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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

From the Archives

Gorton & Abbey Hey - September 1988

Continuing my re-run of old pub crawls from Opening Times the local CAMRA magazine I've edited for over 30 years (May 1988 was my debut) this one covers more of East Manchester and was written by the now sadly deceased Rhys Jones. As last time the photos show the pubs as they are today (well, about 18 months ago in this case but I know there have been few changes since).

This month's crawl started at Holt's well-refurbished Waggon & Horses on Hyde Road. A week before we'd voted the Waggon in as September's Pub of the month, so we arrived with high expectations; we weren't disappointed with both beers rated very good, the bitter being marginally preferred to the mild.

Across the road is Wilsons' (Pennine Hosts) Lord Nelson. This is a modernised one-room pub, though some small attempt has been made to provide separate drinking areas. Wilsons and Websters bitters
were side by side on handpump. The pumps were unmarked, and beermats throughout the pub advertised Websters - is this a ploy to wean customers who just as for 'bitter' on to the less characterful brew?  We refused to be manipulated and ordered Wilsons, which turned out to be of slightly above-average quality and came in some cases with a generous head. The plastic beams and intrusive canned music did not impress. To sum up, the place doesn't really feel like a local but may make an acceptable call on the way home from work.

From the Lord Nelson a footpath takes you to the Vale Cottage (if you have a driver, approach via Kirk Street). A delightful, country-style pub this, with leaded lights and seats in the garden. It had gained Ruddles County since our last visit, and this was the better of the two cask beers on offer, being rated well above average, while Wilsons bitter only rated an average score. It's almost a shame to have to criticise such an attractive and well-run pub, but it is marred by the continued appearance on (unmarked) handpump of Wilsons keg Special Mild - I accept this distinctly sweet mild is the regulars' preference, but it really should be made clear that the beer is keg. Also some of us thought £1.08 was a bit steep for County, though I suspect there may be only coppers in it nowadays.

On now to Cross Lane and Boddingtons' Royal Oak. Like many Boddingtons pubs in East Manchester, this is a bitter only house and the beer was rated slightly above average. The pub has a central bar serving two distinct sides, a plain vault and a comfortable 'smoke room' which will appeal to lovers of dralon and fake beams.

Across the road now to Wilsons' Cotton Tree, and what a transformation! Formerly a pleasant but plain and quiet pub, tonight it was buzzing with life. No cask mild anymore, sadly, but good Ruddles County and above-average Wilsons Bitter - even the normally super-bland Websters bitter was rated slightly above average by those who volunteered to drink it!

One of the longer walks now, to the Prince of Wales on Abbey Hey Lane, a Chesters pub refurbished some time ago. Despite an unpromising exterior, the pub inside, while lacking individuality, is roomy and pleasant enough.The sole cask beer is Chesters bitter and despite one dissenting voice who pronounced it good, this was generally rated as below average.

Just along the road is the Abbey Hey Hotel, a Bass pub which to our delight had converted to real ale since our last visit. This is to the credit of licensees Ann and Peter Beswick, who after much persuasion of the brewery are now selling Stones Bitter and Toby Light on handpmup. Toby Light was judged slightly below average (essentially a judgment on the beer itself, rather than its state here), but the Stones was above average. The pub itself is a big old place, retaining many attractive features.

Much the same can be said of Wilsons Hamlet nearby. It was good to see this large pub pleasantly refurbished, still selling Wilsons mild and bitter and giving no house room to the over-priced and under-flavoured Websters. Mild drinkers did best here; their beer was thought to be well above average quality, but sadly the bitter struggled to make an average rating.

Our next call, the Hare & Hounds on Abbey Hey Lane, had been keenly awaited owing to its high reputation as an old fashioned local of great character. We certainly weren't disappointed in the pub, which was deservedly one of the busiest all evening. The beer though (handpumped Boddies bitter) wasn't quite its usual excellent standard here, seeming curiously lifeless; I hope and believe this was a temporary aberration.

And so to our last call, Boddingtons' Oddfellows Arms, just off Ashton Old Road. Though not as unspoilt as the Hare & Hounds, the Oddfellows shares the same vibrant atmosphere, thanks to its division into distinct areas. The bitter was well above average, but opinions differed on the mild.

Altogether then, a crawl of Gorton can be highly recommended, and you don't need to follow our route slavishly - particularly at the start and end of this Stagger, there are several other worthwhile pubs within striking distance. And of course, the Stagger is purely a description of how we found things when we were there - so get round the pubs and decide for yourself.

The Beers

It might be worth pausing here to consider the range of beers available back then. There were mild and bitter from Holts, Wilsons, and Boddingtons. In addition there was Ruddles County, Chesters Bitter, Websters Bitter, Stones Bitter and Toby Light. That's eleven beers in total, and I know from memory that even in those perhaps less-demanding times Chesters Bitter, Websters Bitter and Toby Light were generally regarded as taste-free zones. Wilsons beers were usually variable - they could shine but very often didn't.  Ruddles County, Stones Bitter and Boddingtons Bitter seemed to be the star turns on this night.

What Happened Next

The pubs on this Stagger have a much healthier survival rate than those in Clayon which were the subject of the July Stagger. Cask ale, however, hasn't.

The Waggon & Horses continues to thrive in Holt's hands but, as with most Holts houses, cask mild has been withdrawn. The Lord Nelson had its latest refurbishment in 2009 and seems to be doing well, too. It's had an on-off relationship with cask beer - currently "on" I think with Sharp's Doom Bar and Marston's beers sold via the single handpump.

The Vale Cottage is the real star turn though. Still with a rustic feel but now a free house, having been bought from Enterprise Inns, it is hugely popular. Taylor's Landlord is the regular cask beer and this is usually joined by two guests. The pub is about to stage its second beer festival.

The two Cross Lane pubs are also still with us although only the Royal Oak sells cask bers in the form of Sharp's Doom Bar. The Prince of Wales on Abbey Hey Lane still looks unpromising and no longer has the consolation of cask beer within.  

We now come to the two casualties. The Abbey Hey Hotel closed around 2007 (pictured here in 2008) and was demolished in February 2010. The site is now vacant. The Hamlet was a Vaux pub for a while and finally closed in 2013. The large building is now put to various commercial uses.

The Hare & Hounds still does the business but minus cask beer and with some of its heritage features compromised (the tiling is now covered in grey paint). I'm pleased to say that one of my favourite pubs on this Stagger, the Oddfellows, is not only open for business but has just had a very successful makeover which has seen the reintroduction of cask beer in the shape of Hydes Original and Lowry. I particularly like the fact that the corner door remains in use here.



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