I'm briefly in Hampshire for a family birthday, and this lunchtime visited the village of Stockbridge. It has a broad, picturesque main street and a few interesting pubs, a couple of which I have visited on previous occasions. Today I went into the Grosvenor Hotel to pass an hour. The walls are covered with fishing prints and a trout that was caught in 1941. Fishing is big around here, the River Test apparently being famous for it; I'm told George Bush comes here for the fishing, although I'm not sure that's a recommendation!
The Grosvenor is a Georgian building with a pillared portico where I assume coaches used to draw up and discharge their passengers. The hotel is suitable unaltered (well, not too much) in style. The beer wasn't very imaginative: Greene King IPA and Abbott, and Old Speckled Hen. I've found this kind of choice seems quite common around here. The Abbott was in good nick and the surroundings were suitably from an earlier time.
This is a lovely part of the country, with rolling countryside, postcard villages, loads of thatched cottages and many great pubs, which definitely make up for the fairly restricted range.
The Times has reported that the famous Bass brand, along with the Boddington and Flowers brands, are likely to be sold off by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the biggest brewing conglomerate in the world, which apparently wants to concentrate on its international brands, such as Budweiser, Stella Artois and Becks. The Times describes Bass as "the beer that Britain forgot". I don't believe this is true.
Real ale drinkers remember Bass with fondness from its glory days when it was one of the best-selling cask beers in the country, and was one of the few stronger beers available when most bitters were just session beers of around 3.5%. I remember going to the White Star in Liverpool (around the corner from the Cavern Club) just to drink the Bass. This pub had an enormous, beautiful, old Bass mirror in the back room, completely covering the rear wall, which was accidentally smashed recently by a drunk. Bass was available in Southport in the Rabbit in Manchester Road, and an old family friend who lived in Formby used to come to the Rabbit just for the Bass.
I was a student near Warrington, a town awash with mediocre Greenall Whitley beer, and my mates and I sometimes used to catch the train to the first pub we could find that sold Boddingtons. Although of ordinary strength, it was very drinkable with its straw colour, very rare in those days, and good flavour.
Like many old beer brands, Bass isn't a patch on what it used to be. I read in a CAMRA publication about 20 years ago that with Bass, you used to expect the Rolls Royce of beer but it had become just another Ford Cortina ~ the decline in Bass has clearly been a drawn out process. The current owner has allowed the brand to wither on the vine by neglecting quality and failing to promote it properly. Boddingtons, once a well-loved Manchester beer, has similarly been allowed to slump, and far from catching trains to drink it, I wouldn't cross the road for it now. Britons didn't forget about these beers; they simply stopped drinking products that had become shadows of their former selves. Both beers are brewed under contract nowadays, Bass by Marstons of Burton and Boddingtons by Hydes of Manchester.
If you've got around £15 million to spare, you can buy the brands for the UK market, but AB InBev will keep international rights and the famous Bass red triangle trade mark, which was the first trade mark ever registered in the UK. It's difficult to see what might attract someone to buy these brands, which have no longer have much credibility with real ale drinkers, and have long lost their former mass appeal.
The picture is "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" by Edouard Manet. A bottle of Bass can be seen in the bottom right hand corner, and less obviously in the bottom left. You can click on the picture to enlarge it. The slogan on the pub ashtray is definitely from a former era, as is the ashtray itself.
Another music night with local band, Blanket Apology, in the George Hotel on the corner of Duke Street and Cemetery Road this Saturday the 29 May from around 8pm. The band will feature two lead singers, Derek and Jan, and there will also be an opportunity for you to perform during the open mike spot. As well as all that, there will be authentic belly dancing from Maryem, who is from Egypt. (You can see a small picture of her if you click on the "Events" link to the left.)
The music is always good from this experienced band with - on this occasion - two great singers, and I'd be there myself clutching my guitar if I wasn't away for my sister's birthday in Hampshire. The George is a friendly local, much improved from the old reputation it used to have; if only it had real ale, but the Guinness is well kept.
