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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!