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The Pubs of Stalybridge Part One: The Stalybridge Seven.


And a touch more ... 

Rififi Nightclub - once the town's cinema - has stood empty and unused for four and a half years


This is the continuation of my posts of regular pub crawls to try and get myself in more pubs and discover more.

Whilst I grew up in an old hamlet that most were quick to distance themselves from, my address clearly stated that we belonged to Stalybridge. However distant the town centre felt I was a Stalybridger, a Stalybridgian, a Stalyian: you know I don’t think I’ve ever heard us given a name before. I’m going with Stalyian.

After a few moves around the country and through various relationships, I didn’t expect to find myself still local to the town in 2017. Whilst my address hasn’t stated Stalybridge for 3 years, I still spend plenty of time in the town – not least as it houses my “local.”

To many in the north-west, it is famous for its nickname of Staly Vegas, that came about (as far as I’m aware) through its late Nighties-through-to-Noughties town centre regeneration. This blossomed due to a sort of revitalisation project around the central canal area by the new Tesco, improvements to two bus stations and an influx of age-restricting, dress-code-enforcing bars and pubs. I can't say exactly when the term Staly Vegas was first used, especially as the town has only ever resembled Vegas as much as Blackpool is reminiscent of The Maldives.   

The concept of Staly Vegas began to die around 2007 and officially broke in 2011, with the lowering of strict entry policies bringing delinquent youths and drug dealing to the once respectable bars. What the town has been left with for six years is numerous boarded up buildings once used as venues that seem to be no longer use or ornament. Add to that a "rumoured" insurance scam that ripped a fire through several buildings by the canal leaving an ugly scar on the centre once more and the town has started to feel a little post-apocalyptic.



Stalybridge V3

I’ve been predicting a rise for Stalybridge as a town centre for some time and that will only be achieved with what some would view as gentrification; but really is the next revitalisation project.  

After all, in Ticketybrew, Stalybridge has its first brewery since 1904. It has its first micropub and bottle shop. The burnt out buildings are being turned into predictably fancy looking apartments. There seems to be the current building of a proper coffee shop, rather than another “Caf.” Heck, even Wetherspoons recently had a makeover. Pubs have a potential for a comeback, as those that were lost forever in the Vegas years were those that sold out on their pub identity to fit into a profitable bar landscape.

Perhaps sensing some needed promotion for the town, there came the emergence of a CAMRA backed leaflet campaign promoting the “Stalybridge Seven;” a pub crawl around seven (surprisingly) different pubs where one can supposedly find quality beer. Having wanted to include Stalybridge in my Pub Crawls of 2017 venture, the Stalybridge Seven sounded like a good place to start in this town. I’d been in all the pubs listed previously of course but not with new eyes.

Pubs were visited on a Saturday Afternoon in May 2017.

Stalybridge Buffet Bar.

The sensible starting point geographically seemed to be Stalybridge Buffet Bar, though not that I had to familiarise myself with it. If you want to know about the pub, then read this article from last year that I wrote for Manchester Beer Week. The main addition to that article now, aside from a changing of some staff, is another three rotating guest keg lines – so it’s only improved.



My particular visit on this tour featured Thornbridge’s Mango Halcyon tasting the best it had from anywhere I'd purchased it. It was also during the dreaded 11am-2pm Saturday period where large groups beginning the Transpennine Rail Ale Trail descend on the pub. Luckily it was a warm afternoon and many had migrated outside, leaving a quieter pub environment. Should you wish to visit, I do advise avoiding this period of the day for a better experience (Thanks a lot James May and Oz Clarke.)

The negatives? It is sometimes the hottest pub on earth, partly due to the close proximity of the kitchen to the bar and partly because some crazy staff have been known to light the fire in fricking June.


And don't ask for bloody Black Peas.

The Q Inn

After the former pub, the Q Inn is likely Stalybridge’s most famous pub due to its entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the pub with the shortest name in the country. At one point, the town was home to both the pub with the shortest and longest name – more on that later.


