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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


Anonymous said...

How come this crawl omitted the Tiviot whilst being right next door at the Buck, but then tramped up to the Royal Oak?

John Clarke said...

Your guess is as good as mine - probably because the Royal Oak was such a good pub at the time and finishing in what was a classic seemed a good idea. This is admittedly just guesswork as I wasn't on this one.