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.


  1. The extension to the Hare & Hounds , Scuttlers, was already an extension before Holts took over.

    1. I thought it might have been, but it wasn't obvious from StreetView. And I'm sure the adult bookshop wasn't an extension!

      And I think you mean the Lower Turk's Head ;-)

  2. bloke goes out to drink real ale.
    is surprised it's warm and flat.

  3. Before the pandemic when I drank there regularly, the Bass at the Unicorn was always reliable, unlike the other cask beers which were hit and miss due to low turnover, helped largely by the group of former market traders from north Manchester who met there at dinnertime and shifted lots of it. I'd guess that they're either no longer with us, have got out of the habit of coming into town every day or migrated to the Hare and Hounds.

    1. On the visit in the blogpost I linked to, it wasn't on, and it wasn't very good when we took the Southworths there either. It comes across as a sloppily run pub in general, tbh.

      Does that street market still exist - there was no evidence on Tuesday last week.

    2. No real reason to go there when you have so many great pubs nearby.

  4. No, it went years ago, some time in the 90s iirc.

  5. The Unicorn takes me back more than a bit
    When I was working at the University fifty years ago in the early seventies we used to have a session there every Friday night: after work until late.
    It had waiter service, waiter summoned by a bell on the dado rail.
    And, sad to relate, we invariably drank Guinness

  6. Again my experiences, particularly of beer quality, are the same as yours. I would have nipped in the Lower Turks Head last Saturday before noon but with staff standing at the door it didn't feel open yet (a lot of Manc pubs do open at noon) so I ended up at the Marble Arch.

    My last Bass at the Unicorn was warm and dull. Never been in the Waldorf but it's a favourite of City fans apparently.


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