Powered By Blogger

Monday, 6 April 2020

From the Archives

A Cautionary Tale

The company today known as Marston's was for most of its life known as Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. It had a sound reputation for quality in its West Midlands heartland - and for many years (certainly until the 1980s) most of its output comprised the well-regarded Banks's Mild. Apart from the main brewery in Wolves, W&D also operated the smaller Hansons Brewery in Dudley until it closed in 1992.

They went on the takeover trail from the late 1990s. Jennings, Wychwood, Ringwood, Camerons and Mansfield were all acquired in the space of a few years. The Mansfield Brewery was the only closure (in 2001). This is generally viewed as collateral damage following the 'big one' - the takeover of Marston's in 1999. Subsequently, in a rare example of the victor adopting the name of the vanquished,  W&D changed their name to Marston's as this had better recognition nationally. 

However, I digress. It was in late 1983 that Wolves & Dudley put their toe in the water of the Greater Manchester beer scene with the purchase of the Longsight, a rather ramshackle old pub next to one of the old entrances to the famous Belle Vue - there's a picture which gives a flavour of it here 

I remember going to a CAMRA meeting there where we met a fairly high up representative of the brewery who told us they'd only bought the pub for its license (it was soon demolished and a replacement opened nearby is early 1985). Not only that, but this was the start of a grand planned expansion into the region. Sure enough, various block purchases (mainly from Wilsons Brewery) soon followed.

If you've read some of these other Staggers, you'll appreciate that the appearance of new beers in the area was a rare and welcome occurrence.  And so we have this minibus tour around the Banks's pubs (as they were all branded) in the area.  It was written by Black Country native Paul Felton. Unlike the authors of the two previous Staggers, Paul is still alive and well.

Here we go....

Friday 4th November saw 14 of us take a minibus tour around the Banks's pubs in the Stockport & South Manchester branch area. Banks's, the Wolverhampton part of Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, has bought up and/or built 8 pubs in the area over the past few years.

The first call was the Gransmoor on Ashton Old Road in Openshaw. It was one of the first batch of pubs Banks's bought from Wilsons some 3-4 years ago. At first it was turned into a semi fun-pub, fortunately Banks's saw the error of their ways and converted it back. It's a place with pleasant decor although the high ceilings made the scarcity of customers (it was only about 7.30) seem even worse. Cask beers were Banks's mild (78p) and bitter (83p) - the Hansons bitter is keg. While the only sample of mild was left unfinished we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the bitter. We also noticed that the opening hours had remained unchanged and might have been reduced.

Nearby is the Royal Oak on Ogden Lane, a more recent purchase from Wilsons where little had changed (even Wilsons ashtrays were still in use). Much to our surprise the beer (mild 75p, bitter 80p) was served via handpumps, the only pub visited where this was the case as it is very much brewery policy to install electric pumps in their pubs. The vault was basic and bright with a loud jukebox. The  bitter here was rather disappointing but the mild got some rave reviews, particularly from your writer. 

Next stop was the Gorton Arms on Gorton Lane, Gorton. Another ex-Wilsons house, formerly all keg and called the Gorton Brook. A much needed refurbishment by the new owners has left an interior more in keeping with the imposing building. Beers available were the standard mild and bitter at 74p and 79p - the landlord has a deliberate policy of charging vault prices throughout the pub. Both beers went down well enough with the mild perhaps the more popular. The pub is open all day Saturday.

The Star at the Ardwick end of Hyde Rd is another former Wilsons pub. Dimly lit and set back from the road on the outside, it was dimly lit, pleasantly decorated and rather empty inside. Here only the bitter (80p) was cask conditioned. Ar a casual glance you would have thought that the mild was cask as well - a close inspection of the bar mounting does reveal that the beer is 'brewery conditioned'. Apart from this small inscription, the mounting is identical to that used for cask mild. While this attempt at differentiation is better than many breweries', it still leaves much to be desired. Back to the beer - the bitter received some varied responses but in general came out ac acceptable.

Next came the Falcon on Kincardine Road, Chorlton-on-Medlcok. Another ex-Wilsons pub, only opened in 1980, Banks's bought it about 3 or 4 years ago. It was the first pub so far to be in any way busy, and does a good trade both lunchtime and evening (being near the university and several hospitals). It was also the first pub which served cask Hansons (75p) as well as mild (74p) and Bitter 79p). It is to be regretted that there never seemed to be any indication as to whether the Hansons was cask or not in nay of the pubs visited. The Falson has the biggest sales of Hansons of any in the area covered and this was reflected in the favourable response from our party, most of whom sampled it.

On to the Longsight on Kirkmanshulme Lane at Belle Vue. Many will remember the 'old' Longsight which formed part of the entrance to Belle Vue Gardens and Zoo. Previously selling keg John Smiths, the old pub was Banks's first acquisition in the area  and was sadly soon demolished, the present pub opening round the corner in 1985. The lounge is large, dimly lit and comparatively plush (although the artificial plants did appear to be wilting!). The opening hours were again published (open all day Saturday, 3pm Sundays); again the Hansons was keg. Both bitter and mild were tried and both were perfectly acceptable.

