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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.


Curmudgeon said...

A 6 pm start - when men were men, cats were cats and pub crawls were pub crawls!

Phil said...

Peter Brookes, you say? Greying, hippyish, worked at War on Want, one-time member of Zoot Money's Big Roll Band? Small world if so.

Re: Host and 'Sports' bars, were they the ones with the uniform triangular signage with a ball in the middle (presumably evoking snooker)? I remember finding it quite handy in identifying pubs to avoid.

Fond memories of Oakwell Mild (never even had the bitter). What was going on there? I'm sure the world of beer offers a number of ways for the unscrupulous to get rich and/or launder the proceeds of getting rich elsewhere, but I can't see where running a brewery that was actually pretty good would come into the picture.

John Clarke said...

Hi Mudge - yes, the early start struck me. I think it was unusual, even for then.

Hi Phil - not sure if that's the same man, to be honest. Sports - yes that was the giveaway sign, I think. Or was that a Tetley thing?

Oakwell was an interesting set-up and its unidentifiable ownership very strange. I did hear a whisper that, bearing in mind it sold well-made cheap beer and tended to splash the cash on very good refurbishments, that it was in fact a plaything of Humphrey Smith. Given the abrupt and rather ruthless way the plug was pulled on it all, that may well ring true. We'll never know, of course.

Ian Worden said...

Oakwell can be traced back to Humphrey Smith. There is a company called RBNB which in May 2016 was registered at 1 High Street, Tadcaster - where Samuel Smith is registered. As a private unlimited company, like Smith's, it is not obliged to file accounts publicly. The website 'We are Barnsley' has a news item on 5 March 2013 stating that RBNB owned Oakwell and planned to sell the site because the brewery was falling down. The May 2015 Annual Return for RBNB shows SSOB Acquisitions as sole shareholder - the initials are a bit of a giveaway. My conclusion is that this was a property deal by Humphrey, perhaps with the added angle of shutting down a competitor. I wonder what else that company owns?

John Clarke said...

Hi Ian, that's very interesting. Rumour was that the whole Oakwell set up was a venture of Humphrey's - rather than shutting down a competitor, he seems to have bailed out. Whatever the true story, it was all very odd.

Curmudgeon said...

And Sam's of course took on some of the ex-Oakwell pubs, although I'm not sure how many were much of an asset to their estate. The Magpie in Carlisle is a lovely pub, though.

Grovel said...

Update on the Bay Horse - Longsight
The remnants of the building was demolished in 2019 [it made such an impression I can't even say whether it was spring or autumn]. The builders moved in - it is to become an extension to (replacement of?) the continental Manchester Supermarket next door. [Note for lovers of Indian cuisine, if you ask for their large offering of basmati rice it is likely to be a 25kg sack!] There was a flurry of building activity - I do remember the giant corkscrew machines boring foundation holes. Then nothing much.

Update on the Levenshulme (surprisingly in Levenshulme!)
It was open pre-lockdown [or should that be lock-out?] but is now supporting a “You can run this pub” signage and all the ground floor windows are now shuttered/boarded. Me thinks it will be a Covid19 casualty.

Church in Longsight
This pub has the interesting accolade of having experienced a drugs raid from the local constabulary, curtesy of SELNEC [I think they were the bus company at the time]. Because the ‘proprietors’ always had a spotter placed outside [you’ll know what I mean if you’ve been down Great Ducie Street in Broughton/Cheatham Hill] there was no way of approaching in marked vehicles. Round the corner on Kirkmanshulme Road a number 53 bus was flagged down and a platoon of bobbies boarded [though whether they paid individually, as a group or the bus was commandeered is not clear]. Proceeding on to Stockport Road and there is a bus stop right outside [see vintage photo].
Bus doors open, bobbies pour out, pub closes!

John Clarke said...

Hi Grovel

Many thanks for the update. Not surprised to hear the Levenshulme has closed again. I wonder if it's finally run out of lives>