Thursday 29 August 2013

Folk In The Park 2013

A free concert presented by the Corduroy Folk Club.
  • Date:   Sunday 8 September 2013.
  • Time:   between 1.00pm and 5.30pm.
  • Place:   Hesketh Park, Southport.
David Hirst: singer songwriter from Southport. David is the singer in Liverpool based folk band Misery Guts as well as a solo performer. He sings a mix of his own compositions and traditional English songs. David is also a founder member of the Corduroy Folk Club; hosts and organisers of the Folk in the Park.

Alastair Vannan: folk singer from Ormskirk. As well as being a first class singer and musician, Alastair is a professional archaeologist. He sings traditional songs from England, Scotland and Ireland while sharing some of their historical context. Alastair is also a member of the folk duo Vannan-James.

Ken Beamer: piper from Maghull. Ken is a former military piper and will be accompanied for this performance by another piper, military drums and guitars. This promises to provide a fabulous finale to Folk in the Park.

Keith Price: folk singer from Liverpool. Keith plays guitar, violin and melodion and is a powerful folk singer with a legendary wit. Keith is a resident singer at the Bothy Folk Club.

Tony Gibbons and Kate Bradbury: folk duo from Liverpool. Tony and Kate are a very well respected duo playing traditional songs and their own compositions too. Their two part harmonies are accompanied by Tony's Guitar-bouzouki and Kate's fiddle.

The Bothy Folk Club Residents: the Bothy Folk Club has been meeting weekly in Southport for nearly 50 years and is one of the most respected, well established clubs in the country. Some of the very best stars of the folk music world can be seen there on their guest nights. The numerous residents will be joining together in a number of different ensembles to show off the diverse range of British folk music.

Family Ceilidh: called by Richard Simcock with residents of the Bothy Folk Club. Richard will be encouraging the audience and particularly children to get on their feet and have a dance. Richard is also a founder member of the Corduroy Folk Club.

The Imperial Hotel on Albert Road (a Holts pub) is a real ale pub that also serves meals. It is less than 5 minutes' walk from the park gates.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

When the levy breaks

Cartoon by Matt
There was a discussion today on Radio 4's You and Yours about the late night levy that councils are now permitted to impose upon pubs and clubs that stay open after midnight to help meet the costs of policing and clearing up after the night time economy, as they coyly called it. The charge cannot be selective: it has to be levied on all pubs and clubs in the area of the council concerned. Newcastle intends to introduce the levy in November, Islington next year and around 30 other councils are considering it. The money would be split, with the police getting 70% with no obligation to spend any of that money on policing the night time economy, and the council getting 30%.

The spokesperson from Islington was quite clear that it was the intention to encourage licensees to close at midnight, and he thought it fair that those who wished to stay open later should contribute a small amount towards the clearing up and policing costs. I decided to check how small the amount is: the amount payable is based on rateable value and ranges from £299 to £4440. A Home Office briefing paper about the levy, including the full range of amounts to be charged, is here.

I see several problems with this measure:
  1. Much of the behavioural disorder that happens late at night is caused by pre-loading: drinkers who have bought their alcohol from off licences and supermarkets to drink at home, and who then finish off their drinking in licensed premises. The outlets where they bought their booze are not covered by the levy.
  2. Following on from that, as licensed premises are not the exclusive cause of the problem, this measure cannot constitute a complete solution, which suggests that the aim is to make money from a problem rather than solve it. The fact that most pubs do not cause any mess or disorder at all but are still subject to the levy is evidence that this is a money-raising rather than an enforcement measure.
  3. The levy will apply to all pubs that have a licence after midnight, even if they have never used it - quite a lot of pubs did apply for later licences that they didn't intend to use regularly so that, if they wanted an occasional extension, they didn't have the hassle of having to apply for one. Rather than give up a licence that they had to fight for in the past, they may instead decide to pay the levy and stay open later instead. Law of Unintended Consequences?
  4. Increased costs will inevitably be passed on to the customer.
  5. It is yet another tax on drinking in a country that, despite the ending of the duty escalator, still has one of the highest rates of beer tax in Europe.
Most pubs will not be affected by this measure - I think the only one in Southport would be Lloyds No. 1 - so real ale drinkers probably don't need to be too worried just yet, but I'm worried about the "foot in the door" effect: if taken up widely by cash-strapped councils, the policy will be declared a success. Who can be certain that the time limit might not then be moved from midnight to - say - 11.00pm? It would require no more than a simple adjustment to the Act - fine-tuning they'd call it - to bring most pubs within its scope.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Spotland Gold

