Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The twenty-year itch - Part 1

The Lancashire city of Preston is well-known for celebrating its Guild Festival every twenty years, and it occurred to me that the last time I had been drinking there was in fact nearly twenty-four years ago. Back then, it still had numerous Thwaites pubs, and it wasn’t that long since the other major local independent brewer Matthew Brown had been taken over, but a great deal has changed on the pub scene in the intervening years, although one or two things refreshingly hadn’t. It therefore made a good venue for our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out. It was a poignant thought that my last interaction on social media with the late Richard Coldwell had been discussing arrangements for this trip, which he hadn’t been able to fit in anyway.

We met up just after 11 am on the morning of Friday 23 August in the Old Vic, a large four-square pub conveniently situated right opposite the railway station. While the interior has been much opened out over the years, it retains a number of areas of comfortable seating ranged around the central bar counter, with plenty of dark wood in the decor. I’d actually say it’s a better pub than you might normally expect in such a location. There were seven of us, including a number of the usual suspects plus local boy Matthew Lawrenson of “Seeing the Lizards” fame in his trademark Paisley shirt.

For such an early hour, the pub was ticking over nicely, with a variety of customers. The Test Match was showing on various TV screens, fortunately with the sound down, and Jason Roy’s dismissal at 11.16 am proved to be the first of many throughout the day. Indeed, for the next three hours, England were averaging no less than three wickets per pub. There were four beers on the bar, including Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring, White Rat, Bombardier and Reedley Hallows Beer O’Clock. The Knowle Spring proved the most popular and was in pretty good nick. Martin Taylor’s liver was still suffering from his GBG-ticking exertions in Scotland over the previous couple of days, and he restricted himself to an alcohol-free Heineken, which was available here on draught, something I had not seen before.

On the map, the route to the next pub, the Continental down by the riverside, looked a straightforward one along the west side of the railway station, but in fact we ended up taking a wrong turn into a postal delivery depot, in contrast to some earlier trips where unpromising-looking cut-throughs turned up trumps. Don’t blame me, I wasn’t navigating. We had to retrace our steps a fair distance, and ended up about a quarter of an hour behind schedule. The pub is indeed situated right by the river in the shadow of the railway viaduct, although there is no view of the river from the extensive beer garden. By this time, after an overcast morning, the sun had come out, and it was starting to get pretty warm.

It’s a former Boddingtons pub, and still retains their characteristic external lettering. Internally it was been much modernised and extended, with a variety of seating areas, including a large conservatory. There were perhaps seven beers on the bar, including Pendle Witches’ Brew, the very hoppy Northern Monkey English Pale Ale, Ossett Treacle Stout and the hazy Pomona Island Pale, declared as such on the pumpclip. Although situated in something of a backwater, one would imagine the pub becomes pretty busy on sunny summer weekends. Here we picked up some copies of the newly-produced Preston Real Ale Trail leaflet.

Compared with many other towns and cities, Preston perhaps doesn’t make much of its river, and you could easily visit the centre without realising it had one at all. However, our walk to the next pub took us along an attractive promenade on the northern bank of the Ribble through Miller and Avenham Parks. It no doubt looks better when the tide is in, as it was today. A steep and rather lung-bursting climb followed, taking us into a area of handsome late Georgian and Victoria housing in the Avenahm district of the city, much of which now appeared to have been converted into offices. We spotted the cat shown above sunning itself in a precarious position on a window ledge.

The Wellington was our scheduled lunch top, although as some members of the party were either not particularly hungry or fancying something a touch more crafty to drink, there was a split in the camp, and it was a depleted group that crossed the threshold. The Good Beer Guide says that it is popular at lunchtimes, but even on a Friday, and close to the city centre, it plainly wasn’t, with virtually no other customers. Significantly, it didn’t appear on the Preston real ale trail leaflet, and a little birdie told us that it had failed to make it to the 2020 edition.

There’s a central bar with three distinct areas opening off it, plus a small room at the front right with a door marked “Hotel”, where we chose to sit. Of four handpumps, the only one in use dispensed Marston’s EPA, a beer that seldom rises above lacklustre; on the reversed pumpclips were Cumberland Ale and two Rosie’s Pig fruit ciders. Peter Allen couldn’t really be blamed for choosing Carlsberg instead. There’s an extensive food menu at reasonable prices, plus a range of pensioners’ specials at £4.95. From these were chose cottage pie, lasagne and a ham salad, but unfortunately they took around thirty-five minutes to appear, putting us even further behind schedule. The food was actually decent enough, but the overall experience was distinctly disappointing.