I think it's fairly safe to say that, with all the cut backs that the government has announced (except on defence and nuclear weapons, naturally ~ it's more important to have ways of killing people rather than keeping them alive through the NHS), the beer tax escalator is here to stay for a good while. For those of us who value our local pubs for a variety of reasons, this is particularly sad because an industry that is already reeling because of predatory pub companies, cheap supermarket booze and excessive taxation, will definitely suffer under even more financial pressure.
Of course ministers will state that not only is it financially necessary to continue over-taxing beer to preserve hospitals, schools and front-line public services, but that there are also health reasons why the tax escalator is good, as it will reduce drinking, save X thousands of lives and save the health service Y millions of pounds. This is so much cant because as a public health measure, the excessive taxing of drink in pubs is a complete failure. As more and more people get out of the pub habit through financial necessity, many of them will go to the supermarket and stock up there. It mightn't be the same as going to the pub, but at least you can have a drink at an affordable price. But if you live alone (or perhaps if you don't get on with those you live with), then you are likely to suffer from the effects of being isolated, which can lead to mental health problems, especially when combined with uncontrolled, cheap, excessive boozing. Pubs provide a wonderful opportunity to meet people in a regulated environment and escape the four walls of your living room at a price that everyone should be able to afford.
Having met quite a few politicians over the years, I don't believe that they are so stupid that they cannot see that these policies will drive many people to solitary, unregulated drinking with all the health consequences - physical and mental - that may ensue. I can only conclude that they view it as a price worth paying, and at least home drinkers don't cause law and order problems on the streets.
This, to me, is the essence of traditional British hypocrisy: sweeping a problem under the carpet. No one really gains by this misguided policy: not the pub goer, not the pubs, not the home drinker, and certainly not the Treasury as fewer people can afford to go out for a drink, pubs continue to close as a consequence and people lose their jobs.
P.S. 25 May: this morning by coincidence, just hours after posting this, I heard a report on BBC Radio 4 by the Mental Health Foundation about how serious a problem loneliness can be. You can find it here.
Paul Hurley, the owner of O'Casey's, a pretend Irish pub in New York, has converted its second floor into a jobcentre to help Irish immigrants find work. He has named this centre Fáilte 32 ~ fáilte is Gaelic for welcome, and 32 represents the number of counties on the island. (There's possibly a subtle political message there, as there are only 26 counties in the Irish republic.) The NY Daily News article is here.
It's an interesting idea, and might be quite productive: anyone who has been involved in politics or trade unions particularly will know that problems are sometimes better sorted out in the pub after the meeting rather than in the meeting itself. However, I'm certain you'll never see such an idea catching on over here because, as previously reported, British jobcentre staff are barred from looking at anything on the internet to do with beer and breweries, including the "situations vacant" webpages ~ even though a job seeker might want to work in the industry. Having staff working on licensed premises would give the Jobcentre Plus board apoplexy as they networked their way to the 19th hole!
Local duo The Huers (Phil Caffrey and Ian Cleverdon) will be playing a special concert on Saturday 22nd May in The Barker Suite, The Scarisbrick Hotel, Lord Street, Southport, PR8 1NZ, to launch their long-awaited debut album, "Up For Grabs". It starts at 8pm and will feature some special guest musicians, with whom Phil and Ian have worked on their travels and on the album. You'll be able to buy the CD on the night. Doors will be open from 7.30pm ~ the band has arranged a private bar for the audience too!
Tickets for the gig are £5 each, and all profits will go to North West Air Ambulance to help support their work in the region. Tickets enquiries: 01695 627106 or 07759 219270.
The Southport Jazz Festival takes place from 27th to 30th May in various venues around the town centre. The festival seems smaller than last year, probably due to the recession. Disappointingly, unlike last year, hardly any events take place in real ale venues ~ in fact only two, in the Falstaff on King Street: a jazz quiz on Thursday evening, and the Original Guinness Jazz Band on Saturday from 9.30pm, both free. There are several other free events on the fringe around the town during the festival, and the headline events are in the Prince of Wales Hotel this year, as the Arts Centre is closed for refurbishment.
