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.

October
► 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.

November
► 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.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

European Tap Takeover + pizza

Here's something a bit different.

Over the weekend of 1 and 2 November, the Tap & Bottles in Cambridge Walk, Southport, is hosting a European Tap Takeover. In addition to its usual offer which always includes four real ales, they'll dedicate taps to beers from the Continent from 5.00pm on the Friday evening. Additionally, there will be Neapolitan pizza all day Saturday supplied by Purely Pizza, Southport's artisan pizza maker.

Monday, 14 October 2019

CAMRA and gender terminology

• E-mail from me to CAMRA:
I welcome CAMRA's involvement in the Women In Beer festival. However, shouldn't we put our own house in order? Isn't it time to ditch old-fashioned, gender-specific terms such as 'chairman', and use gender-neutral terms such as chair, chairperson or even president?

• Reply: 
Thank you for getting in touch. We have suggested the terms get reviewed, but it is down to the individual who holds that seat to decide what they'd like to be called - when Jackie Parker was Chairman, her preference was to be called Chairman rather than Chair!

I will forward on again the feedback though, as we have had leadership changes in the last year who may feel differently.

• My response:
I don't see it as a matter for personal choice because the terms must be prescribed in some kind of constitution, which probably needs amending. It is possible that Jackie Parker used 'chairman' because that was the official term.

Nowadays gender-specific terms such as 'chairman' make CAMRA look like an old-fashioned boys' club, rather than the inclusive campaign it would claim to be. Terms such as 'firefighters', 'seafarers', 'police officers' and 'actors' (for both genders) are increasingly becoming the norm.

The usual response from those who oppose gender-neutral terminology is something along the lines of "The position is not a piece of furniture". That is immature nonsense: the queen is often referred to as 'the crown' (e.g. the Crown Prosecution Service), but she is not a piece of jewellery, 'black rod' refers to a parliamentary officer, not a stick, and 'the bench' refers to three magistrates, not a long seat. My trade union has had gender-neutral terms since at least the 1970s, long before I joined, and - amazingly - the sky hasn't fallen in.

As the branch press officer, I write a weekly CAMRA column in two local papers. If I use a national CAMRA press release, I always replace 'chairman' with 'chair'. No one in the branch has complained.

This really shouldn't be an issue in the 21st century. However, I appreciate the fact that you will pass on my feedback: would you include this e-mail as well? Thanks.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Coolest thing ever said to Al Stewart


I went to see Al Stewart at the Royal College of Music in Manchester last night. It was a sell-out performance and he was, as always, excellent. The support band, Empty Pockets, who also were his backing band, were very good in both capacities. He told this story:

About 40 years ago, he was backstage and a woman he reckoned was about 10 years older than him came in, made herself a drink and sat down to read a magazine. Assuming she was the wife of the promoter, he went over to chat with her, and after a while she told him that she had a cassette of his music in the car, adding that she had only two cassettes in her car, the other being of her brother.

"Is your brother in a band?" asked Al.
"He was," she replied, "but they split up."

As he put his guitar on to go on stage, Al asked the name of the band. She replied: "The Beatles."

It was George Harrison's sister. Al said it was coolest thing that's ever been said to him.

► I remember watching the live version above of 'Year Of The Cat' on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976. He and his band did an excellent version last night.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Cheshire Lines Oktoberfest

On an impulse, I decided to pop into the Cheshire Lines on King Street, Southport, last weekend and was greeted warmly with the news of their forthcoming beer festival. The Chesh, as it's generally known, is a good real ale pub with four handpumps regularly in use, and the beers I tried on this visit were in good condition.

On Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th October they'll be putting on the Chesh Oktoberfest promising “Steins & Good Times” with thirty different casks, so there will be plenty of scope for sampling various beers. This two-day event will also feature live music from six bands, an outdoor bar, a DJ, a barbecue and various giveaways – all a mere two minutes' walk from Lord Street.

The Chesh is also popular for its food for which it gets good reviews on TripAdvisor, so you will be well-served if you get peckish after a few pints. Entry is free; not one to be missed. Tel: (01704) 546565.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Song and music sessions to the end of October

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.

September
► Sunday 29th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Monday 30 September: song session in the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, Southport from 8.15 pm.

October
► Sunday 6th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Monday 7th: song session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
► Tuesday 8th: song session in the Lion, Moorfields, Liverpool from 8.30 pm.
► Wednesday 9th: Grasshopper singaround in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport (change of venue for this month only) - from 8.15 pm.
► Monday 21st: music session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
► 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.
► Every Thursday: lunchtime singaround in the Belvedere, Sugnall Street, Liverpool 7. 2.00pm to 4.00pm.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Vestry Tap Room, Tarleton

The Vestry Tap Room in Tarleton
I first learnt about the Vestry Tap Room after they had contacted the local CAMRA branch. It has been open for around six months.

I caught the 2 Stagecoach bus on Lord Street and about 40 minutes later was dropped off right opposite the pub. It was empty when I arrived except for Lisa behind the bar, although it did fill up later. Lisa was very helpful and patient as she answered all my various questions.

The main room is light with wooden walls to waist height and wooden furniture, including bench seating along the walls. There is also a comfortable room upstairs with easy chairs, and an outdoor drinking area to the rear of the building.

