Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wetherspoons: stories often have two sides

The impressive North Western JDW pub, Lime Street, Liverpool
I've written a few times, most recently in September last year, about the hostility I've detected among some drinkers against the JD Wetherspoons pub chain. With lockdown, the news that Tim Martin told his staff to go away and get a job in Tesco's has given Spoons-haters the perfect moralistic justification for their antipathy. I've seen many posts on Facebook by indignant drinkers declaring that they will never drink in Spoons again and encouraging others to boycott the pub group. It is stating the obvious to say that no one is obliged to drink in any pub they don't want to enter, but trying to organise a boycott is another matter entirely. Is it the right thing to do?

JDW employs 43,000 staff, and all were paid when they were supposed to be, receiving either their wages or their furlough payments. If a boycott were to succeed even partially, JDW would have to make many of them redundant at a time when tens of thousands (if not more) of other workers are likely to lose their jobs because of CV19. Other jobs - in pubs or elsewhere - will not be so readily available as they were pre-lockdown. I saw on Facebook one boycott advocate declaring that as people will still be drinking, ex-JDW staff will all be able to get jobs elsewhere. This is nonsense:
  • The hospitality industry, including pubs, will be operating at a much lower level of income post-lockdown because some drinkers are still wary of coming out, especially those in vulnerable groups, and because social distancing reduces pub capacity.
  • Lower pub incomes will result in fewer staff employed by pubs.
  • With unemployment predicted to increase, and the incomes of many of those still in work likely to reduce, there will be less disposable income to spend in pubs.
  • Some pubs will never reopen - I already know of one or two around here, and I fully expect to hear of more.
  • As I wrote last September, "CAMRA says that avoiding isolation by going to the pub is a good thing, but without Wetherspoons, many people on low incomes could rarely, if ever, afford to go out for a pint." The number of such customers look set to increase, and it's logical to assume that many of them would be less able to afford the prices in non-JDW pubs.
  • BFAWU, the trade union which represents JDW staff, has urged the public not to boycott the pubs.
In view of the above (and as a trade unionist I find the final bullet point particularly compelling), I see no logic in punishing JDW staff for the 'sins' of their boss.

I was going to leave this article there until I picked up the latest issue of 'Wetherspoon News' on Monday. I do understand that this is an in-house journal and what it says must be viewed in that light. However, Tim Martin has written a spirited defence of his company's actions at the beginning of lockdown, denying the accusations, and blaming the press's tendency to spin stories out of recognition and create pantomime villains. It's interesting that people who'd normally be sceptical, or at least questioning, about what they read or hear in the media (or MSM as some dismissively call it) have uncritically swallowed the anti-JDW story in its entirety. In support of his assertions, Martin has reprinted in the mag seven different press corrections to the story and a right of reply that he was given in a local paper. Newspapers don't like to print corrections, and won't do it on a whim. That they have done so is an admission that what they published contained inaccuracies.

I have no intention of reproducing his defence here - I'm not an apologist for the company which is much bigger and richer than me and, anyway, can speak for itself - but if you believe in seeing two sides to the story, I suggest you look at the mag, which is available free in all branches of Wetherspoons now.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Tales of tipples past

When I was 17, our scout troop went on a camping trip around the area where the borders of Austria, Yugoslavia (as it still was) and Italy meet. In Austria, we were staying near a city called Villach (pronounced Feel-ack). The local beer was Villacher Bier, which in itself we found mildly amusing because out loud it sounded to us a bit like 'feel like a beer'. About all I can remember is that it was a golden-coloured beer.

One evening, we were sitting in a beer garden and, having studied German briefly, I was instructing our group how to order beer in German ("Ein Bier bitte ... zwei Biere bitte ... drei Biere bitte ..." and so on). Some of the other drinkers were laughing at us when a dog walked in. It wandered hopefully from table to table and was completely ignored until it came to us; we of course patted and made a fuss of it. The dog with tail wagging furiously was loving every second of all this unaccustomed attention, but from the neighbouring table I heard just one word: "Englisch!"


The Scarisbrick Hotel
In the late 1970s, at a time of petrol shortage, I had been to a party on the other side of Southport and in the early hours was cycling home on a bike borrowed from my brother. As I approached Lord Street, the main shopping street in Southport, it began to sleet and the bicycle chain broke. I managed to fix it, but it broke again a few minutes later.

Lord Street has a long canopy for most of its length so I was sheltered from the worst of the weather for part of the journey home, but it was going to be a long walk, until I had an idea, the kind that usually only occurs to you after a few pints. Treating the bike like a kid's scooter with one foot on a pedal and the other pushing on the ground, I was getting quite a good speed up.