The Scarisbrick Arms in Downholland, not to be confused with the Scarisbrick Hotel in Southport, was closed in July 2007, and people began to doubt that it would ever open again. Fortunately it was reopened in time for Christmas 2009 by Paul and Lainey, who have done great work with three Ormskirk pubs: the Queens Head, the Queen Inn, and the Railway, and who have also recently acquired the Roper's Arms, also in Ormskirk, a Burtonwood house many years ago, if memory serves me right.
The Scarisbrick is a large, imposing, red brick pub next to a bridge over the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and is a familiar landmark on the road between Southport and Maghull. It has been extensively renovated and decorated in light colours and has an emphasis on good value food. The kitchen and the restaurant have been swapped around so that the restaurant now overlooks the canal. There are plans to open a B&B and build a function room.
At the time of our midweek visit, there were two cask beers on, both from Moorhouses: Paulainey’s, the house beer, and Pride of Pendle, with another Moorhouses pump clip turned in. Sadly, as I was driving, there wasn't much opportunity to sample the beers. They also get guest beers from George Wright (Rainford), Southport, and Spitting Feathers (Cheshire). The pub has a canal-side garden, nice for warm days and suitable for children.
Finding it: the corner of the the A5147 and Black-a-Moor Lane. It's on a Southport to Liverpool bus route. Postcode: L39 7HX.
It's been a mixed week: helping set up the Spring Beer Festival and finalising the copy of Ale & Hearty, the local CAMRA magazine, which is now at the printers. It's my first as editor, so I'm hoping it will be okay. I wasn't able to work or drink at the beer festival as I was away on both days it was on: Friday in Derbyshire meeting an old friend and Saturday in Liverpool helping at the Southport Swords Day of Dance.
Morris dancing isn't a common sight in Liverpool, and each venue where the dancing was taking place attracted interested crowds. Some didn't even know that this is part of our own heritage, with one woman asking me whether they came from Holland. I also had to explain a few times that the face-blacking that some teams do (most notably Border Morris teams) has nothing to do with race and everything to do with disguise (I discussed this fact in more detail in a previous posting). The level of interest that these displays attracted belies the stereotype of English folk dance being a national embarrassment.
Afterwards to the pub ~ specifically the Dispensary in Renshaw Street, which was full of various kinds of morris dancers, male and female, young and old, and where spontaneous dances involving people from different teams occurred. I've noticed folk dancers like to do this. The beer was good, too: I was on Kelham Island Pale Rider, 5.2% ~ "its sweetness and bitterness continued to the finish" (GBG 2005).
Although I'm not a dancer myself, I enjoyed the day. To cap it all, the sun shone on the righteous.
The picture shows the Southport Swords with their swords held aloft in a swordlock by the Pump House pub on Liverpool's waterfront.
The Southport Spring Beer Festival is being organised by the Southport Food and Drink Festival. The publicity says it's supported by CAMRA ~ that means we set it up, work on the bar and take it down for them! It's on this Friday and Saturday, 14 to 15 May, in a marquee in the Town Gardens, just in front of the Arts Centre and the opening times are noon to 6.00pm. Beer is £1 per half pint, so it's good value. About 12 to 14 beers will be served from small local breweries.
Anna Shannon is the guest singer at the Bothy this Sunday. Anna was born in Scarborough into a musical family, her grand father being a concert pianist and her mother a jazz singer. A multi-instrumentalist since an early age, her musicianship has led her to play styles as diverse as skiffle, blues, jazz, folk-rock, ceilidh and Cajun over the years, but since she discovered her talent as a singer-songwriter, it is her solo work that is now attracting a lot of attention. She was BBC Radio Yorkshire's Songwriter of the Year in 2006.
Here she is playing her own "Yorkshire Song".
The show begins at 8.00pm, and there is real ale from Thwaites. The Bothy is at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS.
