Monday, 13 September 2021

Come outside!

Over the recent Bank Holiday weekend, I was able to enjoy sitting outside pubs in the pleasant late Summer sunshine for two days in a row. Then, last week in Wolverhampton, the licensee of the Combermere Arms expressed surprise that I preferred to sit inside on a hot sunny day. It occurred to me that the past few decades have seen a marked movement of the business of pubs from indoors to outdoors. Of course the smoking ban was a major catalyst for this, but it had started long before that.

There was a time when outdoor drinking was largely associated with rural pubs. A trip out there on a sunny time would give the opportunity to enjoy sitting outside in a leafy beer garden. But it was a rarity in an urban environment. Those seas of underused car park surrounding estate pubs were noticeably devoid of benches for drinkers. It just wasn’t seen as important. I remember the news that one street-corner local was converting its cobbled yard into a “beer garden” being met with derision.

However, in the 1990s that began to change, motivated by a desire to present pubs as welcoming to fit, sports-oriented younger people rather than just being the preserve of grey-faced codgers in gloomy vaults. People also wanted to recreate memories of al fresco drinking on Mediterranean holidays.Benches started to appear on yards and in the margins of car parks, and gardens were brought into public use.

But then the whole situation was turned upside down by the smoking ban, which placed a huge premium on pubs being able to provide some kind of outside area to accommodate smokers. If they couldn’t cater for them at all, they would be severely disadvantaged. Smokers were looking for somewhere they could sit with their pint rather than just nipping out for a quick fag, and their non-smoking friends often wanted to be there with them.

So we saw a concerted programme of improving existing outdoor areas, making back yards open to the public and building new decking and shelters. Very often, given reasonably clement weather, pretty much the entire business of the pub moved outside, with customers just popping into the deserted interior to buy drinks. This is something that particularly struck me at the Barrels in Hereford in 2011. It seems now that virtually every pub that has the space now has a few tables outside at the front, protected by a little barrier of advertising banners.

With all this enhancement of outdoor areas, it’s hardly surprising that antismoker felt that they weren’t getting a fair crack of the whip, so pressure began to designate part of them specifically as non-smoking. Many pubs with sufficient space have taken this up, and the result is often that the best parts of the outdoor area have become non-smoking, with smokers confined to a dingy yard at the back, even though for three-quarters of the year they will be the only ones outside anyway.

Then, this year, there has been a further boost to outdoor drinking from the Covid regulations. In England, for five weeks in the Spring, pubs were only allowed to serve either food or drink outside, which obviously conferred a huge advantage on those with enough space to make it viable. In Scotland, for a short period, eating was allowed indoors, but not drinking. Even after customers were allowed back inside, capacity restrictions still led to many having to stay outside, and some felt they were safer there anyway.

Planning restrictions were eased to allow pubs to put out tables on pavements and in roads, and some of these may end up being permanent. Although in general we have a cool, damp climate that isn’t ideally suited to outdoor drinking, there does seem to be a psychological attachment to the idea of Mediterranean cafĂ© culture. Despite the weather, we are the biggest purchasers of convertible cars in Europe.

Sometimes there seems to be an element of bravado about it, as with the people who go to football matches in the middle of winter wearing just a team shirt. I get the impression that it is often the louder and more boisterous customers who choose to colonise the seating just outside the door, meaning that anyone wanting to venture inside has to run a bit of gauntlet.

Some may argue that it reflects the influence of climate change, but personally I don’t really feel that our summers have become appreciably drier or warmer. Many will remember the very hot summers of 1976 and 1990, whereas this summer has been, subjectively, generally cool and wet.

An increase in outdoor drinking can cause problems for pubs’ neighbours, leading to pressure to put a curfew on allowing drinkers outside. It’s all very well saying that you shouldn’t buy a house next to a pub and then complain about the noise, but if what used to be private yard has now been turned into a beer patio that is packed with noisy drinkers into the late evening, it’s quite understandable.

Despite this, outdoor drinking is certainly here to stay, and there are regular reports such as this one I spotted recenlty of pubs seeking permission to expand their outdoor areas. The move outdoors is a major change that has happened to pub culture during my drinking career.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Thirsty like the wolf

Following on from my trip to Chester, earlier this week I decided to broaden my horizons and have an afternoon trip to Wolverhampton. As I said then, while it is about half as far away again, and the train fare is proportionately even more expensive, it can actually be reached considerably more quickly, with an hourly service from Stockport taking around an hour for the 63-mile journey. One reason for choosing Wolverhampton was to revisit the Great Western, one of my favourite pubs, but there are plenty of others in the city worth visiting.

