The below trip was experienced just
over a year ago now. I've postponed writing about it as the current situation
has continued and the future of pubs has been in doubt.
For completion's sake, and with the
suggestion that I can look forward to starting these trips up again next
season, I've written the below. My experiences are based on a pre-pandemic
world and it doesn't change my view that I hope every pub and bar is able to
open again successfully, regardless of any past visits.
It is a fact of life that the further
away from home you travel, the less precise you have to be about where you are
from. If you are on holiday in Colombia, you can loosely tell people that you
are from England, should they ask. The chap you bump into on your local dog
walk would probably like detail closer to the estate or even street name.
I think it was when I went to
university that I became “from Manchester.” I’d never considered myself to be
from Manchester but it is the nearest big city and so it became the signpost.
Everybody was from Manchester or London or Birmingham or Newcastle regardless
of mileage between. One person said they were from Burton and nobody had a clue
where it was. To this day I’m not sure which Burton they were referring to and,
even then, it would be little help.
The reason I can’t consider myself
“from Manchester” is because I barely know it. I didn't understand the
references to "Hacienda Nights" that I used to hear Darren Procter
make on Key 103. The inaugural Manchester Beer Week in 2016 taught me about the
proud link to bees that has become internationally famous. I'd rather chew
barbed wire than listen to anything recorded by The Stone Roses. There are many
of the city’s more famous areas that I had never heard of, or certainly never
been to, until beer made me aware of their existence. Certainly, the rise in
specialty beer bars or micropubs has at least led to people hopping off the
train in destinations they may have never visited prior.
Urmston is a good example of that. I'd
never heard of it until a few years ago. I was sure I had no real reason to
visit, but the opening of 3 or 4 new beer places over the last decade has
brought it to my mind. With a couple of nearby non-league football teams, I
made the trip over in February (2020) to watch Trafford FC play Runcorn Linnets
and take in as many places as I could squeeze in.
|The Barking Dog
It is the 1st February
and a cool but dry Manchester winter’s morning when I arrive at Urmston train
station. The confirmation of leaving the European Union was the day before.
This is the first day of a strange few weeks that manages to be both
post-Brexit but pre-COVID Britain.
Urmston is bustling. I’m not sure what
I expected at 11am on a Saturday in a small Manchester town but it wasn’t
packed pavements filled with the slowest walking people I have ever come
across. Nobody is in a rush here. If the image, for some, of post Brexit
Britain is a return to dangerously busy local high streets, then Urmston was
fighting to be the poster child.
As other pub’s in the area haven’t
opened yet, I have but one choice for my first drink.
Before the current pandemic, there may
have been much that I resented about the owner of Wetherspoons, but I at least
recognised their place and importance in modern day Britain. In present times
though I'd be much more reluctant to visit one, even to spend that £30 gift
voucher a relative gave me two Christmas' ago. This visit to the Tim Bobbin was
my most recent to any 'Spoons and potentially my last.
The Tim Bobbin is very much in the
“McSpoons” stylistic category, representing those made to feel like an airport
lounge. I sit on a high stool opposite the bar with an underpoured pint of
Exmoor Gold. Brilliantly, it isn't Exmoor Gold, even though that is the
pumpclip on display. It is Exmoor Beast. Somehow I didn't notice the
glaring lack of gold colour until back in my chair but I made the decision to
live with it. It had been a while since I’d had the Beast and it tasted
There’s a large group next to me, some
of whom seem to have just finished a night shift, some of whom are having
breakfast whilst currently at work and some who have obviously come to join
their mates. It is a nice reminder of the effectiveness of ‘Spoons and its
Halfway through my pint, the group are
joined by a gentleman who continuously scans the entire building as he finds a
seat. He manages the remarkable feat of slouching into a full Tim Westwood lean
in a high, backless stool. The rest of the group are now forced to listen to
this new arrival tell numerous tales, all of which end in some act of violence.
He looks over at me more than a few times, perhaps simply wishing for me to
hear his yarn or more likely to acknowledge that I’m a stranger in his house.
Either way, I don’t feel intimidated but it does make for an unpleasant experience.
Play the stereotype Timbo.
At this point I nip over to Prairie
Schooner, a bar I’ve heard mention of for many a beer launch but never been to.
It is an interesting little place. The front has been kitted out to look like
every shop placed micro-pub/bottle shop opened in the last decade. Yet somehow
the back room retains the feel of a century old pub, reminiscent of the back
rooms in old favourites such as The Grove, Leeds or White Star, Liverpool.
It is in here that a common theme of
the day really shines, as I order each of my drinks several times. This is Manc
Manchester, where accents are tinged with that slight roll of the Rs that is
ironically close to Liverpudlian. Nobody behind any of the bars can quite
comprehend my Lancastrian / East Manchester / generic Northern accent type 3.
It takes four attempts to order a Wylam Jakehead.
The biggest surprise here, and I mean
this in the kindest way, is the type of regulars that drop in whilst I’m there.
They are the typical “old boy” type characters one might expect to be first at
the bar on any given Saturday of any pub that has been standing for a century.
This isn’t a criticism of any kind. If newer micro pub/bottle shop hybrids are
to survive the current wave of interest in their type, then a foundation of
regulars is a must.
The bottle fridges are enough to tempt
me to stay but I move on, knowing I’ve found a place I will hopefully return to
My nepotistic love of good station pubs
made me quite keen to get in The Steamhouse. Station pubs come in all varieties
but my veneration for all was formed by my childhood born love for Class A4
It was busy already for midday,
reflecting the streets outside. I ordered a Kingmaker from Lancaster
brewery on cask, before realising I should have paid more attention to
the interesting keg line-up. I squeeze in on the last free table in the main
bar area and take in the pub.