Halfway along Lord Street is the Scarisbrick Hotel, something of a local landmark, and outside was standing a young policewoman. As I approached, she held up her hand to stop me and said: "I know there's a petrol shortage. Are you economising on bicycle oil?"


A few years later, I'd had several pints in the Park Hotel, a pub in Birkdale, and then went to a wine bar called the Grape Escape on Lord Street (now Waterstones book shop). A young lady helped me dispose of a couple of bottles of wine and promptly disappeared when the last one ran out, after which the bar shut anyway so it was time to go home.

As I started out, I realised I was going down a one-way street the wrong way so I carefully turned around and went a longer way home to avoid breaking any more one-way street regulations.

When I woke up the next morning, I remembered all of this - including the fact that I hadn't been driving: I'd been on foot all evening.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

'Coming out' with Mixed feelings

Little Mix's fifth album
No one could ever accuse me of being a Little Mix fan; apart from anything else, I am definitely not part of their target audience, and until I decided to write this post, I couldn't name any song they've recorded. However, while I don't usually pay much attention to acts that come through TV talent shows, I've always had a certain respect for this group.

When they were doing well on X Factor, the name proposed for them was Rhythmix. At the time I thought this sounded very like the Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart band Eurythmics, but an even closer similarity came to light: when X Factor tried to trademark the name, it turned out that it was already being used by a children's music charity based in Brighton, who quite reasonably didn't want their name to be appropriated. I read at the time that Simon Cowell was all for brazening it out - clearly no one tells Simon what to do - but the young women themselves decided to change their collective name to Little Mix. "Good on them!" I thought, genuinely impressed.

Last week in the aftermath of the worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, the group's Leigh-Anne Pinnock published a video, now gone viral, in which she talks about her own experiences of racism. She described one particular incident as the biggest awakening of her life when she was filming the video for the group's single 'Wings'. The director and choreographer Frank Gatson, himself black, told her: "You're the black girl. You have to work 10 times harder." She said: "Never in my life had someone told me I would need to work harder because of my race", but in time she found he'd been right.

Other artists who have publicly described similar experiences have lost fans as a result, but Leigh-Anne's attitude is: "I don't care if I lose fans. Now the whole world is speaking about it and hopefully there is going to be a change. I feel hopeful." [More about this on the BBC news site here.]

Her band mate Jade Thirwell has also described some of the racism she had been subjected to, saying: "If you weren’t evidently black, you were called the P-word or called 'half-caste'. I would get so confused because I’m not from Pakistan. One time I got pinned down in the toilets and they put a bindi spot on my forehead – my mam was fuming!... I’d identify myself as mixed-race; if I delved deeper, I’d say of Arab heritage, I guess. I’ve had an inner battle of not knowing where I fit in or what larger community I fit into."

Jade was rightly incensed when media coverage of her description of this racism was illustrated by a photograph of Leigh-Anne, telling them: "You might want to make sure you're using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group." A good example of casual racism - almost certainly unintended, but racism nonetheless.

Although I'm a white male, I can to a very limited extent identify with some of this. During the height of the 'Me Too' movement, I became sick of reading comments by people - mostly but not exclusively male - asking why it had taken so long for some of the accusers to tell their stories, with more than a few sarcastically suggesting the motive was money. I was so incensed by such stupidity that I 'came out' myself in a post on Facebook about my own experiences of being on the receiving end of sustained domestic violence. In response to anyone who questioned why it had taken some of these women perhaps 10 or 15 years to come forward, I pointed that my own 'coming out' had taken nearly 40 years.

I'm not deluded: I do understand that I don't have the public profile of Leigh-Anne and Jade, but I also know it is not easy to put something so personal and painful in the public domain, so I admire the steps they have taken: it cannot have been easy, but if my own experience is at all relevant (and I leave others to judge that), I'm sure they won't regret doing it.

[Read more in this Metro article.]

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Lockdown thoughts & pubs

One of the rooms in the Guest House (floor not shown)
The last time I went for such an extended time without going to the pub was forty years ago when I was on the dole. That spell of involuntary abstinence ended on 7th July 1980 when I began working for the DHSS in Liverpool which, as I used to say at the time, involved me jumping from one side of the counter to the other.

Back then I'd sometimes walk past busy pubs in which it seemed everyone was having a really great time. They probably weren't especially - it would have been just another day to them - but forbidden fruit does have a special allure, particularly when you can observe others enjoying it seemingly without a second thought.