My local, the Guest House, has 11 hand pumps. During the week, there may only be 7 or 8 in use, but at weekends, all 11 are on. The range includes some regionals, such as Theakstons, Youngs or Everards, and Draught Bass occasionally makes an appearance: I sometimes try one in hope, but rarely have two. The hand pump furthest from the door always sells its beer at £2.50, whatever it is that has been put on; most of the other hand pumps are £2.70 or £2.80. The bar staff refer to the £2.50 pump as the pensioners' pump, and I've even heard some pensioners call it that too.

Last night, the pensioners' pump had Phoenix Spotland Gold. I've always found this beer to be dry and pleasantly drinkable, although not as hoppy as other Phoenix offerings. Phoenix's own description is characteristically terse: "Crisp hoppy pale ale." Personally, I prefer such brevity to the improbable list of food stuffs that certain beers are supposed to resemble as they pass over different parts of your tongue. Spotland Gold was brewed to mark the centenary of Rochdale FC in 2007, Spotland being their home ground.

Despite the range of beers that the Guest House serves, if I find a beer I like, I tend to stick to it, having been disappointed with a change of beer on too many occasions. When that happens, a disappointing pint takes a while to get though, while a pint you're enjoying seems to evaporate from the glass. On that basis, I stuck with the Spotland Gold last night.

Monday 26 August 2013

Pubs and music in Whitby

The Lunchtime Legends in the Elsinore
(photo: Sam Thomas)
I've just had a great time at Whitby Folk Week. The weather was wonderful, there were loads of music sessions taking place in pubs, there was dancing in the streets by various traditional dance sides and of course there was the organised festival itself.

I have written in previous years about the pub scene in Whitby. Here are a few changes I noticed:

The Angel Hotel overlooking the harbour is now a Wetherspoons hotel; I stayed there many years ago when it was a pub B&B. There are two modern looking bars on the ground and first floors serving a range of real ales, Rudgates in particular. There was nothing wrong with the Rudgates, but I wasn't keen and ended up on Moorhouses Blond Witch. At £2.89 a pint, this is the dearest Wetherspoons I have been in outside of London.

The Little Angel on Flowergate how has a good range of five beers at £2.70 a pint, which is cheap for Whitby and beaten only by Sam Smiths pubs; they included Camerons Strongarm, Tetley Bitter, Bradfield Farmers Blonde and two others that changed. They also had a special offer for Folk Week in conjunction with two other pubs (the Fleece and the Wellington): buy 10 get one free. I managed two free pints.

The Golden Lion near the swing bridge has been a Tetley-only pub for as long as I can remember and I hadn't set foot in the place since 1988. It had Pedigree, Black Sheep, Copper Dragon Golden Pippin and one other golden beer that I liked but can't recall the name. I enjoyed a couple of good sessions and several good pints in there.

The best pub for beer remains The Station (formerly the Tap and Spile ands originally the Cutty Sark). It has a good range of eight beers always on, but I mostly stuck with the Ossett Silver King, which saw me through a couple of music sessions there, including one that lasted for seven and a half hours run by my friend Howard and me.

At £3.50 a pint, The Endeavour is the dearest pub in town. The Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted was good, though.

The pub crawl (see previous post) was popular and well supported. I missed out one pub, the Black Horse, because it was packed and I didn't fancy fighting my way through the solid scrum to the bar - it is a very small pub - but I had a pint in each of the others.

The annual Lunchtime Legends rock & roll party in The Elsinore went well as always, with the pub packed. It was great to see a row of children at the front, the oldest nine, who all sat there throughout the whole three hours enjoying themselves, joining in the songs and the arm waving to the anthems, and in one case even buying a CD. One girl sang the whole chorus of Poison Ivy into the microphone. We are, I was reliably told, better than One Direction - high praise indeed. After a 35-song set, my voice was slightly knackered.

