Friday, 10 November 2017

Choice crawls

In my recent review of our trip to Leicester, I mentioned that, from my experience, I didn’t think that the city offered as a good a pub-crawling opportunity as nearby Derby and Nottingham. Where I live in Stockport is ideally placed for day trips by train to a wide variety of destinations across the North and Midlands and, over the years, I have often enjoyed journeys of pub exploration.

What I’m looking for is a combination of something distinctive on the beer front, characterful pubs, especially those with unspoilt interiors and, as someone with an interest in architecture and townscapes, somewhere with historical and tourist appeal too. I’m not averse to going in the occasional modern beer-focused pub, but very often they seem to be places that can be transplanted from one town to another and have little feel of the locality. Nor do I really want to travel sixty miles just to go in another Wetherspoon’s. I have to say, though, that I don’t care for very big cities, which I find impersonal and alienating. Yes, last year I did a pub crawl of some of the more traditional pubs in central Manchester, but in general it’s a place I do my best to avoid.

Probably the place that best ticks all these boxes is York, which has an unparalleled combination of historic cityscapes, unspoilt pubs and beer interest. It’s also one of the few places that, in the centre, has seen a net gain of new “normal” pubs in recent years. Not far behind is Shrewsbury which, while not on the same scale, is a wonderfully atmospheric place and not so overwhelmed by tourists. It doesn’t have the same weight of numbers of excellent pubs, but there is a core of half-a-dozen very good ones.

Chester has a wealth of historic interest, but in the past, with its pubs dominated by Greenall’s, wasn’t such a must-visit pub destination, although things have improved in recent years. It’s also, despite being in the same county, oddly inconvenient to reach by train from Stockport. Both Derby and Nottingham have proved rewarding over the years and Stafford, while probably not in the first rank, is very easy to get to, and has seen a great improvement in its pub scene. While I don’t propose to provide a comprehensive gazetteer, there are plenty more too numerous to mention.

One thing that has detracted from the experience, though, is the erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer, which I wrote about as far back as 1997. There was a time when there was a particular appeal of travelling to Lancaster to drink Mitchells and Yates & Jackson, to Nottingham for Home and Shipstone, and to Shrewsbury for beers from Greenall’s Wem brewery, none of which were ever seen locally. York had plenty of Cameron’s pubs, a beer never seen on this side of the Pennines.

Now, while undoubtedly the overall choice of beer has increased, in mainstream pubs you are often presented with just the same nationally-distributed brands, while in beer-focused free houses you will get a random selection drawn from across the country. Yes, there is often more of a local focus, such as finding Salopian and Three Tuns beers in Shrewsbury, but it’s not the same as knowing that you will find particular beers in brewery tied houses.

That isn’t a problem in Stockport where, despite a number of closures , there’s a still a concentration of very good Robinson’s pubs, plus the Brewery Visitor Centre where the bar is open to the public. Combine that with a wealth of unspoilt pub interiors, a cluster of beer-focused pubs, some characterful, bustling urban boozers, and attractive and underappreciated historic townscape around the Market Place and the Underbanks, and it’s hard to imagine a better destination for the pub-crawling traveller.

20 comments:

  1. Another place well worth a visit for its pubs is Chesterfield.

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  2. Lots of interesting points. On our last trip to Stockport I commented to my brother that I had difficulty coming up with places where you could visit five pubs on the same day that equal the Boars Head, Swan, Crown, Armoury and Olde Vic. York was the obvious contender which I found interesting since it is a tourist town. You also make a good point on the modern beer pubs. I like them, but I can also imagine myself either in the US or UK when I am in them. Perhaps both the beer and pubs will lose their geographical distinctiveness a bit over time. I can understand the draw of the modern pubs and micros, but I am not sure I would fly 4000 miles to visit them. I definitely would fly that far to visit the pubs of York, Shrewsbury and Stockport.

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  3. Macclesfield worth a visit. Good rail connection and many good pubs.

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    1. Agreed - did an excellent crawl there with members of the Beer and Pubs Forum earlier this year. A good clutch of varied pubs within a very short walk from the station.