We couldn’t help overhearing the Eastern European barmaid having something of an altercation with the manager. In retrospect, this pub probably wasn’t the best choice, but realistically the pub lunch options in this, or any other part of, the city looked rather limited unless you wanted to resort to Spoons.

Just to the north, we emerged on to Churchgate in the heart of the shopping centre, making the Wellington’s lack of customers even more surprising. Heading east past Preston Minster, the street turns into more of a “bar district” and develops a more down-market atmosphere, most noticeably with the distinctly seedy-looking Bear’s Paw pub. Just past here, but on the other side of the road, was Sam Smith’s Olde Blue Bell, with a lively group of drinkers sitting at the outside tables. I remember this pub as having been white-washed, but in more recent years this has been removed to reveal the original brickwork.

We encountered the other members of the party just as they were leaving. They were able to tell us that England were now all out for 67, although due to Sams’ mobile phone ban we were unable to confirm this for ourselves. Of course Ben Stokes was able to make amends a couple of days later. The interior has been remodelled at some time in the post-war era, with a central bar serving a long room on the left and two smaller snugs on the right, but it retains some original stained glass in the doors to the toilets. It’s all in Sams’ characteristic style, with plenty of dark wood and comfortable fixed seating. As always, there was only the one cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, which I found pretty good, but Paul Mudge felt wasn’t quite up to the standard you might find in the Boar’s Head in Stockport. Peter Allen once more went for the lager in the form of the premium Pure Brewed.

To be continued...

15 comments:

  1. Heroes. Glad to see another town with its pubs saved.

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    1. I know how much you always enjoy the "Pubmen assemble" posts ;-)

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    2. Still waiting for the TAND to join the Pubmen Codger Universe.

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  2. Wish I'd known about this - sounds more than agreeable (apart from the lunch).

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  3. Bit off topic, but next month you will be able to see the Salmon (and Sea Trout) migration along the Ribble through Preston on their route up to the spawning grounds in the Yorkshire Dales. Should make the river area a bit more memorable.

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie28 August 2019 at 16:07

    I did ten Preston pubs on 22nd June 1973 and eleven last Friday so it's once every other Preston Guild for me.
    We weren't to know that t'Wellington wouldn't be the best choice for a lunch break.
    Staying two nights in Thwaites's Sun Hotel this time meant I could return to the Old Blue Bell and the Black Horse the next evening. The OBB in the Old Blue Bell was so much better that I concluded a fresh cask had been put on.

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  5. The Ribble is a beautiful river for most of its course...particularly through Gisburn and Sawley, which are very sparsely populated areas in the middle of Lancashire. Follow up into the Dales and get away from it all.

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  6. I always thought the Ribble made Preston, by making great use of those slopes down from the centre as unspoilt parks and gardens, rather than by overdevelopment.

    I'd given negative feedback on the Wellington but as a Marston pub in the Beer Guide you had to try it. You're right, lunch options in Preston are limited given the way opening time drove the schedule, though the food in the Vic looked good value.

    I thought the Old Blue Bell was wonderful, reminiscent of the Brown Bear in Sheffield. Shame about the phone ban as I won't be able to report on it.

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    1. Remember - local knowledge means you can buy your round in the town's cheapest pub.

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    2. The parks are very attractive, but the river is not integrated with the city centre as it is in places like York and Chester.

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    3. Less chance of getting flooded in Preston 😉

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    4. Yes, it did occur to me that the reason Preston city centre keeps away from (and above) the Ribble is due to the risk of flooding. Carlisle is similar. Lancaster is also mostly well above the Lune, but has a historic quayside that is part of the centre.

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  7. Hope you pay a visit to the Old Black Bull in the second installment. Back in my youth it was famous for its juke box - White Rabbit, for example. Just looked it up. Now modernised, owned by Funky Owl Pubs.

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    1. Afraid not - reports were that it was a shadow of its former self.

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  8. Great stuff! Love a pub crawl and some nefarious characters on board!! Looking forward to part 2...

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