The train from Stockport was delayed by about ten minutes due to signalling problems at Heaton Chapel, but managed to make up most of this during the journey. It was a nine-car Voyager, with a four- and five-car set coupled together so, unlike the trip to Chester, there was plenty of room. I was surprised to find on my arrival that the main entrance to the station, previously a functional 1960s design, had been completely remodelled in the two years since my last visit, with an impressive frontage in black and gold reflecting the colours of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Work was in progress to extend the West Midlands Metro, which previously terminated on the south-east side of the city centre, to reach the station.

My first port of call was Wetherspoon’s Moon Under Water, which is only a short walk from the station on Lichfield Street. This was really only a pit stop for lunch – I’m sure there are better pub food options, but I didn’t really have the time to research them. I had a rather underdone burger and an alcohol-free beer. As in Chester, no mustard was available – surely this is something nobody can blame on Brexit! It’s very much an old-school Wetherspoon’s with plenty of dark wood, and benefits from having a fair amount of bench seating around the walls. A pair of old boys across the way from me were chewing the fat on various topics, principally it seemed bemoaning the standard of customer service. But they will still go back!

I headed west along the spine of the city centre which changes from Lichfield Street to Darlington Street. On my left I passed the Posada, a well-known heritage pub that I had pencilled in for a visit later but, looking in through the window, the only cask ale on the pumps seemed to be Robinson’s Unicorn, so I decided to give it a miss. Sadly the city centre seemed very quiet, even more so than Stockport, with numerous closed shops including the magnificent Art Deco Beatties department store which was in the midst of a closing down sale. On Darlington Street one disused shop had been done up as the imitation bar shown above.

Crossing the Inner Ring Road brought me to Chapel Ash, a tree-lined street containing a number of Georgian buildings, but again looking a touch down-at-heel. I was last here in the Spring of 2018, when we did a tour of Banks’s Brewery, which stands just to the north. My destination was the Combermere Arms, a small cottage-style pub set back from the road behind a couple of trees. It also famously has a tree growing inside the gents’, which I didn’t actually need to visit on this occasion.

The pub is more spacious inside than it appears, with a room by the bar on the left, two cosy rooms on the right and a fair-sized garden at the rear. The licensee expressed surprise that I didn’t want to sit outside, but frankly I was glad to get out of the blazing sun. It’s Greene King lease, but apart from London Glory most of the beers on the bar were guests, including Black Sheep Bitter, Tribute and Landlord. I perhaps approached my pint of Black Sheep with trepidation, in a quiet pub on a hot day, but in fact it turned out to the best beer of the day, cool, tasty and with plenty of condition. I had a brief chat with the licensee, who was a relief manager with plenty of experience of pubs around Wolverhampton, about beery things before he closed up at 2.30.

A few doors along from the Combermere Arms is the Clarendon, which I suppose still qualifies as Banks’s brewery tap. It states “The home of Banks’s” on the wall alongside the names of the other major brands owned by the parent company. I remember going in here many years ago when it had a multi-roomed layout, but has been progressively altered over the years, and now consists of a central bar area with posing tables surrounded by several congenial alcoves with bench seating. The only cask beers were Banks’s Amber Bitter and Sunbeam. I went for the Bitter at a very reasonable £2.90, and it was pretty good. It’s not a bad pub, but I couldn’t help thinking the brewery could make more of what should be a showcase.

Heading up the hill back into the city centre, I passed on the right the impressive Darlington Street Methodist Church, with its green copper dome, which is more visible now the buildings that used to be at the side of it have been demolished. The Lych Gate Tavern is situated at the top of the hill just off the central Queen Square and predictably facing the parish church. It’s an early Georgian building converted from offices to a pub a few years ago by Black Country Ales.

You go downstairs from the entrance to reach the main bar area which has a comfortable lounge section with bench seating opening off it. There’s another seating area on the first floor, and the toilets are a further level up, with a lift for the disabled to connect the three. The three BCA standard beers featured on the bar, together with a seasonal beer called Chain Ale which I decided to go for. It was in good condition but, as usual with BCA’s output, a little lacking in distinctive character. There were several other guest beers including Prescott Hill Climb and Titanic Plum Porter.

The soundtrack was music to my ears, featuring songs such as Boston’s More Than a Feeling and China Grove by the Doobie Brothers, an early 70s nugget that had disappeared off my radar, from the days when they actually were a rock band. This was a very congenial space to drink, and it must be said that BCA do a good job with their refurbishments, but are let down by the blandness of their own beers and by always seeming to have too many beers on the bar for the turnover.

