Category Archives: Going down the pub

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (3)

One more post on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

When I started this blog back in 2010, one of the first things I posted was a series of posts on “my local” – I was lucky enough to have four pubs and bars to choose from. All four are still trading, although with the exception of the Wetherspoon’s they’re all under different management. Of the other three, two – the Beerhouse and the Hillary Step – are more or less recognisable as the same place they were, with a formula that the incoming management have altered but not overturned.

The Beech, though, is an almost completely different pub, with the snug opened out and large screens – and piped music – in every room. Not, I have to say, my cup of tea. Still, at all but its very lowest points the Beech has been dependable for beer quality, with a longstanding association with Timothy Taylor’s, and I’m happy to say that both of these are still the case. I didn’t stop long enough to find out if the Landlord and Boltmaker were as good as I remember them being, but I can report that the Brightside Umbra was in good nick. It’s an odd one for a dark mild, with a lot of roasty bitterness and very little sweetness; if you’d told me it was a light stout I wouldn’t have argued. Good stuff, though.

I had the Beech, and its many screens, more or less to myself on this Friday afternoon, but as I approached the Bowling Green things looked decidedly more lively. In fact it was buzzing. Actually it was a bit too busy, and what was that? a sign asking customers to place all orders at the desk? I approached close enough to the lad on the said desk for him to accost me and ask whether I was with the funeral. Ah.

Fortunately there was another pub handy, in the shape of the Horse and Jockey. In its latterday form as a gastropub, it was deserted and rather unwelcoming. I took my pint of Holt’s mild outside; it was fine, but no more than that.

On another Friday afternoon, the bus took me to Urmston and the Lord Nelson – a pub I’ve only ever visited in daytime, and which always looks as if it’s going to be a lot livelier in the evening; not in an unwelcoming way, though. The Holt’s mild here was excellent, for what that’s worth.

A walk into the centre brought me to the Prairie Schooner, the Music for the Soul secondhand record shop, and – more to the point – the Tim Bobbin (JDW), where I had another pint of Brightside Umbra (for about half the price the Beech had charged). The sticker sheet had gone walkabout, so I returned to the bar afterwards to get a signature, only to be stuck behind an old bloke who was having a pint of Coors dispensed from the slowest keg tap you have ever seen. And a slightly lairy-looking guy who lunged up to the bar, counted out some coins, said something about ifmyturncomesroundandI’mnotherecheersta and disappeared out of the front entrance, presumably for a smoke. (The bartender, still drawing the endless pint of Coors, ignored this approach completely and rolled her eyes as he left.) Then it turned out that the old bloke with the Coors wasn’t just ordering the one pint; in fact I had to wait until the bartender had pulled four of them, by which time there was a small crowd waiting and I felt quite bad about monopolising the bartender’s attention. Still, I seized my moment and got… the bartender’s initials in the box on the form. (This was actually the only place I came away from without a sticker this year.) Outside I met ifmyturncomesround guy, although as it turned out he wasn’t smoking; in fact he was riding a pushbike in circles on the pavement. He asked if there was still a queue at the bar, then answered himself (ahyouwouldn’tknowwouldyou) and headed inside to find out, wheeling the bike. JDW’s, all human life is there.

There was no drama at the Prairie Schooner – not least because it wasn’t on the MM list – but I’ll talk about it anyway. There was an opportunity to compare and contrast Loch Lomond‘s single-hop DIPAs Lost in Citra and Lost in Mosaic (verdict: the Citra works better than the Mosaic, unless you like an undertone of burnt toast with your fruit cocktail). Also at the Schooner, a wall entirely covered with past pump badges; I was able to count 20 different TicketyBrew beers, half of which I never had, alas. (Also a few from Cryptic – and doubtless from other former breweries of quality.)

And then to Didsbury. Wine and Wallop and I have (slightly tetchy) history with regard to MM, so it’s nice to be able to report that they had a mild on, and that it was a very nice pint. It’d be even nicer if I could remember which mild it was. I blame their bizarre decision to operate on table service only, while still having draught beers on the bar (and not on a menu, blackboard etc, at least as far as I could see). I distinctly remember thinking, halfway down the pint, what is this again? and straining to read the pump clip from my seat (I appear to be drinking… Binny Stritchly’s Dank Mick… can that possibly be right?). I don’t distinctly remember what I eventually worked it out to be, sadly. Still: they’re serving mild – and giving out stickers – so fair play to them.

There was more nomenclatural (it’s a word) consternation at the Fletcher Moss, which turns out to have been the only Hyde’s pub I visited on this year’s MM. Despite sponsoring MM, Hyde’s seem determined not to sell anything actually called Mild. As I understand it Hyde’s light mild is still on sale as 1863 (although as Hyde’s currently badge it as a “chestnut session ale” I wonder if it’s as light as it used to be), but the dark mild is no longer Owd Oak or even Old Indie; it’s… (You have to imagine this entire paragraph playing out, with increasing rapidity, in my head as I studied the pump clips at the Fletcher Moss.) In the end I plumped for Dark Ruby (“a very dark ruby red beer”), as much on the basis of its strength (3.5%) as anything else. A pint of it in the beer garden went down quite nicely.

Lastly to East Didsbury and the Gateway (JDW), where they were between milds. As remnants of their ‘beer festival’ were still visible, I took the opportunity to settle a question from the Waterhouse – where

There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why.

The only other dark beer it could have been was an Italian porter – Foglie d’Erba Hot Night at the Village – which, as luck would have it, was on the bar at the Gateway. So I had a half. It was good, but it was definitely a porter – which means I did have the Rudgate mild. Nice to get these things settled.

There was very nearly a problem with the stickers at the Gateway, albeit an unusual kind of problem – I overheard two members of staff debating whether, considering they hadn’t had a mild on, I should have been given a sticker. Fortunately they didn’t confiscate it for being obtained under false pretences. They were also pulling through Titanic Classic Mild at the time, and as I’d only had a half of the porter it seemed rude not to have a half of that as well.

Six pubs and one bar; seven venues, seven milds, six stickers. Overall, 23 out of 24 were giving out stickers and – more importantly – 20 out of 24 had mild on. Several old favourites it was nice to visit again – Costello’s, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar and of course the Tap – and four places I’d never been before (Ladybarn SC, Tapsters, the Halfway House and Bridge Beers). (And I really must get back to Reasons one of these days.)

Many thanks to the organisers for making Mild Magic possible, again – it’s good to have it back.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (2)

More on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

One of the pleasures of Mild Magic is connecting up assorted pubs and bars in a single route – particularly when it means getting to somewhere you don’t usually go without having to make a special trip. It doesn’t always work out; this time round I decided not to fit Reasons to be Cheerful into my Didsbury trip (of which more anon), but never managed to work out another route it would fit into. What I did manage this year, courtesy of a £10 all-you-can-eat bus/train/tram pass, was Stalybridge via Droylsden and Ashton.