The big difference is that today, while everyone is currently excluded from pubs, abstinence has not ensued: off sales have gone through the roof as people resort to drinking at home. This includes me, even though previously I rarely did so as I view having a pint as a social activity. Home drinking is easier today than it would have been had this pandemic occurred 40 years ago. In 1980, only heavily-regulated off licences were allowed sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. The current situation whereby supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations and other retail outlets can sell alcohol in the same way as any other goods was still years away.

I remember in the 1980s when a supermarket in Southport applied for a licence to sell alcohol, rigid restrictions were imposed: the alcohol had to be confined to a separate room with its own till, and you couldn't wander into the main shop with a bottle and pay for it at one of the normal tills. This controlling, paternalistic approach to the sale of alcohol was based on a mistrust of ordinary people who, it was thought, would go on wild booze-filled orgies of destruction if restrictions on selling alcohol were eased. I recall worried letters in the local press about the dire consequences of allowing that particular supermarket the licence it wanted. Images were dreamt up of of drunken crowds in the streets and tipsy housewives neglecting child care and household duties - the ultimate horror of paternalists everywhere: no dinner on the table!

Curiously, the world didn't end, and I'd expect that younger drinkers today would regard the restrictions on alcohol sales that I grew up with as a quaint, ancient curiosity as remote from their own lives as rationing or the BBC Home Service.

A demo to save the Roscoe Head in September 2015.
Licensee Carol Ross is centre front.
I've had quite a few chats with friends who, like me, are looking forward to when we can go to the pub again, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we won't be returning to the way things were. Most of us realise that some pubs will be unable survive a loss of trade for so long and will never reopen, but there will be two other causes of permanent closures. After restrictions are lifted, I anticipate that home drinking will remain significantly higher than it was pre-CV19, and I've little doubt pub-owning companies will use the prolonged closure to argue that reopening some pubs is not viable, allowing them to implement lucrative redevelopment schemes that have previously been successfully opposed. For example, Liverpool's Roscoe Head, which has been run by the same family for 35 years and is the only pub in the North to be in every edition of the Good Beer Guide, was under renewed threat even before we'd heard of lockdown. For this pub, the timing of the pandemic couldn't be worse.

I have read in the CAMRA newspaper that it is possible that we may lose as many as 40,000 pubs. I sincerely hope this is wrong, but am not much reassured by the fact that such worst case scenarios rarely come to pass.

► I was pleased to see on the Facebook page of my local, the Guest House in Southport, a photo of the newly-varnished floor. It had been looking rather tired, and the fact they have used the closure to improve the pub is encouraging news, suggesting it is not in line for redevelopment or conversion to another use. I hope so anyway.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Locked down beer in pub cellars

Two locked down pubs in Churchtown, Southport.
The Bold (left) and the Hesketh (in the distance)
The order to close pubs, like many other businesses, was not unexpected, but the actual date came at very short notice. As a consequence, pub licensees had little chance to run down their stocks by reducing the size of their orders in the run-up to closure, meaning that the cellars of many pubs and bars have large quantities of unused beer, cider and perry. It is estimated that if they stay closed into the summer, 50 million pints will have to be discarded.

"It's a very sad waste of all the work and talent that goes into producing great beer," says Tom Stainer, CAMRA's chief executive. "People won't get to drink it and all those resources have been used up for nothing."

The shelf life of beers, ciders and perries depends on how it's produced, stored and served. Keg products, which include most beer sold in British pubs such as lagers, smoothflow beers (including a famous Irish stout) and ciders on fonts, can last for several months. Real ales and ciders, on the other hand, will only last for weeks, with any that have been already opened going off after a few days. All real ales, ciders and perries that had been opened at lockdown will probably have already been disposed of.

One suggestion is converting out-of-date beer into hand sanitiser by extracting the alcohol, which independent brewer Brewdog is already doing, but this is ultimately a very limited solution.

According to the BBC, supermarket alcohol sales increased by more than a fifth last month after pubs, cafes and restaurants closed.

"People are missing these things in their lives," says Tom Stainer. "It's not the biggest issue that the country is dealing with, but aspects of life like going to the cinema or café, or going for a pint, are something we treasure." 

Many breweries and distributors have offered to take back barrels at no charge once the lockdown is over, taking some of the financial pressure off licensees. However, more can be done, as Tom Stainer, explains:

“The Government needs to recognise the impact of an extended lockdown on [hospitality] businesses and confirm that the support package in place is extended until all restrictions are lifted. It must also consider a support package for pubs, breweries and cideries after they reopen, in recognition that it will take many months for businesses to recover fully.”

