Thursday 26 August 2021

End of the line?

Last week, the Manchester Evening News reported that the Railway pub in Portwood, Stockport, which had had a threat of closure hanging over it for many years, was finally likely to reach the end of the line. And, later in the week, it was duly decided by Stockport Council to confirm the planning permission allowing it to the demolished to make way for a retail development. Over the past three decades the pub had become a much-loved fixture of the Stockport real ale scene, making regular appearances in the Good Beer Guide and winning the local Pub of the Year award in 2007.

It had originally been a rather nondescript Wilson’s pub, taking its name from the long-closed Cheshire Lines route running east to west through Stockport via Tiviot Dale station. It then went through rather questionable incarnations as “Byrons” and “Cheekies”, the latter featuring a sign showing a pair of buttocks covered by a pair of skimpy briefs. However, salvation was at hand in the form of brewer Dave Porter, who converted it into Porter’s Railway as a showcase for his distinctive beers including the potent Porter’s Sunshine.

It rapidly became a local CAMRA favourite and was narrowly pipped to a Pub of the Year award following some rather questionable use of proxy voting. However, it later became a perfect illustration of the principle that, however good a pub, it should never be simply nodded back into the Good Beer Guide under a new licensee unless they have an established track record elsewhere. Fortunately this proved to be a short-lived aberration.

When Dave Porter quit the scene, the brewery became Rossendale and, more recently, after that closed down, the Railway has become an independent free house. It mostly features beers from local breweries such as Pictish, Outstanding and Dunham Massey and, while the range tends towards the paler end of the spectrum, there is always at least one dark beer on the bar.

However, far from being a “beer shrine”, it is more of a cask-centred value pub of a kind that is common in West Yorkshire but much rarer on this side of the Pennines. This is hinted at by the mobility scooter shown on the photo. Prices are very reasonable, with the ordinary-strength beers still well under £3. This gives it much more of the atmosphere of a lively local, with many regular customers including some “characters” and a good interchange of banter. From its location at one end of the town centre I’ve often found it marking the end of a Stockport pub crawl, and indeed this was where my little reopening crawl of last month finished up..

As the article reports, the original planning permission for redevelopment was granted in 2005, and since then the Railway has been operating under an extended stay of execution. Therefore any work done has been strictly on a care and maintenance basis meaning that, while kept clean, nobody would describe it as smart. I’d question whether it was really beyond economic repair, but if it was to be retained for the long term it would certainly need a lot of money spending on it.

Over the years, I’ve often criticised campaigners who seem to want to keep pubs open regardless of their commercial prospects, but it can’t be denied that the Railway is a busy pub and a viable business. There is already no shortage of vacant retail units in Stockport, so it seems risky to replace it with what must be a highly speculative venture. However, given that the new planning permission is really only reiterating what was decided sixteen years ago, and the developer owns the building anyway, the prospects of a reversal of the decision are extremely slim. The current licensee is looking towards retirement, and a pub being saved from the bulldozers is no guarantee of ongoing success anyway.

No firm closing date has yet been set, and the Railway could continue trading for a year or more, but it is worth making sure you pay a visit before it goes. With the imminent closure of the Hope on Wellington Road North, it looks as though Stockport is going to lose two of its more characterful beer-focused pubs in a short space of time. Hopefully the expected reopening of the Crown on Heaton Lane in the Autumn will go some way to redress the balance.

Friday 13 August 2021

Baby steps to prohibition

It has been reported that, to help achieve their target of achieving a “smoke-free Britain” by 2030, the government are looking at raising the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21. This would put it out of line with pretty much every other normal activity in society. We have established now that 18 is the age of majority for virtually everything. The only areas where the minimum legal age is 21 are those where some additional degree of maturity is considered desirable, such as adopting a child, supervising a learner driver and gaining an HGV or commercial pilot’s licence. Yet smoking, while widely deprecated, remains a legal activity, and one that is enjoyed by very many people.