At the Silly Country my notes have let me down; I could tell you what was on two of the handpumps (viz. two different flavoured ciders); I could draw you a map of the layout and tell you where I was sitting; I could even name several of the books on the bookshelves, but I can’t tell you the name of the dark mild I had. It was pretty good, though. (It definitely wasn’t Pomona Mild Peril, which TSC had had on, as that’s 6% and I would have (a) remembered and (b) had a half.) The Silly Country – a craft beer bar in a shopping-centre unit, in Droylsden – wouldn’t have been on my list of Bars Most Likely To Succeed, but it’s been there four years now and seems to be doing OK (and the mild, whatever it was, was in good nick). Good luck to them.

Back on the tram to Ashton, where I decided to tick off the (restricted-opening) Halfway House before trying anywhere more central. I’m not sure where it’s halfway to, but it would have to be pretty good if you were going to get me doing the other half on foot. I did get a bus part of the way, but ‘part’ was the operative word – the usually-reliable Moovit app suggested that my best route was “get on bus, sit down, count to ten, stand up, get off bus, walk uphill through terraced streets for 15 minutes”, and like a fool I believed it. The Halfway House turned out to be a back street pub on the old “large detached house” model, with three rooms, three customers and two handpumps. They had had a mild on, apparently, but no longer; I had a pint of Bass, which was perfectly fine.

Then back into the centre, which took a while – that side of Ashton isn’t really optimised for foot traffic – and took me down a lot of streets where all the shops were closed and there was nobody around but bored teenagers. As it was a Saturday lunchtime this seemed odd, to say no more than that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by living in Chorlton. Fortified by a couple of pies from the covered market, I went in search of Tapster’s, and found… a nightclub. A nightclub from the 1970s or 80s, specifically – chrome, deep pile carpets, black leather, low lighting… And, er, cask beer. There was no mild on, so I had a half of Bridge Beers Galaxy. The bartender told me they had a Bridge Beers mild, but it was still settling; we had a bit of a chat about the brewery, who he rated highly.

Next stop was the aforesaid bridge – viz. Staly – and my first call was Bridge Beers itself, where the brewery’s beers are served on gravity, from nines behind the bar. I had a half of Bridge Beers mild, which was really good. Ordinarily I would have either made it a pint or stopped for another half or two – I’d enjoyed the Galaxy & was quite tempted by the “Galaxy Export Strength”, even though “export strength” turned out to be 5% – but.. Well, it’s a social distancing thing, or rather an ‘enclosed space’ thing. I’d managed to mute, or at least snooze, my inner Covid Alert in all the places I’d visited so far – “well, it’s quite airy”; “well, it’s quite a big place”; “OK, it’s a small place with no windows at all, but… actually it’s quite big, and anyway there’s hardly anyone in”… But Bridge Beers was (a) tiny, (b) packed (there must have been eight other customers in there, maybe even ten) and (c) frankly a bit stuffy – you know how, when you’re in a crowded room, after a while the air starts to feel a bit moist? That.

So I regretfully supped up and moved on to my last stop of the day, the Buffet Bar. I went there 28 years ago to my certain knowledge (and that may not have been the first time); it hasn’t changed a lot. Sadly there wasn’t a mild to be had, but as they had Jaipur on cask I didn’t feel too hard done by. A half of that was followed by a half of Thornbridge/Neon Raptor Pandora’s Box, an 8% DIPA (on keg, naturally). Which was fine – lots of tropical fruit, lots of alcohol – but no more than that; I should just have had a pint of Jaipur, or maybe two.

Another trip out took me to Sale and Altrincham – not an actual train trip, admittedly, although it did involve travelling on a railway line.

In Sale I decided against trekking up the A56 to the Volunteer, and went to the J. P. Joule (JDW) next to the stationtram stop. It was early in the day, so I broke my rule and had a half, of Phoenix Monkeytown Mild. It was a fairly light-bodied dark mild, not particularly sweet, with a slightly stout-like bitter finish. I wasn’t bowled over, but it would probably work better over a full pint.

In Altrincham I went to the Old Market Tavern. I’ve seen it buzzing in the past, but that was at night. On this particular Saturday lunchtime, this big, open pub, a bit outside the town centre, not serving food (despite signs claiming otherwise), was about as busy as you’d expect. I imagine food service was a casualty of the pandemic, as I think was also the case for the Buffet Bar. Bringing it back would be a big step, but without it a place like the Old Market has lost a lot of its appeal, at least during the day. They also didn’t have any mild on, but a pint of Lees‘ MPA was very welcome.

Then it was over to Costello’s, where I was back on halves; the Dunham Dark would have been well worth a pint, but there was the Porter to fit in (malt extract and tobacco smoke), not to mention the Lymm Lymm Dam. There’s a certain kind of beer of which I always want to say that it “rings like a bell”. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that(!), but it’s usually an old ale, an abbey beer or a top-end strong bitter; Ticketybrew Pale qualified, for example. It’s a certain combination of body, fullness of flavour (without cloying sweetness or cough-mixture heaviness) and strength. Anyway, that half of Lymm Dam absolutely rang like a bell. (And the Dunham Dark was a very good mild.)

Three pubs and five bars – or if you’re being picky, three pubs, four bars and one micro-pub; quite a variety of places, anyway. And eight venues got me eight stickers and five milds – a bit less impressive than the 8/9 scored by central Manchester and Stockport (see previous post), but not bad.

Next: making some local calls.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (1)

Mild Magic – CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester – is back for 2022; slightly to my surprise, I’m even taking part myself. (“Look how the figures are falling at the moment” did battle with “Look at all the people who’ve been posting pictures of their positive tests”; it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but optimism eventually won, thanks in part to an intervention by “it’s not as if I’m not going to the pub already”.) 24 pubs, 24 different areas, mostly on weekday afternoons (being a part-timer has its benefits) – it’s been fun, and hopefully it hasn’t been excessively risky.

The main difference with previous years, as far as I’m concerned, is that I’ve decided to have a pint where possible. The weekday afternoon trade tends to be slack, for obvious reasons, and in previous years’ MMs I’ve sat in quite a few pubs and bars that were otherwise completely empty. If I was going to be the only custom a bar had in half an hour, I didn’t want to seem like a cheapskate into the bargain – especially post-pandemic. Also, it’s mild – a good mild should be pintable, even to the point of being a “disappearing beer“.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the first instalment of pubs on this year’s MM itinerary, covering central Manchester and Stockport.

