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Tuesday, 23 June 2020

From the Archives - August 1985

Longsight & Levenshulme

Last week I planned to follow up the Stagger with a fuller review of the rest of the August 1986 issue of Opening Times. On having another look at it, I decided to pass as there wasn't that much really worthy of comment. This issue, however, does have some more interesting stuff in it so I'll certainly be following it up later this week.

This time we remain in Manchester and the suburbs of Longsight and Levenshulme which are essentially strung out along the A6 as it heads south from the City Centre.  Back in the day there was an interesting collection of pubs, and several of those, notably in Levenshulme, reflected the large Irish community in the area.

This one was written by Carole Brookes who, at the time, was a very active local member, along with her partner Peter. Their cat, Theakston Sebastian Splodge, was also a member of CAMRA.....They all moved away from the area and I know no more about them.

Here we go...

What follows is not intended to be a statement of the quality of the pubs or beer on all occasions, but is our opinion of both on the night of the crawl.

This was definitely a crawl which degenerated throughout its duration. A fine early start was made at 6pm at the Longsight. Much has already been said of this place, its only fault seems to be the fact that it's new! At 6.30 the early starters joined the crawl proper at the Waggon & Horses. The beer was a good average in this large Hosts pub. It would seem to be ripe for 'treatment'. The managers from the Midway have recently moved here and their Pile of Pennies certificate is on the wall, so don't worry you're not in the wrong pub!  A quick check in the Ducie established that Chesters Bitter was to be on by Wednesday or Thursday 5th/6th July. Then on to the Bay Horse, a modern Boddies pub. The beer was good, the pub uninspiring.

The Polygon 
The Crown came next, yet another Host house, this time blessed  with a "Take 2" illuminated sign above the bar which was totally put of keeping with the pub. The beer was good, but nothing to write home about. The Garrett was eagerly looked forward to by all present, its most notable feature being the price of the Drabs (Holts for the uninitiated!). The beer was OK, in fact one of our number waxed lyrical on its excellence, I suppose no-one's perfect! We met with an interesting sight here, a white 'cow' that has to be seen to be believed. Those laziest amongst us cadged a lift to the next stop, the Polygon, a bitter only Boddies pub. A quiet, comfortable pub with reasonable beer.

The return to Wilsons Land was begun by the Horseshoe, where the beer was quite reasonable but far too cold. Jim dropped his beer and had the cheek to blame a slippery glass! Finally the crawl returned to Stockport Road and the home run! First on the straight was the Levenshulme, a run-of-the-mill bitter-only pub, managed by the ubiquitous Host Group. Next came another Host house, the Pack Horse, again Bitter only where the only interesting feature was the glasses. A great pity the bitter wasn't as interesting as the glasses!

Only three to go from here, the first being the Union, a Boddies house where the bitter achieved a spread of opinion ranging from excellent to little better than undrinkable. The prevailing opinion seemed to lean to the former. Our penultimate port of call was the Farmers Arms where handpumped Chesters (I think) was available. Doubt was expressed over the quality of the beer, and Rhys left most of his pint undrunk! The ultimate destination was ultimate in more ways than one! The Midway is a recent 'conversion' by Hosts. The beer was extremely poor, there were unwashed glasses everywhere, and the pub was packed to the door. Perhaps the place is best summed up by a little scenario observed by us:

Bouncer/doorman: "Hope to see you again"
Departing girl: "I doubt it"

This crawl could have been far more compact had more pubs in the area sold real ale; and as an area it is ripe for CAMRA to return to grass roots and start campaigning. Much of the beer was little better than mediocre, much of it was too cold, and one pub served grossly short measure.

I only hope that our branch name change doesn't lead to South Manchester being ignored as the poor relation.

What happened next

Well, that was a whistle-stop tour wasn't it? Lots of exclamation marks as well. It's also leaves some questions unanswered - what was the 'cow' in the Garrett? What was interesting about the glasses in the Pack Horse? More to the point, what beer did some of the pubs actually sell?

Quite a few of these pubs have survived. They have also been joined by a clutch of new bars over the years. We'll also have a quick look at those pubs this Stagger missed out, most which did go on to sell cask beer at some point.

So, let's have a look at the pubs visited first. We've met the Longsight  before. It was a recently built Banks's house, part of their ill-fated foray into Greater Manchester, and had a very short existence. It had closed by November 2006 and was demolished a year later.

The site of the Waggon & Horses
I think we've visited the Waggon & Horses  too. This large Wilsons house occupied a prominent position on the main road and at one time also sold handpumped Bulmers cider. It closed around January 1990 and was knocked down in 1994. Flats have replaced it. You'll note the reference to 'Hosts'. We'll come to them later.

The Ducie closed in early 2004 but, remarkably, is still standing, complete with rather faded pub signage. There have been occasional rumours that it might re-open but it's really well past that stage now. The bulldozer awaits, I suspect. The former Bay Horse (it closed in late 2009) is also still with us, in a much modified form, and now functions as a supermarket.

The Crown became the 'Crown Ale House' although that didn't signify anything in the way of an enhanced range of beers. It didn't save it from oblivion, either. The pub closed in June 2000 and has now been knocked down and replaced by commercial premises.

We talked about the Garratt (to spell it correctly) last week. By the time we visited the pub a year later in the 'Homage to Holts'  the white 'cow' had clearly disappeared. The pub closed in May 2013 and is now a mosque.  The Polygon is also still standing but now functions as a cash and carry, having closed in early 2008.

Now a survivor. The Horseshoe, just off the main road on Chapel Street, is still with us. For many years it was a cask outpost selling handpumped John Smith's Bitter. It doesn't sell cask any more but at least it's a survivor.  The Levenshulme has been open and closed numerous times in recent years but is now open again (well it was before the lockdown started).  It's intermittently dabbled with cask too but had given up on that a couple of years ago.  It's also worth recording that this pub had a five-year run in the Good Beer Guide from 1979-83. How times change.