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Keg Buster RIP

Bill Tidy has announced in the latest edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing the sad demise of the legendary real ale campaigner, Keg Buster. This news is not very surprising, seeing that Bill himself is 84 and in poor health. Over the years he has created several wonderful long-running cartoon strips in addition to Keg Buster, such as The Cloggies and The Fosdyke Saga.

In the 1980s, Bill Tidy was a neighbour of ours in Westbourne Road, Southport. He was a regular at the Berkeley Arms, a hotel bar well-known for a fine choice of real ales and home-made pizzas; my friends and I spent a lot of time there. I occasionally saw Bill with his friends in the bar, although I never had the opportunity to speak to him. Bill drew a cartoon about the Berkeley which was framed and proudly displayed on the wall. I can't recall after all this time what the joke was, and this was in the days before we all had a mobile phone camera in our pockets. Unfortunately the Berkeley closed well over a decade ago when the building was converted to flats; I have occasionally wondered what happened to the cartoon.

By affectionately mocking us real ale campaigners, Keg Buster was a welcome corrective to the tendency to solemn self-importance and pomposity that some committed advocates for any cause can occasionally be prone to. I don't know whether there are any plans to replace Keg Buster, but if there are, the cartoonist concerned has a hard act to follow.

RIP Keg Buster, and best wishes to Bill on his retirement.
From November 2017. Click on the cartoon to see a larger image.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Four Ashes micropub, Waterloo

The Four Ashes in Waterloo
The Four Ashes is a micropub in Waterloo which opened just three years ago. It is on a street corner, close to the Plaza Cinema, and has just one room with the bar on the far side as you enter. The surroundings are comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed. Rob Ashe welcomed me, remembering me from a previous visit, even though I had been there only twice before. It is run by four members of the same family, hence the name.

The choice of real ale changes and the five being served when I visited were: Coniston Special Oatmeal Stout; Bank Top Bad To The Bone Best Bitter; Stodfold Amarillo American Pale; Cwrw iâl Pocket Rocket; and Lancaster Mosaic Blonde Ale. The real ales always include a dark beer and a bitter. A real cider, Happy Daze Medium, was available, and other drinks included continental bottled beers, craft beer, premium vodkas and gins, wine (including prosecco and cava), plus alcohol-free and gluten-free beers. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and bar snacks are also served.

To encourage conversation, it has no music or large-screen sports - there is also no Wi-Fi, presumably for a similar reason - and this all works: I found myself chatting to several regulars at the bar. Board games are provided and there is a monthly quiz, the next being on Thursday 19th March.

Children and dogs are welcomed, and the pub has featured in the local paper for having raised nearly £7000 for CHICS, a local children's cancer support charity based at Alder Hey, a great reflection of the generosity of its customers.

It is one of five finalists in the CAMRA Liverpool & Districts 2020 Pub of the Year competition, the only pub outside of the city centre and the only micropub, which is a remarkable achievement.

The Four Ashes is a fine addition to what is already a good real ale scene in Waterloo, an area blessed with quite a few pubs and bars all within a short walk of each other. It is at 23 Crosby Road North, Waterloo, on several major bus routes and close to Waterloo railway station. It is closed on Monday, and you can check its other opening hours on its Facebook page.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Philharmonic: a Grade I Listed Pub

Liverpool's Philharmonic Dining Rooms
I paid a visit to the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, Liverpool, last week. This pub has just been upgraded to Grade I listing, making it the first purpose-built, Victorian public house to receive such a listing, the highest level for a historic building. It now joins the top 2.5% of protected historic buildings in England, such as Buckingham Palace, Chatsworth House and Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.

Sometimes referred to as a 'cathedral among pubs’, the Philharmonic is one of the most spectacular pubs from the late 19th century, considered the golden age of pub building. Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “English pubs are some of our best-loved community buildings and are often threatened with closure ... We are proud that the Liverpool Philharmonic pub, a remarkable survival from the Victorian era, has been given a Grade I listing which will help maintain and preserve its outstanding interior fittings and exterior fabric for the future.”

A stained glass window in the Liszt room
The pub has several separate rooms: the main bar, a public bar, two side rooms (named with Scouse wit as Brahms and Liszt), and a rear dining room. The gents are famously made of Victorian marble, and I expect this is the only pub in the country where women regularly visit the gents. Indeed, I was chatting to two couples from Gloucestershire who were in Liverpool on holiday, and the two women insisted on visiting them. They were also taking photos of the stained glass windows, the elaborately carved woodwork, the detailed ceilings and the mosaic floor and bar front. Everywhere you look is something interesting.