I started at the Briton’s Protection, a landmark pub with reliably good and interesting beer, now sadly under threat (petition here). The mild they had on was 4Ts Old School, which was… fine. To be more positive about it, it was – as the name implies – an old-school dark mild: malty, sweetish, light-textured, absolutely nothing striking or unexpected about it. Which meant that it went down very easily.

I had an odd experience at the Waterhouse (JDW). There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why. It was a nice mild, anyway – fruity and full-flavoured, with a lot of body.

Also in – or near – the city centre are the New Oxford and the Piccadilly Tap; I know I had a mild in both places but I didn’t make a note of it, sadly. Both places had a big range of beers on tap, as ever – and, as ever, an impressive range of Belgian bottles at the Oxford – but nothing that made me feel the need to stop for another.

A city-centre pub that wasn’t an old haunt of mine – I think I’d only been in once before – was the Lower Turk’s Head. There are pubs that, when you see them in daylight, look as if they come into their own at night, and the Turk’s Head was definitely one of those. The Holt’s Cherry Mild was excellent, though – not especially sweet or fruity, but a big, complex flavour, far superior to the standard mild.

As for the Stockport leg of my MM journey, that began at the Ladybarn Social Club. I was initially foxed by the “entry by key fob only” notice on the door and considered going elsewhere, before reasoning that it must be possible for non-members to get in and trying the door buzzer. Of course, it was fine – just a matter of signing in as a guest – and I had a pint of Dunham’s Chocolate Cherry Mild, which was really good. The signing-in process took a bit of a while to organise, as did the hunt for the MM stickers, and I was slightly concerned that I was going to miss the next bus. Once I’d got my pint, I realised I needn’t have worried. The flavour of the CCM is just as big as the name implies, but the chocolate and cherry notes don’t feel bolted-on – it just tastes like a dark mild that happens to taste of those things. (Cf. Ticketybrew’s “Frankenstein beers” with hops-and-barley flavour profiles duplicated – and heightened – by the use of additions.) And it goes down extraordinarily easily. After this and the 4Ts, I started to wonder if the roster of disappearing beers needed to be updated to include traditional dark milds (and some less traditional ones).

In Stockport itself, the recently-revived Crown didn’t have a mild on, but only because it had run off the previous night, when (the licensees were keen to impress on me) the place had been rammed. It was Sunday afternoon, just after lunch; I had a half of Brimstage Oystercatcher stout, and I didn’t see another soul while I was there. It’s hard to come back from closure, and I wish the new licensees luck with it.

The Cocked Hat, by contrast, had a good complement of regulars, a word which here means “person sitting at the bar who looks round at you suspiciously as you come in” (an experience I’ve had in there before, although oddly enough the pub was under different management). It also had big screen sport with the sound off, together with piped music – a weird and unappealing combination (also seen at the Lower Turk’s Head). I decided to break my pint rule and had a half of Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild – a fairly rare bird, which I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past. Either it’s not as good now as it used to be or the half I had was in poor nick; I wasn’t impressed, anyway.

Lastly, I broke the pints rule again at the Petersgate Tap, but this was because they had Ashover Victorian Ruby Mild on – and it’s 7%. There’s no reason to imagine that a Victorian time traveller would call it anything but a mild – and matching Victorian styles to anything we’d recognise now is a mug’s game – and  but for what it’s worth this tasted like a strong old ale or a light-ish barley wine; it was terrific, either way. (But a half was enough.)

Counting the Ladybarn SC as a pub – and it’s certainly the pubbiest social club I’ve ever seen; I could name pubs that look more like a social club – that’s seven pubs and two bars; nine venues, nine stickers, eight milds.

Next: two train trips

Is it safe?

Is it safe at this desk? Yes, I think so, although the joke could yet be on reclusive old me – a multi-member household is only as safe as the riskiest place any member visits.

Was it safe when I went to the Font last night? Yes, I think so – we sat outside. I had a NEIPA which I won’t name (it was so long since I’d had the style that I’d forgotten I don’t like ’em) and the ever-reliable Track Sonoma; my companions both had a raspberry sour from Vault City, which was really rather good. (I can recommend the same brewery’s blackcurrant sour, of all the unlikely things. Strong, sour fruit beers – they’re the next big thing, possibly.) The Sonoma was the only cask beer on, incidentally; in the old days there used to be six or eight of them, although admittedly all six (or eight) were generally low- to mid-strength pales. Anyway, given that we were in the open air it did all seem pretty safe.

Is it safe in an enclosed space? There’s a question. As an extension of the ‘open air’ principle, I reckon you’re probably reasonably safe as long as you can feel a bit of a breeze on your face, whether it’s from an open window or from ventilation. On that basis I don’t worry about the tram – though I do still try and avoid buses – and I think the cinema and the restaurant we went to last week were both probably OK. Not everywhere qualifies, though – most pub interiors don’t, for a kick-off. The only time I’ve been inside any of my local pubs this summer, I was sitting so close to an open window I could have poured my drink on the pavement.

Is it safe if you’ve had the vaccine? This is the difficult bit. According to data I’ve seen two shots cut your risk of catching the Delta variant by 60%. What this means is that for any occasion when you would (100%) have caught the virus otherwise, you now have only a 40% chance of catching it. But what that means, as anyone who can do powers of 6 in their head can confirm, is that if you have two opportunities(!) to catch the virus your chance of not catching it goes down to 36%; three, down to 22%; four, down to 13%… Six opportunities to catch it and your chance of missing out on getting infected is down below 5% – which is to say your cumulative chance of catching it is up over 95%.

People I know take the view that if you’ve had both shots (a) you’re not going to end up on a ventilator (or worse) if you do catch the virus, and in any case (b) you’re about as safe as you’re going to get, so if not now, when? I respect those people’s judgment, but I can’t quite share it, for three reasons. Firstly, while the thought of being protected from the worst outcomes is reassuring, I would really rather not get Covid (or pass it on to anyone else); it’s “just like the flu” in roughly the same sense that street opiates are “just like paracetamol”. It has some weird neurological features that we’re nowhere near understanding, and the long-term effects can be debilitating or worse – I knew someone who died from “long Covid”, aged 46. If the choice is to stay at home or roll the dice on a possible infection, it’s going to take a lot to get me out of the door – even with the dice weighted in my favour.