The Q has been a Hyde’s House for as long as I can recall and has dabbled in and out of hand-pumps, though has currently settled on four permanents. Whether you enjoy the interior will depend on your preferences - I personally enjoy the exposed brickwork and fancy windows. Staff and locals have also varied in the past, though both were particularly welcoming on this most recent of visits.




We went into the hidden pool room upstairs – God I miss pool. I played that afternoon and couldn’t remember the last time I’d held a cue. A cue in the Q... guffaw. Forget your shuffleboard and table tennis, when is a modern beer bar going to stick a pool table in? Craft beer pool and snooker halls – that’s what this country needs.

At 50p a game we washed down my triumphant pool winning streak with halves of Q Ale; which is almost certainly Hyde’s Bitter rebranded for the pub. Having never been much of a Hyde’s fan, I found I was actually loving it on this day, a sign of the super dry hoppy beer fatigue I've had recently . We left when a couple sat right by the pool table to watch us play in what was either a creepy swinging moment or a hint that they wanted use of the table.

  


The White House

One of the extra stops I wanted to work into this tour was the 2016-opened Stalybridge Tavern. Alas, on this warm Saturday afternoon, I find it closed. I mean I have been before so could review it, but that would be cheating. Maybe I’ll include it in Round Two of the Town.



So we moved onto The White House. I’ve never been sure where the name came from? 




The White House is a Hyde’s pub that is also under the same stewardship as The Q Inn. It’s the more experimental younger brother, with a larger and braver ale selection, live sports (though shown unobtrusively) and live bands from time to time.

The interior is warm and pubby - particularly for those that remember it in in its soulless Vegas years. Whilst it shows a good variety for a tied house in its cask selection, a Buster IPA from Bowland's Brewery wasn't to my taste on this occasion. 

An unwelcome figure that I didn’t want to engage in conversation with was sat in the corner, so the stay here was hurried. The perils of drinking in a familiar town.

The Wharf Tavern

A turn right out of The White House brings you down the gorgeously named Caroline Street to a beautiful canal side pub and CAMRA favourite – and I mean CAMRA favourite.



Despite my to-ing and fro-ing from Stalybridge for all my thirty years, I have only previously stepped foot in The Wharf Tavern once before - some five years ago. This is mostly due to its traditional opening hours that still see it close after lunch in midweek until the evening. 

It's also grated me for some time that this is the prime choice in town for all CAMRA events and meet-ups. In 2017, I hope to discover why inside.  

Three cask lines: Two Thwaites (Bomber and Wainwright) and Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippin’ ...

Then I am quoted the price for two pints. “£5 please.” Ahhh.... I see... The Deal Clincher.

There’s a warmth and a homeliness to the Wharf Tavern; it’s bright which gives light to the off-pink decor and busy walls. It’s the sort of pub that has the feel of being in your Nan’s front room.



Having said that, the entire clientele are male and over 50. Whilst there are a few inquisitive looks at the two “youngsters” that have entered the realm, it's not aggressive. The Golden Pippin’ tastes, for what it’s worth, like Golden Pippin’. I mean it’s shite – but well conditioned shite, so that’s something I guess.

It has no right to be considered CAMRA's premier pub of Stalybridge though. 

As we’re leaving a folk band is striking up in the side room for an afternoon jam. The Wharf is worth a peep in out of interest of pubs, but isn’t exactly a reason to visit Stalybridge.

Bridge Beers

Opening in Early 2016, Stalybridge’s first Bottle Shop and Micro-pub was something of an excitement for me. Housed amongst the shops of Melbourne Street, it is a cosy and quaintly decorated small shop with an upstairs also like your grandparent's dining room. I really believed we would finally have a destination place that could even tear me away from my favourite.



Somehow Bridge Beers just haven’t got it as right as I hoped, though this may be my preference. The bottle selection is small and very conservative, whilst the pub section of the place consists of gravity drawn beer from behind the bar. There’s also the unusual decision to list 8 beers across two boards, when only a maximum of four are available at one time, which often leads to a needless “Oooh I’ll have...” “It’s not on” discussion.

