Last November, I welcomed CAMRA stalwart, fellow curmudgeon and sort-of namesake Paul Mudge to Stockport for a wander round some of our excellent traditional pubs. Obviously we had to reciprocate with a visit to Paul’s home town of Stafford, so last Wednesday, on a cold and initially rather misty morning, I found myself heading south on the Cross Country train to experience its delights.
While it retains a number of interesting old buildings, and some characterful streets and alleyways around the market place, Stafford can’t claim to be a historic town of the first order. Its pub scene was in the past dominated by Bass and Allied Breweries, so it wasn’t at the top of the list of beer destinations, but more recently a number of other operators have moved in, and it now offers a good selection of both beers and types of pub.
The last wisps of mist were clearing as I took a pleasant stroll through the park along the banks of the River Sow to meet up with Paul in Wetherspoon’s Picture House, situated towards the south end of the main street. As the name suggests, this is a conversion of a former small cinema, with the bar where the screen once was, and tiers of seating rising up towards the entrance, all in all making for one of their more characterful interiors. Paul recommended the Caledonian Edinburgh Castle, which indeed proved to be on fine form. This distinctive Scottish 80/- ale is one that always stands out for me on the bar. There were also the regular trio of Ruddles, Doom Bar and Abbot Ale, plus three further guest beers including local favourite Slater’s Top Totty.
Crossing the road, a short walk took us to the Sun, which has been acquired and extensively refurbished by Titanic Brewery, providing a comfortable, rambling interior on two levels. The photo, taken in a rare gap in the traffic, shows Paul standing outside the front door. By this time the sun had burnt off any remaining mist and was shining brightly. The pub serves the full range of Titanic beers, plus a number of guests. We plumped for two of Titanic’s mid-brown offerings, Anchor and Full Steam Ahead, but unfortunately both seemed a little past their best. We chatted with a couple sitting next to us who had the lovely Welsh collie shown below.
Wednesday is Burger Day at the Sun, so we took full advantage of the 2 for 1 offer, adding a bowl of onion rings which couldn’t be faulted for their crispiness. As the photo shows, you will get pretty well fed, although the presentation does have a touch of We Want Plates about it.
We cut through a jumble of council buildings to reach the Shrewsbury Arms on Eastgate Street, which has been acquired and refurbished by Black Country Ales within the past six months. The corner door takes you into a congenial bar area with several alcoves of bench seating such as the one shown, and there are then a variety of other sections stretching along the length of the pub. While not a fan of indiscriminate piped music, I have no problem with listening to tracks such as “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, and “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. While it stocks BCA’s own beers such as BFG, we both chose from the guest list, with Paul going for Brough Blonde and me Rooster’s YPA, both notably pale beers that were pretty good.
Heading back in towards the town centre, our next stop was the Market Vaults, a Marston’s pub that appropriately is just off the Market Place. Once known as the Chains and tied to Joule’s of Stone, this has gone through a variety of incarnations over the years including, I seem to remember, a spell as an Irish theme pub called Joxer Brady’s. The main bar area, with a number of posing tables, does not come across as too appealing, but around the back there are plenty of cosy nooks and crannies with bench seating, albeit something of a shortage of natural light. It offers a menu of gourmet burgers, although the prices were rather higher than those in the Sun even before taking into account the latter’s 2 for 1 offer. There were none of the regular Banks’s or Marston’s beers on the bar, the range consisting of Sunshine and Hobgoblin together with three guests. Paul had Slater’s Top Totty, while I plumped for the unusually-named Pekko from Milestone, both of which were again in good nick.
Just around the corner and facing directly on to the Market Place is No. 7 Market Square, a new micropub recently opened in a former gunsmith’s premises. It has a rather wider offer than some, including a row of craft keg taps, but the small scale and no-frills atmosphere are very much archetypal micropub. Paul said he sometimes enjoyed calling in here for a pint on his walk home from work, and sitting watching the world go by outside, although it was a little Spartan for my personal taste and, not long after opening time at 3 pm, it hadn’t yet had chance to warm up properly. There were three cask beers – Slater’s Premium and IPA, and Portobello VPA. We both went for the Premium which turned out to be a touch disappointing. The owners also have another micropub, the Floodgate at the south end of the town near to the Sun, but as this doesn’t open until 5 pm on weekends it didn’t really fit into our itinerary.
Another brewery to move into Stafford is Joule’s of Market Drayton, who have taken over Ye Olde Rose & Crown a short walk to the north. Paul has some reservations about Joule’s, as he feels some of their refurbishments have been disrespectful of what went before, but to those who have no memory of that they have certainly created a very pleasant, “woody” drinking space in the front of the pub with plenty of bench seating lining the walls. However, the only feature he said they have retained from the old pub is the central cast-iron column supporting the ceiling. To the rear of the pub there’s an extended lounge area and an outdoor drinking courtyard. The photo shows Paul sitting in one of several cosy corners.
There was the usual Joule’s range of Blonde, Pale Ale and Slumbering Monk, plus one other on the back bar whose name I didn’t spot. We both went for the Pale Ale, which was on good form. Paul also treated himself to a locally-made pork pie from behind the bar, and I must say the slice I had, complete with jelly, was delicious.
As darkness fell, we crossed over the ring road and passed alongside the forbidding walls of Stafford Gaol, the current domicile of Rolf Harris, to reach the Greyhound, a back-street free house that doesn’t open until 4pm, hence it making sense to leave it until towards the end of the crawl. It retains the traditional two-bar layout, with public at the front and lounge to the rear, although both have a similar standard of furnishing. Seven beers were available, including Bradfield Farmers Blonde, Hobsons Town Crier and Abbeydale Absolution, but we were understandably both drawn by the Batham’s Best Bitter making a rare trip north out of its home territory. It was in good condition, although not maybe quite reaching the heights it can in their tied houses or the Great Western in Wolverhampton.
For our final port of call, we headed back towards the station to the Railway, a classic street-corner local which appropriately stands just across the road from the West Coast Main Line. There’s a photo inside from 1964 showing it in Ind Coope livery with just a single 1950s Ford Zephyr parked on the street outside. My eyes immediately lit up when I saw Draught Bass on the bar, and I wasn’t remotely tempted by the Doom Bar. I wasn’t disappointed, as it was on very good form and almost certainly the best beer of the day. The pub itself is little changed over the years apart from the removal of one or two connecting doors, and the front bar area where we sat, with quarry-tiled floor and brick fireplace housing a blazing real fire, was very congenial. From here it was only a short walk to the station, and I was back in Stockport not long after eight o’clock.
In summary, an excellent day out with a good choice of pubs and beer. Stafford doesn’t have the unspoilt historic gems to match Stockport, but all of the pubs visited have their own distinctive character, and it’s good to see the new wave of independent brewers like Titanic, Black Country Ales and Joule’s making their presence felt. With a couple of exceptions, beer quality was generally good and prices, while a little above Stockport levels, for the most part between £3.00 and £3.40, with the exception of Wetherspoon’s at £2.49. The most expensive beer of the day was Batham’s in the Greyhound at £3.45, underlining the point that some cask beers can already command a premium.