We pick up our day out in Stockport having just left the Railway and heading back past the Arden Arms to the second Sam Smith’s pub of the day, the Boar’s Head. This is a handsome redbrick building with stone quoins which dominates one corner of the Market Place and faces the Baker’s Vaults and the open area known from its origins as the Castle Yard. I mentioned to the others that it used to have a large, fluffy black-and-white pub cat called Felix who I did see last year in the interregnum between lockdowns, but unfortunately has since died at the age of 16.
It has the unusual distinction of having had some of its internal walls restored in the 1990s to separate out two areas from the bar counter to provide more seating. There’s also a large room at the back that was used for live music before this was banned by Humphrey Smith. Although it can get busy at lunchtimes, with a lively, bustling atmosphere, by mid-afternoon today it was fairly quiet. Although it won’t kill them off, it does seem that the Sam’s price increase has damaged the trade of their two pubs in Stockport town centre and deprived them of some of their characters.
The Old Brewery Bitter also seemed a little tired, and the one person who tried the keg Light Mild reported similar, although there were no complaints about the Taddy Lager. The fact that the long-serving licensee has recently retired may also have been a factor here.
Although Friday isn’t an official market day, there were some stalls selling jewellery and craft items. We then crossed the bridge over Little Underbank which we had seen earlier from underneath and passed Stockport’s Wetherspoon’s, the Calvert’s Court, to reach the Petersgate Tap on St Petersgate. As a modern craft bar, it formed a distinct contrast to some of the earlier pubs. It opened in 2016 in the premises of a former betting shop and since then has won a number of CAMRA awards.
It’s considerably larger than the typical micropub. Downstairs the bar is in the rear left-hand corner, with a a couple of seating booths on the left and more seating facing it on the opposite wall. There’s also an upstairs room that it sometimes used for live music. The beer range normally consists of six cask lines and four craft kegs, together with a selection of real ciders.
Among the beers tried were Ossett White Rat, Durham Dark Angel and the powerful Torrside Reign of Grain, while one person had the Ross-on-Wye Gilly and Friends Cider. Some eyebrows were raised by me going for a third of the Brew York Jackie Flan Pastry Sour. While I certainly won’t be making a habit of it, I’m interested to try these novelty beers when I come across them to see what they’re like. Yes, it was a bit sour, and yes, it had a thick, pastry-like consistency.
The itinerary then took us out of the town centre proper into the higher part of the town. The route took us along Stockport’s High Street, which isn’t the typical shopping hub, but takes its name from running at a higher level above Little Underbank. From here there was an impressive view of Robinson’s Brewery in the bright afternoon sunlight. Next came a short but stiff climb up Middle Hillgate which required a brief rest stop half-way up. This stretch is notable for the large number of closed pubs – we passed the Spread Eagle, Royal Oak, Bishop Blaize, Waterloo and Black Lion, all of which have closed in the present centre. One that closed a long time earlier, well before I moved to Stockport in 1985, was the Land O’Cakes, which is now used as offices, but preserves its name in the tiling in the entrance lobby.
Just past here was our next pub, the Sun & Castle, which is actually a substantial 1920s building, although that isn’t immediately obvious on a Victorian street unless you take a step back. It originally had a fine unspoilt inter-wars interior, although this was swept away in the 1990s in favour of cod-Victoriana. However, it still presents a traditional aspect, with plenty of dark wood, a separate public bar on the left, a spacious area facing the main bar, and a comfortable lounge section at the front right by the door featuring a couple of caged budgies.
Once a Tetley pub, it now belongs to Holt’s, and only cask beer available was their Bitter at a very reasonable £2.60 a pint. This was on particularly good form, and those from other parts of the country who never come across it were very impressed. By this time the party had started to straggle out somewhat and some latecomers turned up a quarter of an hour after the advance party. The pub was fairly quiet, but this was only to be expected in the late afternoon outside the town centre. The Sun & Castle is essentially a classic down-to-earth boozer, and none the worse for that.