Secondly, I don’t believe we are about as safe as we could be: we’d be a lot safer – we’d be rolling those dice a lot less often – if figures were low and falling, instead of being high and rising. On current trends, the daily case count will match its early-January peak in about a month’s time. The vaccines have been effective to some extent: they’re almost certainly preventing a much steeper rise in cases, effectively providing firebreaks that stop flare-ups spreading. Also, both the proportion of people who catch the virus who are admitted to hospital and the death rate of those who are hospitalised are way down from the January wave. (If the peak case numbers are repeated, we’d expect to see 200 deaths a day in early October, not the 1200 per day we had at the end of January.) But remember that January was in the middle of a lockdown, a tactic that the government has promised not to use again: if we do see 60,000 cases per day in a month’s time, what’s to stop those figures rising even further? (Don’t say ‘herd immunity’ unless you can explain why – given that it clearly isn’t working now – a month’s worth of vaccinations will make it start working.)

Thirdly, the one thing we don’t want to happen is another mutation, making the virus more infectious, more deadly or both. When there’s a lot of viral replication going on, mutations happen all the time; most of them are trivial or non-functional, but sometimes a mutation improves the virus’s chances of surviving and replicating to the point where it out-competes other, existing variants. This is what happened with the Alpha (Kent) variant, and it’s happened all over again with Delta. (If we had nothing to worry about but the original Wuhan version of Covid, the country would probably be Covid-free by now.) The range of possible mutations isn’t infinite, and there may not be much scope for a version worse than Delta – but we don’t know that. Every day when people are getting infected is a day when a new mutation may arise. Every day when large and growing numbers of people are getting infected is a good day to stay well away from becoming a part of the process, if you can.

So, is it safe? Well, I don’t feel safe; I haven’t felt safe since about the time I last wrote on this blog. It was around that time that the government made it clear – to the general approval of their own party’s MPs – that the abandonment of lockdown measures and other restrictions, while it might be gradual, would be irreversible. I don’t know what this actually means, but the mood music is clear enough: the course has been locked in and nothing’s going to change it. Not public concern, not the case numbers, not the medical profession, not people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Watching the case figures rise – then fall, then rise again – and watching the hospitalisation and death rates rising or (at best) holding steady, ‘irreversible’ is the very last message I want to hear: it’s depressing, and by depressing I mean ‘nightmarish’. So that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging lately.

Is it safe to talk about? This is another. As it goes, I’m quite keen on Britain having good trading and political relations with Europe; I’m also a Labour Party member. So there have been plenty of opportunities, in the last six years, for me to learn that other people have strong negative feelings about people and things who I feel positively about. Usually I’ve been happy to stand by what I believe in – where appropriate, which on a beer blog it generally isn’t – and laugh off any hostility. Something about the politics around lockdown, though, has got to me, and made me not want to do anything even slightly like wading in. It’s partly that the topic of lockdown is hard to avoid if you’re writing about pubs and beer, and partly that I genuinely see the way we deal with Covid as… well, a matter of life and death; this makes it hard to engage in a highly polarised debate in a spirit of knockabout fun. And it doesn’t help matters that the effects of the other two big polarisations I mentioned – the effects of what happened in December 2019 and January 2020 – are still very much with us.

Is it safe to go to Spoons? Probably not, quite frankly – and there are plenty of other reasons to give someone else your beer money – but it’s so well-placed for a quick drink after the pictures… Early on a weekday evening, the Seven Stars was half-empty – a good kind of half-empty – but I could see that the staff were stretched, not least from the number of uncleared tables. I scanned the code on our table and found myself ordering through the Website, which rapidly chewed up the battery in my (admittedly ageing) phone. Cask beer was limited – not to one beer this time, but to four decidedly uninspiring house beers (Ruddles, Abbot, Doom Bar and Wainwright Gold). Scrolling the can and bottle menu, I saw several beers greyed out and marked as out of stock; several others which I would have expected didn’t appear at all (no sign of those Sixpoint IPAs, for example). But they had Devils Backbone American IPA (which was fine, although less ‘American’ than I remembered), and they had Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropicana, so… ah. No. In actual fact they didn’t have Clwb Tropicana, or pretty much anything else in a 330 ml can; our server explained that they were switching from cans to bottles (???) and suggested a few alternatives, all of which were 500 ml or more.

As for the safety aspect, I realised as soon as we walked in that we were the only people there wearing masks – and I didn’t see another soul in a mask the whole time we were there, entering or leaving, behind the bar or on the stairs. Ventilation? I didn’t notice any – which probably means there wasn’t enough. (Roll the dice, then.) The other thing I noticed when we walked in was a piece of tape across the main double doors reading ‘Entrance Only’; I didn’t remember that pub having another exit and wondered vaguely which way we’d be going out. When we left I realised I’d misread the sign: it said ‘Entrance Only’ on one of the two swing doors and ‘Exit Only’ on the other. If taped-off one-way routes are security theatre, this was security burlesque.

Is it safe? Some places yes, some maybe, others not really. The real question is, is this as safe as it’s going to get? Come to that, is this as normal as it’s going to get – six cask lines down to one, Spoons running out of craft beer, Nando’s running out of chicken joints (although not halves and quarters), half of the people hating the other half and everyone hating the government?

I really hope not.

Going back

There are two kinds of courage. It takes courage to do something that you’re irrationally convinced is seriously dangerous, even if the rational part of your mind is reasonably sure it’s safe. (Holding on until you’ve managed to get the rational part of your mind to drown out the irrational part is another possibility, but it’s not always feasible – as anyone who’s ever got up to investigate noises in the night can confirm.) It also takes courage to do something that actually is seriously dangerous; it takes courage, and it also takes a very good reason – e.g. risking death for a cause or to save a loved one, or being a member of the army and receiving a direct order.

Pubs are great; they’re one of my favourite social institutions, and I’d miss them terribly if they were gone. However, the cause of pubs is not a cause for which I’m willing to die or risk death, and I don’t think I’m a massive outlier in this. People talking about courage, in the context of going back to the pubs post-lockdown, are talking about courage #1 – the courage to walk into a dark room where there could be literally anything at all (although, as it’s your living room and you were sitting there two hours ago, you can be pretty sure there’s literally nothing). Either that or they’re really fanatical pubpeople – Give me two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please, or give me death!

As it goes, I don’t think it’s at all likely that I’d have caught Covid-19 if I’d spent the whole of Saturday evening at any of my locals. I can’t – and couldn’t – say it’s impossible, though, or a low enough likelihood to be completely discounted. And, ironically, the risk is only going to increase: anyone who was infected on Saturday will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all this week, and anyone they infect will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all next week, and… We just have to hope that, by last Saturday, infectivity in the wild had already reached a low enough level to minimise the number of possible outbreaks, and that social distancing measures have reduced the number of actual outbreaks even further. But we won’t know for at least another week – by which time, of course, we’ll be a week further down the same track.