I've already provisionally booked accommodation for next year.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Whitby pub crawl 2013

Pub crawl in Whitby, North Yorkshire next Tuesday.
If you're in the area, why not join us?
And if you're around at lunchtime the next day, you can come and see our band, The Lunchtime Legends, playing in the Elsinore on Flowergate in Whitby. It's free.

Thursday 15 August 2013


Will it really look like this?
Our American cousins have devised a solution to that perennial problem of having a beer when you are backpacking in the wilds of, say, Lancashire. As they suggest, you may feel like having a beer after a long walk, but carrying a sufficient supply of tinned or bottled beer isn't practical. Pat's Backcountry Beverages has the answer: a concentrate to which you add water and, using a portable carbonation system, create beer. They say that it's not dehydrated beer; it is apparently brewed with very little water using their special technology - patent applied for - and produces a beer that supposedly tastes like a premium micro brew. Each pack makes a 16 oz. pint, which gives away its American origin, a British pint being 20 fl oz.

There has to be a catch, of course: if you're hiking along the Leeds-Liverpool canal and fancy a beer, the only source of water would be the canal itself, in which case I suggest you either carry a stomach pump or take a supply of fresh water with you, which rather negates the selling point of the product. And if you're hiking nowhere near water? Wait for rain, I suppose.

So what we are talking about is a sludge that resembles Marmite to which you add water, assuming you can find any, and then use a device to carbonate it and thus make it into beer; it sounds delicious. British microbreweries will be quaking in their boots.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Snouts in the beer trough

In March 2009, I wrote: "While ordinary pub-goers have to pay excessive amounts of tax in pubs - for our own good of course - it’s always our round when our politicians hit the ale", referring to the subsidy of £5.5 million of taxpayers’ money received by the House of Commons Refreshment Department in the 2007/8 financial year.

Well, four years and various expenses scandals later, I regret to report they're still at it. The subsidy for the House of Commons bars and restaurants was £4.9 million in the 2012/23 year; the equivalent figure for the Lords was £2.3 million, making a total of £7.2 million.

These are the same people who brought you the alcohol tax escalator and wanted to bring in minimum pricing because alcohol available to the plebs is too cheap and they can't be trusted to behave themselves or look after their health unless the nanny state directs their actions. And yet the arrest of Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk, earlier this year after he headbutted a Tory MP in a parliamentary bar - his second such arrest and merely the latest in a series of incidents involving politicians - shows that the honourable members are not themselves capable of responsible drinking. After this incident, I tried to set up an e-petition to the government stating that, as they had removed bars from all public sector workplaces over the last few decades, the Palace of Westminster, as a public sector workplace, should be alcohol-free too. It was rejected.

Their utter hypocrisy is really quite staggering.

Monday 12 August 2013

Then and Now

A couple of years ago, I found my old copy of The Best Pubs Around Merseyside published in 1990 by six local CAMRA branches: Merseyside, Southport, Wirral, Chester and South Clwyd, Central and North Cheshire and South East Lancs, just after the Beer Orders had been announced but before they had been implemented. In December 2011, I looked at how the Liverpool pub scene was then. Here is a quick look at how the pub scene in Southport and the surrounding area has altered.

The Scarisbrick Arms, Downholland - now a bistro.
The general comments about breweries I made in the previous post apply here too, but in 1990 there were no breweries in the Southport and West Lancs area. Now there are two: Southport and Burscough breweries. Good news, unlike in Liverpool which was then mourning the pending closure of Higsons, the city’s last brewery.

Tetley, Whitbread and Matthew Brown seemed to be the main pub owners in the town, at least as listed in this guide. No Greenalls pub is listed, even though I do remember several; perhaps the compilers shared my low opinion of that brewery. All those breweries have closed since the guide was published, although Tetley is still brewed under licence in Northamptonshire. There were also a couple of Bass and John Smiths pubs. Guest beers were almost non-existent, the exception being the Baron’s Bar in the Scarisbrick Hotel which was selling Boddingtons Bitter, Ruddles County, Tetley Bitter, Theakstons Best Bitter and a guest beer, but in most other pubs you'd be drinking the house beers. The Barons Bar is noted today for a range of around eight real ales, but in 1990 the choice it offered seemed exceptional.

