Monday 29 November 2021

Always the whipping boy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the appalling decision in Northern Ireland to introduce vaccine passports for hospitality venues. At the time, it wasn’t made clear whether this would apply to all premises, or just licensed ones. However, it has now been clarified that it will only cover licensed premises.

This comes across as yet more stigmatisation of the pub trade. Alcohol doesn’t somehow magically stimulate the virus, and surely, if the scheme is going to be effective at all, the possibility of transmission from unvaccinated customers would be just as great in cafés and coffee shops. It’s nothing to do with health or disease control, it’s just a tactic to coerce people into getting vaccinated.

It’s possible that some restaurants such as Nando’s where alcohol sales are only a minor part of their business may decide to stop selling alcohol entirely to avoid the restriction. This wouldn’t only allow them to serve unvaccinated customers, but also vaccinated people who object to passports on principle, and those who simply don’t want the faff.

And how long will it be before the booster jab is brought within the scope of the passports? And then the one after that? You’ll be signed up for life if you want to continue going to the pub.

Saturday 27 November 2021

You can lead a horse to water (again)

The other day in Tesco, I spotted ten-packs of canned Draught Guinness that were being sold with two cans of the alcohol-free version included. This may seem like an ingenious way of getting drinkers to give it a try, although apparently somebody complained because he thought at first glance it was a twelve-pack of the zero variety. However, on the other hand it perhaps comes across as having a whiff of desperation about it.

In recent years, the alcohol-free beer category has been heavily promoted, partly in response to health concerns over alcohol in general. An example of this is Heineken’s announcement of the roll-out of draught alcohol-free lager into a much greater number of pubs. Claims have been made that, within a few years, it’s likely to account for 10% or more of the entire beer market. Yet it never really seems to have taken off as hoped, and the zero alcohol section in said enormous Tesco is an apologetic two bays, also including wine, in a very long beer aisle. In fact they withdrew a “3 for £3” offer including some brands from small craft breweries, and now only feature mainstream brands.

The problem is that the marketers fail to recognise that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. Obviously in the current climate they can’t actually say this openly, and instead go on about taste and refreshment. While these are significant factors, if beer wasn’t alcoholic people wouldn’t drink it in anything like the same quantities.

I’m certainly not decrying the concept, and recognise that it has a place in the market where, for reasons of either health or wishing to maintain mental clarity, people don’t want a normal-strength beer. Indeed, I’ve tried a number of varieties myself, although I have drunk it much less since the beginning of last year’s lockdown, when my overall beer consumption significantly dropped anyway so I no longer saw much point.

But, ultimately, it’s always to a greater or lesser extent a distress purchase. People only drink it because they are familiar with normal-strength beer and see it as something that tastes and feels vaguely similar, although it’s never really quite as good, as alcohol is a key component in the flavour of beer. It is always hanging on the coat-tails of normal beers. Nobody is ever going to go on a pub crawl drinking alcohol-free beer, unless one individual is tagging along with a group of drinking mates, and nor are they going to seek out an obscure pub because it happens to sell the rare Zachariah Zodiac’s Zero Ale.

For this reason the potential of the sector is always going to be limited, and in fact may not be hugely above where it has reached at present. Many brewers who are piling effort into developing brands in the sector are going to end up with burnt fingers, and retailers won’t be interested in finding shelf space for a me-too alcohol-free version of every major lager brand.

You might imagine that, as there’s no duty to be paid, going alcohol-free offers the possibility of saving a fair bit of money, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. Brewers will point out that the de-alcoholisation process is in itself expensive and wipes out much of the duty saving, although it must be remembered that value comes from what someone is prepared to pay for a product, not what it costs to make.

In the on-trade, alcohol-free prices tend to be only a little below those of normal beer. The customers aren’t likely to be very price-sensitive anyway, and also probably won’t be regulars who shift large volumes. Plus there is the thinking that, if it is priced similarly to standard beer, it will be perceived as being of equal worth rather than just a cheap substitute. One exception to this is in Wetherspoon’s, where alcohol-free beers are priced at the same lower level as soft drinks within their inclusive meal deals, something that I’ve taken advantage of a few times myself.