No pubbing for me, then? Fortunately it doesn’t have to come to that. The two main situations that I (still) want to avoid like Watney’s are sustained close contact with anyone outside my household – having someone breathe in my face, basically – and being in an enclosed public space for any length of time. That does rule out most of the things I like doing in pubs – God knows when I’ll be going to a folk session again – but not quite all of them. In particular, the sneaky mid-afternoon pint on a non-work day is still very much an option, particularly with the weather we’ve been having (at least, up to today).

And so it was that I celebrated my personal Return to the Pub, yesterday afternoon at the Beerhouse. I turned up, sanitised my hands and “waited to be seated”, at the small table handily positioned just behind me, checked the menu on the table and was rather pleased to be able to order “a pint of bitter” (i.e. Marble Manchester Bitter). I wasn’t asked for my details, but the chance of infection from anyone at another table, in the open air (and on a breezy day), really was negligible – particularly as the beer threw itself down my throat at a slightly startling rate. (Son of Bodds’? Not for me to say, but I’d love to hear from anyone who can compare.)

What was the beer like? It was superb. I’ve laid in a bunch of different bottled beers during lockdown, including a slab of Jaipur and a few bottles of Proper Job, but I have to say that it’s the pale’n’oppy beers that have been going down slowest; I seem to have lost the taste. (Give me a Landlord, or a Weihenstephaner, or an Orval, or a tripel, or one of those little Harvey’s monsters…) That pint of Manchester Bitter, though, was in a different league. As a kid I daydreamed about one day getting an underpowered little car – a 2CV, a Fiat 500, a Morris 1000 – and having the engine stripped out and replaced with something ridiculously powerful, just to see people’s expressions when I burned them up on the motorway. Manchester Bitter seems to have been arrived at by a similar process: they’ve taken a best bitter, stripped out most – but not all – of the malt and the body, and filled in all the gaps with aroma hops and (especially) bittering hops. The result is that it drinks with the soft cereal complexity of a BB, up to the moment when the bitter finish grabs you by the throat and squeezes. It’s wonderful, and – on a fine afternoon, when you haven’t been to a pub in (literally) months – it goes down very, very quickly.

Which, of course, is just as well; open air or no open air, I didn’t want to hang around there forever. I didn’t even stop for a second (although I was tempted to do a compare-and-contrast with Pint); apart from anything else, my capacity – along with consumption – seems to have gone through the floor during lockdown. But I’ll be back; I’m not planning on going through the door just yet, but I will be going back.

Forgotten beers

As I write I’m closer to my 60th birthday than, well, any other. Being of mature years isn’t exactly unusual among CAMRA members – any more than it is in my other social group of choice, folk musicians. But what does sometimes make me feel a bit atypical – in both contexts – is that I only became an enthusiast relatively recently; I started going to folk clubs in 2003, and started thinking seriously about beer (seriously enough to remember what I’d been drinking) in 2008. Before then… not.

(What was I doing all that time?)

But of course I didn’t start drinking in my late 40s. As a matter of fact I started drinking at the age of 12, when my parents let me and a friend see in the New Year at home with a bottle of Woodpecker each. (I remember telling them the next day that it had made me feel “very lucid”. They said it did have that effect.) I had got through a fair bit of beer before I started going to festivals, taking notes and generally thinking about what beer I did and didn’t like. I just… didn’t notice it so much.

This post is about two beers I know for certain that I didn’t notice – two gaps in my memory that I’m sure are there. One dates back to 1986 or 87, the other to some time in the early 00s.

We get to 1986 via 1976 (when I fell blissfully in love with London Pride and Buckley’s Best); 1979 (when I could drink legally but discovered that I didn’t actually like bitter after all); 1982 (when I came to Manchester, encountered Marston’s dark mild and fell in love with that instead, but mostly ended up drinking Hyde’s lager*); and 1983 (when I got a job and drank two pints of Greenall Whitley bitter every lunchtime and three on Fridays, because that was what you did). Beer could still be amazing, sometimes – but how often did you see London Pride on a bar in Manchester? Or Marston’s dark mild, come to that. Usually it was just… beer; something you drank when you went out, and you chose it because it was what they had in the place you’d gone out to.

The place we went out to, one day after work in 1986, was a proper working men’s pub (in the enthusiastic words of my friend Mike, whose idea it was) and a bit of a walk from the office. (This wasn’t a two-pint-a-day office, incidentally; I didn’t do much lunchtime drinking at all in that job, not least because when the people I worked with did go out they invariably went to the Vine (which was Greenall Whitley), despite it being right next door to the City (which wasn’t). So I guess I must have developed some taste in beer by then.)

Anyway, the pub Mike led me to was the Old Garratt. And yes, it was a “proper working men’s pub”; at least, I remember the place being full of blokes, and the two of us being the only people there in a suit and tie. I also remember glancing upwards and being unable to see the ceiling for a blanket of cigarette smoke. And I remember one other thing, which is the first of the two gaps in my memory I wanted to talk about: the beer. That evening in the Garratt, before I left to get the bus home for my tea, I had two pints of Boddington’s Bitter.

And I have no memory of it whatsoever. It could have been bright blue and tasted of cranberries for all I know. (Except, of course, that I know it wasn’t, because if it had been I would have remembered it.) I don’t remember it being particularly bitter, I don’t remember it being outstandingly drinkable, I don’t even remember it being dull. 1986 was pretty late to be discovering Boddington’s, admittedly – the early-80s bland-out referred to here was pretty much accomplished by then. But at the end of the day it was still Boddington’s, still being brewed at Strangeways, and if I ever have grandchildren I’ll be able to tell them that I did, indeed, once drink it. I just won’t be able to tell them what the hell it was like.

In the 90s I did start to get interested in beer, although not the kind that you get from a hand pump. There was a holiday in Barcelona, where I discovered Franziskaner Weissbier (not available in supermarkets at that point) along with bratwurst and sauerkraut; there was a holiday in Amsterdam, where (slightly more conventionally) I discovered witbier; and there was a holiday in Scotland, where I discovered Trappist beer (the hotel bar had overstocked on Chimay – which is to say, they’d bought some – and they were selling it off cheap).

After that I was away; Belgian beers were pretty cheap at the time**, when you could find them. In the 90s and early 00s I discovered blonds, red ales, dubbels and tripels, tried lambics and even one or two gueuzes, and ticked off all the Trappists I could find. Sometimes the big hits are big hits for a reason, and discovering Trappist beer was a bit like discovering Sergeant Pepper: I discovered that some of the beers everyone was raving about were, in fact, beers worth raving about. (If there’s a better beer anywhere than Westmalle Tripel… it’s probably an old-ish Orval.) Eventually I’d worked my way through all the available Trappist beers – which was to say, four of the big five Belgians, plus Koningshoeven – as you can see here.