Lisa behind the bar at the Vestry
Three hand pumps were serving Avid Brewing Co. American Pale, Hawkshead Windermere Pale and Brewsmith Bitter. These beers are always changing and those due on next were from Polly's Brew Co., Tiny Rebel, Siren Craft Co. and Squawk Brewery. A real cider, Lilley's Rhubarb Cider, is also available. On Sundays, the real ales are reduced by 25% between noon and 4.00 pm. All three real ales were in good condition.

There are also lagers and craft beers, including a rhubarb milkshake pale called Rhubarbra Streisand! Other drinks offered include a large gin selection, canned craft beers and bottles of BrewDog Punk IPA.

On Tuesdays at 8.00 pm, a speed quiz is held, and Lisa had to explain to me what that actually was! Live music is presented once or twice a month between 5.00 and 9.00 pm on Sundays – next time is 29 September - and occasionally free cheese boards are offered, also on Sunday. Live sports are sometimes shown. 

On Friday 4 and Saturday 5 October they are putting on an Oktoberfest with an oompah brass band, imported German beer, gins, authentic German street food, live music and a DJ in a large marquee. It is a ticket-only do, and there aren't many left so if you're interested phone 01772 301976 to check.

The premises are not suitable for under-18s, but dogs are admitted. They have free WiFi, and are on Facebook where you can check the opening hours which do vary through the week. You'll find it at 109 Church Rd, Tarleton, Lancashire PR4 6UP.

► 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, 17 September 2019

Real ale 'isn't dear enough' and it's all our fault!

The root of all evil? The Sir Henry
Segrave, a Wetherspoons in Southport
A couple of months ago I picked up the summer issue of Ale Cry, the magazine of the CAMRA Central Lancs Branch. It's an interesting mag, and its layout and presentation are much better than a few years ago when, although the articles were okay, it looked like a badly-produced college rag mag. One article grabbed my attention, 'The Price Of Your Pint Revisited', written by the editor Adrian Smith - you can read the article concerned here (on page 22).

The general thrust of the article is that we drinkers are reluctant to pay what he considers a fair price for real ale with the consequence that real ale may be "dumbed down" to save costs, or discontinued altogether. He makes some international comparisons, but comparing our beer prices with those in other countries is of little value unless you also compare average incomes, taxation levels, duty, and indeed all the many other factors that affect what we British drinkers pay.

He also has some scathing words for Wetherspoons and the vouchers that they give to CAMRA members, describing this membership benefit as CAMRA encouraging members to visit JDW pubs at the expense of traditional pubs, even though it is actually funded by Wetherspoons, not CAMRA. The value of the vouchers, £20 per year, equates to 77p per CAMRA member per week, not an amount, I would suggest, that would drive traditional pubs to close, especially as 99.7% of the UK population are not CAMRA members.

Many organisations have benefits for members provided by outside businesses; indeed, some of the membership benefits I am entitled to claim, in addition to those via CAMRA, come through my trade union, the National Trust, my railcard, my car breakdown service and even my folk club. Furthermore, there are 17 other companies that offer perks to CAMRA members, some of them in the beer and hospitality industries - but there's not a word in Ale Cry bemoaning any of those. Besides, there is absolutely nothing to stop any other pubco making similar offers.

At this point I wondered whether I was beginning to detect the anti-Wetherspoons snobbery that, regrettably, some CAMRA members are prone to, a perception reinforced by a statement in the Ale Cry article that, "Real ale on sale at £2.09 a pint is frankly ridiculous". Why? Wetherspoons are making a profit, so if they can afford to sell beer at such a price, why shouldn't they? Perhaps it's the perception of the clientele that Wetherspoons' prices are said to attract: people on benefits, parents with screaming brats running wild and pensioners drooling into their cheap meals, all of which shameful slanders - and more - I have read too many times (although not in the Ale Cry article). I consider such generalisations about Wetherspoons clientele both inaccurate and disrespectful.

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; they would certainly have no chance of paying the price for real ale that Adrian Smith thinks they should.

I've written before about the price of beer, most recently in June 2018 here. One point I have made several times is that in 1972, a pint of bitter here in the north west was around 13p or 14p. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, I learned that 14p back then is equivalent to £1.82 in 2018. In recent years, and especially since 2010, ordinary people's incomes have definitely not increased correspondingly. In real terms, beer is nowadays markedly dearer while many people's incomes are lower. It's logical to assume this is a significant reason why drinkers are reluctant to pay more for real ale, but the Ale Cry article makes no mention if it.

A list of factors affecting pub usage, the level of beer prices in pubs and what people can afford would include (in no particular order):
  • Beer taxes that over the years have risen by more than the rate of inflation, and which are among the highest in Europe.
  • Excessive business rates (which, incidentally, are set by Whitehall, not councils).
  • Pub companies overcharging their tenants for rent, supplies (including all drinks) and building maintenance.
  • Rising costs for brewers (e.g. raw materials) and pubs (e.g. utility bills).
  • Falling beer sales overall.
  • Changes in drinking habits, with many young people preferring go to bars and clubs rather than traditional pubs.
  • More choices of places to drink, such as bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs.
  • Cheap drink in supermarkets.
  • Sophisticated home entertainment systems.
  • Austerity, leaving people with less cash and either unemployed or worried they might be.
  • The increase in insecure employment, zero hours contracts, and minimum wage jobs.
  • The smoking ban.
In the face of all this, it seems perverse and facile to criticise the drinker, and I am surprised that the editor of a drinkers' campaigning magazine does so. I did e-mail him a couple of months ago making some of these points but received no reply.