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  4. Interesting point re: geographical distinctiveness.
    I'd like to see more Leicestershire and Rutland breweries open pubs in Leicester city centre. Some have very good tap houses - Leatherbritches and Belvoir and Grainstore are excellent. I'd love to see them open more pubs. We don't have the equivalent of Blue Monkey or Castle Rock, just Everards, who don't brew any more.

    Having said that, the demand now from local beer enthusiasts is for beers from all over the place. Only beer tousists (often the same people) seem to seek out local beers (of course plenty of locals just consume them passively) I'd say the UK as a whole could be classed geographically as a 'beer region' especially when set against the vastness of the US. It's all Locale compared to that.

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    1. The thing is that "beer enthusiasts" demand the same thing wherever they are. The Magnet in Stockport is a very good pub which serves its local market well, but I don't want to travel sixty miles to go in somewhere that is much the same, even down to the clientele.

      A plus point for Stafford is that Titanic, Joules and Black Country Ales have all opened pubs in the town.

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    2. Not sure where your city size cut off point would be, but have a fondness for Norwich pub scene: lot of characterful pubs relatively close together in city centre still remain. York, obviously, is superb, Nottingham excellent. Some not mentioned so far: Peterborough, Huddersfield, Cheltenham, Exeter, St Albans.

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    3. Yes, I've been to Norwich, many years ago, and agree it's well worth exploring from both a pub and historical point of view, although obviously beyond the scope of a day trip from Stockport. The city centre is of similar extent to York, although it has suffered rather more from modern redevelopment. Also more hilly than you might think.

      It was the first time I had ever been in a Wetherspoon's (the Bell) and ended up having rather too much Exmoor Beast :-(

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    4. Beast still turning up occasionally in Spoons pubs in the winter months, thankfully. In fact, don't think I've ever come across it outside a Wetherspoon or beer festivals. Clearly not visiting Exmoor enough. One mean beer :-).

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  5. We all want different things from towns and cities; I've found Glossop and Preston my favoured places within an hour on the train from Stockport. Glossop is more about natural beauty, but the Old Town is special and there's Robbies, Sam Smiths and Holts to be had, as well as the Crown, the marmite of pubs. Preston needs no explanation, and the pubs round the Black Horse contain some real locals. The Harris is a superb museum.

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  6. In addition to places already mentioned, I have had excellent days out in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford and Hull over the last couple of years

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    1. Bath is another good one, although again well beyond the reach of a day trip.

      One of the most disappointing pub towns I've ever been to is Northampton.

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    2. Northampton has improved a bit in last few years, with addition of couple of good beer outlets such as Olde England, and the Albion Brewery Bar, which is basically a Phipps Tap, to add to Malt Shovel Tavern. But yes, if pubs for their own sake is the draw, it's something of a desert, with little of character - which rather matches the town.

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  7. If I could only choose one city to drink in it would be York. Perfect in almost every way (the exception being its politics, obviously)

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    1. Plenty of Pedigree in Derby and Burton and also Dancing Duck & Falstaff available in certain boozers which IMHO are best two Derby breweries....agree that Leicester is a distant third to Derby and Nottingham

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    2. Are you suggesting that globalisation means everything is becoming more bland and sanitised πŸ˜΅πŸ˜΅πŸ˜‰

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  9. My preference is to combine my love of railway travel with drinking beer. There are some quite cheap day rover tickets for the over sixties.
    Last Friday, for example, I bought a South Pennine Day Ranger and visited the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms in Sowerby Bridge, the Ring--Blls in Halifax, the Inns of Court in Wakefield and the Sheffield Tap.

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  10. Newcastle used to be an excellent crawl - loads of pubs with character, most of which have been 'modernised' or completely rebuilt. Gems like the Crown Posada an Old George remain though. Out of the 14 2017 GBG entries in the city centre, just three haven't had a major rebuild in the last twenty years, and several didn't exist until a few years ago. You can still have a decent wander, but it ain't what it used to be.

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  11. I'm off to Lewes for a pub crawl with a group of local CAMRA members, in 12 days time. One of my favourite towns, and some excellent pubs. Not as many belonging to Harvey's as you might think, but still plenty to suit all tastes and interests.

    A full report will follow on the blog, after the event.

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