IMG_2424

(Wait a minute. That isn’t four of the five big Belgians.)

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

Dredging my memory, I have the faintest of faint memories of buying those bottles of Westvleteren. It was in the Belgian Belly in Chorlton; my curiosity was aroused by the unlabelled bottles, and aroused some more by the relatively punchy price tags (although I can’t remember what the prices actually were, and I’m pretty sure they were considerably cheaper than you’d ever see them today). I can picture Jason telling me that these particular bottles really were a bit special, and I can hear him sounding entirely sincere and very persuasive, as indeed he generally did in that situation.

Or maybe I’m just filling in that last part because I know that the sales pitch worked. Anyway, evidently I bought them – presumably on the same occasion, although the BBE dates are rather a long way apart. And evidently I drank them, given that the bottle tops are all I’ve got left.

(Best beer in the world, they say it is. The strong one, especially.)

(Might be, for all I know. I have no memory.)

(Only one way to find out, now. Road trip! I could do that. When this is all over.)

There aren’t any big gaps after that – at least, none that I’m aware of! There is one other beer I’d like to remember more about: I went to Brendan Dobbin’s King’s Arms once around this time, and – while I remember the pub vividly – I’ve no idea what I had to drink. But I do have fond memories of a couple of West Coast beers, so let’s assume it was one of them. By then, anyway, the Marble Beerhouse was open. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and started taking a ticker’s interest in the Marble beers they served*** – and that put me on the path to keeping tasting notes, starting this blog, joining CAMRA and generally thinking about beer far too much.

(Still wish I could remember those beers, though.)


*For years I was convinced that, around 1982-3, I used to drink a pale yellow, sourish bitter at the Vic in Withington. Nobody else can remember this beer, and the simplest explanation is that it was in fact Hyde’s own lager – and that I really wasn’t into beer back then.

**Something to do with Black Wednesday, possibly. Or something to do with EMU. Or not.

***Despite the fact that at this stage I still didn’t like most of them. That didn’t change till some time later.

Farewell to the gold (and the amber and the black)

It was a Saturday afternoon. We’d been to see 1917; we enjoyed it, although I thought its portrayal of the wily, treacherous Boche was a bit lacking in nuance. (All friends now, eh?) The cinema was a bit fuller than I would have liked – there’s this virus going round, and even if there have only been single-figure numbers of cases in Manchester, it only takes one of them to sit next to you… Still, you’ve got to take some risks in life, haven’t you?

After the film, anyway, we were in the market for a drink; the Smithfield had been a hit with my other half when we’d been there on a previous weekend, and I had high hopes of introducing her to the Crown and Kettle. I couldn’t immediately work out a route, though, and we decided to give it up and go to the Pilcrow – which, unlike those two, isn’t one of my favourite town centre pubs, but is a lot handier for the cinema.

It was rammed. They’d said on the news that nobody was taking much notice of the advice to avoid unnecessary social contact, and that was certainly how it looked. I had heard that trade was dropping off in a lot of pubs (and the place where we’d had lunch had certainly been less full than usual), but the Pilcrow didn’t seem to have got the memo. To be honest it was too full – at least, it was too noisy (that’s what you get for all those hard surfaces). Herself fancied a fruit beer, so I got her a rhubarb saison; I had two beers, but I didn’t make a note of their names. One of them was a porter – by Beatnikz Republic, who also made the saison – and the other one was… something else. Really nice porter, for what that’s worth.

Not a classic beer experience, then, and definitely not a classic pub experience; but it was a Saturday afternoon, in a pub, with beer.

Nine days later, I found myself at a loose end mid-afternoon. I left work and headed home, pausing only for a swift half on the way. (Headed home to do some more work, I should say; I’ve been working from home ever since (spoiler), and have in fact had a very busy couple of weeks.) The venue was the Brewdog Outpost, and the half was something dark and strong – I forget what. The bar was fairly empty but not completely so, even on a weekday mid-afternoon; it was a pleasantly chilled environment, and the beer was rather fine. Again, not a classic of the genre – beer or pub – but each was good in their way. The third factor – the occasion – had its style rather cramped by the larger situation, though. One of my main memories of that visit is of standing well back from the bar when ordering, and attempting to keep a safe distance when the bartender circulated to collect glasses; it struck me that two metres is quite a long way.

Soon after I got home that day, the prime minister made a statement urging people not to go to theatres or cinemas – or pubs. Over the next few days, a series of cinemas, restaurants and theatres announced that they were closing; I realised I wasn’t going to get to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or The Invisible Man for that matter. Pubs, though, were mostly still open – and were starting to suffer from people staying away. I wondered about dropping in on one of my locals mid-afternoon, when they’d be quieter, but worried about maintaining two metres from the bartender and any other drinkers – and besides, I wasn’t actually free mid-afternoon (busy with work, as I mentioned). There was some talk on social media of bars offering growler fills, which involved paying a fiver for a resealable two-pint bottle and then getting it filled with draught beer – cask beer, even, while that lasted. Again, though, I was busy during the day, on top of which I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d maintain the two-metre thing. (Besides, £5 for an empty bottle?)

On the Friday – quite late on the Friday, as I remember – the prime minister announced that pubs (and much else) were going to have to close – and close that night, early as you like. I belatedly decided I would check out the growler situation, at one of the local bars that had said they’d be offering them. When I got to the bar, three or four people were smoking and chatting outside, a sight which already looked considerably less normal than it used to. I seriously considered holding my breath as I passed them (no offence, lads), but then realised that there was just as high a density of people inside. I pressed on and opened the door. The air inside hit me in the face; it was warm and thick, and I swear it was moist. The next thing that struck me – almost literally – was the noise: raised voices, rhythmic clapping, cheering; it felt as if I’d walked into a rugby club social. Social distancing was very much not in effect; in fact people were two or three deep at the bar. I couldn’t see anything of the bartender(s?) but an arm raised high above the crowd, to pass somebody their gin and tonic. At this point I did hold my breath, for as long as it took to turn tail and get back out on the street.

So if anyone asks me about the last time I went into a pub before the lockdown, if I’m being strictly honest that’s when it was. But the swift half to collect my thoughts on a quiet afternoon in the Outpost, and the couple of pints at the weekend at Pilcrow, are what I’m going to remember; they’re what I look forward to doing all over again. Not to mention the pint at the Crown and Kettle that I never even had – I’m sure it would have been a good one. As the man said, Farewell to the gold that never I found…

Times change

A bit less than eight years ago, I visited a new bar and came away with a substantial list of grievances. I didn’t have any problems with the beer I tried: it was an interesting beer with a big, complex flavour – at least, it was once I’d let [it] warm up and got rid of some of the CO2. But, as well as over-carbonating and over-chilling their beer, this bar had a number of disqualifying features, which I documented in some detail; an edited extract from the original post follows.