The Pack Horse has also had a chequered history. It first closed in Autumn 1999 but was open again by October the following year.  It finally closed (allegedly after an intervention by the authorities) in mid-2007. It's now a shop-cum-cafe selling cakes and ice creams.

Despite having been slightly knocked around in the intervening years, the Union is still open and remains a characterful little local but, like many others on the Stagger, no longer sells cask beer. The Farmers Arms fell into the hands of the Magic Pub Company at one stage and suffered the indignity of becoming the 'Farmers Kipper'.  It regained some semblance of normality but nevertheless closed in May 2010. It stood unused for many years but has now been converted to other commercial use. Finally the Midway, which must have been hugely impressive in its day (just look at this vintage photo  You can read a bit more about it on the Pubs of Manchester  blog  here. It closed in May 2008 and has been converted into some sort of college and a discount store.

The pubs they didn't visit

At the time numerous pubs were passed as they didn't sell cask beer. Almost across the road from the Ducie was the New Victoria. This was a Greenalls estate pub selling only keg beers. It later converted to cask and then passed into the ownership of Oakwell Brewery, or rather its mysterious holding company RBNB (the actual ownership of which has never come to light). All of the Oakwell pubs sold a tasty, well-made  and keenly priced cask mild (mild!) and bitter. Many of the older ones were extensively and expensively restored. The it all ground to a halt. The brewery was closed and the pubs were either closed or sold off. The New Victoria closed its doors in March 2013 and is now a nursery.

In Longsight proper there were two further pubs. The imposing Church (vintage image here) hadn't sold a drop of cask in years and never did until it closed in early 1990. It was subsequently sold for other use and it now a furniture shop. It's fair to say that in its last years, the Church had a very dubious reputation.  Not so far away was a Tetley pub, the Springbank Tavern. This had a strong Irish customer base and for a while was renamed O'Connors. It then became the Springbank Inn and sold cask Tetley Bitter for a short while. It closed in 2008 and has been replaced by shops.

Heading further south into Levenshulme was the Little Vic. This was a tidy little pub with a good local atmosphere - and at one point sold cask Lees Bitter (although like many pubs in the area it had originally been a Wilsons house). It was closed in March 2016 and converted to other use.

Moving on to the centre of Levenshulme we'd come to the Church. This was another Greenalls house with no cask beer (they seem to have been the main offenders in this area at the time). Did this place subsequently sell cask? I'm pretty sure it didn't by the time it closed in 2008 for conversion into an Indian restaurant. It has now been demolished.

Heading south, if you take a left turn into Cromwell Grove and keep on going you'll come to the Blue Bell. This Sam Smiths pub was a long-standing cask-free zone. However in recent years it's taken a distinct turn for the better. Benefiting from a sensitive refurbishment and an excellent manager in the form of Mark Dunn, it's gone from strength to strength. It's perhaps the epitome of what a community pub should be and has received numerous CAMRA awards.

Back to the A6 and the hub of Levenshulme is probably where Albert Road joins the A6.  Head a way down Albert Road and, until recently, you'd have come to the Kingsway. Back in1985 this was an enormous keg-only Greenalls pub but happily they sold it on to Holts. I don't think it was the huge success that Holts expected it to be - perhaps it was just too big to work. In any event they closed it at the end of February 2018 and sold it on to a developer. Demolition followed in June last last year.

On the corner of Albert Road and the A6 stands the former Railway, a sizeable old Chesters pub.A later Levenshulme Stagger took place on St Patrick's Day when the Railway, which I think had stared to sell cask by then, has a special offer on Guinness. It was pandemonium. It closed in June 2002 and was converted into an estate agent's office. Then, in early 2016, it reopened as the Dice Lounge, which in turn closed in October 2018.

Finally we come to either the first or last pub in Levenshulme (depending on whether you're travelling north or south). This is, or rather was, the Wheatsheaf on the junction of Stockport Road and Broom Lane. Back in 1985 it was (another) keg-only Greenalls pub (with some rather good old Groves & Whitnall windows). It did sell real ale again but its last incarnation was as the Golden Prague and Club Moravka, a Czech themed outlet run by a lovely Czech couple who'd clearly put their heart and soul into it. Sadly that didn't work out and the pub finally closed in February 2012 and is now selling windows.

New arrivals

The Levenshulme pub scene hasn't just been one of decline and decay. There have been a steady trickle of newcomers over the years, and the pace of that seems to have quickened over the past couple of years.

On the main road, Fidlers Green was one of the first to arrive. It's conversion of a former Midland Bank and while working well as a local, with very much an Irish theme to it, has never sold cask ale. On Broom Lane, the Sidings, is a new-build Holts house selling their cask bitter.

All of the other arrivals are on the main Stockport Road. In Longsight, there was a relatively short-lived Wetherspoons, the Sir Edwin Chadwick. This was a rare blunder by Spoons, and it didn't work at all. It closed in November 2003 and is now an Indian restaurant.

Back to Levenshulme and still trading are Hennigan's Sports Bar and M19. Hennigan's briefly flirted with cask but neither has sold it for years.  These are owned by Lawrence Hennigan, a local businessman who has invested heavily into the area to promote and improve it. His last opening was Fred's Ale House, which is next door to the Union mentioned above (and which he also owns). This bar-cum gallery-cum events space has been a notable success and sells up to six well-kept cask beers.

The past couple of years have seen a flurry of new arrivals with more of a craft focus. They have all been serious and welcome additions to the local bar and beer scene - we have the Station Hop, the Talleyrand, Nordie, and OverDraught MCR. The latter has no fewer than 30 taps!

