Swans and Bulls: Dipping Into The Black Country

SIGN: "Coaches by Appointment Only".

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.

Interior of the Old Swan.We would­n’t say we got a warm wel­come but it did­n’t mat­ter – there was an imme­di­ate sense that we had just entered a some­thing like a nation­al mon­u­ment. And it is, real­ly: back in the 1970s, Ma Par­doe’s was famous, along with Corn­wal­l’s Blue Anchor, as one of the hand­ful of ‘home brew hous­es’ still trad­ing. There were nods to the 21st Cen­tu­ry in the pres­ence of a flat-screen TV and what looked like some new-ish wall­pa­per but that was bal­anced out by the bewhiskered land­lord dressed in high col­lar and waist­coat, a watch chain across its front. Affect­ed, per­haps, but not iron­ic.

An interior window at the Old Swan.

We’ve still not drunk enough to quite zero in on what makes Black Coun­try beer spe­cial and dif­fer­ent but the stuff at the Swan (still brewed out back) was low on hops, malty, a touch but­tery, a touch sweet, and slight­ly funky, across the board. Dark is a kind of mild, although they don’t call it that, and the bloke sit­ting next to us was adamant that it’s actu­al­ly dark bit­ter. The bit­ter, like Batham’s, is gold­en and hon­ey-like, with some resem­blance to Tim­o­thy Tay­lor’s Gold­en Best (a light mild). If we’d drunk it in a pub any­where else we might not have been ter­ri­bly impressed but here, sur­round­ed by relics, with a hot pork sand­wich that cost £2.50 and came with a curl of per­fect crack­ling on top, at £2.60 a pint… By the heav­ens, it was per­fect.

We drank a bit more than planned, watched the match, had a good chat to our neigh­bours and ear­wigged on the King of the Bar dish­ing out appar­ent­ly well-received com­ic put-downs from his high stool: ‘Yow haven’t got any mates. I’m your best mate and even I down’t like you.’ Warm and womb-like, the light low and doze-induc­ing, we strug­gled to pull our­selves away, but made it even­tu­al­ly, just as the evening crowd began to drift in.

Swans on the canal: one big, several little.

We walked from there to The Vine hop­ing to sober up a bit on the way. The sun came out on the canal side and we joined a group of retirees in watch­ing some the­mat­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate New Swans. Stum­bling up on an improved inter-war pub, The Wood­man, we stopped for a round of tea and admired its still-intact bowl­ing green. Inter­est­ing, but frankly charm­less.

The Woodman, Brierley Hill.

We hit the Vine at tea-time. We’ve seen it so often in books, mag­a­zines and blog posts that stand­ing out­side admir­ing its exte­ri­or trig­gered deja vu. It’s not quite a home-brew house but it is the Batham’s brew­ery tap.

Exterior of the Vine Inn.

We slipped into the pub­lic and tried not to make nui­sances of our­selves. What more can we say that has­n’t already been said? It’s not a posh pub or dom­i­nat­ed by tourists. There was a young build­ing con­trac­tor, just knocked off, cov­ered in plas­ter, wolf­ing down rolls and arrang­ing his night out by text mes­sage. A few old folks were rem­i­nisc­ing about… some­thing. The accents defeat­ed us.

Every now and then some­one would appear at the side of the bar and say some­thing like, ‘Two, please,’ which would prompt the apron-wear­ing women behind the bar to pull two pints of bit­ter. (Bai­ley was the only per­son drink­ing mild as far as we could see.)

There were mul­ti­ple brands of pork scratch­ings on sale, pork pies, pick­led eggs, and colos­sal cling­filmed sand­wich­es – a draw in their own right, appar­ent­ly, as lots of peo­ple came into get take­away.

A pint of Batham's mild.

Our impres­sion of the beer was much as in Wolver­hamp­ton: it verges on bland but maybe in the old sense of smooth and digestible. It prob­a­bly would­n’t turn heads served blind but is impos­si­ble not to love in these sur­round­ings, in this con­text, when every­one around you is suck­ing it down with such evi­dent plea­sure. One pint calls for anoth­er which calls for anoth­er and before long the pil­lowy soft­ness of the beer seeps out into the real world so that even a bumpy bus ride in the rain feels like drift­ing on a cloud.

Apolo­gies for any geo­graph­i­cal or cul­tur­al faux pas – cor­rec­tions from locals and/or region­al experts more than wel­come!

6 thoughts on “Swans and Bulls: Dipping Into The Black Country”

    1. Yeah, beers you like are sub­tle, ones you don’t are bland. (But do fol­low the link.…)

  1. When I moved to the Black Coun­try thir­ty years ago Bathams bit­ter was more hop­py I think they lost the flavour wheel about ten years ago now my friends and I tend to find it in our words “soapy”

  2. Ma Par­does is round the cor­ner from me (I’ve just moved to Nether­ton from south­west Birm­ing­ham), and a friend and for­mer coun­cil­lor raves about the place, glad you enjoyed it.

    Just up the road from my flat there appar­ent­ly used to be a real­ly nice booz­er called the Dry Dock, but sad­ly flats now.

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