  1. High prices for ordinary beers: say 25% higher than I’d expect to pay anywhere else in Manchester for the entry-level draught beer, and 100% higher than you’d pay in some places.
  2. Very, very high prices for mildly unusual beers
  3. Ridiculously, insultingly high prices for really unusual beers [was that really three separate points? Ed.]
  4. Overpriced halves [half of £3.95 ’rounded up’ to £2.15]
  5. Short measures … 2mm of froth below the line in my glass
  6. Obtrusive branding: your average pub doesn’t brand every visible surface with the same company image.

More trivial annoyances included chalking up the most expensive beers with an even higher price than the price in the printed menu (which was already insanely high) and giving the cheapest beer on the board a deliberately off-putting name (an annoying little trick, familiar from the wine lists of restaurants with a student clientele).

Which might suggest that the same chain’s newest ahem ‘outpost’ is a venue that I wouldn’t have set foot in – and not that it would become a regular after-work hangout and a bar I spent more time in than any other, over the four or five weeks up to and including last Monday.

Well, we can all change our minds; for one thing, I no longer read nefarious intentions into getting a price wrong on the menu, or naming a beer “Dead Pony Club”. (Apparently it was originally “Grateful Dead Pony Club”. Yeah, well… exits muttering…) Another thing that’s changed over the last eight years is my employment contract & consequent spending power – points 1-3 don’t bug me the way they used to. The prices were still high – all the pints were priced in the £5-6 range, and so were the beers advertised in smaller measures (2/3, a half or even a third, depending on strength). Point 3 above continued to irk me for a lot longer than 1 and 2, but I got over it; in the end I was a lot more bothered by the thought of a beer being priced at eighteen quid a pint!!! than I was by actually paying £6 for a third of something unusual (and very strong).

The changes weren’t all on my side, either. No short measure that I noticed, and no price-gouging on the change front; with halves, thirds and 2/3s on sale, opportunities for creative ’rounding’ abounded, but I never saw a price rounded up further than the nearest 5p. Even the company branding had calmed down a bit, although what you could call a broader ‘hipster hangout’ branding was in full effect – if you don’t like huge railway-sleeper refectory tables in pubs, or posing tables with high spindly chairs, you wouldn’t have liked the seating options in this place, which consisted mainly of posing refectory tables. (Who knew there was such a thing?)

And the beer? Well, it wasn’t excessively cold and fizzy – another change for the better. They even had a cask tap for a while – and served some very nice porter from it – although they’d quietly discontinued that a couple of weeks ago. That cask porter aside, I will say that it wasn’t really a place to go for a pint; the only time I wasn’t crazy about the beer was when I went for a full pint of 5 a.m. Saint. Don’t get me wrong, it was good – not as good as the cask version I tasted once, but there we go – but at about the 2/3 point it did cross my mind that it had cost about the same as two pints of Landlord I’d had the previous night. Not one but two pints of Landlord is a high bar for any beer to meet. The up side was considerable, though; further off the beaten track – on the ‘guest’ side of the board, out among the bretted beers and imperial stouts – they served some of the best and most memorable beers I’ve had in a very long time; I always looked forward to what I was going to try next, and I was very rarely disappointed.

And that’s how I made my peace with BrewDog – at least with the BrewDog Outpost – and even became a bit of a fan (again). Memorable is what those beers are going to have to be, of course – what with one thing and another – and possibly for a very long time. But I’m already looking forward to going back. Perching on a high chair holding a funny-shaped glass containing less than half a pint of something smelling of blackcurrant and old socks probably sounds like a vision of hell to some of my fellow beer bloggers, but – to my surprise – I found it could be a lot of fun.

Mild by Northwest 2 – Times Change

More on Mild Magic 2019

Times change
Ways change
Times change, people change
– Julian Cope

Didsbury and beyond
I haven’t been in many Hyde’s or Holt’s pubs for this year’s Mild Magic. But Hyde’s, in particular, is hard to avoid if you’re doing the Withington corridor, and one or other of 1863 and Old Indie was on offer at the Friendship, the Victoria, the Horse and Farrier (Gatley) and the Crown (Cheadle). The Vic was a bit dead when I called in, but the other three were all pleasantly busy – not something that’s always been true of the Friendship, in particular. (There have been fewer empty pubs across the board as compared to last year; it may not mean anything, but it does seem like a good sign.) I think 1863 is the only light mild I had this time round, if indeed it still is a light mild.

East Didsbury was more varied, in all senses of the word. I’ve never yet had a mild in Wine and Wallop (despite the name) and this year was no exception – although I gather that they did have a mild on for at least some of the Mild Magic period. My first visit to the Head of Steam also drew a blank, but when I returned a couple of weeks later they had Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on. The last time I’d seen that beer it was on the bar at the George in Stockport, side by side with Golden Best and both going for £2 a pint – happy days. It wasn’t £2 a pint at the HoS – in fact it was very nearly £2 a half – and I guess trade hadn’t been brisk, as it was rather tired. Still, better that than the reliably awful Coach House Gunpowder Mild which was on at the Olde Cock. Up the road in Burnage, Reasons to be Cheerful had Salopian Divine Comedy, an excellent contemporary take on the dark mild style, along with much else; it’s one of those bars that I try to fit in last when I’m doing a crawl, because I know I won’t want to stick to the one half. I have to confess, the places in this category used to be old-style real ale ‘exhibition’ pubs – the Crown in Stockport, the Railway in Portwood, the New Oxford – but these days they’re more likely to be places with interesting keg as well as cask ranges: Reasons, Petersgate Tap, Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Times change, people change.

Urmston
I like Urmston, but next to Chorlton – next to Stockport, for that matter – it’s… odd. It has the unevenly-developed, up-and-coming quality of bits of the Northern Quarter (ever-shrinking bits), or of Beech Road in Chorlton about five years ago, but with the difference that in both those two cases a bohemian/foodie/’craft’ scene took root in the midst of urban decline. Urmston’s not quite like that, in that the ‘old’ – pre-hipster – Urmston is still right there and doing absolutely fine. Put it this way, there can’t be many other places in Manchester where you can walk out of a craft beer bar and come face to face with a poster advertising a 70s dinner-dance hosted by TV’s Stan Boardman.

I was there for the beer, starting with Holt’s dark mild at the Lord Nelson; I even went for a pint, on the basis that

  1. it had been off at Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme, so I hadn’t had Holt’s mild yet
  2. it’s only 3.2%, and
  3. it seemed like the kind of pub where one orders pints

Nice pub, like a lot of Holt’s suburban pubs (the Griffin, the Park Inn) in being a massive, multi-roomed beer palace; hard to fill, but it was early in the evening when I was there and I got the sense it would get busier later. Perhaps it was just having a pint of mild in my hand, but it felt very much like proper old-school pubbing.