I also consider the beer choice to be ... even more conservative... with the likes of Tweed Brewing Co and Phoenix being about the par. Again, this will appeal to plenty but is an indication of the market being targeted here, which wasn’t what I expected prior to opening.

Let's not forget that this is the place that I once overheard the following said about Track Brewing's Sonoma: "It's been popular and one of our fastest sellers - but its not to my taste so I don't think I'll get it again." 



Since my visit, the place has acquired the sign to the pub that until its permanent closure last year had the longest pub name in Britain – The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn. This is a great piece of local pub memorabilia and props to David and his team for bringing it safely into another Stalybridge pub.

(I recently asked Twitter what the new record holder is but nobody seems to know. Answers in the comments please.)


The Society Rooms

Undoubtedly the Stalybridge Wetherspoon’s House is amongst the worst and most stereotypical type in the country. The layout and decor is similar to a 1970s airport lounge, the clientele are mostly drunk cheap thrill seekers and the staff are as rude and frequently missing as Tim Martin seems to insist.

It also used to fit nicely into the sort of Spoons that featured 5 lines of that old favourite “Available Soon," though they must be struggling to get that in as recent visits have found Stalybridge as a small Oakham Brewery Tap, with at least two or three of their efforts on each time.



Except on this particular visit  of course where Acorn Brewery seemed to have conducted a tap takeover instead. My half of Darkness was perfectly palatable, but being a Saturday the usual angry drunks were joined by the perambulator showcase brigade, so we hurried our stay.

Since this visit, The Society Rooms went on to be closed for a few weeks whilst a refurbishment took place. Reopening on July 14th with a much larger dining area and beer garden, most of the pub still has the same feel. Albeit with a modern open kitchen that is (apparently) slower than the previous for service. 



Lounge Bar

In a detour from the Stalybridge Seven, we bobbed into the Bohemian Lounge Bar; one of the last surviving Vegas bars. It was a favourite of mine when the Town had bars to choose from. We only stuck our heads in on this day as our friend has been doing a refurbishment job on it in recent months. We weren’t expecting to see any cask lines on, having not seen any here for five years, however one did exist and was showcasing Ticketybrew’s Double Hop Pale.




We ordered pints each and marvelled at the refurbishment job, offset nicely by those beautiful wooden reels I provided. However, our pints were given to us like a New England murk bomb. Knowing Ticketybrew well enough to know they are finings fans, I knew this wasn’t right, but I was hardly in the mood to complain until I’d tasted it.

Expecting a lovely hit of white vinegar immediately, imagine our surprise when we tasted one of the best beers we’d had all day; one of the nicest pints I’ve had from Ticketybrew in fact.

It’s obvious Lounge are doing something that allows them to immediately put the beer on before it has settled (What is Fastcask and is this it?.) Whatever is happening, it isn’t to the beer’s detriment (or at least wasn’t on this day) so fair play to Lounge. If they can keep it and sell it then maybe I'll be back to gather around one of those bobbins.

Stalybridge Labour Club

This was another detour from the Stalybridge Seven, though is just 20 yards from port number seven on that particular crawl.

After a couple of unfortunate events, including money troubles and fires, Stalybridge Labour Club has been saved, refurbished and recently reopened. It was once another CAMRA favourite; somewhat undeservedly just like the Wharf. Having said that, I will forever remember it as the place I first had Punk IPA on cask in 2009, so the place was reasonably good at one point.

Now though it is a souless pit of an establishment. They’ve opted for some strange grey colour scheme – perhaps in an attempt to modernise. All it does is make you actually lust for an old school Brian Potter club interior.



But what about the beer? Oh I just had to go for a Mansfield English Pride from Martson’s having not seen the beer for nearly 10 years. It really Was an undrinkable mess of malted sludge which made it difficult to return; as I always remember this beer being awful.