This includes the ten real ales on handpump: St Austell Nicholson's Pale (the house beer), Adnam's Mosaic Pale, Fuller's London Pride, Farm Brewery Jarl, Titanic Plum Porter, St Austell Proper Job, Black Sheep Bitter, Exmoor Fox, Wainwright and Doom Bar. I didn't try all ten, but those I did have were well-kept. There are also extensive gin and whisky ranges, a choice of wines and craft beers.

The menu is quite extensive and includes starters, a pie menu, choice of main dishes, salads, burgers, sandwiches and desserts.

When John Lennon was asked about the downside of fame, he replied that it was not being able to go to the Phil for a pint. This magnificent pub is on Hope Street, close to the famous Philharmonic Hall, and is an easy train ride from the Southport and West Lancs areas.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Women and pubs

Two discriminating women drinkers at the GBBF
Photocredit: Tom Leishman
This year sees a couple of important anniversaries. Firstly, this month is the 50th anniversary of the UK's first Women's Liberation conference which was held at Ruskin College. Secondly, it is 45 years since the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. I believe these two events are connected.

The SDA had a profound effect on pubgoing, enabling changes that still resonate today. It would seem strange to a younger generation of drinkers that there were pubs that excluded female customers (but not always female staff), either from the entire building or from particular rooms.

A famous example was the Hole In The Wall, Hackins Hey, Liverpool. This pub claims to be the oldest in the city, dating from the eighteenth century, and it has an old-fashioned charm as well as good beer, but until the SDA, women were barred entirely. Even after the Act became law, they were slow to provide toilets for women who had to go to the neighbouring Saddle Inn. A CAMRA local beer guide at the time wrily described the pub as “coping manfully with the Sex Discrimination Act”.

More locally, the very fine Guest House on Union Street in Southport had one room restricted to men. The door to the room on the right was permanently shut with a sign saying, “Gentlemen only”. Out of curiosity, I entered the pub shortly after the SDA became law: the sign had been removed and the door wedged open. I don't recall seeing it shut since.

Although this is all now history, it's a fact that even today some women feel wary of going into a pub on their own, and are much less likely than men to do so. Any who do might take something, such as a book to read, to suggest that they have a specific reason for being there – and are not seeking male attention. In a way, it is a pity that such worries still exist 45 years after the SDA became law.

However, things are changing for the better with groups of women more inclined to patronise pubs than formerly and with many pubs becoming more family friendly. While this is not entirely popular with some traditionally-minded beer drinkers, CAMRA as an organisation welcomes the increasing inclusiveness of our pubs and bars.

I am conscious of the incongruity that I'm a male writing this.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Peter Walker - a personal reflection

The Crown, Lime Street, Liverpool
I was a student at Padgate College in Warrington in the 1970s. The area at that time had three breweries: Burtonwood, Greenall and Tetley, although you wouldn't have known it because the vast majority of pubs were Greenall's. The brewery's adverts told us to, "Smile please, you're in Greenall Whitley land". They produced funny beer mats and even 'GWL' car stickers, like the 'GB' plate you use when driving abroad. I sometimes used to wonder whether they had ever caused any confusion at border checks on the continent. If only they had put as much effort into the beer as they did into the hype because, at best, Greenall's beers were mediocre.

I don't recall any Burtonwood pubs in the town, and most of the few non-Greenall pubs were Tetley. Tetley's beers were better than Greenall's but not by a great margin. Tetley had merged with Peter Walker in 1960, and in the 70s, they were still brewing the old Walker's Bitter, although they sold it under the Tetley name, which I found slightly odd seeing that most beer drinkers I knew preferred the Walker's Bitter to the Tetley's. The local CAMRA branch produced stickers for the few pubs that still sold Walker's to put in their windows, something my friends and I found very useful.

I had a sort of family connection to Walker's because my maternal grandmother had worked in Walker pubs for many years, as did her son, my Uncle Bernard. He rose to be manager of several pubs, and I can remember visiting two as a child, the Sefton Arms in Croxteth and the Victoria in Bootle. My grandmother used to be his relief manager on his day off. I remember calling into the Victoria for a pint a couple of times when I was older and working in Bootle; he was rightly proud of the quality of his beers. In later years, knowing about my involvement with CAMRA, he was pleased when I told him that he had kept an excellent pint.