In the off-trade, the fact that Tesco were offering “3 for £3” as a special offer rather illustrates the problem. There’s very little in a 330ml can that’s below 75p even in a multipack, with many at the full £1, and the 500ml single bottles tend to be £1.30, compared with 4 for £6 in the usual multibuy deal for standard bottles. Yet my local Morrisons will sell you a pack of ten 250ml stubbies of 2.8% French lager for £3.50. That’s probably on a par with the alcohol-free beers in terms of palatability, and realistically will make little difference to either health or sobriety. So if you just want a refreshing drop of something vaguely beery, it’s a much cheaper option.

I can’t help thinking that if 330ml cans of alcohol-free beer were made available at a similar price to cans of Coke and Pepsi they would find many more takers as a soft drink substitute than as a beer substitute. Possibly the future for the category should be portraying it not as something that almost tastes like normal beer, but as something that is (depending on your tastes) a lot nicer than fizzy pop, most of which tends to be extremely sweet.

I ran a Twitter poll on how often people drank alcohol-free beers which was widely circulated and got an impressive response, but didn’t show much enthusiasm. It must be said that many beer enthusiasts are very dismissive of the category, although I think, as often happens, people fail to appreciate how others’ attitudes to drinking and patterns of consumption can vary greatly from their own.

Monday 22 November 2021

A toxic conversation

Last week, Mark Johnson published a thought-provoking blogpost about how the language people use to talk about drinking can have an adverse impact on those who are having a problem with it, informed by his own experience.

He acknowledges that the traditional macho culture of “man up”, “gerrit down your neck” and “halves are for sissies” is much less prevalent now. At least within enthusiast circles, this has been helped by the way that the desire to try as many beers as possible has normalised the drinking of halves and even thirds.

But there is still the unhelpful construction that “if you’re doing THAT, then you have a problem”. This can easily make those who are struggling feel even worse about themselves. It can also serve to stigmatise those whose drinking habits don’t conform to those of the speaker. I’ve often heard people claim “I never drink at lunchtimes” as some kind of badge of honour, and it’s all too easy to sneer at those who enjoy a morning drink in Wetherspoon’s, when in reality they’re just doing it a different way from those who have a few pints in the evening.

He also discusses how some people use a reward system to control their alcohol intake:

Some people temper their beer intake by way of a personal reward system. If you do enough exercise or enough tasks from a to-do list then you earn the right to beer. You put beer in a place where it has the same value as your payslip or fixing a leak in the bath. Again, that is fine if you are whole but it puts pressure on the more vulnerable.
As he says, it works for some, but can be unhelpful for others. If you’ve had a bad day, then you may feel you have to deny yourself that soothing pint that might just take the edge off. It has parallels with the alternation of dieting and bingeing that many people trying to control their weight experience. In general, it isn’t really a good idea to make it a guilt trip.

On a related note, while rewards aren’t something I go in for beyond maybe having a celebratory drink on my birthday, I do tend to set a rough “drinking budget”. This is not to say I feel I have a problem, but for someone from whom beer and pubs are a major interest, it makes sense to keep tabs on my consumption. I generally have a good idea what I will be doing over the next few weeks, so I can estimate my likely intake. The possible downside of this is that, if I’m running substantially below budget, then there may be a temptation to compensate by having a bit more. But, as I grow older, my appetite for (and ability to) drinking lots tends to diminish anyway.

The point that most resonates with me is that of how the censure of people who don’t, or hardly, drink, can be counterproductive. This is a theme that I have often mentioned on this blog over the years. As a society, we currently drink a fair bit more than we did in the 1970s (although less than we did fifteen years ago), but we have become increasingly censorious about it. This reduces the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to the pub and is a major cause of the decline of the pub trade.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the pressure that comes from people - often friends or family members - questioning why you ARE drinking. People, for whom drinking is reserved for special events or weekends, can be overbearing in their derision of those who have a more casual approach to drink.