The Host Group
There are several mentions above of 'Hosts'. So let's have a quick look at the Host Group. 

This seems to have vanished into the mists of time - a very quick Google didn't bring up much. It was the managed house arm of Grand Metropolitan, the leisure company that acquired Watney Mann and its various subsidiaries, which included Manchester-based Wilsons.

They seemed to go bonkers and stories leaked out about how higher management aimed to remove the word 'pub' from the organisation's vocabulary. They certainly had plans to impose unlikely themes on many of their pubs. A piece in the 1985 Good Beer Guide talks about plans for "Big Apple" fashion bars and "Slots of Fun" pubs which would be basically licensed amusement arcades. "Sports" was a favourite theme - the Windsor Castle in Edgeley near me became Windsor Sports.

Perhaps the local nadir was reached when Stockport's Mersey Tavern was transformed into the Indian Raj-themed Far Pavilions. Not only did this boast a 3-metre wide illuminated pith helmet over the bar, but a side room had some sort of raised bandstand-style drinking area surrounded by plastic vegetation, and 'enhanced' by taped jungle noises - which in fact just sounded like a mass outburst of flatulence among the customers.

It was marketing hubris unleashed and it didn't last. Trouble was, as I mentioned in an earlier post, these themes were installed on the cheap, doubtless with a view to ripping them out after a couple of years or so. Unfortunately many of the pubs were then left to their own devices for rather longer than that and quietly began to fall apart.

The reference to the branch name change cane about because the South Manchester Branch decided to change its name to Stockport & South Manchester in June 1985.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

From the Archives - August 1986

A Homage to Holts

This Stagger appeared in the August 1986 issue of
Opening Times and, as explained in the introduction, was undertaken to mark the death centenary of Joseph Holt. Like the Offerton Stagger covered in the last post, this was also planned as a minibus outing, the difference being that on this occasion it actually turned up. Always a good start.  There are in fact a few other bits and pieces in this issue that really deserve another look so they'll be coming up soon.

This Stagger was actually written by me so re-running it now is perhaps a little bit self-indulgent. But what's the point of having a blog if you can't do that? Anyway, here we go....

Earlier in the year the Centenary of the death of Joseph Holt was reached and to mark this solemn occasion members of the Stockport & South Manchester Branch visited all nine pubs in the branch area. (There's now 10 since the Grafton is now open). What follows is our impression of each on the night and as ever our comments should not be taken as definitive. You'll see that there are no comments on beer quality which, for the record, was pretty good in every pub visited.

We kicked off in the Junction, Cheadle Hulme, where handpumped mild and bitter cost 62p and 64p respectively. A typical large Holts pub which has sadly become pretty run down in recent years, the former billiard room having been partitioned up into a concert room and a corridor to the gents.

Next stop was the Griffin, Heald Green. Holts rebuilt this pub in 1967 and, in common with many pubs of the period the end result has proved pretty characterless. This pub also had the distinction, it that's the word, of being one of the few outlets for Holts short-lived keg bitter. The mild (59p) and Bitter (61p) were dispensed through free-flow electric pumps.

Onto another Griffin, this time in Heaton Mersey, a classic pub by anyone's standards, and now saved from its threatened demolition. Well deserving its Pub of the Year award in 1983, the handpumped mild and bitter were 62p and 64p.

Fourth port of call was the Claremont, Claremont Road, Moss Side. Built in 1929 this is a typical monolithic inter-wars pub. Getting sadly run down now (the smoke room being an exception) this is an excellent basic boozer and, we are told, is Holts top seller for beer. The two ladies in our party reported that the scrubbed wooden seats in the ladies would be a comfort in cold weather! The handpumped mild and bitter were again 62p and 64p.  

Halfway stage was reached at the Garratt on Pink Bank Lane, Longsight. Built in 1960 this is agin a pretty characterless pub consisting basically of a large vault and a lounge-cum-concert room which was hosting a 'talent' (if that's the word) night on our visit. We sat in a small room off, where a group of youths were amusing themselves raising clouds of dust out of the carpet. Again wooden seats in the ladies but the overflowing trough in the gents was less than pleasant. The mild and bitter (handpumped) came in at 59p and 61p.

Next came the Waggon & Horses on Hyde Road. Built in 1913 and knocked about a bit since, this can best be described as an average pub (for Holts!) and would benefit from a coat of paint. Handpumped mild and bitter were again 59p and 61p. Angela and Charlotte again reported wooden seats and mentioned how spotlessly clean the toilets were.

On the home straight now and to the Railway on Manshaw Road, Fairfield. An older pub this time (1894), one of the main features is the superb lamp over the entrance which must be one of the few surviving examples in Manchester.  A previous licensee here is reputed to have stabbed his wife just prior to opening time. cleaned up, opened the pub and served through lunchtime then closed the pub and phoned the police! (A more lurid version has him stringing up the unfortunate lady from the lamp outside). No mild was available but the handpumped bitter, which was probably the least cold of the night, was 64p.

Penultimate pub was the Grove, Ashton New Road. A bright, clean but fairly spartan pub, unsigned like most of the others. An interesting feature is the Roll of Honour on the vault wall recalling those regulars who died in the First World War. Again handpumped, the mild and bitter were 61p and 63p.

Last, but not least, came the Seven Stars on Ashton Old Road. An excellent pub, both inside and out, with a lot of good glasswork and where the tenancy has recently changed hands again. The beer was the dearest of the night - mild and bitter 63p and 65p!

To sum up, a terrific night with an incredible range of pubs. Some were classic examples of tat and grot that only Holts can produce (no names, no writs!) but all had one thing in common - excellent, value for money beers. Here's to the next hundred year!