It's a decent pub. Thin, but long, with
spacious areas either side of the bar. It is familiar. Oddly familiar. I note
the Spaten on keg and oddly think of Rothaus Pils for
a moment. Then the memory awakens. I have been here before.
Yes, I once came to The Steamhouse on a
date, one that had apparently been abandoned to my large library of suppressed
memories. I can clearly picture the sizeable Rothaus font at the end of the bar
and the amount that I drank that night to survive the tortuous event. I must
have dived on the train home and never thought of it again.
It is a shame really as I like the
place. I have better memories now.
A short walk from the station (Urmston
is very condensed) is The Assembly. This is another one of those bars I see
frequent mention of on Twitter, without quite knowing its location.
The continual enmity between those
considered traditional pubs on modern beer bars is always a source of frustration
for me as, from a customer’s point of view, they have more in common with each
other than the militants think. My experience in The Assembly reflected this.
As I entered the downstairs square
room, with Art by Volume prints adorning the left
walls, I am met with the faces of the only three or four customers in the
place, all sat at the nearest spot by the bar. They all stop the conversation
and watch my entire movements as I cross the room, order a drink and take a seat
as far from the bar as possible. Anybody who thinks they wouldn’t like older
pubs because of being stared at, well this is the worst I have ever experienced
I had a third of some Cloudwater
DIPA and drank it rather quickly. This is by far the quietest place of
the day. I am sure when it is bustling it takes on an entirely different
character but this was not the best time to experience this bar.
A trip to the toilet reveals a nice
upstairs area that I possibly would have been more comfortable in. One of the
customer’s stares at me in silence throughout my visit and is much more
irritating than the slouched orator in ‘Spoons earlier. You can have all the
nice artwork and guest beers that you want but customers make a place.
I’m not sure how The Barking Dog came
onto my radar but it looks like it could be the local council offices from the
outside. Inside, there are dogs on the wallpaper as well as attached to every
drinker in there. The clue is in in the name I suppose… It is near capacity
again at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It appears to be just one large room,
though I didn’t explore further.
My cask-poured Thornbridge
AM:PM is presented in a dimpled mug to fulfil the illusion that I am
in a pub caricature; a building that the owner pretended was a pub so his mates
could come over and treat it as such. It is odd but not unenjoyable.
Ten minutes before I need to leave, a
group of six enter. There isn’t room for them, though I realise that if I shift
myself to a less comfortable place then they can squeeze in near me. They are
grateful, although not enough to offer to buy me a drink, which I would have
declined. Maybe it isn’t the done thing where they come from, as their accents
aren’t local either. One of them has teeth so bright that Friends would have
devoted an episode to them. I miss pubs.
The journey to Shawe View is an odd one
that ends up down a dirt path. The ground is perhaps the smallest I've been to
on these trips, with little in the way of raised terraces and the tiniest
clubhouse I've been to yet. Three or four tables are fitted in opposite a hatch
of a bar area. Most of the space is taken up by the queue, that snakes out the
door and onto the terrace. Service is quick due to as many members of staff as
possible being packed into a publican's vision of Phil Schofield's Broom
What is surprising is the Punk
IPA from bottles in the fridges. Sensibly poured into a plastic cup
for me, it fulfils its destiny as an acceptable fridge filler in places with
limited buying power. It is certainly better than most beers I have had on the
Shawe View gives away much more room to
its pie hut, which I find amusing. Some would say that it has its priorities
correct, as a classic combination of overcooked pie crust and thick brown
flavoured water plugs a hunger hole that none of the pubs prior had succeeded
The match is a dull affair as I watch
near the pie hut; a clear congregation point for strangers as I find myself
mostly stood amongst away supporters. One fan encapsulates the majesty of
non-league football. Whilst a lot of fans at these sort of games are those that
don’t want to pay the prices for their actual supported club or are strange
out-of-towners on a beery day out, there is the odd overly passionate
Runcorn-Linnets-til-I-die supporter screaming insults that every player can
hear. This fellow wasn’t the least bit threatening, though they could have
easily given the Wealdstone Raider a run for their money.
I trudge back up the dirt path just
before the final whistle towards The Bird I'th Hand. We’re in Flixton now,
rather than Urmston. The Bird’s
not a bad little pub. A little bit more food focused and I’m sat in a high back
chair on a high table, which is never ideal. But there is London
Pride served well, which is a rather uncommon sight in Manchester.
I’ve very little to report here, which
probably says more about the number of beers I have had at this point. There
was a big fluffy bear wolf on the floor that I spent the duration of my pint
Miraculously I found my way through the
decreased light and blurry vision to the Brew Chimp, on a road that heads back
to Urmston station. A square room, modern micro-pub style place, it is bustling
on this Saturday night with a variety of drinkers.
Though I can’t recall what I had to
drink in here, and didn’t have the wherewithal to jot it down, I spent my time
considering the smaller suburban areas that are getting it right. Recent visits
to the likes of Morley outside Leeds, Heaton Chapel outside Stockport and now
Urmston outside of Manchester, have shown areas that are thriving away from the
city centres. Pubs old and new are bustling with a varied array of people,
without being labled “old man pub” or “hipster bar.”
It shows that there is still an appetite
for the Saturday night social and to go out around a few pubs without taxi
rides or trains into the centres. Sadly not enough areas get it right and it is
in those towns that columnists and bloggers profess that the pub is dead.
However, I know that the love for the simple night out within the right
atmosphere is still ingrained in the British public and I felt that whilst
having a drink in Brew Chimp.
Hopefully it can return to something
similar in the coming year.