If you don't indulge in beer as much as others, there is inquisition over the simple idea of a pint after work on a Tuesday, a bottle of beer whilst cooking a Sunday roast, a celebratory can at the top of a hill after a steep climb. The questioning as to why you are having a beer – often phrased as why you need to have it - can have the same guilt-like effect as the previous mentioned beer reward system.

Those for whom pubs are a major part of their life often forget that not far off half the adult population never visit one from one month to the next, and a substantial proportion of those who do only go there for a meal. Going to the pub for a drink is very much a minority activity.

I’ve found this myself in discussions with relatives and work colleagues. If they’re likely to say “You had a pint? Of BEER?” then it’s easier just not to mention it, which makes it seem furtive and leads to the compartmentalisation of life. If normal, moderate drinking has to become a secret activity, then where does that leave problem drinking? As he concludes:

If we could remove the guilt surrounding drink then our relationship with it would be much healthier. People will not understand unless they have been to *that* place, but if people were allowed to drink whenever they wanted then they would drink a lot less.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Apartheid comes to Northern Ireland

The hospitality industry in Northern Ireland will have been dismayed by yesterday’s news that the province’s ministers had decided to introduce vaccine passports and extend their use to pubs and restaurants. (The report doesn’t make it clear whether it will also apply to unlicensed venues such as cafés and coffee shops). The plan is to be implemented from 29 November, but not be actually enforced until 13 December, just in time for Christmas. No doubt venues will be seeing a spate of Christmas and New Year party cancellations.

Obviously this will reduce trade by denying access to the unvaccinated, but it will also prevent visits by mixed groups, and many vaccinated people will feel unease about a “Papers Please!” regime. It will change the whole dynamic of visiting a pub. At the same time as reducing footfall, it will also increase venues’ costs by requiring them to dedicate staff to door control. Only in the very smallest places will one person be able to combing serving and checking everyone who comes in.

There is also the option of taking a lateral flow test up to 48 hours before the visit, but that turns pubgoing into a planned, premeditated event and rules out the possibility of the spontaneous swift pint. While it does allow for a positive PCR test dating back up to six months, there is no recognition of the long-term existence of Covid antibodies arising from prior infection, which provide far more protection against contracting the virus and passing it on than the vaccines do.

What is more, the measure is being implemented without any proper impact assessment whatsoever. It is entirely possible that in broader terms it will do more harm than good.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan said that this regulation should be put to a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly before it takes effect. He added: “Whenever we ask questions around the economic impact assessment, none has been carried out. No equality impact assessment; no assessment in terms of human rights legislation and yet, other executive ministers felt they could support a policy that had flaws within that paper, even on the scientific evidence.”
Also no time limit or conditions for ending the scheme have been given. How long will it be before the booster jabs are added to the definition of “fully vaccinated”? And then the next booster, and the one after that? And how long before this comes to other parts of UK?

Venues will be placed in the position of being confronted by a Devil’s bargain of having to accede to something that they may feel to be grossly immoral and objectionable or be put out of business.

It’s not as if it’s likely to be effective anyway in curbing the spread of Covid. The past year has shown that, while the vaccines are effective in reducing the severity of infection and the risk of death, they do not prevent people from either contracting the virus or passing it on. They are not the magic bullet that they were first claimed to be. Across Europe at present, many countries are seeing steeply rising infection rates amongst highly vaccinated populations. It fact is possible that they could even exacerbate transmission by encouraging socialising at unlicensed gatherings in private houses.