► For information, the Wetherspoons voucher scheme is currently being replaced.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Liverpool's Dispensary to shun real ale

You can see part of the original sign (top left) from when the
pub was called the Grapes. ('Borrowed' from the Liverpool
Echo, just as they've used my photos without asking)
I was chatting to Dave in the Lion Tavern in Liverpool on Tuesday; I was there for our monthly singaround. He was telling me the the current licensee of the Dispensary on Renshaw Street, also called Dave, is retiring.

I wrote about this pub almost exactly 6 years ago on 19 September 2013: "This pub has won Liverpool CAMRA's Pub of the Year award in the past, and I have spent happy afternoons and evenings there. The licensee once took the mickey out of me when he saw me at the bar writing down all the beers that were on. He obviously didn't believe me when I told him I was making notes for my beer blog."

He actually declared in a loud voice that "We've got another ticker in!" One thing I am not is a ticker, but I took it as banter, even though Dave's reputation was such that I doubt he'd have been bothered if I had been offended. His approach to customer service has been described as eccentric, but I always found that the beer was on good form.

Dave in the Lion told me that the Dispensary will now be focusing on craft ales and cocktails and that no real ale has been included in the next order. This is a shame, and I see no reason why a pub cannot sell both craft beer and real ale, as the Tap & Bottles in Southport does.

► P.S. on 8.11.19. I went in last week (31.10.19) and they do still have real ale on and it was in good condition. It seems that the reports of real ale's demise in this pub were premature.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Song and music sessions to 16th September

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

► Tuesday 10th: song session in the Lion, Moorfields, Liverpool from 8.30 pm.
► Wednesday 11th: singaround at the Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillside, Southport from 8.15 pm.
► Sunday 15th: singers night at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm. Free admission for performers.
► Monday 16th September: music session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
► Every Thursday: lunchtime singaround in the Belvedere, Sugnall Street, Liverpool 7. 2.00pm to 4.00pm.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Captain Alexander, Liverpool

The Captain Alexander
My friend Ann and I decided to try the new Wetherspoons pub on James Street in Liverpool, the Captain Alexander, named after Alexander Allan, founder of the Allan shipping line which used to have offices in the city. It is across the road from James Street station in the ground floor of a former office block. It has one large room panelled with light wood and was very busy when we were there.

The clientele was mixed and included office workers on their lunch break, some families and an unexpectedly quiet hen party, although to be fair it was still early in the day. It's clearly popular even though it has been open for less than three months. The pub has an outdoor terrace on the first floor, which was filled with drinkers enjoying the sunshine. The pub is accessible and, unlike some Wetherspoons, has toilets on the ground floor.

There was a good range of real ales, including some I wasn't familiar with (yes, there are a few) and included: Greene King Abbott; Big Bog Swampy Bitter; Purple Moose Dark Side of the Moose; Yazoo Hop Perfect IPA; St Peters Plum Porter; Big Bog Blonde Bach; Twilighter Fresh Yorkshire IPA; and Lancaster Black. Ruddles Best Bitter is usually on but had run out. The beers I tried were on good form and Ann enjoyed her Shiraz.

The outdoor terrace
The keg range includes BrewDog Punk IPA and Shipyard American IPA. It has a good choice of bottled beers, all the wines and spirits that you'd expect and a gin menu called “The Little Book of Gin” which lists more than fifty gins from the UK and around the world. The usual Wetherspoons food was on offer and we both enjoyed our meals: a mixed grill for Ann and a skinny chicken burger for me.

The Captain Alexander is less than half a mile from Moorfields railway station, and is close to the shops, the Mersey ferries, the Pier Head and the Three Graces. It's a worthy addition to a city centre that is already well-endowed with great pubs.

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, 12 August 2019

Song and music sessions to 2nd September

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

► Wednesday 14th: singaround at the Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillside, Southport from 8.15 pm.
► Sunday 18th: summer singaround at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm.
► Sunday 25th: Bothy Folk Club summer singaround - for 1 week only - in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.00 pm.
► Monday 26th: song session in the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, Southport from 8.15 pm.
► Monday 2nd September: song session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.

Friday, 9 August 2019

The Wayfarer, Parbold brewpub

CAMRA has published a list of the top ten brewpubs across the country, and the nearest to us is the Wayfarer on Alder Lane, Parbold, Lancs WN8 7NL. Problem Child has been brewing on-site at the pub since 2013 and produces a wide range of fine beers. The Wayfarer is also known for its food, and it will be the subject of a full post in future. After a 20-minute railway journey from Southport, the pub is less than ten minutes' walk from Parbold Station. The opening hours are restricted so best check before travelling. Website.

Ben Wilkinson, CAMRA’s National Director said: "Brewpubs provide a fantastic experience not just for the beer connoisseur, but for anyone interested in learning more about how their favourite drink is produced. They act as the showroom to our nation’s breweries and provide a highly sustainable option with the beer travelling a grand total of zero miles from where it’s produced. In addition, like all pubs, they play a pivotal role in bringing communities together."

The full list of brewpubs is here.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Dormouse in the Room

I have read the smoking ban described as "the elephant in the room" in discussions about the decline in pub-going and beer drinking. The point being made is that many people who mourn the decline in pub-going and beer drinking are missing an obvious point, i.e. that the smoking ban is destroying pubs.