What Happened Next

Only two of these pubs have disappeared and all of the rest, none can be classed as an example of 'tat and grot'. It's worth saying, I think, that while it's very easy to get nostalgic about the pub scene from years gone by, the overall standard of pubs today is far higher than it was back then.

The Junction was a rum old place with, at time. perhaps not the best reputation. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Holts spent a great deal of money on the pub in 1990(-ish). It was totally made over and largely knocked through while keeping very distinct vault, lounge and dining parts, plus a separate meeting/events room. It was, perhaps a little unimaginatively, renamed the Cheadle Hulme. With a keen and enthusiastic licensee it bedded in well as a successful community local for several year.

Holts then had a rush of blood to the head and splashed the cash again. It was run in some sort of arms-length operation and became the very food-focussed Platform 5 (or P5 as it's now known), which reflects the pub's proximity to the neighbouring Cheadle Hulme station. I don't think this was the runaway success Holts had been hoping for as it was subsequently taken back 'in house' and made a bit more pub-like (albeit still with a major food offer).  It's rather a shame Holts didn't leave well alone and keep it as the Cheadle Hulme - I suspect it would have been no less successful and they'd have saved themselves an awful lot of money.

Now to the Griffin in Heald Green. In 2014 this pub also had a great deal of money thrown at it by Holts. The vault and lounge were combined and a large conservatory was erected at the side. There was also lots of landscaping and an enlarged outdoor drinking area. The emphasis is very much on food (with even an ice cream counter...). It's not all food-focused thought, with a vault-type area to one side if you just want a drink. No mild now but Two Hoots and a Bootleg beer have joined Holts Bitter on the bar.

The other Griffin, in Heaton Mersey soldiers on successfully. It's another pub with a impressive lamp outside and retains a lovely historic core with a mahogany and etched glass bar. Incredibly, in the very early 1980s Holts had plans to knock this down and replace it with a more modern pub. Luckily the plans were shelved and the brewery contented itself with adding a seamless extension a few years later.  Before lockdown they announced plans for a further extension (to the extension!) which would create a significant dining area (happily the core would gain remain untouched). It remains to be seen if and when these plans are revived.

In Moss Side, the Claremont carries on while all around it have given up the ghost. There were numerous pubs in its vicinity back in 1986 and all have bitten the dust. Like all the other pubs visited, it's been spruced up by Holts since 1986, but not unrecognisably so, and continues to serve its community well.

Moving on we come to the first pub loss. While I described the Garratt  as 'pretty characterless' it did have some interesting features- not least the superb etched windows depicting Garratt locomotives made by the nearby (and long-gone) Beyer Peacock works. You can get a hint of them in this archive photo here. Over the years these disappeared, either as a result of vandalism or accidental breakage. The clouds of dust coming out of the carpet are also one of my enduring memories of this night, too. Sadly the Garratt closed in May 2013 and has now become a mosque, I think.

The Waggon & Horses got its coat of paint, and some gentle alterations, but apart from that it still functions today much as it did in 1986. The same goes for the Railway, which remains a fine multi-roomed local, still complete with lamp outside. Many other nearby pubs have closed and none of those that remain offer cask beer.  The Grove is also still carrying on more or less unchanged in a sea of pub devastation. Still a popular lounge-and-vault local, the Roll of Honour remains in the vault, and the pub is especially busy on City home game match days. You'll also note the comment about signage, or rather lack of.  Back then many Holts pubs could be distinguished by both absence of signage and the emerald green paint on the external woodwork.

Finally, the Seven Stars, which has featured here before. When the Stagger called in this was a completely unspoilt 19th century pub. There were two rooms, lounge and vault, off a central corridor, along with an abundance of tiling, etched glass and mahogany. The same issue of Opening Times reported that alterations would be going ahead and the scheme would leave the existing pub 'virtually unaltered'. If only. In fact there was significant knocking through and what turned out to be a wholly unnecessary extension built on the side. I don't think the pub ever really recovered although it didn't finally close until 2010. It's still there - but now operates as a seafood restaurant which got a rave review from Jay Rayner in the Observer. The photo here shows the ill-fated extension (which has also been extended itself).

Despite the two losses, the number of Holts houses in the Stockport & South Manchester branch area has increased over the years. As the Stagger mentions, the re-built Grafton (Grafton Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock) had just opened and the same issue records the granting of planning permission for what is now the Sidings on Broom Lane in Levenshulme. In addition Holts have acquired pubs from Tetley (the Sun & Castle, Hillgate, Stockport), John Smiths (the Railway, Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury), Boddingtons (the Grey Horse, Broadstone Road, Reddish) and Greenalls (Fiveways, Macclesfield Road, Hazel Grove).

Monday, 8 June 2020

From the Archives - June 1986


Following last week's look at the Opening Times Stagger from June 1984, the obvious progression is to 1985. However I re-ran that Stagger a few weeks ago so we move forwards to 1986 and somewhere not yet covered on these archive pieces - the Stockport suburb of Offerton.

Peter Edwardson both wrote the Stagger and drew the map. Peter is still around as an active CAMRA member and he also blogs profusely.  This Stagger actually took place in April 1986 and was the usual mixed bag. Here we go...

The April destination for our regular monthly crawl was the Stockport suburb of Offerton. This is one of the less well-known parts of the Branch area, few of us having visited any of the pubs before. However we found an interesting variety of beer and pubs, and discovered that Offerton drinkers are lucky in that there was not one keg pub among the six we visited.

We assembled at the traditional starting point for these trips, the Manchester Arms in Stockport. This is a pub charitably described as unpretentious and lively, but as usual the handpumped Robinsons Best Mild and Best Bitter were on excellent form.  Old Tom was also available on gravity.