Even if vaccine passports were an effective means of curbing the spread, that would not of itself justify their introduction. They are inherently divisive and immoral. As the philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek said, “If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.” An absence of forced or coerced medication is a key hallmark of a free society. It is the kind of thing that totalitarian states do. This was put very clearly on Twitter this morning by Dr. Zoe Harcombe:

Covid authoritarianism is certainly leading our society down a very dark path. If you are concerned by this direction of travel, I would urge you to sign the Together Declaration against mandatory vaccine passports, and also give your support to Big Brother Watch, who have gained a lot of media coverage for their high-profile campaigning on the issue.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Silk in a glass

Four weeks after our exploration of Stockport, our latest Proper Day Out took us to the former silk town of Macclesfield, just a 12-mile train ride away taking 11 or 12 minutes by the non-stop trains. The return far was £8.10, reduced to £5.40 with the Senior Railcard, which hopefully Andy Burnham would not consider unreasonable. Macclesfield was originally a mill town and retains large areas of terraced housing, but in more recent years has increasingly become a popular commuter location, creating something of a tension between the two. Unlike the bright sunshine of Stockport, the weather was dull and overcast, with intermittent drizzle throughout the day.

Our meeting place was the Waters Green Tavern, a four-square mock half-timbered pub commanding the triangular public space of the same name which narrows as it slopes uphill towards the town centre. I spotted a black and white cat heading purposefully across the road towards the car dealership next door. As the pub didn’t open until noon, I had some time to take a couple of photos of the Castle, which featured on the itinerary for later in the day.

Internally, the pub is basically one L-shaped room with the bar in the front left corner, and alcoves of comfortable red dralon bench seating extending ahead and to the right, where we chose to sit and enjoy the benefit of the real fire. Due to an administrative mix-up, Martin Taylor had not yet received his copy of the 2022 Good Beer Guide, which is a bit of a problem when you’re trying to tick off the entries, and so he took advantage of the opportunity to photograph some of the pages of mine, although he did occasionally talk to us too. He had thought there might be one or two new entries in Macclesfield to tick off in this year’s edition, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

We had a discussion about Boak & Bailey’s blogpost about The Timeless Institution Pub and concluded that some of the commenters had rather missed the point. A number of other customers joined us shortly after noon to take advantage of the food on offer, but few more came in over the forty-five minutes we were there. It is unusual in still observing the traditional afternoon closure from 3 to 5.

The Waters Green used to rather confusingly advertise itself as “This is NOT a free house” as an indication of a long-running dispute with the owning pubco. I think it is now a genuine free house with no restrictions on which beers it can stock. Today there were four cask beers on offer – Salopian Oracle, Oakham Heights of Oblivion and Ossett White Rat, all very much on the pale side, and the dark Whim Red House Porter, all priced at £3.60. The general verdict was that they were pretty decent, but I felt the beer I had was a little lacking in condition.

The centre of Macclesfield is on two levels – the upper one where the parish church and most of the shops are, the lower one near the station. Sticking to the lower level, we followed Sunderland Street which runs parallel to the railway, passing two pubs on the route for later, to reach our lunch stop, Mandarina Bar on Park Green. This is another public space of irregular shape with Wetherspoon’s Society Rooms on the opposite side. As a café-bar style establishment, this may seem a surprising choice, but we had been well fed here back in 2017 and finding decent lunchtime food can be a problem on these trips without resorting to Wetherspoon’s. It’s also owned by Manchester brewery Hydes, so there is the prospect of some decent beer.

It’s not really a beer-focused place – and indeed you have to wonder what Hydes’ ownership brings to it – but it had two handpumps offering their California Red and Lowry, which had just run out. The barmaid noted our interest and said the Lowry would soon be replaced by Hydes Original. The California Red turned out to be very good, and ranked as one of the best beers of the day. It was £4.10 a pint, but that’s not unreasonable for a 5.2% beer.