We then headed westwards into the blinding rays of the low sun. The route passed the side entrance of Stockport’s impressive Town Hall, which is where the Stockport Beer Festival was held for a number of years before moving to the Edgeley Park football ground. Next to the Town Hall is a well-known fingerpost sign that includes “London 182½” amongst its destinations. Wellington Road South here is still the A6, once the London to Carlisle trunk road, and in fact was one of the first town bypasses in the country when originally built in the 1820s.
The Armoury pub stands opposite the impressive building from which it takes its name, with its distinctive pointed tower. Built in the 1920s, its latest repaint saw it fall victim to the currently fashionable grey paint scheme. The interior has been opened up a little, but still retains three separate rooms – the main lounge area on the right, a vault on the left and a rear snug that is used as a darts room – and the pub qualifies for a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory.
Most of the seats in the lounge were taken, although I’m not sure whether the Indian Premier League on the television was the main attraction so, the weather still being fairly balmy, we found some space in the beer garden at the rear. This is really an extended covered smoking shelter, and is a very good example of facilities for smokers being enhanced after the 2007 ban. The beer range in this Robinson’s pub was again Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde, both of which were very good. We were joined here by a couple of escapees from the Crewe Beer Festival who had decided to meet up for the last two pubs before staying overnight in Stockport.
On the way to the next pub, we were distracted by a beautiful silver Bengal cat that was behind a set of railings but was happy to submit to a bit of fussing. The question was asked whether it was wise to allow such a potentially valuable animal to wander the mean streets of Edgeley alone.
Our final call of the day was the Olde Vic, of which I hold the distinction of owning a small share. It differs from many community-owned pubs in that in this case the community group bought the freehold from the previous owner back in 2015, but allowed the existing tenant to continue in place. It’s a small street-corner free house that, back in the late 1980s under a previous licensee, was the first in Stockport to offer a varying selection of guest beers.
The interior is basically a single room with seating areas on three sides of the bar which is in the apex of the street corner. Since being taken over, the community group have smartened it up and carried out some much-needed repair work, but it retains its individualistic character with a selection of memorabilia and bric-a-brac. The wall behind us was covered with an array of pumpclips for beers served over the years. It’s also notable for an impressive range of snacks on cards behind the bar, including the famed Ploughman’s Lunch.
I had not actually been in since before the first lockdown last year, and was slightly surprised that the number of handpumps had been reduced from six to three, although in the current climate this makes sense and will help maintain quality. On this occasion, the beers available were Mallinsons Jester and Stockport Challenger and Stout. I think we all had the Mallinsons, which went down well, although entering into a discussion about climate change at this stage in the proceedings was possibly not a good idea. It was now about 7.30, and the pub was rapidly filling up.
A few had already dropped by the wayside, but those of us remaining then went their separate ways. This day was certainly by far my best pub-based social event of the year so far, although in most of the previous nine months they have been few and far between. As Paul Bailey says in his write-up of the day:
After an absence of over a year and a half, it was great to be able to travel un-hindered, drink freely in pubs and enjoy one another’s company once again. Fingers crossed, there will be many more such trips!
Some will no doubt be disappointed that we missed out their favourite pub, but there are only so many that can be fitted into a day, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find an alternative nine pubs in and around the centre that would also do the town proud. I had initially pencilled in a visit to the Robinson’s Brewery Visitor Centre, but unfortunately the bar has not yet reopened. I deliberately put the emphasis on some of Stockport’s classic heritage pubs, and indeed there are two more full National Inventory entries that are just a bit too far out for a town centre crawl, the Alexandra in Edgeley and the Nursery in Heaton Norris.
It’s difficult to judge the trade of pubs from one visit, especially at what are normally slack times anyway, but some at least were clearly doing good business, and there was plenty of evidence of the return of normal pub life. With the exception of table service in the Arden Arms, which may be more related to food service, none of the pubs visited were applying any Covid-related restrictions. Indeed, in my experience over the past three months, by and large pubs are the sphere of life where the shadow of Covid seems to have retreated most. Let us keep our fingers crossed that this isn’t derailed by the government reintroducing restrictions over the winter.
Thanks to Peter Allen for the photos of the Petersgate Tap, Sun & Castle and Olde Vic.