The promised mini-bus was cancelled, so we had to fall back on GMT for transport, catching the 358 at Stockport Bus Station. The driver assured us that the fare was only 23p, but unfortunately he was corrected by an Inspector who got on later and those of us too impecunious to afford Saver tickets were excessed for the princely sum of 7p! All this excitement made us forget to look out for the former Bell's Brewery on Hempshaw Lane, which is still standing. This was taken over by Robinsons in 1949, and was used as bottling stores until the new plant in Bredbury was opened in 1975.

On finally arriving in Offerton, one member of the party was so disorientated by the epic 1½ mile journey that he was heard to wonder "Now where has Stockport gone - is it over there?". To be fair, he had come all the way from Edgeley. The thunderclouds which had been rolling around earlier had now disappeared, leaving a clear and mild Spring evening, perfect weather for a crawl involving some longish walks between pubs.

First call in Offerton was the White House, a Wilsons pub that has recently been refurbished to create a pleasant and comfortable interior. Ronnie & Nancy were out but we did find two handpumped beers, the mild being rated good, while the bitter was average.

Just up the road is the Fingerpost, a large and imposing Robinsons house with fine etched glass windows. Best Mild and Best Bitter were available on electric pumps, and both were well thought of. This pub has a traditional layout - we counted six separate rooms - but a rather tasteless mock-Tudor treatment has been applied to the snug we sat in.The spartan outside gents were out of keeping with the grandeur of the architecture.

The next two pubs provided an interesting contrast between the approaches of two particular national and independent brewers. The Strawberry Gardens is owned by Pennine Hosts, who have done some pretty appalling things to pubs, including Drakes further along Marple Road, which we would have visited had the minibus been available. Here, though, the refurbishment is most acceptable. The pub has an attractive cottage-style frontage, and a darts room and panelled snug have been retained at the front, with a more modern lounge extension to the rear. Some criticism was made of the pastel upholstery and plastic plants, but most of our attention was taken up by an electronic trivia machine. The handpumped Wilsons Mild and Bitter were both of above average quality.

Boddingtons were once renowned among real ale drinkers, but their Gardeners Arms proved very disappointing. It is a good-looking house prominently sited on a road junction, but the interior, although keeping two bars, has fallen victim to a particularly bland modernisation. The most traditional feature was a '1778' plaque behind the bar. Boddingtons Bitter was the only real ale available, which was considered very poor and lacking any kind of taste. Keg OB Mild and Bitter were also on sale, dispensed from identical bar mountings to the real ale. Spotted in the Gents was a Boddingtons water jug containing a toilet brush, the purpose of which puzzled us, although we thought it might have something to do with the poor beer!

On down Offerton Lane to the Emigration, a Robinsons pub serving Best Mild and Best Bitter by electric pump. Both were reckoned below average, although the pub was so packed that it was difficult to taste these properly. The interior has been subjected to the kind of heavy handed one-room conversion unfortunately all too common in Robbies' pubs, but this did not seem to deter the mainly young clientele. A point in favour was that a poster showed that over £2,000 had been raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The Victoria almost opposite was a pleasant change, still busy but enough room to sit down. It's a two-bar Greenalls' pub with mild and bitter on electric meter pumps. Greenalls' beers are sometimes dismissed as bland, but the Victoria showed that, when looked after, both beers can be a good pint. Another plus point was that Worthington White Shield was available.

For the final call of the evening, a ten minute walk back towards the centre of Stockport brought us to the Waterloo on Waterloo Road, a Robinsons house selling electrically dispensed Best Mild and Best Bitter, both in good condition. The pub has been somewhat modernised, but has kept its separate bar, snug and lounge, and represents the acceptable face of Robinsons refurbishments. To round off the night were were treated to a cellar tour by the landlord. The cellar proved to be a delight to the beer drinker's eye - spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, with rows of mild and bitter casks (including some wooden ones), and not a CO2 cylinder in sight. The point can't be made too often that fastidious cellarmanship is the key to serving a consistently good pint of real ale.

As always, the opinions on pubs and beer expressed are those of individual CAMRA members on the night, and are not intended to represent an official CAMRA view.

What happened next

In the immediate aftermath, ructions of a sort. But we'll come to that later. Happily, most of these pubs have survived, too, although there have inevitably been some casualties.  And it's confession time - I was the disorientated member of the party. Despite having lived in Stockport for the best part of 10 years by that time, I'd never really been to Offerton at all.

The Manchester Arms was a famous local pub - the haunt of bikers, postmen and others, the jukebox was famous. Unfortunately, Robinsons decided to spend a lot of money and turn it into Cobdens, a sort of "all day venue" which became a nightclub in the evenings. It had a troubled history - if you Google 'Cobdens' and 'Stockport' some of the first things that come up are reports of stabbings. Finally, in January 2013, Robinsons 'mothballed' it and it remains mothballed to this day. I am told they do see a future for the place but a significant investment to 'decobdenise' it will be required.

The old Bell's Brewery, missed by our party while they were being excessed by the inspector, still brewed until the mid-sixties at which point it was brewing brown ale (as David Robinson once said to me "Yes, John, I am the man who closed Bell's Brewery").  It has now been knocked down to be replaced by a revised road layout and some units. Here's a photo of it meeting it's maker.

The first pub in Offerton, the White House, closed in 2008, It's still standing (complete with former sign) but is now a rather yellow children's nursery school - more perhaps the 'yellow school' than 'white house' these days.

The Fingerpost survives largely unchanged from the Stagger. There has been a slight amount of opening out  but apart from that it's still a very characterful pub - with a good line in food, too. Those excellent etched windows have also survived.