The bar itself is an airy single room with a glass frontage, with modern furnishings including a mixture of posing tables and some seating at a normal level. Our numbers had now been reduced to two, as a couple decided on a liquid lunch while seeking out more pubs, and from the extensive menu we chose a rump steak sandwich and a main course calamari. While the quality of the food couldn’t be faulted, it must be said that the steak suffered from the common pub failing of being too thick to be easily eaten in a roll, and the portion size of the calamari suggested it was basically the same as the starter but with added accompaniments. Whatever happened to minute steaks?

The soundtrack seemed to major on some of the more obscure psychedelic music from the late 60s including Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf and Back On The Road Again by Canned Heat. I doubt whether many of the target clientele would have been alive when those songs were recorded. There was a fair scattering of customers, but it wasn’t anywhere near as busy as I remember from a Saturday lunchtime four years ago.

There then followed a fairly gentle ten-minute uphill walk to the next pub, the Park Tavern on Park Lane. The route took us along the side of Wetherspoon’s and through an underpass decorated with unusual and striking “graffiti tiles”. It’s an ex-Robinsons pub taken over a few years ago by the local Bollington Brewery. Although situated in the middle of a terrace, it’s deceptively spacious, with a long room on the right by the bar featuring modern-style bench seating, two further rooms to the left and a “cinema room” upstairs which was in total darkness. There was more 60s music playing, although there were only a handful of other customers, hardly surprising for a pub outside the town centre and not serving food at lunchtime. We did, however, run into Nick from Oxford, author of the Prop Up the Bar blog, who was spending a few days exploring Manchester and its surroundings, and who came with us for the rest of the crawl. We also joined up again with the lunch dodgers.

On the bar was a selection of Bollington beers including Best, Long Hop, Oat Mill Stout and Eastern Nights. There was also a small blackboard advertising George’s Wickedy Witch, a 3.6% English Bitter, which I decided to try, not realising it was actually a keg beer, although I don’t particularly mind and it was pleasant enough. I’m guessing it was also considerably more expensive than the cask, but it wasn’t my round. This also turned out be the first pub I have visited since reopening that didn’t accept cash, although I have been to one or two restaurants that didn’t. Had I been making a speculative visit on my own I would have taken my business elsewhere unless it had been somewhere I had my heart set on visiting, but clearly that’s not appropriate in a group.

We returned back down the hill and turned the corner on to Sunderland Street and the Jolly Sailor, a four-square, red-brick street-corner pub (The photo is a stock image, not one taken on the day). Although the interior has been opened up somewhat, it retains five distinct areas arranged around the bar, with plenty of dark wood and a roaring fire in the grate. There’s also a fascinating assortment of memorabilia and bric-a-brac. We found a cosy alcove around a polished table with an attractive marquetry inlay. There was yet more 60s music, this time more in a Northern Soul vein. I overhead an interesting conversation between the barmaid and some regulars about a couple of local alcoholics, which was amusing on one level but ultimately rather sad.

Although a very pleasant pub in its own right, its appeal is enhanced by the expected presence of Draught Bass on the bar, and we weren’t disappointed. It was my turn for four and a half pints at £17.10, possibly the most expensive round of the day, although £3.80 a pint is pretty reasonable really. It was very good indeed, although it must be said served a little too cold, and it improved as it warmed up. Other beers on the bar included Wainwright, Bradfield Farmers Blonde, Landlord and Bombardier. Possibly it is the lack of beers you’ve never heard of that keeps it out of the Good Beer Guide, because on this visit at least the quality should make it a shoo-in.

From here it was just a short level walk retracing our steps along Sunderland Street to the George & Dragon. On the way we encountered Carl, a Sunderland exile in Macclesfield who tweets as VauxWanderer and had been looking out for us. Robinson’s used to have a large holding of pubs in Macclesfield, but many have been either closed down or sold off, and the George & Dragon is one of the few remaining. About four years ago they spent a substantial sum refurbishing it, and it must be said the results are better than many of their other recent schemes, with a fair bit of bench seating remaining, but still seeming to make poor use of the available space, with one end entirely given over to the pool table. One alcove was occupied by a gentleman sitting on his own who very kindly moved elsewhere to make way for our group.