Young people would still be easily able to obtain cigarettes either from co-operative adults or via the black market, so it’s hard to see this making any meaningful difference to availability. And, given that smoking is already outlawed in any indoor social settings, there aren’t really many situations where a young person lighting up would raise eyebrows. On any warm day in a city, the smell of cannabis is already widespread, and that is illegal for any age.

There’s no suggestion that possession would be outlawed, only the act of purchase, so the police wouldn’t be patrolling the streets demanding that any young smokers they come across prove their age. And it’s hard to see that pub licensees would have much enthusiasm for checking the age of smokers in beer gardens.

And what kind of message would this send to young people, that they’re not considered mature enough to act responsibly? As a society, we pay a lot of lip service to the interests of the young, while in numerous ways seeking to restrict their freedom of action. The previous increase in the tobacco purchase age from 16 to 18 in 2007 went through with very little adverse comment, although it was overshadowed by the indoor smoking ban introduced earlier in the same year.

The only area where there is pressure to increase their freedoms is in reducing the voting age to 16, but would that really achieve any more than giving them the opportunity to choose what colour of stick they prefer to be beaten with? And it’s hardly a consistent message to say that you are considered old enough to decide who should govern the country, but not what you can put in your own body.

Once the principle was established, there would inevitably be calls to extend it to other areas, in particular alcohol. Oh, that will never happen, many will say. But it has already been proposed in Scotland. Fortunately it wasn’t implemented at the time, but it clearly indicates the thought processes of the public health establishment. What would it say to a young soldier who had been putting his life on the line in Afghanistan, but then wasn’t allowed to buy a few cans to relax at home with his family?

Sunday 8 August 2021

Back in training

In the Autumn of 2019 I spent £70 on a three-year Senior Railcard, but I was only able to use it for two trips out, to Shifnal and Burton-on-Trent, before the country was plunged into lockdown in March of last year. Obviously there remained a good amount of time to take advantage of it, but anyone who had bought a one-year card in the first two months of 2020 would have rightly felt aggrieved. Despite this, the administrators of the scheme set their face against giving any refunds.

Finally, once the restrictions on travel and pubgoing had been relaxed, I felt able to make use of it last week to put my toe back in the water with a trip to Chester, nearly seventeen months after my last train journey to Burton. I’m not normally in the habit of doing “what I did on my holidays” posts, but thought this one was worth reporting on as a significant milestone.

Despite only being at the other end of Cheshire, because of the geography of the rail network Chester is surprisingly difficult to reach by train from Stockport. You can get to Liverpool, Shrewsbury or Wolverhampton more quickly and easily. Basically there is a choice of taking the slow train through the middle of the county, stopping as such metropolises as Plumley and Mouldsworth, or doing a longer and more expensive, but quicker, dogleg changing at Crewe.

I chose the latter option. The two-car train bound for Milford Haven was standing room only, although I was able to get a seat as some groups seemed to prefer to stand together. There was a boisterous group occupying the two sets of table seats, who seemed genial enough, but might have been hard work all the way to South Wales, especially once the cans of Thatcher’s Gold had kicked in. It was hard to tell on a crowded train, but I would estimate well below half the passengers were masked.

The line between Crewe and Chester is a vital link in the rail network, but doesn’t seem to tie in with any others in terms of through passenger trains, so its basic service is operated by a shuttle which does the 21 miles in even time, allowing an hourly service to be worked by just one unit. Again this was just two cars, and pretty full, with a notable Orthodox Jewish contingent. The line mostly runs through unremarkable lush pastureland, but halfway along you are treated to the spectacular sight of Beeston Castle on its crag rising up from the surrounding plain, with the more modern Peckforton Castle lurking menacingly in the background.

My first call in Chester was a lunch stop at Wetherspoon’s Bull & Stirrup, a handsome redbrick building standing just outside the Northgate. I remember it from the late 70s as a multi-roomed Higson’s pub of great character. However, it was later knocked through by the Boddington Pub Company, so Spoons cannot be held to blame for its current condition. Indeed it had closed before they took it over a few years back.

