastardly aspects of mathematics, P versus NP, ‘that is whether every problem whose solution can be quickly verified by a computer can also be quickly solved by a computer’. Very crudely put, a computer can rapidly check the route, but not solve it quickly. Calculating the perambulation arc which encompasses all welcoming pubs, especially given the additional tense factors of erstwhile pack dynamics quickly spirals out of comprehension and control. The plucky hopper however does what humans are best evolved to do, which is wildly estimate, lead by their cunning olfactory sense to the fermented liminal node.



  1. The problem for the philosopher is that the specific instance of a pub crawl can still only aspire to that Platonic form of the ideal pub crawl. Where the computer is limited by processor power, the flâneur is limited by the rapidly diminishing processor power, remaining alcoholic capacity and, often, time, and will usually, therefore, take a limited sample of the potential sites, which is a demonstrably simpler problem to solve. Even the problem posed above reduces the problem by limiting the problem space to a single geographical area and so we glimpse the bigger question of the ever-changing ideal pub-crawl that encompasses all current pubs, but then we realise that time is just another factor in the changing face of the pub landscape, so we must start to dimly perceive that the truly ideal pub crawl encompasses all pubs that have ever existed and ever will. Perhaps this is the true purpose of the Wandering Jew?

    But, returning to the, as we can see, vastly simplified problem of navigating the environs of a single city: perhaps harnessing the powers of a distributed system would help in this crucial endeavour: a legion of trained ants, for instance?

    1. You’ve neatly captured the dilemma, of choice versus efficiency, the wanderer starts with a vague purpose which descends into indecision and inebriation. Would a town planner design for such factors and could an architect consider such vectors, indeed even actively promote this alternative space occupation?

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