The beers on the bar were Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde, with most of us favouring the Unicorn (£3.60) which was in very good condition. Unlike the earlier pubs, this one featured a jukebox, an increasingly rare sight in pubs, and I put a quid in to provide some contrast with the previous fare. For some reason, it seemed to cut out just before reaching Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir – a track that always offers good value for money – but a complaint at the bar got it restarted and I was given an extra pound to make some more selections. Staying to listen to these slightly delayed our departure, but an additional half did not go amiss. (It will not surprise you to learn that Jethro Tull did feature).

We returned past the Waters Green Tavern to our final destination, the Castle. This is a small historic pub on a narrow street called Churchwallgate half way up the hill between Waters Green and the parish church. The bins which had been prominent in the photo I took earlier in the day had now been removed, but of course it was dark now. The pub had been closed for a number of years before being taken on by new owners and reopened in September of this year.

It has a superb unspoilt interior that qualifies it for a full entry in CAMRA’s National Inventory. There’s a tiny tap room immediately on the right, a glazed bar servery, a smoke room on the left with original bell pushes, and a cosy snug at the rear. There’s also a newer extension at a higher level to the rear that we didn’t venture into. The whole pub was absolutely packed – the busiest pub I’ve been in since at least Christmas of 2019 – and with hindsight we might have been better visiting earlier in the day. At first we had to resort to standing outside, but eventually found some seats in the rear snug.

My 1987 guide to Cheshire Ale lists it as offering Tetley Mild and Bitter and Ind Coope Bitter* on electric pumps, but today the selection was Mobberley Sidekick, Tight Head Front Row and Wantsum Red Raddle, all of which were thought to be in good nick. This was a sensibly limited range of three contrasting beers. From here it was only a short downhill walk to the station and the train home.

So another very enjoyable day out, made even better by making a couple of new acquaintances along the way. As we didn’t feel compelled to seek out new must-visit pubs, we were able to set a more leisurely pace than has been usual on these trips, allowing more pints and fewer halves to be drunk and making for a better experience all round. Again it was noticeable how pub life has moved on from Covid paranoia even if much of the rest of society has not, and the stickler for social distancing would have done well to give the Castle a wide berth. And, no, I didn’t have any John Smith’s, either cask or smooth.

* In the early days of CAMRA, Macclesfield was considered something of a mecca for real ale, with the 1977 Good Beer Guide saying that the town had “eight different brews in more than 60 real ale pubs”. I think those would have been Bass, Boddington’s, Greenall’s, Ind Coope, Marston’s, Robinson’s, Tetley’s and Wilson’s. Of course there is now much more absolute choice and, while many of those 60 pubs are no longer with us, some new venues have sprung up to take their place.

Historically, the Allied Breweries empire had a large pub holding in Macclesfield, including the Castle, arising from the takeover of local brewer Lonsdale & Adshead by Ind Coope in 1950, although there is now very little evidence of it remaining. At some time in the 1980s these pubs were rebranded from Ind Coope or Ansell’s to Tetley’s to align with the brand that was promoted in the Granada TV region.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Turkish delight

During the lockdown, Holt’s brewery bought and refurbished the Lower Turk’s Head on Shudehill in Manchester city centre, and reopened it in July. So I thought I would take a trip to have a look at it, and also take advantage of the opportunity to pay a visit to one or two of the other classic pubs in the city. Manchester is only ten minutes on the train from Stockport, but you have to be aware when buying a ticket that there is an evening peak period that lasts until 6.30. However, it wouldn’t be too much hardship to spin out my visit until after that, and at £3.20 after the Senior Railcard discount the off-peak return is very good value.

