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.
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|
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...