On Friday 6 March 2020 we had a very enjoyable day out in Burton-on-Trent. On the platform of Sheffield station I spotted a Chinese student wearing a face mask, which turned out to be the proverbial cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man’s hand. We didn’t realise that, just two weeks later, all the pubs would be shut down, and for the following sixteen months would either be closed completely or only allowed to trade under restrictions of varying severity.
However, just short of twelve weeks after the lifting of restrictions on pubs, and on travel, on 19 July, we felt sufficiently confident to organise another day out, a mere nineteen months and two days after the last one. Having visited various towns and cities around the North and Midlands, this time I suggested my home town of Stockport, which has a wealth of interest in pub terms. Unfortunately, Paul Mudge, a stalwart of these trips, was unable to make it due to a broken foot, but we still had a healthy attendance, and Friday 8 October was blessed with glorious Indian summer sunshine.
Our starting point was Sam Smith’s Queen’s Head on Little Underbank, alternatively known as Turner’s Vaults. Not the easiest of pubs to find, this may seem an odd place to meet up, but along with Wetherspoon’s and the other Sam’s pub, it is one of the few 11 am openers in the town centre, and fitted in well with the rest of the itinerary. Although it isn’t a direct route from the station, people were surprised by how close it was. It’s a small, single-fronted pub standing in the shadow of the bridge carrying St Petersgate over Little Underbank.
Inside, it has a long, thin historic interior of great character which merits a place on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The bar, adorned with vintage spirit taps, is at the front, face by bench seating opposite it and in the window. Behind this is a distinctive “horse box” snug, and then a cosy toplit smoke room at the rear where the presence of a real fire seemed slightly incongruous. While much of it seems original, in fact some of the work only dates back to a sensitive refurbishment carried out by Sam’s in the 1980s. The pub also features the “Compacto”, a urinal that was once billed as the “World’s Smallest Gents”, although it has been locked for many years as few modern men are skinny enough to be able to use it.
It has the usual Sam’s range of Old Brewery Bitter Blus a wide selection of kegs. Most of us plumped for the OBB, which I thought was fine, but some detected a slight taint, while our Carling aficionado went for the Taddy Lager. The price rise last year from £2 to £3 a pint for bitter came as something as a shock at the time, but it still leaves Sam’s noticeably cheaper than most other pubs in the town centre apart from Wetherspoon’s, with Robinson’s 40 to 60 pence a pint dearer. Apart from our group, the pub was fairly quiet, although it was still before noon.
Just on the other side of the bridge is the premises of former jeweller’s Winters, which for a while became an increasingly downmarket Holt’s pub, but is currently in the process of being converted to an upmarket French restaurant. This features an elaborate mechanical clock with animated figures, and I had got the impression it had now been restored to working order and would be striking at noon, so we trooped out to watch. However, nothing happened, and it seemed that we weren’t the only onlookers to have our expectations dashed.
Swallowing our disappointment, we crossed the Merseyway shopping precinct to reach the Swan With Two Necks on Princes Street, facing the rear entrances of the now-closed Woolworths and Marks & Spencer stores. Behind a mock-Tudor frontage, this is another long, thin pub stretching well back from the street. It was remoddled in the 1920s with extensive use of light oak panelling and is another National Inventory entry. There’s a central bar, with a small former vault at the front, a wonderful toplit snug in the middle and a further cosy room with bench seating yet further back which features an original Brains mirror. In recent years the beer garden at the rear has been spruced up and opened up to the rear where it faces The Light cinema in the new RedRock leisure development, which has boosted the pub’s trade.
A Robinson’s tied house, the beer range was Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde, both of which were judged to be very good. I have to say I have been impressed by the quality of Robinson’s beer post reopening, and pubs seem to have sensibly curtailed the number of pumps. Just after noon, there were a fair number of other customers, some of whom may have been attracted by the pie offering being served from a hatch in the beer garden.
Skirting round the north-eastern side of the town centre, the number of closed shop premises was sadly all too obvious, including the large Sainsbury’s supermarket which closed earlier this year. I remember the excitement when it opened in 1986 as the first large modern supermarket in the town. At one point, there is a small opening where you can view the River Mersey flowing underneath the shopping centre. Round the back of the giant and somewhat intimidating ASDA we came to the Arden Arms, which is the jewel in the crown of Stockport’s heritage pubs.
Another Robinson’s pub, it’s a three-storey brick building dating from the early part of the 19th century. The centrepiece of the pub is the bar with its very rare sash windows. Behind this is a little snug that can only be accessed by walking through the servery, making it virtually unique. To one side is a comfortable lounge with bench seating, and on the other what is now a dining room but which was extended from a smaller public bar some years ago.
Stockport town centre isn’t really brimming with pub food options, but what the Arden Arms offers stands comparison with anywhere in the country, and not surprisingly is very popular for dining. There’s a full menu which changes monthly, plus a lunchtime selection of hot and cold sandwiches and snacks. We maybe weren’t too adventurous, choosing fish and chips in large and small sizes, and a bacon, brie and cranberry ciabatta, while one of us contented himself with soup and a pudding, which was pretty substantial. The quality of the food could not be faulted, although the pudding was a little long in coming. As it was lunchtime, table service was being operated, although I’m not sure whether this applies throughout their trading hours.
The handpumps are unusually mounted against the back wall of the bar. At times in the past it has offered five or six different beers, but today it was limited to three – Unicorn, Dizzy Blonde and Trooper. Three of us plumped for the Unicorn which was very good indeed, while one decided to go for the keg Hopnik Citra IPA, which the waitress described as a lager, although in reality it isn’t. He pronounced himself very pleased with this, although at £4.95 a pint compared with £3.65 for the Unicorn there was a substantial “keg premium”. And guess whose round it was!
We then retraced our steps somewhat to the Railway facing the shops of the Stockport Retail Park on Great Portwood Street. As I wrote here, it has been operating under a stay of execution for sixteen years, and planning permission to demolish it for a retail development has recently been confirmed, but as the developers are believed to be unwilling to proceed without a confirmed tenant, this may take some time in the current retail climate. It could be closed in six months, or still going in six years. The carpet warehouse next door, which is to be part of the same development, is already closed and boarded.
It’s a small pub in the acute angle of two streets, with no obvious external signage to identify it. Inside, it’s basically one room, with an L-shaped bar flanked by extensive bench seating on both sides, extending to a snug-type area to the rear, where we managed to find enough seating for a group that had now swelled to eight. There’s also a small beer garden. For early Friday afternoon in a wet-led pub outside the main part of the town centre there were a decent number of customers in. It has a loyal band of regulars and has more of a “local” atmosphere than the typical “beer shrine” venue.
It offers an extensive range of beers, tending to major on paler brews from local breweries, but always having one or two dark ones as well, and sold at very reasonable prices. Those sampled today included Thornbridge Jaipur, Salopian Oracle, Pictish Brewer’s Gold, Dunham Massey Porter and Strange Times Neo Cosmo Blonde. While everyone was happy with their beer, I always feel that it has rather too many on, and the beer can often be somewhat lacking in crispness.
Thanks to Peter Allen for the photos of the Arden Arms and Railway.