My other scheduled stop was the Tim Bobbin (JDW) for Lymestone Stonefish dark mild – and not Stella, as my order was initially misheard. (This seems to happen to me a lot in Urmston. I guess my accent still sounds a bit ‘southern’ – I’ve only been here since 1987, after all.) I also had a half of Evan Evans Cwrw; Evan Evans is the successor brewery to Buckley’s, whose bitter provided me with an unforgettable teenage beer epiphany. This time round… well, times change.

But I finished off at the Schooner, which wasn’t doing Mild Magic but would have been a sure-fire last-bar-on-the-route if it had been. The porter I started with was excellent; the arancini that were being prepared – one night only – on a stall outside made a great meal (and I’d been wanting to try arancini); and the second beer I had was the best of the night: it was dark, it was 7%, and it was an India Dark Ale. That’s right, it’s like an IPA only dark and stouty… It took me right back to when that piney/roasty combination was new – and “Cascadian Dark Ale” was being bandied about as an alternative title – and reminded me of what’s good about black IPAs, when they’re done well. It’s only a shame I can’t remember the brewer.

The Schooner also does off sales, and they had some beers reduced that night – including some that were up against the sell-by date and were reduced to £1. A recent Belgian beer tasting had introduced me to De Dochter van de Korenaar, so I was pleased to be able to pick up a bottle of their Beau Monde saison (brewed with bitter oranges and dry hopped). This is a daft recipe on paper, and it was an unprepossessing beer when I got round to opening it – it gushed enthusiastically and took about five minutes to transfer into a glass; how long it would have taken to settle I don’t know, as I wanted to drink it that evening. Still, sludge-brown and murky though it was, it was a terrific beer; the dry hopping and the oranges worked to blunt the rough edges of the saison style, and it all added up to a properly grown-up fruit beer.

Urmston took me back: back to the glory days of the late noughties when black IPAs were new, back to drinking malty Welsh bitter in my teens, back to the kind of pub that my Dad would have known his way around… (Not to mention taking me back to when I was new in Manchester and I was still getting accent-checked.) But the Schooner, at least, has one foot firmly in 2019. No mild, but nobody’s perfect.

Next: way out East.

Val-de-ree!

Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s “Winter Warmer Wander” is often celebrated as a means of encouraging people to go to pubs they wouldn’t usually go to. That’s fine as far as it goes. But in my experience, it also encourages people (e.g. me) to go to pubs where they wouldn’t usually stay, which is a bit different.

Consider a few pubs I’ve visited recently (well, today).

PUB 1 is pleasantly busy, with a hum of background chat from what seems to be a group of regulars. However, the regulars are all in the back bar, and I’m in the front bar – which is empty apart from me and two men who came in shortly after me. One of them exhibits an admirable level of trust in his friend, opening up to him about past and future medical procedures in a way which does both of them credit. Unfortunately he has quite a loud voice – and the front bar is really very quiet.

PUB 2 is a Wetherspoon’s, and it’s rammed. (As, I suspect, it will be from here to Christmas.) I find a seat with some difficulty. Behind me and to the right is a large group – two families or possibly three – having lunch; at least, the adults are having lunch. One of the children has recently been introduced to the concept of the “high five” and is keen to gain practice in using this gesture in a social setting. Over the background noise of conversation I can hear:

“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”

It continues.

After a while one of the adults decides to introduce a bit of variety by making a game of it, presumably involving ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ gestures. The result is slower-paced and more varied, but just as relentless; now I can hear

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

and so on.

And on.

PUB 3, to be fair, was fine, and PUB 5 was a delight.

PUB 4, though… PUB 4 has a small front-of-bar area and two back rooms, one reserved for gigs and the other full of people – as indeed is the front-of-bar area. Waiting at the bar, I realise that the three people ranged along it in front of me are not in fact three strangers but a group; a moment later I realise that they are not standing waiting to be served but have installed themselves on bar stools. Although they are a group – making me feel as if I’m invading their space when I move between two of them to look at the beer pumps – they have positioned their stools so as to keep a respectful distance from one another, and are consequently taking up most of the length of the bar. I find a space at the other end of the bar and wait while they get served. They have ordered three pints, plus three pints of tap water; they are clearly settling in for the long haul. I order my half of Winter Warmer-fuel, get served, pay, ask for the obligatory sticker, etc, and glance round to see how the bar-hogging trio are getting on. All three of them are sitting in complete silence, pints untouched, staring at their phones.

I go in search of somewhere else to sit down. As well as the main rooms, I remember coming to PUB 4 once before and spending a pleasant quarter of an hour in an upstairs room (with a beer and something to read, let’s be clear) – a memory which was only slightly marred by the fact that I slipped on the stairs afterwards and sat down rather hard. I negotiate the stairs but find that the upstairs rooms are locked; in fact they appear to have been converted for staff use. I head back down, half-pint in hand. On the last step, just as I congratulate myself on making it down the stairs unjinxed by past bad luck, I step down and realise that I was actually standing on the last step but one; I keep my footing but land very hard, splashing the wall liberally with beer. I decide to find an unoccupied patch of bar and finish my drink before anything else can happen. Finishing my beer, I feel that a swift exit is in order; I tip the last mouthful of beer into my mouth, put the glass down, turn and head for the door, planning to swallow the last of my beer as I’m walking out of the door (it’s called multi-tasking). Unfortunately some beer has gone down the wrong way and I cough explosively just before I reach the door, spraying a table of drinkers. I mutter an apology and make an even swifter exit than I had planned.

Would I have stopped for a drink in PUB 1, 2 or 4, if I hadn’t been in search of Winter Warmer Wander stickers? I think not. (PUB 4 didn’t even have a stout or porter on, let alone an old ale.) Would any of them have missed my custom? PUB 1 maybe; the other two, definitely not. (I couldn’t find anywhere to sit in PUB 3 either; even the deceptively spacious PUB 5 was pleasantly busy.) As I’ve said before, considering that part of the point of ‘trails’ like the Winter Warmer is to spread the custom around by sending people to different pubs, it seems odd that we do this one in the run-up to Christmas, a time when a recurring complaint about the pubs we go in is that they’re too full.

That was certainly my main complaint today – and I know from experience that PUB 4 and even PUB 2 can be perfectly delightful places to spend some time, when the crowds aren’t out. Some people like busy pubs, admittedly – but does anyone really enjoy dropping in on a busy pub?