Readers of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing will be familiar with the name of Paul Mudge from Stafford, who is a frequent and outspoken contributor to the letters page. He’s a long-standing CAMRA activist and served for many years on the What’s Brewing editorial board. Because of his surname, he’s sometimes confused with me, especially because he posts on the soon-to-be-closed CAMRA forum under the name of “curMUDGEon”, and in the past I have myself used the name of “Mudge” as a handle on Usenet and web forums.
Although we’d often engaged in discussions over the Internet, we’d never actually met, but last week we remedied this by meeting up for a crawl of some of the “proper pubs” of central Stockport, which is easily reached by train from Stafford in less than an hour. The term “proper pub” has been a bone of contention on the forum, as Paul and I tend to take the view that it’s a common figure of speech that is self-explanatory, whereas Sussex-based contributor Richard English is continually aggrieved that we don’t consider that it encompasses Wetherspoon’s, and demands a precise definition.
Sometimes meeting people in the flesh with whom you’ve only previously engaged in discussions over the Internet can be something of a surprise, but I can’t say Paul varied much from my expectations, although, as with most of us, in person he’s much more affable and softly-spoken than his Internet persona might suggest. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that we agree, pub-wise, on the vast majority of things.
It was a fine, sunny Autumn day which showed off Stockport’s historic town centre at its best. We kicked off at the Calvert’s Court just after 11 am, where Paul had already enjoyed a Wetherspoon breakfast. Wetherspoon’s is a frequent bone of contention on the forum, as both Paul and I recognise their merits as a good-value, predictable pub chain that can often be the best bet for decent beer and food in a strange time, but never scales the heights of pub character, whereas Richard English tends to believe the sun shines out of their backside and bristles at any hint of criticism. I had a pretty decent drop of Howard Town Wren’s Nest, but then we moved on to the first of the town’s unquestionably Proper Pubs.
The steep flight of steps down to Little Underbank brought us to Samuel Smith’s Queens’s Head (also known as Turner’s Vaults), in the shadow of the bridge carrying St Petersgate over that street. This National Inventory listed pub has a long, narrow interior including front bar area, central “horsebox” snug and cosy rear lounge. It also features the “Compacto”, billed as “the world’s smallest gents’”, which unfortunately is far too narrow for tubby modern blokes and so is permanently locked shut. We managed to find a berth on the benches in the window in front of the bar to enjoy some very good Old Brewery Bitter.
We then went back up the steps on the other side of the road to the Boar’s Head, Samual Smith’s other pub in Stockport. It’s a handsome brick-and-stone building dominating its corner of the Market Place, and earlier this year was somewhat surprisingly, but entirely deservedly, voted Pub of the Year by Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA. In a refurbishment a few years ago the brewery took the very unusual step of actually reinstating some internal walls, giving it a cosy, multi-roomed feel. The Old Brewery Bitter was on particularly fine form here. We were joined for a fleeting visit by Rob Nicholson (aka “munrobasher”) from Macclesfield Branch. The pub was already pretty busy when we arrived, and by the time we left just after one o’clock it was virtually standing room only, despite not serving any food, and it not being market day, which underlines how good beer, good atmosphere and good value create their own success.
Just across the way is the Baker’s Vaults, which couldn’t offer more of a contrast with the Boar’s Head. Now, I’ve been critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of this pub, but basically on the grounds of the quite remarkable dearth of any seating at all, let alone comfortable seating, which still holds true. But, at a quiet time when you can get a seat, it does offer a striking, high-ceilinged drinking space, and the beer and food offer both have much to be said for them.
I started off with a Titanic Plum Porter, which was in good condition but a little too sweet and cloying for my taste, but Paul was disappointed to be refused a pint of Old Tom, and had to settle for a half. I’m sure mayhem in the Market Place was prevented by this move. The three dark beers in the picture are, from left, Old Tom, Trooper Red and Black and Plum Porter.
The menu centres on hot dogs and burgers – I had the standard hot dog, which was excellent and very filling, but Paul, who doesn’t eat dairy produce, was disappointed to find his burger served with a cheesy sauce, despite asking for it without any butter or cheese. It was duly removed, but I suspect it wouldn’t go down as his favourite pub of the crawl. We then washed our food down with a couple of halves of Robinson’s Trooper Red and Black Porter, which was very drinkable and belied its 5.8% strength.
Having sorted out all the problems of the beer world, we parted company with Rob and headed up the Market Place to the Cocked Hat. This is a small pub opposite the parish church with an inter-wars Brewer’s Tudor frontage, which was formerly the Pack Horse but was renamed when it was taken over and revived by the Atwill Pub Company. The interior comprises a standing area on the left around the bar, and two partially knocked-through rooms on the right which retain plenty of comfortable bench seating. There were six real ales on sale, but we both plumped for the house beer – which I think is called Old & Disreputable – which we were told had been the best seller that session. It was indeed in good condition but, as with most beers from Blakemere Brewery, perhaps not the world’s most distinctive.
A short walk down Millgate brought us to the Arden Arms, a National Inventory pub which is one of the true classics of unspoilt pub architecture. As lunchtime food service had finished, there was no problem about finding a seat, and we were able to settle ourselves in the wonderful snug that can only be reached by walking through the server – one of only three remaining in the entire country. This is somewhere we could happily have lingered for hours. Six real ales are dispensed from handpumps attacked to the back of the servery, not the counter, and my Wizard was certainly in good nick.
Our next call was another of Stockport’s National Inventory entries, the Swan With Two Necks on Princes Street. This is a long, narrow pub on a main shopping street that is currently having to contend with construction works for the nearby RedRock shopping and leisure complex which have disrupted pedestrian footfall. Its crowning glory is the central wood-panelled, toplit snug which really is somewhere you can retreat to set the world to rights. The only real ale available was Unicorn (alongside Westons’ Old Rosie Cider) which again was in good form. A group of regulars were enjoying some lively conversation in the corridor opposite the bar counter.
We finished up in the Crown, the well-known free house in the shadow of Stockport’s famous viaduct, where we met up with local CAMRA member Stuart Ballantyne. Once a Boddingtons’ pub, this has a central bar surrounded by a pool room and three comfortable lounge/snug areas. Its main attraction is the range of up to sixteen different cask beers, many from local micro-breweries. It is a perennial Good Beer Guide entry and a former local Pub of the Year. I wasn’t taking notes, but I did have a good drop of Oakham Inferno.
The Crown was conveniently placed for Paul to make the short walk up the hill to Stockport station for his train home. It’s hard to think of a better way of spending a lunchtime and afternoon than setting the world to rights over a few pints in some of Stockport’s great proper pubs. You should try it some time! And it wouldn’t be difficult to map out another crawl in the town of equal quality, although perhaps involving a little more walking between pubs.
(For the avoidance of doubt, pints were not consumed in all of these pubs. What do you think we are, irresponsible binge drinkers? But they were in some)