We’ve long wanted to explore The Black Country and, with an unexpected free day on our hands, seized the opportunity to do so last week.
Our interest in this part of the world was raised primarily by this marvellous 2014 article by Barm which deserves regular resurfacing and is a shoo-in for our imaginary anthology of great beer writing. There was also a nagging sense that we’d screwed up by tasting The Batham’s in Wolverhampton rather than in or around Dudley.
We set our hearts upon visiting The Old Swan AKA Ma Pardoe’s AKA Mrs Pardoe’s at Netherton and The Vine Inn AKA The Bull and Bladder at Brierley Hill. (All the pubs round here seem have at least two names.) The first we reached by train and bus. The weather was terrible and everything looked a bit bleak through misty windows. The sight of the bluntly named Pork Shop in Cradley Heath was, it turned out, a portent of snacks to come.
Netherton in the rain, a group of blokes drinking cider outside the convenience store, a road congested with heavy goods vehicles, their grumbling engines harmonising with rumbles of thunder… Black Country indeed we muttered, probably not very originally. The pub had plenty of twee details but looked otherwise like any other small town boozer, a bit down on its luck and chipped around the edges.
We had a less than satisfactory time on the second part of our recent sort-of-holiday, which we spent in Birmingham (of which more in our monthly newsletter), but there was plenty of fun to be had down the pub.
We had a hit list of places we wanted to visit, either because we’d heard they were good, or because they were of historic or architectural interest. That’s just as well because — generalisation alert — it’s not the kind of city where playing it by ear works especially well. It seemed to us that the city centre is largely the domain of chains. Largely but not entirely, of course: The Wellington and The Post Office Vaults, both five minutes walk from New Street Station, between them have more than enough beer to keep the snootiest of drinkers happy for a weekend. We did also pop into Purity’s craft beer bar, Purecraft, and didn’t take to it — it was like drinking in Pizza Express — but we’d had a long day and others seem to like it.
To get to the rest of the interesting stuff, though, you have to brave the ring road (we spent what felt like hours waiting at traffic lights or wandering in subways) after which you find yourself very quickly in the kind of post-industrial streetscapes which can feel a bit ‘sketchy’ to an outsider.
Local favourite The Craven Arms, for example, is only just beyond the very centre of the city, but it’s not a pub a visitor would ever stumble upon, being up a side street, past a concrete car park, what looks like a half-collapsed estate pub, some wasteland, and those beauties above. But it’s not actually dodgy, as far as we can tell, and the leap of faith is totally worth it for the sight of this gorgeous exterior against the grey:
Based on our week holidaying there we reckon Newcastle is a great city, a great place to drink, and we’ll definitely be going back.
For one thing, we loved the sense that there’s less of a stark line there between ‘craft’ and ‘trad’, posh and rough, town and suburb, than in some other parts of the country. The Free Trade and The Cumberland, for example, were both just the right side of grotty. There and elsewhere, basic but decent pints were available at reasonable prices, alongside more extravagant, trendier products, with no sense that one is better than the other.
At the Gosforth Hotel we had what might be our beer of the year, Allendale Pennine Pale, at £2.85 a pint, but we could have gone for pints of keg BrewDog Punk at £3.55 — about the price of Bass in Penzance — if we’d been in that mood. Prices were displayed clearly in front of the pumps so there was no need for embarrassing conversations or warnings over price. In fact, prices were plainly on show, as far as we can recall, everywhere we went.
All of this made for genuinely mixed crowds, even if there was sometimes a self-segregation into lounge and public bar crowds — literally where the partitions survived.
The Crown Posada was one of a handful of pubs that was so good we made time to visit twice. Even on a busy weekend night in town we didn’t have any trouble getting in or getting a seat. The beer was great, the service was fantastic, and there were cellophane wrapped sandwiches going at two quid a pop. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap. When we went back on Sunday lunchtime, though, we found it deserted — just us and a barman — and, as a result, much less charming.
The more full-on craft outlets — BrewDog, The Bridge Tavern brewpub — seemed out of place, superimposed rather than integrated, as if they might have been picked up in any another city and dropped into place. (If we lived there, we no doubt welcome the variety.)
There aren’t as many inter-war ‘improved pubs’ in Newcastle as in Birmingham (on which more in our next post) but we found a couple, manorial in scale, chain-branded, but otherwise doing what they were built to do nearly a century ago: providing un-threatening environments in which men, women and children can socialise together over beer, food and afternoon tea. They’re not much good for serious beer lovers — just lots of Greene King IPA, well off its own turf, but even that was in good nick when we did try it.
We came away with a clear impression of what seemed to us to be the dominant breweries in the region: Allendale, Mordue and Wylam were almost everywhere. We’d tried Wylam beers in the past and thought they were decent but we’ve noticed a renewed buzz around them on social media in the last year; now we see why.