At some point in the 1980s, Tetley Walker decided to relaunch the Walker brand. Some Tetley pubs were re-badged as Walker's and new beers formulated. In the process they scrapped the old Walker's recipe, which had been around 3.5%, like many beers at the time, and replaced it with Best Bitter (3.5%), Bitter (3.3%), and an even weaker mild. The beers weren't bad but I preferred the old brew. Later added to the range was a stronger Warrington Ale and a Winter Warmer, both of which I did quite like.

The 3.3% strength of the new Walker's Bitter became something of a joke in Liverpool:
Policeman: "Excuse me sir, have you been drinking?"
Driver: "Yes, officer, Walker's Bitter."
Policeman: "Very good, sir, carry on."

Walker's beers are no more, possibly disappearing around the time of the 1989 Beer Orders, but the name can still be seen on quite a few pubs in Merseyside, as shown in the photographs which I took in Liverpool yesterday.
The Vines, Lime Street, Liverpool
P.S. Since I posted this less than an hour ago, it has correctly been pointed out to me that someone is brewing a smoothflow version of Walker's Bitter, although I've no idea who or where. When saying that Walker's beers were long gone, I was thinking of the Warrington-brewed beers. Anything else would be a poor facsimile just to cash in on the name.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Ralph's Wife's bar, Banks

Ralph's Wife's bar in Banks
A friend told me about a new bar that had opened about five months ago in Banks, Ralph's Wife's, that I hadn't heard about before, so I decided to pay a visit.

The bus (Stagecoach 2 or X2) takes around 25 minutes from Lord Street, Southport, and drops you just yards away. The building was originally a bank, the logo of which is still in one window, after which it became the Village Pantry. It is just across the road from the New Fleetwood pub.

I arrived just as it had opened, and saw that it had two handpumps, one of which was serving Parker Barbarian Bitter, the other not being in use at the time. As I entered, Mal, the owner, said “You look like a real ale type”, which surprised me slightly as I don't have beard and wasn't wearing sandals! I found the beer to be on good form.

He explained that they usually had two real ales on at weekends, but sometimes during the week it needed to drop to one while custom builds up. He is aiming to have three ales available in time. Previous real ales have included: Neptune Ezili; Neptune Lorelei; Southport Golden Sands; Red Star Formby IPA; Parker Golden Samurai; and Parker Viking Blonde.

Two fonts were dispensing Hop House Lager and Guinness, and there was a fridge full of various bottles, including, Belgium, Trappist and German beers. There was a good choice of wines and the usual spirits, but with one interesting addition: among the gin selection was Forgan's, a hand-crafted gin made in Banks.

Tea and coffee are also served, including a range of speciality teas. They have held tapas nights and cheese and wine events. Children are welcome until 8.00 p.m. and dogs are admitted. There is free WiFi for customers, and he intends to offer snacks soon. One interesting feature is that the original night safe from its days as a bank is still in use.

As other customers came in, I found them to be friendly and ended up chatting to several at the bar. It is pleasantly decorated and has a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere.

Ralph's Wife's bar is at 4 Hoole Lane, Banks, Lancashire PR9 8BD; tel: 01704 214678. See their Facebook page for more information, including opening hours.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Stags, Hens and Christmas

Quite a few years ago when I was a regional union rep, I sometimes attended meetings in Leeds. 
After one meeting, I saw in the office a large group of women, reps and union staff, all dressed up in St Trinian's-style outfits. Curious, I asked what was going on and was told it was a hen night. I congratulated the bride-to-be who – to my surprise - asked me if I'd like to join them. I did and it was certainly a lively night, but thankfully I didn't have to adopt the dress code!

While some stags and hens like to jet off to foreign parts, partying at home is still a popular way of celebrating the end of single status; indeed the economic downturn has meant a drop in stags and hens celebrating abroad. Four of the top ten favourite locations for stag and hen parties are in the UK: London (11%); Brighton (6%); Liverpool (5%); and Edinburgh (4%). Such events do sometimes get a bad press, but most are usually well-behaved and can provide a welcome boost to a pub's business.

Christmas is also often an occasion for pub crawls. While most drinkers have their own favourite drinking haunts, it can be very agreeable to try a few different places with a group of like-minded friends. For beer drinkers in particular, this may provide an opportunity to try brews they don't normally come across.