The Milestone on Burnage Lane, Burnage, is another new pub, this time built by Banks's themselves just over 2 years ago on the site of an old garage. There was some local opposition to the building of a pub on the site, because of the primary school situated next door and the pub was supposedly designed to fit in with the buildings around it. The lounge is pretty much in the same plush style as that in the Longsight; we however went into the vault - bright, stone-floored and with a curious 'island' of (plastic?) plants in the middle of the room. Hansons was again available in cask form (75p) along with mild and bitter (74, 79p). Most people tried one of the bitters, of which the Hansons was the more popular. We also noted the large difference between lounge and vault prices - bitter was 7p more in the lounge, mild 8p more. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

The final stop on our tour was to have been the Station off Manchester Road in Cheadle. It's an interesting pub, converted from the old Cheadle railway station which close din the sixties. Unfortunately, arriving at just before 10.45, the bouncers on the door decided that we were not to go in. Although the pub was very busy it was no more so than the Queens in Cheadle of the Griffin in Heaton Mersey to which members of our party then went - in contrast with the Station, both of these pubs were happy to accept our custom. Banks's like to claim, with some justification, that they are 'unspoilt by progress'. However the sight of the Station, full of apprentice yuppies and manned by bouncers making arbitrary decisions about who can and cannot enter what is supposedly a public house (the women in our group  had no problems getting in) does give this something of a hollow ring.

A disappointing end to what was otherwise an enjoyable night. Banks's beers have a reputation for consistency and this was certainly demonstrated here, with one exception no really poor beer was tried all night, with honours of the evening going to the Falcon.

This article does of course only reflect what we found on the night and isn't meant to be a final judgement. All the pubs mentioned are worth a visit so why not try then and decide for yourself?

What happened next?

Well now. While you'll see more than a few Marston's pubs scattered around Greater Manchester, almost none of them are survivors from this venture by Wolves & Dudley - most are relics of other local brewers taken over my Marston's themselves across the years.

At the time local eyebrows were raised about some of the pubs that Wolves & Dudley snapped up. You do have to ask what real research and thought went on behind the scenes because the rate of attrition has been startling to say the least.

The Gransmoor was put up for sale by Banks's in the 1990s and became a free house called CK's. It closed in 2012 and has been converted to retail use.  They also off-loaded the Royal Oak and it closed its doors around April 2008.

I remember the Gorton Arms in its days as the Gorton Brook; the landlord and his daughters were all wrestlers and bouts were staged in the pub. As the Gorton Arms it was a favourite stop for me after watching speedway at Belle Vue. Again it ended up as a free house (reduced to selling canned beer only at one stage).  It closed in late 2001 and was finally demolished in 2002 after a crane hit what was by then an already derelict building.

In Ardwick, the Star was operating as a members' club by 2006 and converted to office use in 2007.  Subsidence and underpinning at the Falcon caused the vault to be lower than the rest of the pub - and the name was changed to the Tilted Falcon. There was no cask beer in its later years and the pub was demolished around June 2008. New housing occupies the site.

As a new-build, you'd have thought that the Longsight would have had some longevity. But no. It closed in 2006 with demolition following in December 2007. The same goes for the Milestone. It was subsequently renamed the Rising Sun but it closed in spring 2006 for demolition and residential development.

The sole survivor is the Station, now called the Cheshire Line Tavern and operating as a Marston's dining pub. Interestingly, before he was outbid by Wolves & Dudley, local microbrewing pioneer David Pollard planned to buy the old station and convert it into a brewpub. 

It's not only the pubs covered in this Stagger that have bitten the dust - numerous other W&D acquisitions from this time in other parts of the region have fared equally badly. No doubt it all seemed a good idea at the time.

The only other significant case of  a victorious brewery adopting the name of a takeover target was Green's of Luton who renamed themselves Flowers Breweries after taking over the better-known Flowers of Stratford-on-Avon in 1954.

Many of the Marston's pubs in Greater Manchester come from their takeover of Taylor's Eagle Brewery of Greenheys in 1958, Rothwell's of Newton Heath in 1961 and latterly the pubs of the former Burtonwood Brewery in 2004.


Phil said...

Just on the very last paragraph - are you saying that W&D took over those local breweries or the pre-1999 Marston's (of blessed memory)? If it's the latter, presumably that explains why Marston's mid-90s city-centre showcase pub was called Rothwell's. (Last place I ever had draught Old Tom...)

John Clarke said...

It was the pre-1999 Marston's who took over Rothwells (brewing ceased in 1968) so yes, that could be why they chose Rothwell's. One of their pubs would have been the Friendship in Gorton - I remember calling there may years ago and there was still a Rothwells ashtray in use on the bar.

You need to get yourself to Stockport next winter - plenty of Old Tom should once again be on draught.

Paul Felton said...

FWIW, I comment as the writer of this article - the first thing I ever wrote up for Opening Times. Wolverhampton born and bred, and a big fan of Banks's Mild, which is why I rather insisted on doing the write-up. I've always remembered that the Mild in the Royal Oak was extremely good; I'm quite amazed that the best beer on the trip seems to have been at the [Tilted] Falcon!
Anyway: apologies if I'm wrong, but I suspect that Phil means Marston's Owd Rodger, rather than Robinsons Old Tom...

John Clarke said...

Yes, getting very good beer in the Falcon was a real surprise. And I think you are right - I'm sure Phil means Owd Roger - although I'm sure I saw it on draught last winter.

Phil said...

Yes, I was thinking of Owd Roger. Still a surprisingly good beer (if my blind tasting of Burtons a few years ago is anything to go by), but I very rarely see it in bottle, let alone on draught.

phil55494 said...

The Star in Ardwick is still there. These days it is a day nursery.

The name and Wilson's Checkerboard logo can be seen from the Google StreetView image

Donna H said...

Thanks for wrriting