I walked through the churchyard of the handsome St Peter’s Collegiate Church (excellent choice of saint) and then followed King Street and Market Street down the eastern side of the city centre to bring me to the Wheatsheaf opposite the back entrance of Marks & Spencer. At least Wolverhampton, unlike Stockport, does still have a branch of M&S. I remembered this pub from many years ago as an archetypal bustling, down-to-earth city-centre Banks’s local. It may now be the only Banks’s/Marston’s pub remaining within the Inner Ring Road.

I can’t really remember the old layout and so am not sure exactly how it has been changed, but it seems now to have been reduced to one bar accessed through the corner door, with the former rear snug reduced to the status of a function room. The bar counter is in an odd position, with only a narrow gap between it and the front wall, creating a restricted space that predictably couldn’t be accessed due to a crush of drinkers. There is some more comfortable seating towards the rear of the room – I’m not sure whether this area has been knocked through from how it was before.

There were four beers on the bar, Amber Bitter and Sunbeam, Hobgoblin and Directors. I was tempted by the Directors, but decided it was best to stick to the ordinary-strength beers and plumped for the Bitter, which was a very reasonable £2.85. Wolverhampton does have some keen beer prices. Although cool enough, this was no better than OK, and was certainly the least impressive beer of the day, although the pub did have a good, lively atmosphere. The Directors might have been worse!

The route back to the station took me along the narrow Castle Street, which is spanned by a bridge connecting the two parts of the now defunct Express & Star print works. The paper, which is one of the few independently-owned regional newspapers remaining in the UK, is still published, but it is a sign of the times that its circulation, according to Wikipedia, has declined from 175,000 in 2007 to below 20,000 in 2021.

The Great Western, tucked away round the back of the station, always used to be rather difficult to reach. For many years, the best way was through a slightly dubious-looking tunnel running underneath the platforms. Things were transformed in the early 2010s when a new vehicular access was opened up on the south side of the station entrance, but due to the refurbishment works this was partially blocked off so you had to follow a narrow pathway between builder’s hoardings. I still had to negotiate a narrow cobbled lane that takes a sharp bend under the railway bridge before the pub came into view picked out in the evening sunlight.

Since my last visit, the interior seems to have been smartened up a little and, while the fabric is unchanged, it appeared brighter and somewhat less “lived in”, although all the railway memorabilia was still there on the walls. The WhatPub entry refers to it being refurbished in Spring 2021. For those not familiar with it, the interior comprises a very congenial front area with bench seating on the either side of the main door facing the bar counter, a snug to the rear on the right, and on the left a long room with benches against the wall leading to a conservatory and beer garden.

It’s a Holden’s tied house, offering the full range of their beers alongside a number of guests, which usually include Batham’s Best Bitter, although I understand they have a weekly ration of this. While I was tempted by the Batham’s, I decided to stick with the Holden’s beers, trying the Bitter and the Golden Glow at £3.00 and £3.10 respectively (the Batham’s is considerably dearer). Both were good, but I have to say would have benefited from being a degree or two cooler. Yes, it was a very hot day, but other pubs seemed to manage. I treated myself to a bag of scratchings, only to end up with a massive 100g Holden’s branded pack that I had to take home to finish later in the week. It’s still an excellent pub, and no doubt will grow into its new skin, but I will admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed by my visit.

It was then a short, but rather indirect walk back to the station and an uneventful journey home, benefiting again from a doubled-up Voyager. It always comes as a surprise at this time of the year that it gets dark shortly after 8 pm. I’ve now recouped more than half the cost of my three-year Senior Railcard, with fourteen months still to go. I wouldn’t claim that Wiolverhampton was one of britain’s top ten drinking cities, but there’s plenty of interest and for me it benefits from being easily accessible from Stockport.

The two pubs outside the ring road on Chapel Ash were, as you might expect on a Tuesday afternoon, fairly quiet, but the four in the city centre were all doing decent business. There was no evidence of any Covid restrictions still in operation, and I spotted no masks on bar staff, and only a tiny handful on customers.

Residents always blame their local council, but the problems besetting Wolverhampton city centre are really no different from those being experienced by most other second-tier regional centres. It suffers, as do places like Bradford and Sunderland, from playing second fiddle to a larger and more glamorous city within the same conurbation. It also doesn’t help that most of the shopping activity is concentrated in two rather unappealing indoor shopping centres from the 60s and 70s – the Mander Centre and the Wulfrun Centre – which turn their backs on the main streets and denude them of pedestrian footfall.