Several pubs have gone: the Blowick was demolished a few years ago and replaced by a thatched pub locally called the Thatch; the Herald is being converted to accommodation; the Plough is due for demolition (see previous post) and the Two Brewers has been converted to offices. This last pub was in fact a training pub for Tetleys and Walkers, hence the name. I recall that Charlie Oliver, the licensee of the Old Ship Inn, a Walker’s house which was my local at the time, received an award from the local CAMRA branch. I commented that I expected he was pleased about that; he said yes, but was also a bit embarrassed about it because the Two Brewers was the official training pub, and in theory it should be the best Tetley or Walker house in town.

The guide refers to the Fishermens Rest, which was selling McEwans 80/- at the time, but wrongly calls it the Fishermans Rest (singular), even though the picture of it clearly shows the correct name. This pub was subsequently a non-real ale pub for at least 20 years, but in the last few years has gained credit for serving four real ales, usually from regional breweries. I told the interesting but tragic story how the pub got its name here.

The Guest House, my current local, is listed as serving Higsons Bitter and Mild and Boddingtons Bitter, and I often used to call in for the Higsons Bitter, my favourite beer at the time. It now serves up to 11 real ales. 

In West Lancs, the Railway Tavern in Hoscar sold Jennings Bitter and Tetley Mild and Bitter; it closed recently. In Burscough, the Royal Coaching House is listed as selling Boddingtons Bitter. This pub degenerated into a real dive and was then closed for a couple of years. It was reopened a few years ago by Mike McComb, completely refurbished and is now the excellent and successful Hop Vine, home of Burscough Brewery, thus contradicting the commonly heard suggestion that pubs close because demand has disappeared. Not necessarily: what's on offer is just as important.

The Scarisbrick Arms, a canalside pub in Downholland, was then a Greenalls house, and was described as “very much food orientated”. Only recently did it stop being a pub and is now a bistro. The Halsall Arms just down the road is now a financial services office. The future of the Legh Arms in Mere Brow is currently uncertain (see previous post), but at the time sold Higsons Bitter and Mild and Boddingtons Bitter. The unusually named Snig’s Foot in Ormskirk sold real Burtonwood Bitter on electric pump; unfortunately, it was renamed Disraeli’s quite a few years ago, but the last time I was in there a year or two back it had a real ale from Ringwoods.

This last pub reminds me that, although handpumps had by 1990 made a big comeback (they had become quite an uncommon sight by the 1970s), there were still pubs serving real ale through electric pumps. An example listed in Southport was the Volunteer Arms, then as now a Thwaites pub, which kept its electric dispense until comparatively recently, causing some drinkers to assume that it sold no real ale. 

In general, the descriptions tend to be quite short: one exception was the Ship Inn (which has in recent years been renamed the Ship and Anchor to avoid confusion with the Old Ship Inn) in Southport, which was describes as a “Traditional style, back street boozer. A real example of what was once a common sight – a proper no-nonsense pub. Note the ‘Walkdens’ windows which are a reminder of a long since gone Birkdale brewery. Coal fire, food most of the day, families welcome.” Sadly, since then, the pub has been ripped out, with the Walkdens windows no doubt ending in a skip, and vandalised into a modern style that didn’t suit the building at all. There have been some attempts to restore its traditional form, but with limited success. It was the last entirely unaltered pub in Southport, and while it certainly needed cleaning up, it shouldn’t have been destroyed in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to appeal to the youth market.

In common with the Liverpool section, the compilers don’t approve of noise: “no canned music”, appears quite a few times, with variations such as “free of canned music”, it notes that the Baron’s Bar is “popular with young people” and tuts disapprovingly that it has “loud music”.

The last pub I’d like to mention is the Windmill in Southport. In those days it sold Matthew Brown and Theakstons beers and was described as a “Large friendly pub in the town centre. Large outdoor area, occasional entertainment, barbecues in summer, families being welcome. Lunchtime meals.” That description remains quite accurate today, and the pub still sells Theakstons beers, including XB. The licensee who had the pub at the time the guide was written is still there, and I’m fairly certain that he is the only licensee in the Southport and West Lancs area who has been continuously in the same pub since then.

The Ship Beer, Pie And Sausage Festival

The Ship in Lathom will be hosting its 3rd Annual Beer, Pie And Sausage Festival from Thursday the 12th to Sunday 15th September.

The organisers say this year’s festival should be the biggest and best yet, with more than 40 real ales on offer (from near and far), as well as 10+ varieties of homemade pies and an array of locally produced sausages. The ale is hand pulled and there is a cooler system to regulate the beer temperature.