The Strawberry Gardens was perhaps saved from the worst of the Pennine Hosts treatment because it's a listed building. The activities of the Host Group (which was the managed house arm of Grand Metropolitan, owners of Wilsons, Watneys and others) could be deserving of a blog post in their own right. They had various themes ('Sports' was one) which they inflicted on all manner of pubs - this was bad enough but close inspection usually revealed work done with no view to longevity. Presumably the plan was to rip everything out and re-theme the pubs every two or three years. Unfortunately, many of these pubs were then left untouched for rather longer than the expected lifespan of their last refurb, with the result that everything began to quietly fall apart.

Today the Strawberry Gardens, which has had subsequent refurbishments, is owned by Star Pubs & Bars (Heineken to its friends) and no longer serves cask beer.

Since the intention was to visit Drakes, let's just catch up there. The pub was originally the Golden Hind (hence Drake's - geddit?) and has reverted to its old name. Now part of the Greene King stable it's a large, food-focused pub, and, judging by the photos I took the other day, getting a little bit shabby (on the outside at least).  It didn't sell cask beer for many years but now has Abbott Ale on handpump.

The Gardeners Arms is also now part of the Greene King stable. It remains a good local community pub with food every day and a range of cask beers. It's probably one of the better pubs in the area these days.

Now we come to the Emigration. This pub has now been visited by various Staggers over the years and it's not always been a happy experience for the Staggerers. This was the first visit and the mixed, but not entirely negative, review went down very badly with the licensee, a Mr Ball. A letter of complaint appeared in the August issue and he then took the matter to the Stockport Licensed Victuallers Association.  He managed to persuade them to 'ban CAMRA', or, as the the trade paper The Morning Advertiser put it ' Stockport LVA kick out CAMRA'.

I don't think the public reaction was quite what the LVA expected and, following a backlash, there was a certain amount of backtracking. As editor Humphrey Higgins reported in the November issue: "...to date no pub has refused to take "Opening Times" as a result of this furore - indeed the reverse is true and our outlets are increasing."

The Emigration is still open, and has Robinsons Unicorn on handpump.

Also still open is the Victoria. This has always been a good boozer and that's still the case. Now owned by some anonymous pub company, it's a while since I've been in. The online pub guide, WhatPub, tells me that no real ale is sold, but I'm not sure that's correct. It certainly won't sell Greenalls cask beers as they have long since passed into memory.

I do however know there's no cask beer at the Waterloo as Robinsons closed it in August 2016. It's been sold and remains closed, boarded and looking very forlorn.

Every town of any size had its local LVA, which was basically  a trade association for pub tenants. They were the official 'voice of the trade' in their areas and at one time exercised quite a bit of influence. They seem to have faded away with no-one noticing.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Opening Times Number 1

Happy Birthday to Opening Times

This month sees the 36th birthday of the 'new' Opening Times which was revived in June 1984 after a gap of around seven years. In the last post we looked at the Stagger from that inaugural issue and I thought it might be an idea to look at the rest of it as well.

As you can see it was duplicated- each page was typed out on a stencil and then run off mechanically. A lengthy and slightly messy process but which produced something that was acceptable enough by the standards of the times.

Page 1

So, as you can see it was produced by 'South Manchester CAMRA' - the branch didn't incorporate  Stockport in its name for a couple or so years. You'll also note that it was "issued free with 'What's Doing'.  What's Doing was a magazine that, in theory, at the time covered most of the CAMRA branches in Greater Manchester. It was produced by the then North Manchester branch and I think Opening Times came about because it was felt that What's Doing didn't give South Manchester a fair crack of the whip. 

You won't see copies of What's Doing in the pubs any more as it didn't survive the untimely and very sad death of its long-serving editor, publisher and printer Neil Richardson.  Neil's name lives on though. North Manchester branch became Salford & District and to this day they present an annual 'Neil Richardson Award' to a pub that still maintains the traditions of the genuine community locals that Neil liked so much.

Sad to say, the founding editor of Opening Times, Humphrey Higgins, is also no longer with us, having succumbed to Alzheimer's a few years ago. He was a well-known figure on the Stockport pub scene in the 1980s, famously having a two-pint glass behind the bar of the Castlewood for his Wilsons Mild.

The lead article was about Boddingtons Bitter. An iconic beer, even before it was dubbed 'the Cream of Manchester', there was continuing concern that it had lost much of its old character. It's fashionable these days to blame the decline of Boddingtons Bitter on Whitbread after they bought the brewery but, as I never tire of telling people, Boddingtons managed to cock this up entirely unaided.

So, what happened? Boddingtons insisted the recipe hadn't changed. The original gravity remained at 1035 (as evidenced by successive copies of the Good Beer Guide). It had been a very bitter and obviously highly attenuated beer with all the sugars well fermented out making for a relatively light body, which in turn made it exceptionally drinkable. It became fuller, flabbier and less obviously bitter. One theory is a yeast infection meant that a new strain had to be used which was perhaps less efficient at doing the job. For what it's worth, my theory is they cut down on fermentation time to produce more beer, but who knows?

In its later years Boddingtons could still have its moments. The trouble was it dropped bright very quickly so too many pubs sold it before it was properly good to go. The landlady of my local at the time (Irene Morris at the Greyhound in Edgeley, for the record) decided to add an extra cask to her order each week so her Boddies Bitter had two weeks' cellaring before going on sale, and the difference was remarkable.  Of course it all went tits up after the Strangeways Brewery was closed and production of cask Boddies moved to Hydes. The bespoke Boddingtons yeast didn't like this at all and gave up the ghost but, while it was doing this it caused all manner of quality issues. So much so, that over one third of cask volumes were lost, never to return. After that the writing was on the wall and you won't find a drop of cask Boddington Bitter anywhere today.

Pages 2 & 3

These are largely devoted to the Stagger (or 'A Round in the Town') covered in the last post. There are a few other snippets on page three though.