Wetherspoon’s have much extended it at the rear, where the bar now is, but the front section does retain something of a multi-roomed feel, although as usual the absence of bench seating detracts from the overall ambiance. To their credit, they have preserved the tiled mural of Edgar’s Eight, showing eight subsidiary kings from all over the British Isles rowing the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon King Edgar on the River Dee. And, sorry cask purists, but I had a bottle of Tusker with my meal deal.

I then walked down to the Cross along the full length of Northgate Street, which still has six pubs on the right-hand side, although none on the left. I’ve been going to Chester since I was a small child, so I tend to take it for granted to some extent, but it really is a beautiful city, even though I know much of the half-timbering on display is actually Victorian. The city centre was much busier than Stockport, although probably still short of what might be considered “normal” levels, with the absence of foreign tourists obviously a factor.

Turning left along Eastgate brought me to Sam Smith’s Olde Boot, which is one of the very few pubs now situated on the historic Rows. I remember from the 1970s when this was a small pub accessed by a passage from the walkway, but it was extended forward to the shop frontages many years ago. It’s a long, dimly-lit space with plenty of dark wood, with the usual Sam’s mature clientele, mostly although by no means entirely male, and was ticking over nicely enough for a Monday afternoon.

Old Brewery Bitter was on pretty good form, although most of the customers seemed to be going for the Taddy Lager. The landlady was telling a guy standing at the bar how the previous Sunday she had had to throw a party of racegoers out for taking cocaine in the gents’. Many Chester licensees seem to approach race days with dread.

Heading back in the general direction of the station brought me to the Olde Cottage on Brook Street, which is a pub whose fortunes I have been following on Twitter through the cycle of lockdowns. Brook Street, bypassed by a new road in the 1960s, is still on the main pedestrian route from the city centre to the station, and is a busy street with a variety of independent businesses.

Unfortunately I missed the famous pub cat Arty, who was taking his beauty sleep upstairs, but I did get the chance to have a good chat with Trevor, the licensee, who has been in the pub for twenty years. He said that, after two weeks, there were encouraging signs of trade returning to normal, although it was still much less predictable than pre-Covid, with the occasional unexpected quiet night.

While the pub has a strong contingent of regulars, its location also means it picks up plenty of casual and passing trade. It was certainly reasonably busy for Monday teatime, with a variety of customers popping in and out. The pub belongs to Admiral Taverns, and is allowed to choose one cask beer outside the tie along with three from their own fairly extensive list. On this visit the range was Otter Bitter, Ossett Yorkshire Blonde, Butcombe Bitter and Wye Valley HPA. I tried the first three, all of which were in good nick.

Then back to the station for the trip home, with the trains on both legs busy enough, but much less crowded than earlier in the day. I noticed a long goods train laden with cut logs trundling through Chester Station, which was certainly to me at least an unusual sight. I was told it was a regular working from Carlisle to the Kronospan fibreboard mill at Chirk south of Wrexham. So an interesting and enjoyable day out, and hopefully if we are not plunged back into lockdown I will be able to make more use of that Senior Railcard in the remainder of the year.

Friday 6 August 2021

Meet the new keg

This year sees CAMRA’s 50th anniversary, and many people have been keen to project their own present-day agenda back on to the reasons for the organisation’s formation. One comment you often see is “of course, the keg beers back then were nothing like those we have now”.

In some respects, this is of course true. There were no nitrokeg beers around then, for a start. And there is a much wider variety of draught beers produced overall, many of which are low-volume niche products that would never be able to sell in cask form. But it shouldn’t be imagined that, back in 1971, there was a clear dichotomy between fizzy, heavily-processed Double Diamond and Red Barrel, and wholesome, natural Boddington’s and Brakspear’s.

Much of the beer that CAMRA was objecting to wasn’t even keg as such, anyway. In the North of England, many breweries produced tank beer which was only rough-filtered and often unpasteurised. It was pumped to the bar, not pressure-dispensed. And, in the South, many offered top pressure beer, which involved attaching a CO2 cylinder to a cask to push the beer to the bar rather than using a handpump. In some ways this was analogous to the present day “keg-conditioned beer”.

