Two decades of overlooking the obvious in central Manchester

Manchester has many wonderful old-fashioned pubs that, for some reason, we’d overlooked until last weekend.

Why haven’t we spent more time in The Peveril of the Peak, The Britons Protection, The City Arms, The Circus or The Grey Horse?

First, there’s our obsession with The Marble Arch. When we’re passing through Manchester with only a few hours to spare, our instinct is to head somewhere we know we like, with reliably enjoyable beer.

It was difficult to resist on our most recent trip, but resist we did.

Then there’s the fact that, on previous trips to the city, we’ve had missions to complete.

In 2016, researching 20th Century Pub, we needed to visit and photograph a Wetherspoon pub in East Didsbury, another Wetherspoon on Deansgate, a post-war Sam Smith’s pub in Withington, various estate pubs… Classic Victorian pubs weren’t on the agenda.

Another trip took us to a range of pubs, some of them very decent, in pursuit of Boddington’s and beers brewed in homage to it. That meant spending time in J.W. Lees fairly bland Rain Bar, while ignoring The Peveril of the Peak across the road.

It’s also fair to say that on our very earliest visits, when we were just out of our twenties, we were more excited about craft beer and bars than cask ale and pubs. Our tastes have changed as we’ve got older.

And, finally, it’s not quite true to say we’ve never been to these pubs: Ray’s drunk in some of them on his own while researching things like this piece about mild, or while visiting friends and relatives.

But it doesn’t really count unless we go together, each of us being the person most obsessed with thinking and talking about pubs the other knows.

Two pubs side by side, The City Arms in black and the Vine Inn with green tiling.

This time, with no books or articles to write, we chose our own mission, and started with a trip to The City Arms, hidden on a side street opposite the Romanian Consulate, of course.

What is that quality of light the best pubs have? Multiple sources of light, diffused through stained or frosted glass, is part of it. Warm yellow light bulbs, cool grey daylight, tinted lampshades…

Multiple spaces are another important component of the feeling – room for standing, sitting and settling, with intimacy built into the very structure of the place.

Does the beer matter? Of course it does. There has to be something you can enjoy drinking, and if there are several, that only adds to the warm glow. Titanic Plum Porter did the job here (do we need to give tasting notes for this?) alongside Foss by Cumbria’s Fell Brewing, a delicate, dry 3.4% pale and hoppy.

We sat in the back room drinking with friends for several hours. We watched entire parties come and go, from groups of excited lads to parties of middle-aged people in shiny going-out shoes and their best frocks. Staying put, as we were, began to feel like odd behaviour. You don’t go to the pub, apparently, but to some pubs.

The Britons Protection didn’t impress Ray particularly when he visited with friends a few years ago. Then, it seemed gloomy, and the beer was warm and rough. This time, though, it charmed us completely.

The public bar at the front is narrow, looking out onto a busy main road. Through the bar we could see the lounge (with defunct bellpushes) and another secluded seating area, with a serving hatch opening onto a tiled corridor.

“These are all pale ales,” a man complained. “What’s the nearest you’ve got to a bitter?”

“I’ve just put another pale on,” said the barman. “I don’t know why.”

“I don’t like pale ales. I don’t like all them hops.”

The barman shrugged and a compromise was reached.

It would have been easy to get stuck here, with seats in the very darkest corner of the pub, listening to the music of twenty conversations at once.

The tiled exterior of The Peveril, mustard yellow below, light green up top.

The Peveril of the Peak feels as if it could be in Sheffield. Is that terribly insulting?

The exterior is astonishing, of course, and the subject of a million photographs, and even some paintings.

Inside is plainer and more functional. Not quite Early Doors territory but certainly on the plain side. There’s enough wood, stained glass and carpet to add warmth and dampen any clamour.

From the back room you can see right through, watching people perched on stools in the public bar. One man drank alone, head in hands, glancing around with distant eyes as if puzzling out a problem. He didn’t look happy but at least he was in the pub.

The Timothy Taylor Landlord was good and felt like the right beer to be drinking.

The Circus Tavern claims to be the smallest pub in the city. It is definitely small, with two tiny seating areas and a bar crammed into a corner of the entranceway.

The woman behind the bar was dressed in a huge winter coat and in the space of a single transaction called us love, sweetie, darling, angel and a few others we’ve forgotten.

It’s the kind of pub that only works if people talk to each other and collaborate to make space. When we entered one of the two rooms, everyone said hello, and then, as Ray’s Lancastrian mum would put it, “buddlied about” until there was space for us to sit.

You also need to keep a pub this small clean and tidy, so empty glasses were taken away within seconds. Some Germans arrived, muttering the quite accurate phrase “kleine Kneipe”. They were football fans from Berlin there to meet a Mancunian friend.

Another party was a group of older men in high visibility workwear and dusty boots discussing a trip to the West Country: “And there was a sort of bowling alley in the pub, so of course we got a team together…”

A few doors along, at The Grey Horse, we found a fairly similar environment – and our first pint of mild. Not that it was badged as such, of course, but what else could a 3.5% “malty red ale” ale called Dark Ruby be?