This was one of two beer offerings. with the other being Doom Bar, and I can tell you to avoid the Club if it’s beer you’re after. If local CAMRA start using this place again I actually will quit being a member.

Old Hunter’s Tavern

The final stop on the Stalybridge Seven, "The Hunter’s” has an unusual cult following in the town centre. For reasons I’ve previously been unable to fathom, it pulls in regulars from across the whole of Stalybridge (which has a large catchment area.) There are a couple of visitors to the Buffet Bar whose sole purpose of visiting seems to be so they can exclaim how much better (and cheaper) the beer is in the Hunter’s.

It may be because the Hunter’s is a Robinson’s house – now the only one left in Stalybridge. Unusually for an East Manchester town, it has no other Robinson’s houses to compete with and so pulls in all the Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde fans it requires. Yes, I’m still surprised so many exist but they do.



On this particular visit the pub is as packed with regulars as expected, so much so that I felt foolish trying to take pictures in there. I opt for a Hartley’s XB and find it rather tasty. There’s no doubt they’re keeping the beer well here. We squash ourselves at the end of the bar and soak up the atmosphere, which is full of laughter amongst old friends. It’s a pub institution and it's great to see such a place thriving in the Town. Sometimes a friendly atmosphere and a pint of well kept Unicorn is enough to draw people back. This is such a pub for many, even if the Robinson's beer won't be enough to draw me back personally.

Bull’s Head

With the Stalybridge Seven over, we wandered around the otherside of Tesco’s to the Bull’s Head just on the outskirts of the immediate Town Centre.



The Bull’s Head is a boozer by definition and performs that task well. Projector screens, Dartsboard and a jukebox create a good old fashioned pub feel against a really rather pleasant interior. It is also busier than this picture suggests, though most of the regulars squeeze into a more exclusive tap room on the opposite side.

It has forayed once more into cask beer, albeit with big brand DoomBar on this occasion. It was well kept, though this is where I became weary whilst my friend talked to staff that he knew. I drank up, headed to Tesco to make some drunken dinner purchases and sidled home.


I've no doubt that Stalybridge is still in recovery from its long gone Staly Vegas era. I wish I'd taken more pictures of the number of bars still boarded up, still unable to attract new investment despite being shut for years. But note that six out of these ten pubs visited have had a refurbishment in the past 18 months. Perhaps they are preparing for V3. 

There are enough beer drinkers who will be more than satisfied with the Stalybridge Seven and it is the kind of crawl I can see being praised in the Opening Times. But in a Beer Scene that demands more to make people train hop there is no doubt that only one pub is giving an attractive reason to visit at present. It might well be one of the best pubs in the country - so that should be enough - but if not then I can't back it up with a Good Beer Guide recommended visit to The Wharf Tavern or a potential pint of Dizzy Blonde with added misogyny. 

If anything, the town wouldn't hurt from the gentrification people fear. First came the brewery (who keep hinting at a Brewery Tap) - next comes the coffee. Hopefully, Stalybridge will soon be able to offer more than a Bacon Sarnie and a pint of cheap Foster's. That is more than that visit from The One Show and fricking Portillo promised



Part Two - when I visit mostly pubs I've never entered in the town previously - coming soon. 

Comments

Anonymous said…
Great article Mark, Wonderful proper drinkers town,and some very picturesque trad pubs to go along with the scenery. Bit surprised to hear the Wharf called a CAMRA favourite; I don't recall it being in the Good Beer Guide in all the years I've been going there.
Martin
Mark Johnson said…
Thank you. And that's an interesting point - I was calling it a CAMRA favourite as they always hold their meetings or socials there if they are in Stalybridge. Maybe I just assumed it was therefore in the Guide without even checking. And now you say it I don't think it is. If it's not, that raises a different and worst point anyway
Anonymous said…
I suppose you can be a perfectly adequate pub (decent beers) and have good meeting facilities, without quite being good enough for a Guide that has to pick the <10% best pubs. Slightly reassuring that local CAMRA don't automatically put it in the Guide, particularly with a cheap pint !

Martin

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