Outside the main entrance to Piccadilly station I was struck by a sculpture of a line of wounded soldiers that had been installed in November 2018 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I had actually been through Piccadilly a couple of times in 2019, but on both occasions I took the tram from the undercroft and so had never noticed it before. On the walk up Piccadilly towards the city centre the heavy pedestrian traffic was very noticeable, much more so than in any of the other towns and cities I have visited since reopening, and a clear sign that Covid paranoia is receding in people’s minds.

Shudehill is a street on the northern fringe of the city centre climbing up towards Rochdale Road, where the dwindling number of Victorian buildings seem to be fighting a losing battle against the encroachment of modern steel and glass edificies. One of them is the Lower Turk’s Head, with its striking tiled frontage. After a long period of closure, it was brought back to life in 2013 and then bought and refurbished by Holt’s during the lockdown. It has now been extended into the building on the right. In the 2000s, StreetView shows this as an adult bookshop, but it later became Scuttlers Wine Bar – I’m not sure whether this was an offshoot of the pub at the time. In any case, it has now been incorporated as a part of the pub proper.

The entrance door on the left takes you into the main part of the pub which has been refurbished by Holt’s in their characteristic style with an abundance of dark wood and polished brass. There’s an alcove of bench seating at the front by the window, the long main bar on the right, and then a comfortable but rather dark seating area at the rear which widens out to the left. The extension is at a lower level, and contains another bar and some rather odd choir stall-type seating with a ridge just where you want to put your neck when leaning back.

On the bar were the full range of Holt’s cask ales – Mild, Bitter, IPA and Two Hoots – plus a guest from their Bootleg microbrewery. It’s noticeable that, nowadays, all the keg beers are their own products too, Sam Smith’s style. Unfortunately my Bitter was a little warm and lacklustre, and £3.60 is hardly the value for money we have traditionally expected from Holt’s. It was fairly quiet, although Tandleman found it heaving on a late Saturday afternoon. The soundtrack seemed to feature some of the more quirky songs from the early 80s such as The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats and Waiting For a Train by Flash and the Pan. The pub in general has been tastefully refurbished, but hopefully at busier times the beer is better.

A few doors further up is the Hare & Hounds, another Victorian pub with a tiled facade, albeit rather more subdued. The steps up to the front door take you into a superb unspoilt interior dating from a 1920s refit, which qualify it for a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The central bar is surrounded by a front vault, a drinking lobby and a rear smoke room with a narrow bay of seating extending into the window.

There are usually three beers on, often including Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, but two were obscured by drinkers at the bar, and the only pump I spotted was Holt’s Bitter, which was what I was after anyway. At £2.70, this was much cheaper than the Lower Turk’s Head and also of much better quality. This must be some of the cheapest cask beer in the city centre outside Wetherspoon’s.

The good value may have been a factor in it being much busier too, with a good number of customers throughout, particularly clustering in the lobby. They mostly reflected the archetypal older male clientele, and this pub could be regarded as being a local in the city centre. The music choice included Back Stabbers by the O’Jays.

I then made my way through the grid of streets in the Northern Quarter to reach another National Inventory pub, the Unicorn on Church Street. This is an altogether grander affair, a substantial street-corner pub in a kind of modern classical style built in 1924. The largely untouched interior boasts a wealth of light oak panelling and has an island bar with a seating area facing it on the left, a snug at the rear, and two cosy rooms to the right on the other side of the central corridor.

A couple of years ago, there was a threat to gut it and turn it into a sports bar, which led to its qualities being reassessed by CAMRA and promotion to the first tier of the National Inventory, together with gaining official listed building status. Sadly, it’s one of those places where the quality of the fittings does not seem to be matched by that of the actual pub operation. On this occasion, much of the bar was draped with cobwebs and other Halloween tat. There was a good scattering of drinkers occupying the seating on the bar side, and I overhead one of them suggesting to a companion that he should “get one of those fucking electric frogs.” No, I have no idea...