I think the survey summarised below refutes that argument quite conclusively. Smoking has been banished from our pubs permanently, and a good thing too. I put up with smoky atmospheres in pubs for more than 35 years, and I think it's quite probable that other people's smoke has exacerbated my sinus problems, which over the years became significantly worse than when I started going to the pub in the early 1970s.

I find it quite extraordinary that a minority of smokers abandoned their social lives in order to avoid the arduous journey of a few seconds' walk to outside the door in order to have a fag. Was the right to smoke inside a pub more important than meeting their friends? If so, they were not particularly loyal friends.

The pub world is changing, as it always has: pubs in the 1950s were quite different from those in the 1970s, and they were different from those in the 1990s, and so on. I do know some lifelong smokers who say they prefer smoke-free pubs and have no problem with going outside to have a smoke.

Bearing in mind that no one under 30 has ever had a drink in a smoke-filled pub or bar, and they are the drinkers of the future, I'd say that this is a lost cause for those who are so committed to their addiction that they believe it's okay to pollute the lungs of non-smoking beer lovers.

I'm pleased to say that, although I know quite a few smokers, none of them is that selfish.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Ainsdale Food & Drink Festival

Advance notice of a local festival in two months' time.

Ainsdale Cricket Club has informed Southport & West Lancs CAMRA that they will be holding their first food and drink festival at the Cricket Club from 11th to 13th October. While they will have gin and rum bars, street food, bands and DJs, the main emphasis will be on the beer and they intend to have around 40 different beers and ciders on offer. They want to showcase some local breweries as well as some more obscure ones.

On Friday night, 6.00 pm to 11.00 pm, some of the brewers will personally showcase their products. On Saturday they will be open 2.00 pm to 11.00 pm, and 2.00 pm to 8.00 pm on Sunday.

The organisers tell me that they are hoping to make it an annual event. I'll provide more details when I learn them closer to the time.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Local acoustic music events to 15 August

All events are free, unless otherwise stated. At singarounds and music sessions, you can perform, sing along or just listen to suit yourself.
  • Friday 2nd: Untrained Melody - folk and blues in the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Walks, Southport from 8.30 pm.
  • Sunday 4th: summer singaround at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm.
  • Monday 5th: song session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
  • Sunday 11th: Folk in the Park, 1.00 pm to 6.00 pm, Hesketh Park, Southport.
  • Sunday 11th: summer singaround at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport from 8.00 pm.
  • Monday 12th: tunes session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport from 8.15pm.
  • Tuesday 13th: singaround at the Lion Tavern, 67 Moorfields, Liverpool L2 2BP from 8.15 pm.
  • Wednesday 14th: singaround at the Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillside, Southport from 8.15 pm.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Victoria – Southport Promenade

The Victoria, Southport Promenade
The Victoria is a large, prominent pub on the Promenade in Southport close to the Marine Way Bridge. It tends to have a mixed clientele: local residents, theatre-goers, conference delegates and visitors to the town. I have sometimes enjoyed a pint after a show in the nearby Southport Theatre or while sitting on its fine beer garden to the front on a sunny day. Inside it is a large pub with separate drinking areas, one of which to the rear has a pool table. There is also a dart board, and I noticed that the Ladies Darts Team has been particularly successful recently.

This is a Thwaites house, and the two real ales that were on when I visited were Original Bitter and Gold, a pale citrus beer. As I've had the bitter many times previously, I tried the Gold and found it pleasant and in good condition. A third handpump had an Old Rosie Cider pumpclip but this had run out at the time. I also noticed that they have an extensive gin bar as well as a good range of all the usual bar drinks.

The food menu has a wide choice of pub favourites, and I saw signs advertising Sunday lunches, chippy teas at £7.95 and a children's menu. Overall there are very positive reviews of the food on Tripadvisor.

Music is popular here with karaoke every Friday and Saturday, while every Sunday there is live music in the afternoon followed by a disco karaoke in the evening. Live sports are shown on HD television, particularly Premier League matches and golf. The pub is family-friendly, which includes your dog as long as it is kept on a lead. Perhaps a good place to relax after taking your canine friend for a walk along the Prom. This is clearly a pub with a broad range of activities to cater for different tastes.

Contact details: 01704 544121 and Facebook. Website: victoriasouthport.co.uk.

► Linda, team leader in the Willow Grove, Lord Street, Southport, was obviously very pleased to tell me that the pub has been awarded Cask Marque accreditation. This is an independently-assessed measure of beer quality, so well done to all concerned.

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.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Death of a pub

"Borrowed" from the Liverpool Echo article,
which used a picture I'd taken without credit.
The Blundell Arms in Birkdale was for more than 30 years the home of the Bothy Folk Club of which I'm a resident singer. Regrettably, over many years the pub was run into the ground by the pubco and deteriorated from respectable street corner local to scruffy and, frankly, slightly dodgy dive. The Bothy was increasingly made to feel unwelcome, despite the amount of custom it brought in every Sunday night, and moved elsewhere. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, on 6 March 2016 the pub closed its doors for the final time.

Shortly afterwards, a campaign to convert it into a community pub was set up by Jason MacCormack and succeeded in gaining Asset of Community Value (ACV) status for it. The site on which the pub sits is large, and developers bought it to turn it into housing, leading to something of an impasse.

