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:
The interior is nothing special, as it happens, but still pleasantly old-school, 1980s pubby. The beer offer (as so often we found in Newcastle) seemed designed to be democratic: local mild and bitter (Black Country Ales) at around three quid a pint, trendier cask (Cloudwater) for more like four, and some crazy keg stuff priced by the third or the half. Any hint of pretension was further undercut but the offer of cellophane-wrapped cheese rolls at a pound a pop, and some particularly funky pork scratchings.
One of the most famous pubs in Birmingham is The Barton’s Arms, the subject of this wonderful film in the BFI archive. It was built as the 19th Century turned to the 20th and survived planning and refurbishment fever, leaving it standing proud at the side of a main road alongside industrial units, tower blocks and supermarkets. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this setting – it’s what most of Britain actually looks like – but international visitors especially might need a little encouragement to walk or ride the bus out this way. (And our bus ride back was, to be honest, a bit scary.) Again, though, it is totally worth it for the beauty of the pub, but a full line-up of beers from Oakham, all tasting great, isn’t a bad incentive either.
Out the other way, in Digbeth, we went to look at the Victorian architecture of The Anchor and The White Swan, set among decaying factories and yet more wasteland, but with the tell-tale signs of pre-gentrification ‘artification’ underway – posh graffiti! Street sculptures! We returned to the Anchor for a pint on our last evening having heard that it was a local CAMRA favourite and liked it. Like some of our favourite pubs it didn’t feel as if it was owned by any one particular group: there were a few students, a bloke with a beard updating Untappd on his phone, a middle-aged couple on a date and a bunch of lads of various ages with ripe local accents playing pool. When a brief snatch of the theme from Eastenders blared from the TV before the football match started we thought, oh yeah – it’s a bit like a Brum version of The Queen Vic. The range of beer on cask, keg and in bottles was huge and interesting with it, ranging from mild (Holden’s) to Altbier, via the mainstream usual suspects. Again, quality and variety without snobbery. It can be done.
The nearby Spotted Dog we’d noticed during our earlier wandering, up a tatty-looking side street. Presenting as an Irish pub (but not An Irish Pub Concept) and with a slightly forbidding, gloomy look to it, we couldn’t tell if it was still trading and assumed that, even if it was, it might not be all the welcoming. Which goes to show that you can’t judge a pub by its cover (or that pubs aren’t always as good at signalling their intent as they might be) because The Birmingham Mail told us it was one of the city’s best real ale pubs, and so it was. We found it warm and convivial, with corners and cubbies, scotch eggs to snack on, more Holden’s mild, and a few other interesting beers too. The crowd skewed middle-aged but they were all a damn-sight hipper than us – artists and former punk musicians, we rudely generalised as we squinted at the football on a telly in the snug.
The main event in Birmingham, which gets its own page in the excellent Pevsner city architectural guide by Andy Foster, is the suburban improved public house. Birmingham was arguably the epicentre of the public house improvement in the early part of the 20th Century and not only has more survivors than other parts of the country but also some absolute beauties. We made a pilgrimage to The Black Horse in Northfield, built by Davenport’s in 1929–30, which is not only an astonishingly lovely and well preserved building (Grade II* listed) but also a bloody good branch of Wetherspoons. On a Monday afternoon it had a positive buzz about it despite its vastness. And we all but fell in love with The British Oak at Stirchley – that social mix again, and a play of evening light through stained glass across polished tabletops… Sigh. There were lots of others, too.
We had fun in Birmingham, and you probably will too if you go with a thirst and change for the bus, but it’s not quite a beer drinker’s paradise just yet, because the action is so dispersed, and because it’s a tough place to be a pedestrian. Having said that, it does also give easy access to the Black Country, of which more later…
Apologies if we’ve made any geographical or cultural faux pas here – we don’t know Birmingham well and this is pointedly not a ‘guide to’. For that, see The Midlands Beer Blog Collective and the local CAMRA magazine.