Three pub closures are noted. The Grove is still standing, in use as offices. The Warren Bulkeley (the only one of the three I actually visited) was largely knocked down although the facade was retained but turned round ninety degrees - the site is now a shoe shop. The Beehive was bought by the local Vernon Building Society which demolished the old pub and built itself a new branch and offices on the site.

New licensees had arrived at the Kings Head in Ardwick. This was a popular and busy pub at the time although it subsequently suffered mixed fortunes and finally closed early in 2008.  It was demolished last year after becoming increasingly derelict.

And finally - the start of Banks's ill-fated foray into Greater Manchester. The old Longsight (which was a right old dump, I can tell you) was bought for the license. It closed in 1985 and the 'new' Longsight was built round the corner on Kirkmanshulme Lane. It closed in 2008 and was knocked down two months later. Of the other two prospective pubs that in Fallowfield never materialised. The one on Burnage Lane, the Milestone (also called the Rising Sun) opened in 1986 and had a life of just 20 years. Houses now occupy the site.

Page 4

The main story here is the inaugural (Stockport &) South Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year which was the Griffin in Heaton Mersey. This remains a fine traditional Holts pub although it now has  a large extension on one side (which doesn't impact on the historic core) and Holts plan to add another which will major on food.The presentation night on 11 June didn't go quite to plan as the man with the certificate didn't turn up so we had to do the whole thing again the following month!

The Pub of the Month was the Florist on Shaw Heath. At the time this was run by old hand Allen Stanway who was actually born in a pub - the nearby (and now closed) Church in Edgeley He ran a fine local but when he retired the pub never quite seemed to be the same (although some of his successors were very able licensees).  The pub closed in January 2018 and has been converted into flats.

Neither the New Inn nor Ye Old Vic run happy hours these days. The New Inn doesn't serve cask ale while Ye Olde Vic is a thriving community-owned free house (disclosure - I have a very small interest in it) which sells a wide and changing range of beers. It's almost on my doorstep, too.

The Victoria in Withington continues to thrive, as does the Lass O'Gowrie. The White Swan, the venue for the branch meeting, is now the Ladybarn Social Club, having been sold off by Robinsons.

Finally - this issue of Opening Times mentions 15 open pubs. Of those just seven were still trading prior to the lockdown.  Of the four pubs that took adverts, the Manchester Arms and the George are both closed.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

From The Archives - June 1984

Stockport Town Centre

Welcome to June here at JC's Beer Blog as we continue our trawl through the archives of Opening Times.  I do have a copy of the June 1976 edition (which you can read  here) but the Stagger covers Chorlton-on-Medlock and Rusholme which has already been exhaustively written about here. We might come back to it later.

So, instead we leap forward eight years to June 1984. This was when the 'new' Opening Times was launched and we'll have a look at that in a separate post but as you can see, it was a fairly primitive duplicated affair.

The first ever Stagger, then called 'A Round in the Town',  was a modest affair for the time, covering a mere six pubs. It was written by the late Rhys Jones. Here we go...

We kicked off at the Arden Arms on Millgate, a well-known Good Beer Guide pub, where Robinsons Best Mild and Best Bitter were on sale at 62 & 67p respectively. (The crawl took place in early April so no guarantee against increases since). As in all the pubs members are asked to rate the beer on a scale from zero (undrinkable) to 4 (excellent). The Arden scored a very creditable 3.3 for the Mild and 3.2 for the Bitter.

Arden Arms Snug 
The pub must rank as one of the little-known gems among Britain's pubs - its best feature is probably the fine collection of grandfather clocks which confront you at every turn, but the most satisfying aspect is the way in which the classic layout and design of a small Victorian pub have been preserved for the best possible reasons, namely that they still meet the customers' needs. Note especially the delightful small snug (our party of 10 was too large to sample it) which can only be reached by walking through the bar area.

From here we set off uphill to discover what is claimed to be the cheapest beer in the Town Centre - Sam Smiths Old Brewery Bitter at the Boars Head in the Market Place, which was selling at 59p. Scores for quality averaged  2.5 (between average and good). By contrast to the Arden the interior has been modernised in semi-plush style with piped music to match. However the big thing at the Boars is the live music - a rock group was setting up whilst we were there although its the jazz nights that seem to enjoy the highest reputation. There are understood to be plans afoot for extensions to cater more amply for lunchtime food trade.

Across the Market Place and back on Robinsons, at the Bulls Head (mild 60, bitter 64). Here, sad to say, there was a problem with the mild, which, while not vinegary, was uncharacteristic of Robinsons and was changed for the bitter at the request of the member who'd ordered it; bitter attracted a score  of 2.4.

The Bulls Head still retains much of its old multi-roomed layout, though there has been some knocking through, particularly from the corridor into the front bar. It is impossible to look at any flat surface in the pub without encountering some reminder of the landlord's USA origins - I gave up counting Stars & Stripes, but perhaps the most bizarre artefact is the framed can of Schlitz on one wall. Interestingly draught Old Tom was still on sale as late as April, but we thought it rather early in the evening for that!

Next call was the Castlewood on the Brow that drops down to Great Underbank, for Wilsons mild (60) and bitter (62). Quality came at 3.0 mild and 3.4 bitter. This house now seems to be re-established after a period of closure, and it is distinguished by an unusual split-level layout made necessary by one of Stockport's steeper hills. It's been refurbished in a restrained and tasteful manner to produce an atmosphere that's restful and comfortable but emphatically still a pub rather than an up-market cocktail bar or similar nonsense.

