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.