Almost every pub we went in had one beer we really wanted to drink and most had a couple more we were keen to try, or already knew we liked. Across the board there was a tendency to provide a range from dark to light, and from weak to strong. Only in one pub-bar (the otherwise likeable Cluny) did we find ourselves thinking that the vast range of hand-pumps might be a bit ambitious — the beer wasn’t off, just a bit tired.
But even if the beer had been terrible everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered too much because the pubs are just so pretty — stained glass, fired tiles, decorative brick, shining brass, layers of patina — and often set beneath the cathedral-like arches of the city’s many great bridges.
And, finally, not in Newcastle but a short train ride away in Hartlepool, we got to visit our first micropub, The Rat Race — the second ever, which opened in 2009. We stayed for a couple of hours, interviewed the landlord, Peter Morgan, and chatted to some of his regulars, and to others who drifted through. We think we get it now and, yes, we reckon they’re probably a good thing.
This is a part of the world which, to our eyes, definitely seems to have a healthy beer culture. If you decide to pay a visit yourself — and you should — do check out these local publications for tips:
This is an extract from a typical entry from the original observation logs, probably from 1938, describing the Vault of a pub in Bolton:
13 men standing, 8 sitting. 4 playing dominoes. 2 of the sitters are postmen.
2 men, about fifty, short, sturdy, caps and scarves, shiny worn blue shirts quarrelling about politics. One keeps saying, ‘If ee don’t like the country why don’t ee go away? No one stops me getting a living.’ Then he suddenly shouts ‘Why shouldn’t the king and queen be there. I’m for them! They should be there.’ … Barman comes round with a small canvas bag, jangling it, asks me if I want a penny draw for a pie. So I put my hand into the bag and get out a worn brass disc about size of a half penny, which says Riggs Pies and has a number in the middle. The draw takes place somewhere else. Number 9 wins… and he gets a small hot pie, the sort you can get for fourpence.
What we want people to do for The Session is to recreate this exercise in 2016: take a notebook to a pub or bar — any one you fancy — and write a note of what you observe.
How many people are drinking?
Which beers are on tap, and which are people actually drinking?
What are they eating?
How are they passing the time?
What are the topics of conversation?
How is the pub decorated?
How many TVs are there and what are they showing?
Are there pot plants, parrots, spittoons?
How many smokers are there? And vapers?
Is there a dartboard, pool table or quiz machine, and are they in use?
Over the years, people have fretted about Mass Observation’s attitudes to privacy and so, in line with original Mass Observation practice, you might want to anonymise the pub — city centre sports bar, suburban dining pub, industrial estate brewery tap, and so on. And it’s bad form to give names and details which might allow individuals to be identified from your descriptions.
And an Optional Extra
As a chaser, after your observations, write whatever you like spurred by the idea of ‘The Pub and The People’. Really, whatever you like, as vaguely related to theme as it might be. Or instead of making any observations, even. The main thing is that you feel inspired to write something.
How this Works
Do your observing in the next few weeks, publish your post on or near FRIDAY 1 JULY and let us know about it by Tweeting (@boakandbailey), emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org) or commenting on this post. We’ll publish a round-up in mid-July to allow for stragglers.
If you’ve never taken part in The Session before, or have lapsed, do join in — it doesn’t have to be a huge effort and it’s a great way to connect with other beer bloggers worldwide.
‘Are there still any widely sought-after beers among traditional Real Ale afficionados? It’s pretty easy to spot what’s hot with craft beer geeks, but less so with traddies, probably because they aren’t all on Twitter. Are there still beers that would clear the floor at a CAMRA AGM if the rumour went around that a cask had just gone on at a nearby pub?’ — Dave S, Cambridge
This isn’t a question with a right-wrong answer — it’s an invitation to a thought experiment, which is fine by us. But we did begin by asking a few people we thought might have some insight into the tastes and desires of ‘traddies’ (a new word inspired, we assume, by the similar, faintly sneering ‘crafties’).
First, Tom Stainer, head of communications at the Campaign for Real Ale (disclosure: we’re sometimes paid to write for CAMRA) took issue with the question:
I’ll gently accuse you of stereotyping. I’m not sure there is a broad, identifiable group of ‘traddies’ who all respond in the same way. I’d also suspect that… a fair number of AGM attendees would be as likely to sprint for the bar whether you announced a rare cask of Greene King 5X was being tapped, or a Camden collaborative keg.
Tom also suggested that at the GBBF whatever is named Champion Beer of Britain ‘disappears pretty quickly’, and that anything in an unusual style is also popular, e.g. chilli porter. He asked around and got no other suggestions.
Tandleman couldn’t think of anything that quite fit the bill either, although he agreed with our suggestion that the humble Batham’s Bitter might get people a bit excited.