Probably the worst way to organise a crawl is to meet with no plan; this can cause arguments about where to go next. It's much better to decide in advance where you're going. If your group is large, it helps to choose places where you can all get in without filling up the place. Packing out a small pub can annoy the regulars, and on one crawl in Liverpool I happened to be last and simply couldn't get in. I don't think it was planned that way!

For real ale drinkers, planning a crawl is easy nowadays with CAMRA's What Pub website. Simply type in a place name or postcode and it will tell you all the real ale pubs in the area.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Local acoustic events in Southport, December

All in the evening except §

• Sun 1st: Saskia Griffiths-Moore - Bothy Folk Club, Park Road West.

• Mon 2nd: Singaround - Guest House, Union Street.

§ Tue 10th: Lion Singaround - Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, 1.30pm.

• Wed 11th: Singaround - Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillside.

§ Sun 15th: Carol singing, Fishermen's Rest, Weld Rd - 1.00 p.m.

• Mon 16th: Music session - Guest House, Union Street.

• Sun 15th: Lucy Ward - Bothy Folk Club, Park Road West.

• Sun 22nd: Bothy Xmas Party, Park Road West.

§ Thu 26th: Southport Swords Day of Dance afternoon - Hesketh, Churchtown, then Guest House.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Who writes pretentious real ale tasting notes?

Am I alone in thinking that real ale tasting notes are mostly pretentious twaddle? I picked up Wetherspoon's guest ale tasting notes and selected a few beers that I am familiar with.

Marston's Wainwright: "This pale straw-coloured beer has a subtle sweetness, with delicate citrus fruit overtones, complemented by sweet honey notes to deliver a refreshing character."

I struggle to detect sweetness, subtle or otherwise, nor any hint of honey, although there is possibly the faintest whiff of citrus. I am suspicious of any beer described as refreshing, which usually means lacking in any distinctive flavour, as here.

Salopian Golden Thread: "This bright golden ale is brewed using wheat and lager malts, plus an infusion of aroma hops, resulting in a clean, crisp palate, hints of sweetness and a long fruit-filled finish."

I like this beer, and in fact had a few yesterday, but did not detect any hint of sweetness or a fruit-filled finish. I thought it a fairly dry beer.

Adnams Broadside: "This classic beer is a deep ruby colour, rich in fruit cake aromas, with hints of almonds and fruit in the smooth, malty flavour, leading to a balanced, lasting finish."

Another beer I like, but I wonder whether whoever wrote this has ever eaten a fruit cake? I've never detected almonds or fruit in the flavour.

I could write more but I'd just be labouring the point. It's all about trying to elevate beer from the old image of a cheap product drunk in quantities in street corner pubs to something on a par with wine, which is why we now have the ridiculous title of 'beer sommelier'. It's also why we now have beer and food matching, because that's what often been done with wine. Personally, I'm not very keen on drinking beer with food; if I have a pub meal, I don't usually touch my pint while I'm actually eating.

I suppose in the great scheme of things such an approach to beer drinking is relatively harmless, although I can imagine that if the image of real ale drinking becomes insufferably precious, some people may well be put off ever trying it.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

St George's Hall Winter Ale Festival

My friend Roland (left) and I in St George's Hall 
for the last beer festival
Tickets are now on sale for the St George's Hall Winter Ale Festival which will be taking place in the famous St George's Hall in Liverpool. I went with some friends to the last festival in this venue, and everyone had a great time. It was my first ever visit to the spectacular Great Hall - I say that with a slight feeling of shame, having been born in Liverpool! The session we attended was concluded with the Grim Reaper calling 'Time!' while Mozart was being played on the great organ.

There will be up to 200 different real ales and ciders alongside an indoor gin garden with a selection of boutique gins, spirits, wine and prosecco. This ale festival definitely caters for all tastes.

The bar sponsor for the festival will be Ossett Brewery, which is based just outside Bradford, and many of their award-winning brews will be on the bars. Not only that, but Ossett will be bringing their sister breweries with them too, so there will be beers from Fernandes, Riverhead and the famous Rat brewery. You can expect many other breweries to be announced as the festival draws closer.

Entertainment will be provided at all sessions, except for Friday daytime. If you get peckish, there will be tasty hot and cold food prepared by Liverpool Cheese Company, Peninsula Pies and Crackpot Catering (serving up their special Scouse) throughout the festival.

All CAMRA members receive a discount on production of a valid membership card at the Thursday evening and Friday daytime session: a full card of tokens is £15, but at those two sessions is only £13 for CAMRA card holders. There will also be a return of the 'Beer of the Festival Award', voted for by all customers.

