J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.

We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:

Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.

Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.

At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force  if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.

The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.

For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.

These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

Continue reading “These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs”

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 July 2016: Coventry, Drinking Games, Home Brew

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs from the last week that’s made us laugh, think or take note, from drunken archery to home brewing competitions.

For the Midlands Beer Blog Collective Bob Maxfield profiles Coventry brewery Twisted Barrel whose motto is ‘More Folk than Punk’:

One of the directors came up with that – we both looked at each other and said yeah that explains it and encapsulates us. A little left leaning, like to work collaboratively, and work face-to-face with people… Punk has become more corporate nowadays and we’re not the kind of people that stand on a rooftop and shout about ourselves.

(The lingering influence of BrewDog, even if only as something to react against, is fascinating.)


From the Economist an interesting nugget: there is a growing craft beer scene in the Middle East held back less by religion, as might be assumed, than by bureaucracy, infrastructure and economics.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 July 2016: Coventry, Drinking Games, Home Brew”

Swans and Bulls: Dipping Into The Black Country

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.

Continue reading “Swans and Bulls: Dipping Into The Black Country”

Impressions of Birmingham Pubs

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.

Tower blocks, Birmingham.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 exterior of the Craven Arms.

Continue reading “Impressions of Birmingham Pubs”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14/11/2015

Here’s the beer news and commentary that most interested or amused us in the last seven days.

→ For Belgian Smaak, Breandán Kearney writes at length about a collaboration between Irish and Belgian brewers:

A hard-nosed Belgian farmer arrives at the historical brew house in the Flemish village of Bokrijk on an old Dexta tractor to pick up the spent grain… Rob Hynes makes a bee line for the tractor. “That’s a thing of beauty,” he says. “I used to own one years ago but I sold it. I regret that.”

→ Des de Moor has been exploring the Midlands and wrote a long piece about Black Country breweries for his website, Beer Culture:

The name dates from this period: contemporary accounts talk of a blasted land of spoil heaps and perpetual twilight, overcast by factory smoke in the daytime and lit by furnaces at night. J R R Tolkein, who grew up in south Birmingham, based his chief villain Sauron’s desolate domain in The Lord of the Rings on this landscape. Its name, Mordor, even translates as ‘black country’ in the author’s invented languages.

→ In the age of ‘crowd-funding fatigue’ Seth Fiegerman’s take for Mashable, under the headline ‘Crowdfunding may not create the ‘next Facebook,’ but it’s great for craft breweries‘, is an interesting one. (Via @BeerAttorney.)

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 14/11/2015”

Bottled Milds 2: The Midlands

This time, we tasted three bottled milds from Dudley, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, the latter from both can and bottle.

The Midlands is a part of the UK where (in our admittedly limited experience) mild still feels alive — where ‘pubby’ pubs seem to have one on draught and might even offer a choice of different brands, or different types of mild. (See Barm’s 2014 account of exploring ‘England’s Franconia‘ for more on this.)

Unfortunately — or, actually, maybe we mean fortunately? — lots of Midlands milds are cask beers by definition and either don’t seem to make it into bottles, or the bottles are hard to come by. The selection we managed to scrape together includes something from the supermarket mainstream, a mild with something of a cult reputation, and an outlying ‘crafty’-looking beer that isn’t sure exactly what it is.

We purchased all of these from Beers of Europe online:

  • Banks’s Mild (can, 3.5%, £1.49, 500ml)
  • Bank’s Mild (bottle, 3.5%, £1.69, 500ml)
  • Holden’s Black Country Mild (£2.09, 3.7%, £2.09, 500ml)
  • Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (£2.99, 4.2%, 500ml)

Taking them in order of ABV, we started with Banks’s (part of the Marston’s empire but still brewed in Wolverhampton, as far as we can tell) and decided to drink the can and bottle side by side in pint glasses.

Continue reading “Bottled Milds 2: The Midlands”

Live in the Midlands and Want to Blog?

If you’re a Midlands-based beer enthusiast who wants to write, the Midlands Beer Blog Collective might be the opportunity you’ve been looking for.

A while ago, pondering Londoncentricity in beer blogging and writing, we mentioned that Birmingham was under-served by beer bloggers with several veterans having given up, moved on to other roles in the beer industry, or just slowed their production of content to a trickle.

Now, Bob Maxfield and his colleagues have launched a multi-author blog dedicated to ‘the love of beer across the Midlands and beyond’.

He’s looking for people to write on the blog and says:

We are keen to have different backgrounds and points of view on the site to discuss and promote all that is happening in the beer world in the Midlands. I’m happy for people to blog directly on the site or reblog from their own sites.

In other words, you can host a post on your own blog but also share it via the MBBC or, if you can’t be bothered to set up and host your own blog but have something to get off your chest, or only want to blog once in a while, MBBC will host the content for you.

We don’t imagine you have to actually live in the Midlands, either — it might just be that you’ve got something to say about the region’s beer and pub scene based on a visit or previous experience.

Selfishly, we’re delighted because this means there might be a more steady flow of intelligence on what’s going on in the region, and because we think multi-author sites might well be the saviour of beer blogging, taking the pressure off any one individual to keep coming up with material.

If you want to get involved, drop Bob a line via Twitter or by leaving a comment on the ‘About’ page of the blog.

GALLERY: Modern Watney’s Pubs from Matchboxes

These were carefully removed from matchboxes produced, we would guess, in about 1968, probably for sale in Watney’s pubs. (Any matchbox collectors who want to correct us, go for it.)

The Silver Sword, Coventry, which now looks like this.
The Silver Sword, Coventry, which now looks like this (Google Street View).
The Roebuck, Erdington, Birmingham, described in 2010 as 'like a wild west saloon'.
The Roebuck, Erdington, Birmingham, described in 2010 as ‘like a wild west saloon‘.

Continue reading “GALLERY: Modern Watney’s Pubs from Matchboxes”