There the matter had remained until last weekend when, according to the Liverpool Echo, a huge fire swept through the building. The cause of the fire has not yet been announced, but empty buildings with no gas or electricity supply don't tend to go on fire spontaneously. I have read three different speculative explanations, although obviously I have no idea which is the right one:
  • Vandalism.
  • An accident by homeless people who, it has been said, were staying in the building.
  • A convenient fire to scupper the community pub campaign.
The campaign has said it will try to get an estimate of the cost of repairing the fire damage to see whether they can still proceed, but even if they can, there's no doubt their task has become considerably harder. I wish them luck, but I fear it will soon be a building site.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

The Office of National Statistics states that the average price of a pint of draught bitter in 1988 was 91p and that 30 years later in 2018 it was £3.06. We all expect prices to rise, but according to the Bank of England inflation calculator, 91p in 1988 is equivalent to £2.39 in 2018. If inflation had been the only pressure on beer prices, that's what we'd be paying nowadays.

A year ago, YouGov conducted a survey with more than 40,000 respondents and found that beer was on average around 60p dearer than what drinkers considered reasonable. This means that, not just that beer is dearer in real terms, but drinkers feel they are being overcharged for it. How did this come about?

When the big brewers sold off their huge pub estates, most were bought by pub companies, who financed their purchases by mortgaging their newly-acquired properties. The 2007 financial crash then put most pubcos into massive debt; they are however too big to fail or they'd take the lenders down with them. To service these debts, pubcos charge very high rents for pub tenancies and insist the tenants buy their supplies through them, adding mark-ups that can be as much as 100% - just for passing on the order.

Then it was the government's turn. Beer duty has during this period been pushed up by much more than inflation, notwithstanding the odd duty freeze now and then. In addition, business rates, also set by central government, are disproportionately high when compared to other businesses with comparable turnovers. Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs: if pubs are driven to close, they pay no duty or rates at all.

If you ever feel your pint is dearer nowadays in real terms, you're quite correct!

This is from an article I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Some previous write-ups are here.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Select 4 at the Southport Tavern

Local rock band, Select 4 which is led by guitarist Mick Cooper, will be playing a gig at the Southport Tavern (formerly the Albert) on London Street this Friday evening, 24 May.

The band plays a mixture of interesting well-known songs along with a few neglected classics. They tend to avoid the usual standard rock songs that many bands reach for.

To the right is a logo I designed for the band, but I don't know whether they have taken to using it!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Asset stripping through neglect

Passing this closed pub in Southport recently, the Hoghton Arms, I thought the obvious neglect gave one compelling reason why pubs are closing. Letters are missing from the name and the paintwork below the windows hasn't been touched for years. If I were looking for a pub to run, I'd just walk past this one. It wouldn't surprise me if planning permission was sought to develop the site.

Two views of the same corner on Google street view.
Slightly further away it still shows the London.
Move closer and the new houses magically appear.
I've seen this happen before. On my last visit to the London Hotel in Southport, the place had clearly not been decorated since long before the smoking ban as the ceiling was still heavily stained with nicotine, several of the light bulbs were broken and the whole place was dingy and unwelcoming. Unsurprisingly, there were only about three or four people in what was a large street corner people in a residential area, even though there wasn't another pub or bar nearby.

I e-mailed the owning company and asked about the rumour that the pub was to be closed down. I initially received nothing back but after a couple of reminders was sent a very guarded reply asking what my interest was: was I interested in buying the pub? I replied no, I was just a customer concerned about its future. I received no further response. Shortly afterwards came the inevitable announcement that the pub was unviable, although unsurprisingly they didn't mention that they had run it into the ground. A group of new houses now sit on the site.

Most pub companies are property companies and have no vested interest in maintaining their pubs, especially when they can get the equivalent of a massive lottery win by selling the land for redevelopment. Breweries were more likely to maintain their estates of pubs because they were outlets for their core product, beer, but as is well known such brewery estates are uncommon nowadays.

Even many apparently successful traditional pubs are, behind the scenes, struggling under inequitable tenancy agreements that require licensees to take responsibility for often quite major maintenance costs, as well as overcharging for the products on sale: licensees have told me about 50% to 100% mark-ups on beer as compared to the open market. Many pubs would be much more successful if they weren't tied and could buy their supplies where they wanted. Although I'm a Leftie, my understanding is that under capitalism competition is supposed be good for the economy by bringing prices down to benefit all of us - well, that's the theory we're fed. The tie ensures that pubco-owned pubs are denied even that dubious benefit.

Nothing is likely to be done because our rulers are quite happy if pubs close and we all stay at home, but people cannot be bullied into such behaviour against their will. The rise of new micropubs and bars, not tied to any company, are stepping into the breach, or even opening in areas that weren't previously served by any drinking establishments. For example, the Hillside area of Southport had no licensed premises at all until three years ago: now there are two new bars and a micropub, with two of them serving real ale (the Grasshopper and the Pines).

The down side is that we continue to lose irreplaceable traditional pubs that, if the owners had the will, could remain open. The success of various community pubs which had previously been closed by pubcos as unviable simply shows that the pubco business model is itself the problem.

I do know there are other factors in pub closures, such as excessive tax, unfair business rates, changes in how people socialise, and so on, but I have seen pubs allowed to deteriorate, often (in my opinion) quite deliberately.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Bob Fox in Concert

  • The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport 
  • Saturday 11 May 11th 
  • 2.00 p.m. 
  • Tickets £12 - buy here or at the box office. 
A great afternoon concert hosted by Pete Rimmer.
Part of the Southport Festival - 10 to 12 May.