But, while the starting point of top pressure was real ale, CAMRA refused to regard this beer as acceptable. The Good Beer Guides of the 1970s record with a certain amount of regret against breweries whose real ales were well-regarded, “Only 12 of the 24 tied houses sell real ale” (Harveys) or “140 tied houses, many of them offering only pressurised beer” (Morrells).

It must be remembered that, while the concept of “traditional draught beer” was broadly understood, the specific definition of real ale was something that was devised by CAMRA to identify that in British beer that it was trying to preserve, against that which it regarded as a negative trend. It was always something of an arbitrary division into sheep and goats, but it had the advantage of being clear-cut, and rapidly became something that resonated with the drinking public. If CAMRA had attempted to say “well, this Harvey’s top pressure beer is actually not bad, whereas this Whitbread West Country Pale Ale, while technically real ale, is actually swill” it would have been putting across a very muddled message.

Over time, the use of the top pressure and tank beer systems withered away, so that by half-way through the lifetime of CAMRA they had pretty much entirely disappeared. There was much less small-scale, artisanal beer available in a non-real format than there had been when the organisation was founded. However, since then the tables have been turned, with the keg format increasingly being adopted by new and innovative craft breweries.

In most cases, this represented either beers that were outside the British tradition, or which were unusual in terms of strength or flavour to the extent that they would be unlikely to achieve the level of turnover needed to be presented as real ale. It was notable how the new wave of keg beers rarely challenged the established leading brands and styles of real ale head-on. But it is certainly not the case now (if indeed it ever was) that no high-quality draught beers are being produced and sold in the UK outside the scope of real ale.

However, despite the advance of these “new wave” keg beers, you’re stil fairly unlikely to encounter them outside specialist pubs. Go in one of those pubs identified on WhatPub by the little red keg symbol indicating “No Real Ale”, and the ale range is likely to consist of one of the well-known smooth bitters along with, if you’re lucky, something like John Smith’s Chestnut Mild. A trend, though, that is becoming increasingly evident is the spread of keg pale ales such as Shipyard and Camden Pale that do not have a direct cask equivalent. You might well find one of those on the bar of an Ember Inn or Stonehouse pub that no longer has cask. And one licensee was telling me recently that a keg pale was drawing customers who wouldn’t even think of touching his cask.

There remains, though, an element of forked tongue about this new-found embrace of keg. It would seem that some keg beers are more equal than others. While it is true that most well-known real ale brands do not have keg equivalents (or, if they do, they are only produced in tiny volumes) there is one well-known bitter that is sufficient to get pubs into the Good Beer Guide where it is the only cask beer. Yet put that beer in keg form, and those pubs would not be given house room, even though the beer is essentially the same. And, pre-Covid, I spotted a pub selling Robinson’s Old Tom in keg form. Given its low volumes and specialist appeal, that might seem a sensible candidate for kegging, but would it really be accepted in the same way as a craft keg imperial stout?

It could be argued that, given the widespread availability of high-quality craft keg beers, CAMRA’s original definition of real ale is no longer relevant in the modern British beer market. However, it does have the great advantage of being an objective standard – some beers are real, and others aren’t. Take that away, and you are left with making subjective judgments on which beers are good based on a whole range of criteria that may be nothing more than personal prejudice, not to mention the likelihood of slipping into outright snobbery directed at popular beers and large-scale producers.

It was always a blinkered approach to believe – as many people once seemed to do – that the definition of real ale could be used as a universal yardstick to separate good from bad beers. But, in the context of the British ale market of the early 70s, while it was a broad brush, it did make a lot of sense, and provided a clarity that a more nuanced explanation never could. And, as far as beers in traditional British styles go, it remains relevant today. I don’t see anyone arguing that beers such as Taylor’s Landlord would be just as good, if not better, if they were kegged.