Saturday 14 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 1

Last October, we had a very enjoyable Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out in Birmingham. We discussed making a return visit to the city with the specific intention of visiting the cluster of unspoilt heritage pubs in the Digbeth area. However, due to a combination of difficulty on agreeing on a date and other events moving up the queue, it ended up being pushed back several times. We eventually managed to grasp the nettle and arranged it for last Wednesday, July 11th. England then went and got themselves into the semi-final of the World Cup that evening. Our peregrination would be finished by the time the match started, but it inevitably had an effect on the trade and atmosphere in the pubs earlier in the day.

Digbeth is an area to the south-east of the city centre that historically was home to a concentration of factories and workshops, with numerous pubs to serve their employees. Most of the workplaces are now gone, either demolished or derelict, and the area could be described as being on the cusp of decline and regeneration. However, an impressive number of the pubs have survived, and in many cases the decline of their surroundings prevented them from being subject to modern remodelling. The whole area is dominated by the massive purplebrick railway viaduct carrying the former Great Western main line to London. This is still in use, but looks a touch uncared for, with plenty of vegetation sprouting from the brickwork.

I was at University in Birmingham for three years from 1977 to 1980, but did very little drinking in the city centre and its environs, which were then dominated by the dreaded duopoly of Ansells and M&B. In fact, all the pubs visited apart from the first one were entirely new to me.

We met up in the Wellington, the well-known multi-beer pub close to New Street station. This is owned by Black Country Ales but has a wide range of guest beers as well as their own, with sixteen handpumps in total. I had Hook Norton Old Hooky, maybe not the ideal beer for a boiling hot day, but in pretty good nick nonetheless. Oakham Citra and Wye Valley HPA were also well-received. It is home to a famous pub cat, who goes by the Twitter handle of @Pussia_Galore, but I heard the barmaid explaining to a customer that, due to advancing years, she now spent most of her time upstairs and rarely ventured into the public areas.

The Woodman

Heading east out of the city centre, crossing the former Inner Ring Road brought a definite feeling of moving on to the wrong side of the tracks. The Woodman had been left standing in splendid isolation in a zone of dereliction, and indeed had been closed for a while, but has now been restored to life. Like several of these pubs, it was designed by prolific pub architects James and Lister Lea, and is in the front rank of National Inventory entries. It has a characteristic Birmingham plan of spacious public bar in the apex of the building, with a smaller smoke room at the rear. This is the pub’s crowning glory, with bench seating all around, an original fireplace, half-height wood panelling and tiling to the ceiling.

There were nine cask beers available, with Old Hooky again being good. Most of us, however, had the lighter Mallinson’s Bramling Cross, which some liked, but which I thought was a touch yeasty. There was a high-quality soundtrack including both Guns’n’Roses and the Stone Roses. The pub had an extensive food menu, but our plans were to eat a little later.

Passing the monumental frontage of Curzon Street Station, the original terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway dating back to the 1830s, a very short walk brought us to the Eagle & Tun. This is another pub that was closed for a number of years, but has recently been brought back to life. It may, however, be under threat from the controversial HS2 railway line.

The general plan is similar to the Woodman, and it retains some historic features, although less is original. There is an off-licence attached which contained a surprising number of exotic beers and other drinks. A menu of Indian food was available, but as the chef was delayed by trouble with his car we were unable to partake. There were four beers on the bar, including Green Duck Duck Blonde and Silhill Gold Star and North Star, but unfortunately several of those tasted had something of an end-of-barrel character. This was partially compensated for by another classy soundtrack including More Than A Feeling by Boston and Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas.

Big Bull’s Head
A ten-minute walk through an unpromising zone of small industrial units brought us to the Big Bull’s Head on the main Digbeth High Street. However, jaws dropped when we spotted a complete and unexpected absence of cask beer on the bar. But this was our scheduled lunch stop and, as none of the later pubs did food, we were committed to eating here. It’s always interesting to see the consternation of beer aficionados when required to buy a drink in a keg pub – some won’t touch the stuff, while others will sample the keg beers with a greater or lesser degree of reluctance. Amongst about fifteen different beers, there were two that could perhaps qualify as “craft keg” – Sharp’s Wolf Rock and Franciscan Well Chieftain, together with Marston’s Oyster Stout under the pub’s own brand, and the usual suspects of Carling, Guinness, Worthington Creamflow and the like.