What they're saying about Bob Fox:

"Fox always was one of the scene's superior singers and his voice is as confident and ebullient as it ever was." - Colin Irwin - Folk Roots Magazine 

"Bob, in my view, is a greatly under-rated singer and musician, if he were pushier he'd be up there with the Carthys and Gaughans and he could certainly teach the upcoming generation a thing or three!" - Raymon Greenoaken - Stirrings Magazine

"Bob Fox’s supreme voice is full of life and clarity." - New Zealand Folk Newsletter

"The most complete male folk artist on the British folk scene, his voice and singing style is envied by many of his contemporaries." - Colin Randall -The Daily Telegraph

"As soon as I heard him sing I realised that Bob Fox must have one of the best voices in England, he is an artist of great ability and integrity." - Ralph McTell

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Magic Mild Festival

As I wrote on 17 April, CAMRA Southport & West Lancs' contribution to 'May is Mild Month' is to run the Southport Mild Trail throughout May in conjunction with eight great local real ale pubs.

One of those pubs, the Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, will be taking the concept further and will be holding its own 'Magic Mild Festival' over the May bank holiday weekend, 3rd to 6th May. They will be offering eight different cask milds from various breweries including:
  • Dunham Massey.
  • Timothy Taylor.
  • Salopian.
  • Local breweries – Southport, Rock the Boat and George Wright.
  • Moorhouses Black Cat.
The full range of blonde, golden and bitter beers will still be available as usual. There will also be music, a barbeque and Morris dancing.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Perhaps The Twain

The Pub Curmudgeon has written a good post 'Never The Twain' on his blog comparing cask beer to craft, and pointing out that many handcrafted real ales could be justifiably called craft. While he's correct, it's an argument that's probably been lost because popular linguistic usage isn't always logical - for example, did you know that 'flammable' and 'inflammable' mean exactly the same thing?

In October 2012, I was able to write about craft:
I don't have a problem with the existence of craft beer, including keg, and wouldn't refuse to try it, if I knew anywhere I could buy it, but the nearest place I'm aware of is in Manchester, 40 miles away.
There were probably closer places that I didn't know about, but the point that craft wasn't generally available was correct at the time. However, such days are long gone and it is now commonplace. In the spirit of experimenting I have tried a few and, as I've previously written, have found that some have been well brewed and have a good flavour. The main difference concerns the method of dispense, and drinking craft is to me like drinking bottled beers, which is something I might do at home or at a party. In the pub I simply prefer real ale. 

When writing about pubs for the weekly CAMRA column in our local papers, I'll always mention craft beers if they're on sale; I have been writing these for more than three years now and none of our local 800 members have ever complained about it, which tends to counter the 'stick-in-the-mud' accusations against the campaign. Indeed, some CAMRA festivals have even been putting on a craft bar.

I know some drinkers who happily drink both styles regularly, and I expect that tendency will increase as the original craft drinkers grow older and the subsequent generations of beer drinkers simply see handpumps, craft fonts and bottles as normal components of pub or bar scenery - not as defining their personal identity. If I'm right, then 'Never The Twain' will become history.

Today I don't detect the hostility between vociferous cask and craft advocates that I certainly used to see on some blogs and websites, in the risible antics of BrewDog, and in the letters page of 'What's Brewing', the CAMRA newspaper - but, oddly enough, didn't tend to encounter in the real world.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Southport Mild Trail 2019

Click on picture to enlarge the map.
In May Southport and West Lancs CAMRA is running the Southport Mild Trail. Eight local pubs have agreed to offer customers a cask conditioned mild option for the whole month of May. The participating pubs are: 
  • The Beer Den.
  • The Bold Arms (Churchtown). 
  • The Cheshire Lines. 
  • The Corridor. 
  • The Grasshopper.
  • The Guest House.
  • Southport & Birkdale Sports Club.
  • The Windmill. 
Join the Mild Trail either by using the card printed in the local CAMRA magazine 'Ale and Hearty' or by picking up a Mild Trail card (as shown above) at any of the eight pubs, ordering cask mild at each participating pub and asking them to stamp the card. Completed cards will be included in a draw with a chance to win one of the prizes listed on the local CAMRA website.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Who's singing? You or the computer?

I've just been listening to BBC Radio 2 late at night and I have been dismayed - not for the first time - by how many singers have, in my judgement, had their voices adjusted by Autotune. If you can't sing in tune, you have no right to fob off a fake product on the public.

Judging by this image I found on-line, I am clearly not alone in regarding Autotune as the musical equivalent of sports people using performance-enhancing drugs. In both cases, the public is being conned.

For the record, I am on at least 18 albums (possibly more), and I know I can sing in tune without computerised assistance. That's not just my opinion: it's also the view of a friend who has perfect pitch. And I'm just a local, mostly amateur, singer.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

The EU, free speech, and Tim Martin

I wrote a few days ago about how some people can, in my opinion, be quite snooty about Wetherspoon's pubs. In recent weeks I have been hearing another explanation for avoiding them, a more political one. As I said in my earlier post, anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Tim Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Why not? Quite simply, I take the view that Tim Martin is entitled to his views, although I must question the business sense of potentially alienating up to 48% of your potential customers, but that's his problem, not mine. As I also previously said, if I knew the views of senior directors of a lot of pub chains, breweries, or indeed any companies that get money from me, I'm sure I'd find plenty to disagree with. Sensibly from a business perspective, most people in such positions will be much more guarded in their public statements than Tim Martin.