It was originally built by one of the companies that became part of the Bass empire, and for many years has featured Draught Bass on the bar. Indeed the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers used to meet in the upstairs function room – I’m not sure if they still do. I was pleased to see that it was on today, as there had been reports of intermittent availability. It was reasonably priced at £3.40, but was distinctly disappointing, not off as such, but very much on the warm and flat side. Other beers on the bar were Doom Bar, Wainwright and Hobgoblin Gold, which wasn’t the world’s most enticing range. The one next to the Bass is just a notice hung on the pump handle. I’m not sure whether the sound system was a jukebox or not, but it suddenly switched to an Irish Republican anthem going on about Kilmainham Gaol, which to my ears struck a discordant note.

I headed back to Market Street and crossed what remains of Piccadilly Gardens to reach the Circus Tavern, which always seems to be further down Portland Street than I had thought. This is another National Inventory entry, a tiny, narrow-fronted pub in a row of variegated Victorian buildings that have managed to survive amongst the more modern development surrounding them. It isn’t the smallest pub in Europe, but it claims with justification to have the smallest bar, a tiny quadrant on the left half-way along the corridor.

It has two small cosy rooms with bench seating. The one at the front always seems to have a vault character and is frequented by the regulars, while the one to the rear is more of a snug. I managed to take a snap of the seating opposite in the brief interlude between it being occupied by groups of customers. Understandably, the Circus didn’t reopen until social distancing restrictions were lifted in July, and anyone concerned about getting too close to others would do well to avoid it. At teatime, it seemed to attract a wide range of customers who were just popping in for a quick one in between doing other things.

Historically a Tetley pub, it has always sold Tetley Bitter alongside another beer. Last time I visited this had been Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, but on this occasion I think it was Wainwright. I plumped for the Tetley’s, which was in very good nick, and seems to have become less sweet and regained a hint of its old character since the brewing was moved from Wolverhampton to Cameron’s at Hartlepool. This was £4, the dearest beer of the day.

If I had been showing a stranger around the pubs of Manchester, I would then have taken them in the almost equally small Grey Horse a couple of doors down, which indeed is what I did when following a similar itinerary five years ago. However, on this occasion I wanted to take a look at the Waldorf on the way back to the station, which is a pub I hadn’t visited during this century. It used to be a Whitbread pub, and one thing that sticks in my mind was it selling the short-lived GB Lager, which was dispensed from a pump resembling an actual bath tap. What a brilliant marketing idea to get customers to associate your beer with dishwater.

It is situated on Gore Street just off the main thoroughfare of Piccadilly. I don’t really recall how the interior was before, but my memory was of a knocked-through but reasonably comfortable pub with plenty of dark wood. However, I was taken aback to be confronted by posing table hell. The only normal-height seating was one alcove of benches and a raised seating area with a few tables. It very much gave the impression of somewhere designed for customers who would have a quick one before moving somewhere else rather than settling in for the evening.

The beer choice was Doom Bar, Landlord and Banks’s Amber, which was being promoted as a guest beer. I went for this at £3.95 which was actually better than I had expected from the general vibe of the pub, and I managed to find a decent spot in the raised seating area. I also asked for a glass of tap-water to wash down my anti-lycanthropy pills, for which purpose you really don’t need a whole pint. It was interesting to visit the Waldorf to see what it was like, but it’s not a pub that I’d return to in a hurry.

It was now after the witching hour of 6.30, and from here it was only a short walk back to the station and the brief train ride back to Stockport. I have to say I never really feel at home in Manchester city centre, finding it much too metropolitan and impersonal for my tastes, but it does retain some welcoming oases of traditional pub life if you know where to look.

It’s impossible to judge from one visit at what is normally a slack time anyway how trade compares with pre-lockdown, but the Hare & Hounds and Circus Tavern in particular seemed to be doing good business and there was no evidence of Covid rules in any of the pubs. The general level of activity on the streets suggested that people had now put lockdowns well out of their minds. So it would be disappointing if the government were to heed the siren calls of the usual zealots and bring the shutter of restrictions clanging back down again.