There was an extensive menu of what would best be described as generous portions of cheap and cheerful food. The £5.95 roast pork dinner that one of my colleagues had looked especially filling, and it was one of those rare places where the chips are actually cooked. It’s another pub with the archetypal corner bar and rear lounge layout, and retains enough original features to merit a second-tier National Inventory entry. In fact, there was nothing really wrong with it as a pub except the beer. One interesting feature was an enormous Atkinson’s Aston Ales mirror.

I’ll cover the second half of the itinerary in a later post – watch this space...


  1. A great choice of some of my favourite pubs. I was in The Woodman myself just over a week ago- food and beer both great. We sat outside, but did pass through the smoke room- which i hadn't seen before- and it's truly a gem, but there's also rooms the other side which are nice.

    As i understand it, the Eagle and Tun was once under threat, but is now planned to form part of the new terminus.

    Not been in The Big Bulls Head since 2009, but it sounds like it hasn't changed much.

  2. I just can't get my head around the idea of going into the Welly and ordering Old Hooky!!!

    I suppose you can't be the only one, mind, or they wouldn't have been selling it. Takes all sorts...

    1. Is that on grounds of style or familiarity? It was actually recommended to me by Paul Mudge, so I knew that I wouldn't be getting the first one out.

  3. The Stafford Mudgie14 July 2018 at 17:36

    No he's not the only one.
    I ordered a pint of it there half an hour earlier.
    And then I ordered a pint of Old Hooky in the Woodman.

  4. I'll tell you what needed to save pubs. More workshy old codgers with nowt better to do than potter round grotty pubs all day. That's what's needed. If old codgers are not willing to do it, we should sack anyone over 50 and give them a pile of Spoons tokens and a CAMRA pub guide.

    1. The Stafford Mudgie15 July 2018 at 12:21

      I might have looked "workshy" in the White Swan last Wednesday but my GP confirms that because of my disabilities I am "not in a position to look for further work".

    2. The Stafford Mudgie15 July 2018 at 19:30

      but yes, it needs everyone, including scrimshankers, to potter round pubs all day long - and you will no doubt be as disappointed as me with the news today that the Chairman of the APPG for Beer for five years, of all people, has scandalously been seeking attractive young barmaids from the internet rather than in the pubs of his Burton upon Trent constituency.

    3. You are one of the heroes. Pity there's not more of you swinging the lead and bunging the DWP a cherry pie. Then pubs would be thriving.

      What we need is a dose of Jezza Corbyn. He'd throw the country on the old king cole and create enough hopeless despair that we'd all accept knocking round ropey pubs as a desirable lifestyle choice.

  5. Great stuff. Would loved to have joined you but holidays got in the way. Eagle and Tun is great but not sure how much turnover there is on there cask...hope it survives though as will be a gem once included in Curzon St Station...
    Life after Football

    1. The Stafford Mudgie16 July 2018 at 08:06

      Yes, the Eagle and Tun is great, and its Indian food, but unfortunately the handpumps are right round a corner and not seen on entering.

  6. I thought Mr Lager is confused as to the nature of "work". As card carrying CAMRA members our work is to support proper boozers by ensuring the pumps keep ticking over and encouraging landlords and ladies to keep real ale on despite there being no call for it.

    That is a noble calling.

    By the by, I struck lucky in the Cask ale lottery in Woodman and Eagle, and enjoyed the keg stout in the Big Bull. I'm going soft.

  7. Interestedly await what made the cut in the second half. Suspect only young Martin would have been up for popping into Clink ;-); clue of no further lunches being available seems to imply The Old Crown didn't make the list; Spotted Dog doesn't open till the evening. White Swan and The Anchor (probably my favourite pub on that circuit) both shoo-ins. Back towards New Street with the Victoria to finish?

  8. Didn't realise the Big Bull's Head did food. Or, indeed, that it was still open.

  9. Had a very extensive menu, although it's not going to win any Michelin stars. With hindsight, the food at the Woodman would probably have been a better bet. The BBH was also shown on WhatPub as selling cask beer until I reported it.

  10. I went to Aston University in the 1980's and the Woodman was right next to the campus. It was never a student pub, but a few of us Yorkshire exiles went because we could get the best pint of Tetley's outside of Leeds-Bradford (this was when Tetley Bitter was a fine beer in its Yorkshire homeland). It was a superb pub with so much character from the tiles in the public bar.

    Should prosper again when the HS2 comes to town. The new station is I believe going to be built in the adjacent Curzon Street.


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