On the Thursday night they are holding a preview night which is open to all CAMRA members, with the beer tent opening at 5pm. You'll be able to purchase the beer for £2.50 a pint (usually £3) and there will be samples of the weekend’s food offerings knocking about, but make sure you have your membership card with you.

The Ship's local nickname is the Blood Tub. It's at 4 Wheat Lane, Lathom, Lancashire, L40 4BX, which is less than a mile from both Burscough Junction and Burscough Bridge railway stations.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Charity began at someone else's gig

About a month ago, CAMRA published the results of a survey carried out in association with Pub Aid which here.
showed that pubs raised more than £106 million for charities last year. Despite the ongoing recession, this is a significant increase on previous years. I doubt that most regular pub goers would be too surprised by this news; I certainly wasn't, as you see it all the time in pubs. As Mike Benner of CAMRA said, “It is time British pubs got the recognition for the amazing funds they raise for numerous charities across Britain. Pubs can get unfairly blamed for a lot of anti-social behaviour but often the alcohol that has led to these problems has not been drunk in pubs.” More details

Over the years I've been asked to play at quite a few fundraisers, and our band, the Lunchtime Legends, have organised perhaps 20 ourselves for various good causes. Listening to a Radio 4 programme today about the RSPCA brought to mind a fundraiser we arranged a few years ago in the Falstaff pub in Southport  for the NAS (National Autistic Society). The radio programme, Face The Facts, described how the RSPCA is rather too keen to prosecute vulnerable people, such as the elderly, people with mental health issues or mobility problems, rather than advising them or helping them to look after their pets better. It's not the first time I've heard suggestions that they carry out high profile raids and prosecutions to keep them in the news and thereby encourage more donations.

So what's all this to do with the Falstaff pub and the NAS? On the night of our fundraiser, a collector from the RSPCA entered during the first interval; she is a familiar sight around Southport pubs with her collection box and a teddy bear hand puppet. I approached her and said that she had walked into a fundraising night for the NAS - the clear implication being "don't collect here tonight". "Oh really?" she replied airily and proceeded to wander around the pub collecting. I wasn't happy, but as I don't own the pub, I couldn't do much about it. When we went round a bit later with our collection boxes, people were saying, "It's okay; we've already given". When we pointed out that the RSPCA woman had gate-crashed our charity evening, they quite reasonably replied, sorry but they'd given her the donations intended for us. When we counted the takings, they were lower than any other charity night we'd done - in fact, that total is still our lowest - and we ended up doing an additional night to try to make up the shortfall of what we had hoped to raise.

I was very annoyed about this at the time, and for a while afterwards my friends probably became fed up of hearing the story whenever the RSPCA woman appeared in our local pub. I originally assumed that it was just her being completely selfish concerning her favourite charity, but after hearing that radio programme, I'm now wondering whether her behaviour indicates that the hard-nosed national ethos of the charity has inculcated a sense of entitlement even in the local volunteers.

Last time I was so taken aback by her nerve that I didn't think to ask the licensee to sort it out, but I would if it happens again.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Smoking in Southend

I've just been to Southend-on-Sea for a couple of days for a family occasion. I managed to get to three pubs, all on the front, but like most pubs on sea fronts, they weren't anything to get excited about. The best pint I had was Shepherd Neame Spitfire, and that wasn't quite cool enough.

I was sitting outside one of these pubs among the smokers and noticed a strange phenomenon. Although every single table had an ashtray, most smokers simply threw their cigarettes away without stubbing them out or looking where they were throwing them. The ashtrays weren't much used, but the ground in front of the pub and the adjacent pavement were littered with cigarette ends. While an accident is unlikely, it's not impossible. When I was a baby, the blanket in my pram began smouldering while I was in it because of a discarded cigarette; it was my sister who raised the alarm before I was injured. The London Fire Brigade says that "the fires caused by smoking materials ... result in more deaths than any other type of fire." The main problem in this situation, though, was that the place looked so unsightly, and I expect some people would be put off entering.

When people behave like this, it's hardly surprising that there are demands for the smoking ban to be extended. I don't particularly want the current ban changed, but such selfish and unnecessary behaviour will give ammunition to those who do.