Friday, 20 January 2017

Stranger in a strange land

I certainly can’t match such determined stalwarts as Alan Winfield, Martin Taylor or Simon Everitt, but, ever since I first got my hands on a Good Beer Guide, I’ve always had an interest in seeking out new and unfamiliar pubs, for the pub character as much as the beer. Over the years, I’ve ventured into plenty of places that some might regard as a touch offputting, but anything resembling a hostile reception has been extremely rare. I’ve been pestered by eccentric characters, but I can honestly count the occasions when people have been directly unpleasant to me on the fingers of one hand. As I wrote here, those were many years ago, and I don’t think there’s been a single example this millennium.
I can recall a handful of occasions when I was a speccy, geeky 20-something where I was barracked or made fun of in pubs. Generally I just kept quiet, drank my pint and left. Now I’m a speccy, geeky 50-something nobody seems too bothered – I just blur into the generality of older male pub customers.
In the early days, the Good Beer Guide would direct you to plenty of distinctly rough back-street pubs that stocked rare brews for the area, but I can’t remember ever having any problems. Indeed one of the pubs in which I was barracked was a Cheshire dining pub, although perhaps a bit less smart back then. I do recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. And the rural pubs resembling the Slaughtered Lamb seem to be a figment of novelists’ and film directors’ imagination. The worst I can think of are a few where it was clear the customers were all a clique of regulars.

I am actually a pretty shy person, and tend to be protective of my own privacy, so you don’t get the blow-by-blow descriptions of pub visits that the bloggers mentioned above specialise in. I have done a handful of write-ups of pub crawls with others, and you may well get another one before too long, but they’re not going to become a regular feature. Where I go, and when, and how, and what I drink, and how much, is my business. There is a private record of Mudgie’s Travels on my hard drive, but you only get to access that when I’m dead. For example, there was the unnamed pub (in the current Good Beer Guide) where some customers ordered food, only to be informed that the baguettes had “gone off”.

I’m certainly not as assiduous in seeking out new pubs as I was in my student days, not least because I’ve visited so many that there’s a law of diminishing returns. But one thing that has occurred to me is that I feel somewhat uncomfortable if there’s no obvious reason for my presence, which raises the question to bar staff and other customers of “what’s he doing here?” In any pub that attracts casual or passing trade, there’s no problem. Any random person could just walk in off the street. That covers pretty much all town and city centre pubs, those in village and rural locations, and any that makes a point of its food offer, even if I’m not eating on that occasion. That probably includes 90% of all pubs I might ever want to visit. But there are some, in inner-city backstreets, on housing estates, or in the suburban backwoods, where there’s no plausible reason for me being there. It’s not remotely threatening, but I know I stand out like a sore thumb, and for that reason I can’t really feel at home.

One thing I have been doing, on and off, is ticking off a few gaps in the National Inventory, and that drew me, a few months ago, to the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach on the southern fringes of St Helens in South Lancs. This is one of the great unsung gems of our inter-wars pub heritage, a deceptively large, although not particularly monumental-looking, pub, with entirely separate lounge and public sides, each with three distinct rooms featuring extensive original panelling, seating, doors and other details. But, as a pub, it’s bit ordinary and down-at-heel, and makes no attempt to attract out-of-area customers. The Heritage Pubs website says “The only detracting factor is the amount of ‘memorabilia collections’/tat that covers most of the walls”. This comes across as a touch sniffy, but you can understand them subtly making the point that this isn’t a pub that makes a big point of celebrating its historic character.

I initially wandered into the lounge side, but apparently that is reserved for diners, so was directed around to the public, which immediately marked me out as an outsider. I sat in the echoing main room, where the only other customer was a bloke deliberately perched on a bar stool to block the view of the handpumps. I had some indifferent and over-chilled Doom Bar, then had a quick peek into the other rooms, called into to the (modernised) gents’, and went on my way. I’d bet back in the day it used to shift massive quantities of electrically-pumped Greenalls’ Mild and Bitter.

A magnificent, and possibly threatened, piece of pub architecture, but in terms of the actual pub “offer” not somewhere you would go much out of your way to visit, and not somewhere I’d be making a regular haunt if I lived more locally.

10 comments:

  1. A lot of these backstreet (old school locals) boozers can appear intimidating, I've done quite few now for the purpose of "ticking a pub",you know the sort of thing, you walk in and the pub babble descends to a deathly hush as every head swivels to look at you,but as walk up and order a pint you are forgotten about within 20 seconds and its business as usual,Sheep in Wolves clothing. But then there has been the odd occasion when you find yourself stood next to the local pisshead a******e......

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    1. It's not so much blending into a cheery throng as there being only three other customers at lunchtime.

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    2. Makes it more difficult agreed.

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  2. What a strange hobby, actually travelling to pubs for that very purpose.

    I can understand getting a gig/client in some god forsaken part of hells creation we call Blighty, staying over in a hotel and fancying a wander out for a pint and a steak and therefore discovering a pub and forming an opinion on the local bitter, but actually going to that place specifically in order to visit a pub? Eh?

    The pub being the purpose and not just some useful local amenity to use whilst your there, like a public toilet or cash point or chippie?

    There's nowt stranger than folk, I guess.

    I suppose it's a way of conversing with strangers and cleaner and more hygienic than dogging. At least in the better class of pubs. Not spoons.

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    1. Actually you never feel out of place in Spoons, anywhere. Probably because it's full of weirdos anyway.

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    2. You don't know till you look, spoons you know what you will get so its an avoid for me if ever possible.

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  3. When I was a student, we used to have certain favourite back street pubs in Warrington, usually because the beer was better. The older drinkers standing at the bar, often with their cloth caps, didn't mind us students with long hair and patched jeans in the slightest. They were sometimes amused by our appearance, but not in an unpleasant way - more like banter. We felt quite comfortable in such places.

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    1. I experienced much the same thing Nev, in some of the back-street pubs in Salford.

      Slightly off topic, but I was an avid science-fiction reader in those days, and Mudge’s title, “Stranger in a Strange Land” reminds me of the novel, of the same name, by the American author Robert A. Heinlein.

      It wasn’t an easy read, and I struggled to finish the book. No real relevance to the topics being discussed here; it’s just that the title brought back a few memories of those times.

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    2. Groups of students going in to back street pubs near their colleges or halls of residence is something entirely different from what I'm describing in my post, though.

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    3. Warrington was the nearest town, but our college was right next to the M6 and certainly not near the town centre pubs that I'm referring to. A good three miles walk away, in fact.

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