I see from the local press that Kate Rusby is appearing with her band at the Southport Theatre on 28 May. She has come a long way since her first appearance in Southport, which was at the Bothy in a duo with Kathryn Roberts, and then later on her own. The admission charge on those nights was probably around a quarter of the £20 you'll pay at the Southport Theatre. Her waif-like singing style is rather at odds with her down-to-earth, Barnsley girl chat between songs, but she is undeniably popular with an appeal that extends beyond the folk scene.
It's not the first time the Bothy has featured people on the way up. A few other examples include: Barbara Dickson, Show Of Hands and Mary Black, and a favourite story at the Bothy is that the club refused Paul Simon a gig in 1965.
On our travels collecting adverts for Ale & Hearty (the local CAMRA magazine), Fred and I were rather impressed by the Hop Vine in Burscough.
This pub was formerly known as the Royal Coaching House before its closure and did not have a good reputation among real ale drinkers. It was reopened by Mike and Julie, and has been tastefully redecorated throughout. The old pool room is now a side room that can be used as a function room. The food is well thought of by regulars, and there several real ales on: Theakstons Bitter, Moorhouses Pendle Witches Brew and Hop Vine, a house beer brewed by Prospect of Wigan, are always on with changing guests. There is a courtyard to the rear, which will be nice to sit in when the weather’s better, and plans are well developed to open a microbrewery in the outhouses. This would be only the second brewery in our local CAMRA branch’s area, and will be a very welcome development.
They are holding their first beer festival over the Whit weekend. Details should appear on their website soon.
Also, if you'd like hear to hear a great professional guitarist, Alan plays there on alternate (every 2 weeks) Sunday evenings between 6 and 8 pm, whilst you enjoy a meal or a pint. His next performance is on the 16th May. He does a wide range of tunes from most times in the past.
Finding it: the pub is on the main road through Burscough, the A59, and is a couple of hundred yards from Burscough Bridge station and about half a mile from Burscough Junction. The train journey from Southport is about 13 minutes. Postcode: L40 4BY.
I noticed on the AOL home page a headline "Cheryl Cole dazzles with costume changes". As I loathe this talentless, violent woman, I clicked on the review of her gig at the O2. The whole item described her costume changes, without a single word about her singing. This is just as well, because I heard her solo single Parachute on the radio recently and was unimpressed by her thin weedy voice and the utterly stupid lyrics. If her voice sounds that bad despite all the studio wizardry that's now available (they can even correct out-of-tune singing), then it must be dire indeed. I personally know some knock-out female singers in various styles - rock, folk or cabaret - who could wipe the floor with Cole.
The picture shows Cole's victim, toilet attendant Sophie Amogbokpa, to whom she has yet to apologise seven years after attacking her. Cole didn't have even the slightest scratch to justify her plea of self-defence. Interestingly some of the readers' comments about the article were similar to mine, showing that not everyone is persuaded that Cole is the nation's sweetheart, as much of the media would have us believe.
I nearly forgot: the costumes looked pretty stupid too, and about as alluring as a Barbie doll..
Last night at the Bothy we had the brilliant fiddle player, Dave Swarbrick; the room was, as you'd expect, full. A high-powered performance left none of his fans disappointed, and our resident fiddle player drooling with envy. One of the Bothy residents, Bill Hackney, opened for Swarb with a rendition of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck In The Middle", except in the final chorus, he sang "Clowns to the left, posh boys to the right, stuck in the middle with Pugh" (John Pugh being our LibDem MP). Bill rarely gets political, and I'm sure his frustration with politicians is widely held.
This got me thinking about a couple of our local candidates in the general election: the Tory hopeful was described by the Champion, a local free paper, as "Southport paramilitary candidate" ~ perhaps the Champ knows something about her that the rest of us don't. Also, our UKIP candidate was held up in Poland by the recent volcanic closure of air space and he thought he might miss the election campaign (bit of a problem when you're standing), but he managed to get back. Why was he in Poland? To have his teeth done more cheaply than he would pay in Britain. So much for protecting British jobs ~ jokers to the right indeed!