Wot no beer? The Buck & Dog today
Now on to one that's more emphatic than most - the Buck & Dog on Bridge Street. And at last we've found one that undercuts the Boars Head (I suppose it does depend on how you define the Town Centre).  Boddingtons mild is 54 and the bitter 57p. Beer ratings are 2.7 mild and 3.0 bitter. This is the sort of pub usually described as 'ethnic Northern' - bare lightbulbs, outside toilets and nicotine stained woodwork, rounded off by a formica bar top. It still retained its corridor and side rooms in some of which lurk pool tables and loud juke-boxes.

Finally we set our auto-pilots for Robinsons Brewery and straight for the front door of the Royal Oak, on the sloping lane incongruously known as High Street. First the bare facts - Robinsons Mild 59, Bitter 63 - cheapest Robbies of the night. Scores - mild 3.3, bitter an incredible 3.9, which must be the beer drinking equivalent of the First Division Championship*.

I should now like to say something about the pub - but what can you say about the Royal Oak? In the unlikely event you've not visited it, GET THERE AS SOON AS YOU CAN - and stay as long as you can. No better example could be found of the way in which all the best pubs develop their own character by a gradual process of evolution  - it can't be 'sprayed on'. The Royal Oak has the usual features you expect of a traditional local, but what gives it its special character is the stuff that's been brought in over the years by the cavers and potholers who form a fair proportion of the pub's customers - you could probably learn the geology of the Peak District from what's on display in the back room. Just one example to give an idea of the lovely lived-in down-to-earthiness of it all - the motto of one of the potholing clubs, stuck on the wall in the back room, reads, Semper in Excreta. (Semper means 'always' - you can probably guess the rest!)

So there we have six very different Stockport pubs - we're not saying they're the best in the town centre (we'll come back to sample the others in future crawls) but they do provide a lot of variety in a small area.

See you on the next crawl.

What happened next

You might think that these pubs , all centrally located in what is still a prosperous town, would be open and thriving. Perhaps it's a historic luck (or rather bad luck) of the draw that this crawl focused on so many pubs that are no longer with us.

Happily the Arden Arms has survived and remains a thriving Robinsons flagship almost unchanged to this day. I say almost. Some of the grandfather clocks disappeared when the pub had a, thankfully short, spell under some very unsuitable tenants who were ultimately evicted by the brewery. 

The only structural change has involved extending the old vault into a kitchen with the whole now being badged as 'The Millgate Room'.  Nonetheless the Arden still fully justifies its place on CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors and you can read about it  here.  The pub has also built a significant reputation for its food and Sunday lunch there is high on my agenda once some form of normality is restored.

The Boars Head is also still with us, and still serving a (intermittently) decent pint of Old Brewery Bitter.  Being a Sam Smiths pub the days of both piped and live music are well behind it - by order of Humphrey Smith!  Some of the internal partitioning has been reinstated too, so this is perhaps a rare example (outside the Sam Smiths estate) of a pub having more rooms in 2020 than it did in 1984.

Robinsons 'mothballed' the Bulls Head a few years ago. Money has been spent on the building to keep it in good order but nevertheless there has been a groundswell of opinion that it was high time the pub reopened, especially in light of the many other developments nearby that are bringing the Market Place back to life.  Happily Robinsons have responded and the plan is, or rather was, to have the pub open again in September or October. Obviously those plans are now on ice but hopefully the Bulls Head should open its doors again some time in 2021.

The remaining three pubs have not fared so well.

The Castlewood, then run by Don and Ailene Cleary, was about to enter something of purple patch. It won a local CAMRA Pub of the Month award in August 1985 and appeared in the national Good Beer Guide from 1986 to 1988. Numerous CAMRA meetings were held there and one of our active members at the time was noted for having a two-pint glass for his Wilsons Mild. Once Don and Ailene moved on the pub struggled. It opened and closed. Became Briarlys and, finally, the Bridge Street Wine Bar (and the ghost of that name can be seen on the photo which also shows the split-level character of the pub). It closed in 2003 and has since been used to sell all sorts of things. The upper floors are now flats.

The huge Buck & Dog (you can get some idea of its size from this photo here) was a pub with great promise. It still had its original layout and fittings - including some stained glass inserts in the windows - which, had it survived today, would have gained it both a place on CAMRA's National Inventory plus a Grade II listing. If the old Boddington pub company's plan to fully restore the pub had come to fruition that might have been the happy outcome. Unfortunately Barclays Bank came along waving a large cheque and the end result is the building you see here today. Part of the old pub does survive as its old main entrance (pictured here.) has been incorporated into the new building and functions as a rarely used side exit - as you can see from this picture.

When the Buck & Dog was visited on this crawl it was in its final years. The pub actually closed in August 1986 and was demolished early the following year.  As I recounted in a blog post a few weeks ago, it was in a very sorry state at the end. A jukebox blocked the entrance to one of the rooms, which was 'closed due to drug abuse', plaster had come of the walls in a couple of places and on the bar counter was a very soggy earwig which, we were informed, had just come out of a handpump...

The Royal Oak, May 2020
Finally, the Royal Oak. This was indeed a superlative pub, fully deserving he praised heaped upon it here. In the winter I would often call in for a lunchtime half of Old Tom and a bacon and black pudding barmcake** to set me up for the day. Unfortunately the licensee retired and Robinsons decided to refurbish it.

Now, back then Robinsons' refurbishments were notorious as exercises in uninspired blandness which did not augur well for the Royal Oak. It was then discovered that the back wall of the pub was pretty much being supported by a tree growing next to it so, as a result, the pub was effectively rebuilt rather than refurbished. It was all pretty soulless after that and while one or two licensees did their best it never hit the heights again. Despite being opposite the brewery, the beer usually left a lot to be desired as well. It was not a great surprise when Robinsons announced it had reached the end of the road. The pub closed in January 2012 and has been converted to other use.

* That's the Premiership today

** roll / cob / teacake - delete according to choice and geographic location