It’s not as charming, The Grey Horse. It’s been painted grey, for one thing, in a stroke of frustrating literalness. And there were piles of shopping bags and coats taking up valuable seating space.

Still, if this was the only pub in town, you’d think it a bloody good one. We enjoyed sitting at the bar, in a corner, feeling sheltered and warm.

We know what you’re thinking: what about The Crown & Kettle? Ray’s been, but Jess never has, and we’ll definitely start there on our next visit. And we know The Castle Hotel quite well, too.

But if there are others that fit the bill, do let us know, so we can start daydreaming.

14 replies on “Two decades of overlooking the obvious in central Manchester”

I’ve been in them all, my favourite being the Grey Horse, but they’re all cracking pubs. Can’t wait for our next trip over from Liverpool.

As beer commentators your headline admitting 20 years of neglect does you no favours; neither does your apologist intro. Yes your suggestion that the Peveril should be in Sheffield also displays a breathtaking lack of knowledge of the Manchester beer scene. I would agree that some of the pubs listed are fabulous pubs but are trading on their reputation; several of them I’ve stopped drinking as the beer is cr*p. So yes, way to go. If you’re going to do the north, do it properly or don’t do it at all. And yes Natalie is gorgeous.

Glad you finally got there! Regarding “Is that terribly insulting?” Its the sort of thing a Yorky might say. Does that answer your question?

These days if I’m drinking in town I tend to alternate between the Crown & Kettle and the Smithfield. The Briton’s and the City are very fine pubs, though – in all four cases the atmosphere’s good (i.e. not dead but not too lively) and there’s always something interesting on (on cask, although the first two have good keg ranges too). I’d file the Grey Horse under small and welcoming (and Hyde’s, which isn’t a bad thing). Never been in the Circus, or not since it served Tetley’s bitter. The Pev’s a beautiful pub and has history by the yard, but I very rarely go there – the last time I was in, there was nothing more interesting than Jennings’ Cumberland on and they called time at 10.00. The only other unmissable pubs in the centre (IMO) are the Angel and Cask – both of which have that same killer combination of a chilled atmosphere and a range of beers that makes you want to go back (although if you’re after pub pubs you may want to exclude Cask – as its name implies it’s straddling the pub/bar borderline, like the Smithfield). Otherwise it’s worth at least poking your nose in the Vine (next-door to the City), the Rising Sun, the Nag’s Head and Sinclair’s. The Lower Turk’s Head, the Millstone and the Black Bull are more interesting for their history than in the present – and Sadler’s Cat is, sad to say, a craft beer bar (although a really nice one).

Or you could go to Chorlton…

You’ve got most of the older, historic ‘locals’ in the City Centre on your list already. I’m particularly fond of the Briton’s Protection, the Peveril and the Grey Horse (very much a regulars’ pub) even though it lacks the unspoilt period interior of the Circus Tavern. The Castle is still well worth a visit, though the range of beers has declined since the pandemic. The Crown & Kettle remains one of the places to drink, with an excellent range of beers, and that amazing ceiling to marvel at.

A couple of others to try are the Hare & Hounds, Shudehill (with a 1920s interior by the same architects as the Briton’s Protection) and the Unicorn, Church Street. Both are very much locals’ pubs, with fine period interiors, selling fairly mainstream beers in reasonable nick. For something a bit different you could try Mr Thomas’s Chop House on Cross Street, a purpose-built pub restaurant of 1901, another one with an unspoilt interior, though less ‘pubby’ than the other two. It has recently spent time as ‘Mrs Sarah’s Chop House’ – I don’t know if that’s intended to be a permanent change.

Seconded for the Hare & Hounds – very much a locals’ pub in the city centre, and Holts Bitter a pound a pint cheaper than Holts’ own Lower Turk’s Head a few doors down.

The Unicorn has an impressive interior but on my recent visits it has felt rather edgy and seedy.

You could do worse than walking down Oxford Road for a few, taking in The Sailsbury, Lass O’Gowrie, The Saluatation and Sandbar.

Another recommendation for the Lass O’ Gowrie and Salisbury here, the latter having an amazing juke box and a permanent Theakstone’s Old Peculier line that is always amazing. Also another recommendation for The Smithfield, a proper pubby pub run by Blackjack Brewery, they’ve even got darts and bar billiards.
The Crown and Kettle seems to have taken a turn for the worse post-lockdown after Nicky Kong (bar manager) left.

Agree with a lot of the comments here – both the article and replies. Great pubs, one and all.

For reliable local beer, Gullivers is a consistently good bet for Lee’s assorted beer, and it has a good ‘city pub’ vibe, imo, if not quite as iconic as some mentioned.

Would add a couple of outliers – Bar Fringe for some unusual decor & continental offerings, and the revamped (again) Band on the Wall bar.

Had an excellent pint of a Vocation ale (didn’t note the name but it was almost a bitter, not too golden) at BOTW last week, and just over £3.

Maybe a bit crafty and perhaps not enough of an old-fashioned boozer but for my money the Port Street Beer House is a fantastic place.

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