A little light readingAs CAMRA is in hibernation for a few months this seems like a good time to re-start this blog - last in action in January 2019. Expect the usual mix of beer reviews (I've got plenty to get through), a re-run of some old Pub Crawls from the around 30 years ago, plus one or two other things I have in mind.
I hope you enjoy this - it should at least pass some of the time until normal service is resumed. I hope that by then I'll also have got into the blogging habit again so will be able to keep it going.
So, without further ado.....
This Stagger appeared in the December 1988 issue of Opening Times. It was written by Robin Wignall, who sadly died in 2018.
The Shaw Heath Shuffle
A few months ago I wrote to Opening Times asking for positive reporting by Stagger correspondents. The King St West and Shaw Heath Stagger landed me with the opportunity of putting this into practice.
The Comfortable Gill on King St West was our first visit. This is a busy town centre pub across the road from the bus depot. The mock-Tudor decor gives a fairly pleasant interior, though the low ceiling can accentuate the juke box music. The Comfy has a thriving darts and crib team. On our visit we considered the beer to be on good form, though one member has an idiosyncratic dislike of Boddingtons. Both mild and bitter, on electric pumps were considered to be good to very good by the rest of the group.
Leaving the Comfy Gill we had the short walk up King St West to the Olde Vic, passing en route John Smiths' Tom Thumbs. This unfortunately remains all keg, which is a pity as John Smiths cask conditioned bitter is a palatable pint.
Once a part of the Watney-Wilson empire, Ye Olde Vic is now a free house which has acquired a growing reputation since Kay Ord became landlady and deservedly won the branch Pub of the Year award for 1987. A good array of real ale is maintained in this popular pub. From a personal point of view I think I preferred the bar and darts room of previous days, however the present interior is quite pleasant and the beer of course is a vast improvement. On our visit Taylor's Landlord, Wadworth's 6X, Marston's Pedigree and Tetley Bitter were available. Our company, now into double figures, felt the Wadworths to be good and the Taylor's to be well above average.
A little further up the hill stands Wilsons Blue Bell, an architecturally imposing building dating from 1898. A previously multi-roomed pub, the Blue Bell has been fairly tastefully opened out, and has retained a darts and pool room. Original decorative tiling remains in the entrance hall whilst the lounge seems to have been recently reupholstered. Wilsons mild and bitter plus Websters bitter are served on electric pumps, which seems odd as on one side of the bar a bank of handpumps stands idle. On our visit the mild was scored at average and the bitter generally above average.
Just round the corner is Boddingtons Greyhound, a 60 year old pub which underwent major alterations in the 1950s. It now boasts 2 rooms and a vault. Decoration is quite acceptable, if perhaps a little 'all beams and brass'. There us a prominent price list on the customer side of the bar and the beer also recommends itself. On our visit both mild and bitter were considered to be well above average and into the good category.
Across the road stands Robinson's Church. With calls so close together there is hardly distance enough to develop a stagger. The Church has been much altered, but retains rooms with separate identities with darts and pool available. This is to my mind a better piece of 'Robinsonisation' and in the opinion of some members the Church has benefited from the alteration - the brick pillar on the way to the gents looked a bit out of place though. Best Mild and Best Bitter are served on electric pumps and Old Tom is on handpump. The bitter was scored generally above average and good, if cold. The mild also scored above average though the Old Tom could have been better.
Negotiating Edgeley roundabout we reached Robinson's Armoury, a multi-roomed pub which has largely retained the character of a local. On our visit the pub was obviously very popular, perhaps because it has not been knocked around. The group felt the Best Mild to be generally above average and the Best Bitter to be better than that.
Next door is Wilson's Swan, another busy two-roomed local, whose popularity has survived alteration. A number of windows sport fine etched swans, and add to the pub's character. Darts and pool are available and there is an obvious price list. The Swan is a fairly recent gain to Real Ale, as prior to renovation it had served keg beer only. The Wilsons bitter was scored as average and above, but those who sampled the Websters in the interests of science were rather disappointed.
A stroll along Shaw Heath brought us to the Florist. This Robinson's pub is one of the local favourites, a fine multi-roomed pub with some superb etched windows. The Stagger ended here partly because of the high standard of the beer and partly because it was late anyway. The Best Bitter was slightly hazy but received very good scores for taste, which goes to show that we should drink with our mouths and not our eyes. The Best Mild was scored as good.
It has not been difficult to be positive in this article, as on the night we sampled generally decent beer in quite pleasant surroundings. Try the pubs for yourselves and make up your own minds.
What Happened Next?
With so many pubs so close together there were bound to be some casualties - and time has not been kind to the pubs of the Shaw Heath area.
The Comfortable Gill is still with is as D&J's Comfortable Gill but sells no cask beer. Some time before this Stagger was written I dropped into the pub on a local CAMRA 'Monday Social' - and who should be sitting there but beer writer Michael Jackson, who attracted some funny looks as he dictated notes into his dictaphone.
Tom Thumbs did eventually sell cask John Smith's Bitter but to no avail. The pub closed in late 2005 and is now the Lost Monsoon, a well-regarded Indian restaurant.
Moving up the hill, Ye Olde Vic has had a couple of licensees since Kay Ord's time. The current incumbent, Steve Brannan, has been there for many years and is certainly a larger than life character. The pub itself was bought by a consortium of regulars a couple of years ago (disclosure - I own a couple of bricks and a slate) and has since undergone major investment. It's a regular in the Good Beer Guide with five of six cask beers on handpump. During the enforced period of closure it's going to have a gentle redecoration.
The Blue Bell was sold into the free trade and for quite some time it sold Holt's Bitter. Its then owners also spent some time and money restoring what remained of the original features. This was not enough to save it, though, and the pub closed in late 2002. It's now been converted into flats.
There was something of a golden age at the Greyhound in the years after this Stagger was written. Irene Morris made the pub very much her own, selling a range of guest beers (once Boddingtons became the Boddington Pub Co) and earning a regular place in the Good Beer Guide. It was pretty much downhill all the way after Irene retired. It finally closed in April 2013 and is now residential accommodation.
Across the road, the Church also entered a spiral of decline and attract a 'lively' crowd. A near riot in the pub in late 2007 saw it 'tinned up' and it, too, has been converted into flats.
The Armoury continues to thrive (and doubtless will again once it is able to reopen). Sheila Barlow is the long-running licensee and the pub is known for serving some of the best Robinsons beers in town. The pubs has been slightly opened out over the years but is still a popular multi-roomed pub.
The Swan next door was a pub that I never had a decent pint in. On one occasion a friend of mine found the nozzle off the handpump lying at the bottom of his glass! While the Stagger mentions a refurbishment, the pub had been knocked around before that. Irene Morris at the Greyhound once told me that this was the first place she and her ex-husband took over when entering the pub business in the 1960s - and they oversaw the knocking through of the original multi-roomed interior. The Swan ended its days as a Vaux pub (as shown by the sign that still remains on the side wall) but closed in autumn 2013 following a fire. It's now been converted to offices.
The Armoury and the former Swan are shown above - the dinky half-timbered building between them is a Grade II listed former NatWest bank.
When the Stagger called at the Florist, it was run by veteran licensee Alan Stanway (who, incidentally was born in the Church mentioned above). Of course Alan retired but his successor put time and effort into the pub which continued to do well. However there were subsequent changes of licensee and the pub finally closed its doors in January 2018. Once again, it's been converted into flats.