This second post on the subject of Spoons was prompted by a friend giving me a few vouchers, saying that she'll never use them because of Martin's public statements on leaving the EU, so I might as well have them. Fine by me. While I'm a very political animal, having been involved in unions, political parties, demonstrations and campaigns for most of my adult life, I accept the principle of free speech.

So let's define free speech: it doesn't just mean that you have the right to say what you believe in, it also includes other people having the right to say things that you fundamentally disagree with. In this country, there used to be an attitude of, "I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it", often more simply expressed by agreeing to disagree. Increasingly the attitude is, "How dare you say that!", very often accompanied by insults and abuse.

I believe this change began with Mrs Thatcher because that was very much her approach, but she is not solely, or even mostly, to blame: social media have given very public voices to people with genuinely nasty attitudes who are incapable of tolerating, not only views they don't like, but people they disapprove of, often for irrational reasons such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, political views, or even just because they don't find them physically attractive. In other words, bigots. Bigots don't respect free speech in others, which is one of the reasons why we have laws against the hatred they spew out.

The tone of some discussions, especially on-line, has become distinctly unpleasant: calling your opponents 'Brexiteers' or 'Remoaners', by no means the worst terms I've seen, isn't likely to encourage a respectful exchange of views, which is why I have never used them: I prefer 'Leavers' and 'Remainers'. Besides, adults engaging in such silly name-calling is an unedifying sight.

Getting back to Tim Martin. As far as I know, he has not demonstrated any bigotry; he simply has very strong views on leaving the EU and has used his public profile to try to persuade others. He is, in short, exercising his right to free speech. Unfortunately, this issue has become so toxic that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult, but as long as he stays within the bounds of civilised debate on an issue about which we've all had the chance to have our say through the ballot box, I have no intention of boycotting his pubs.

One thing I have observed is that the old convention, one I have never fully agreed with, that you don't talk politics in the pub seems to have gone out of the window. In the last month or so, I have heard several animated conversations in pubs about leaving the EU.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Whiskey in the Jar


The song 'Whiskey in the Jar' is probably most associated with Thin Lizzy, but it is of course an old traditional Irish folk song, and before Lizzy got their hands on it, the Dubliners' version was probably the best known. Thin Lizzy never intended it for release, and were in fact just larking around in the studio when they recorded it. They consequently weren't too pleased when Decca released as a single anyway as it wasn't representative of their sound, although I expect they were to some extent consoled by the higher profile they gained when it reached number one in Ireland and six in the UK.

I remember it was on our college bar jukebox and one night at the student  folk club, the club organiser got up and announced he was going to sing the song, "the proper version, not that abomination on the jukebox." I remember thinking that I rather liked the abomination on the jukebox.

With line-up changes, Lizzy dropped the song from their repertoire, and they never played it on the five occasions I saw them live. However, that wasn't the end of the line for the song. In 1990, the Dubliners re-recorded it with Celtic punk band the Pogues with a faster, more rocky sound. In 1998, Metallica recorded a version similar to Lizzy's, but heavier as you'd expect, even winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The song has come a long way from Irish pub folk sessions to heavy metal recognition.

The video sows the original line-up of Thin Lizzy featuring drummer Brian Downey, lead guitarist Eric Bell and Phil Lynott on vocals and bass guitar.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

CAMRA local pubs of the year awards

The Southport and West Lancs CAMRA branch covers parts of two counties: Southport and Formby in Merseyside and, as you'd expect, western Lancashire. Consequently the branch makes two sets of awards, and these are the results.

The North Merseyside Pub of the Year is the Sparrowhawk, Southport Old Road in Formby. The Cider Pub of the Year is the Grasshopper, Sandon Road in Hillside. The Club of the Year is the Fleetwood Hesketh S&S Club, Fylde Road, Southport.

The West Lancashire Pub of the Year is Tap Room No 12 in Burscough Street, and the Cider Pub of the Year is the Court Leet in Wheatsheaf Walk, both in Ormskirk. By coincidence, I wrote about these two pubs in January. No clubs were entered for Club of the Year.

These awards are determined after visits over twelve months by ordinary CAMRA members, and a shortlist is derived from their scores. The pubs on the shortlist are then visited by a team of judges (including Yours truly this time for the cider pub scoring) who make the final decisions. The pubs themselves do not usually know they are in the running for an award.

My congratulations to all the winners.

Please note that CAMRA receives no money or payment in kind for making such awards. The same applies to entries in the Good Beer Guide; if someone claiming to be from CAMRA asks a licensee for payment in return for an award or for being listed in a beer guide, it is a scam. I have recently heard reports of this happening in the north west.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Spoons - just stirring it up?

The great hall in the North Western on Lime Street
A recent negative comment ("poor food cheap drinks") on a Facebook post about Wetherspoons got me wondering why some drinkers are so dismissive about the pub chain. I accept that Tim Martin is perfectly capable of being complete prat, particularly on those occasions when he spouts his views on issues beyond his immediate business, but if I knew the views of managing directors or CEOs of most breweries or pub companies, I'd probably find quite a lot to take issue with.

Anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Comments I've read over the years, sometimes inserted anonymously on other beer blogs, have been along the lines of:
  • Pensioners drooling into their meals.
  • Brats running wild.
  • People on benefits squandering their 'handouts'.
  • Alkies drinking from opening time.
And so on. People writing such things are clearly looking down with contempt upon some of their fellow citizens: not an admirable trait. 

I have never noticed anyone drooling into their food, beer or anything else; I regarded that kind of comment as snobby ageism. How dare older people want to go out for a drink? They should be tucked up at home with their slippers and cocoa, getting increasingly isolated and depressed - but out of sight. Any children I see in Spoons are no worse than those in other family-friendly pubs, and calling them 'brats' is just another instance of snobbery. As for people spending their benefits: first of all, how would you know? And secondly, even if they were, they're entitled to some kind of social life.

I've also read a number of times, especially recently for some reason, that CAMRA shouldn't give £20 of beer tokens to its members.  Some people seem to think that the beer tokens constitute a subsidy of Spoons by CAMRA; if so, they have got it completely wrong. The vouchers are a CAMRA membership benefit entirely paid for by Wetherspoons, and it's not the only company that provides perks - have a look here - but no one ever suggests that CAMRA should turn those other offers down. This type of whingeing is just a handy stick to beat both Spoons and CAMRA, even if it does involve getting the facts wrong, but that's indicative of the times we live in, unfortunately.

There are a number of pubs in Southport that I like to frequent, and they include traditional pubs, micropubs, and Spoons. The one I go to most is the Guest House, one of the most unaltered traditional pubs in the town centre, but on occasion I like to go to one of the town's two Spoons, the Sir Henry Segrave and the Willow Grove. I also like the magnificent North Western in Lime Street, Liverpool, and, although I don't get there very often, the Court Leet in Ormskirk. The Twelve Tellers in a former bank in Preston is also rather impressive.

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote how Southport's two Spoons outlets were a thorough disappointment. I'm pleased to say that post is completely out of date today, and a good choice of well-kept beer is available in both. I mention this to demonstrate that I am not an uncritical fan of Wetherspoons, and if I am dissatisfied, I am prepared to say so.

From an old local guide that listed every real ale outlet.
Perhaps some slightly younger Spoons detractors simply don't know how lucky they are. In the 1970s and 1980s, we would have a thought a pub like Spoons was marvellous at a time when most pubs had only one or two beers on, usually from the same brewery. My chart shows the number of real ale pubs in the whole of Southport (not just the town centre) in 1985, categorising them by how many real ales they had on. Nowadays you can get a better choice in the area around the northern end of Lord Street alone.

People are of course fully entitled to dislike like Spoons as pubs, but the nature of some of the criticisms has made me wonder whether there are other factors, such as feelings of superiority, perhaps?

In response to the comment that provoked this post, I wrote: 
I don't agree the food is poor: it's good for what you're paying. I also have no problem with cheap drinks.
Wetherspoons provides many people on restricted incomes with an opportunity to have an afternoon or a night out with a few drinks and a reasonably-priced meal, that they certainly couldn't afford in an overpriced gastro-pub.
Not everyone can afford to be as choosy as you!

Saturday, 9 March 2019

St Patrick - Southport's most famous son?

As the 17th March approaches we prepare ourselves for the annual carnival of Hiberniana. There will be mass parades of emerald green in the big cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Dublin and even London. It will be a celebration of all things Irish and people will be encouraged to wear ‘the Green’ and sup the famous Irish stout.

Well, it may surprise some to discover that St Patrick was not even Irish. He was from England. In his diaries he describes how he was brought up in the North of England until the age of 16. He was then kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. With the advancing and receding shoreline there is no archaeological evidence to identify St Patrick’s home and the place names used then are no longer recognised. However, some historical texts place St Patrick’s home between The Mersey and The Ribble. In my book that puts him in Southport.

Of course, the Welsh claim him but then they claim everyone. Last I heard, they were claiming that King Arthur and even Robin Hood were Welsh.

So what of the young lad sold into slavery? Eventually he escaped, came home and joined the church. He decided to go back to Ireland to spread Christian culture to the war-like tribes of Ireland and the rest is history.

Did St Patrick drink The Black Stuff? There is little doubt that St Patrick would have drunk dark ales. That was the staple drink in monasteries at the time. The malts would have been darker and smokier because of the traditional methods used, resulting in a darker ale. St Patrick would not have drunk anything like the nitrogenised, pasteurised, super-cooled commercial products associated with St Patrick’s Day but would have enjoyed a cask ale much more like our local brews: Parker’s Dark Spartan, Red Star’s Havana Moon or Southport’s Dark Night.

What about all this green? For over a thousand years St Patrick was depicted in blue. In fact he had a shade of blue named after him. St Patrick’s blue is a pale blue. The green has come in over the last hundred years or so to make St Patrick seem more Irish.

On 16 March, the Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, has a double cause for celebration: St Patrick’s Day and their 3rd birthday party. They invite you to put on your best blue outfit and join them in raising a glass to St Patrick – Southport’s most famous son.

On the same day, the Guest House in Union Street, Southport, is hosting 'St. Patricks shenanigans with ukulele rebels', aka Uke-Rhythmix.

Wishing you 'Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh' – Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

This is a guest post by Andrew Frith of the Grasshopper pub.