The festival runs from Thursday 30 January to Saturday 1 February 2020. For those unfamiliar with Liverpool, the venue is adjacent to Queens Square bus station and less than 10 minutes' walk from Central Station.

This is a popular festival so it might be wise to buy your tickets well in advance here.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Buck I'Th' Vine, Ormskirk

Click on photo for larger image
An appointment had taken me to Ormskirk, and afterwards I decided to visit the Buck I'Th' Vine which reopened three months ago, having closed closed in 2014. The closure saddened many people, particularly as the Buck, as it's now officially known, dates from the 17th century when it was known as the Roebuck. The appearance of the pub is very distinctive with the Grade II listed buildings on two sides of a cobbled courtyard to the front where you can sit when the weather permits.

The layout has been reconfigured with the bar moved to another room; formerly it was behind a multi-paned window, which is still there, as are quite a few other original features. Its new position is in front on an old fireplace, and it is longer and more practical than the old one. There are five drinking areas with a separate Spitroast restaurant to the rear. It has real fires, although probably not behind the bar!

There three real ales on: Hobgoblin Gold, Wainwright, and Jennings Sneck Lifter, with Brakspear lined up to go on next. I tried all three beers and found they were in good form. Among the fonts was Shipyard American Pale Ale, and there was good selection of spirits, especially gin.

The Spitroast restaurant to the rear is a more modern affair, and is the third in the chain, the others being in Crosby and Liverpool. The menu looked interesting, but I didn't try anything as I wasn't hungry, and this is not a restaurant review. A glass panel in the restaurant floor gives a glimpse of the old cobbles of the market town. Spitroast website.

The pub has recently become the home venue for a team in the quiz league, and on Sunday afternoons entertainment is provided by a singer-guitarist. Children and dogs are welcome. After quite a long chat with the manager, Sue, I feel this fine old inn is in good hands.

The Buck is at 35 Burscough Street, Ormskirk L39 2EG, close to Ormskirk's famous clock tower. Events are advertised on their Facebook page.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

The Excelsior, Liverpool

The Excelsior, Liverpool
Strolling around in Liverpool on Tuesday last week, I decided to call into the Excelsior on Dale Street, a pub I haven't visited for some time. It was named after a sailing ship, a reminder of Liverpool's long maritime history. This is a tastefully decorated, traditional pub with three separate drinking areas, old fireplaces, and attractive wooden rails, bar, plate racks and doorways. Pictures of old Liverpool adorn the walls.

The choice of real changes but these are the six that were on when I visited: Salopian Oracle, Salopian Lemon Dream,, Salopian Shropshire Gold, Peerless Galaxian, Timothy Taylor's Landlord and Brain's Rev. James. I was told this last beer is particularly popular with Everton fans! The three beers I tried were all in good form, as you'd expect from a Cask Marque accredited pub. There is 30p off all real ales every Monday.

Other drinks include a choice of 21 gins, six different bottled craft beers a wine menu that includes fizz and coffee. They advertise pub food until the early evening with pies, mash, pasta and paninis – there is even a pie menu. They show live sports on three screens that can be tuned to show different sporting events at the same time, and there is live music every Friday.

I found the pub friendly and ended chatting to a young woman who was visiting Liverpool from London; she was actually Polish, although I would never have guessed from her English accent. I also had a talk with the enthusiastic licensee.

They have free WiFi, and you can find out what's happening there on their Facebook page. The address is 121-123 Dale Street, Liverpool 2, just five minutes' walk from Moorfields Station on the Merseyrail Nothern Line.

While you're in that part of Liverpool, there are quite a few other pubs all less than 10 minutes' walk from Moorfields. The Hole In The Wall, Thomas Rigby's, the Lady of Mann, the Vernon, the Ship & Mitre and the Lion Tavern can, along the Excelsior, constitute a satisfying compact pub tour.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Song & music sessions to the end of November

At singarounds and music sessions, you can perform, sing along or just listen to suit yourself. All venues serve real ale, and all events are free, unless otherwise stated.

► Sunday 27th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Monday 28th: song session in the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, Southport from 8.15pm.

► Monday 4th: song session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
► Sunday 10th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Tuesday 12th: song session in the Lion, Moorfields, Liverpool from 8.30 pm.
► Wednesday 13th: singaround in the Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillsside from 8.15 pm.
► Monday 18th: music session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
► Sunday 24th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Monday 25th: song session in the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, Southport from 8.15pm.
► Every Thursday: lunchtime singaround in the Belvedere, Sugnall Street, Liverpool 7. 2.00pm to 4.00pm.