Monday, 11 November 2019

Blackburn Skyline - with apologies to a certain Mr Dylan

Like virtually everyone who owns a Smartphone, I get news-feeds popping up on my screen from time to time and, thanks to Google, which has already made a careful note of my preferences, likes and dislikes, quite a few of these news stories are beer related. (I receive quite a few music-related ones as well, but that’s a different story).

One item which caught my eye the other morning, was footage taken from a drone flight, over the centre of Blackburn, Lancashire – the town with the 4,000 holes, according to the Beatles’ song, “A Day in the Life.” The footage captured the demolition work being carried out on the former Thwaites Brewery which, until recently, dominated the local skyline.

The decision to demolish the nine storey building tower, was made last year after Thwaites brought to an end 211 years of brewing in Blackburn. This followed a downsizing of the company’s brewing activities and the sale of a number of key brands to Marston’s (Wainwright's and Lancaster Bomber); a move that saw brewing transferred to a new, purpose-built plant at Mellor Brook in August 2018.

I am writing about this because Thwaites was one of the first breweries I visited. It wasn’t actually my first brewery tour, as that honour went to Marston’s of Burton-on-Trent; somewhat ironically, in view of what is written above. Instead the trip I made to Thwaites’ Blackburn plant was the first of many such tours I have organised over the years, initially for a university society, but then on behalf of my local CAMRA branch.

That trip would have taken place sometime in late 1974, when I was in my second year as a student at Salford University. What struck me at the time, especially after having visited Marston’s the previous year, was just how modern Thwaite’s brewery was. The nine storey structure, topped with its illuminated sign, dominated the town and made quite an impression on a 19 year old youth who was just starting out on his drinking career.

We were told that the brewery had been completely re-built, on the same site, during the mid-1960’s, and was constructed as a traditional tower brewery, whereby the process starts at the top, and then gradually flows downwards, using gravity to do the work. I don’t remember much about that visit, although I do recall being taken into a nearby pub, by the tour guide, for a few complimentary pints. I also recall, measured, cylindrical electric pumps being the order of the day.

With this in mind, I found it sad to see footage of this impressive structure being pulled to the ground. The end of an era and the result of changing tastes within the beer market and the pub trade.

A quick word about Thwaites, with particular reference to the four years I spent living in the Greater Manchester area. The company produced three cask ales at the time, a light, but well-hopped bitter, which was very quaffable, plus two milds. The ordinary mild was dark and creamy, whereas the Best Mild was much paler in colour.

The majority of Thwaites pubs were situated in the north of the region, with a large concentration in and around the town of Bury, which lies to the north of Manchester. I understand this followed the takeover, by Thwaites, of the local brewery several decades previously.

Bury was quite easy to travel to, either by bus, from Salford, or by means of the train from Manchester Victoria. For the train buffs out there, that particular line was unusual in having a third electric “juice” rail, similar to that in use on the old Southern Region of British Rail.

During the early 1990’s, the line was converted into a tramway, using the original track-bed and stations, but now powered by an overhead electric system. It forms part of the Manchester Metrolink, and incorporates another former rail line which runs from the city centre, to Altrincham.

For Salford University students, it wasn’t always necessary to journey to Bury for a pint of Thwaites, because toward the end of my second year, the brewery obtained the contract to supply the Student Union Bar. The beer was tank, rather than cask, but still streets ahead of the Tartan and Tetley fizz stocked previously.

Returning to the main story, for a minute or so,  I suspect the good people of Blackburn must be sad that the brewery which looked down on them for all these years, and which was such a familiar sight, is alas no more. But if you are fortunate to come across a pub selling Thwaites, and in particular, their dark mild, treat yourself to a glass and raise it in memory of a vanished piece of our heritage.

Photos - Wikipedia and Lancashire Telegraph


Ian Worden said...

Try looking up 'Thwaites Twats' on Google to see what some employees thought of them not so long ago.

They had a pub in London quite a few years ago but in a fairly obscure location although within walking distance of Kings Cross station. I remember going there with a colleague to try the inter beer Daniels Hammer, which turned out to be not all that impressive.

They have a pub not all that far from where my father lives in Lancashire but it is hard to work up enthusiasm to go there.

Anonymous said...

I meant 'winter' not 'inter' - sorry for a lapse in proof reading.

retiredmartin said...

Good read, Paul.

I was in Blackburn this year. A town in transition. The modern cathedral is magnificent.

Ian is right about difficulty in drumming up enthusiasm for their often watery beer, though as you mention the Dark Mild can be brilliant.

RedNev said...

Lancaster Bomber is very much a peripatetic beer. It was originally brewed by Mitchell's of Lancaster. Thwaites bought the brand, and have of course recently sold it on to Marston's. I remember thinking the Thwaites version wasn't the same as the original; if I see the Marston's version, I'll give a go out of curiosity, although without high hopes.

Paul Bailey said...

I don't mind Wainwrights, but I'm not keen on Lancaster Bomber which, as you rightly point out Nev, was originally a Mitchell's brand.

Both beers are now Marston's brands, and I notice that the latter company now also contract brew Thwaites' bitter and mild.

It would appear that sadly, there is no money in volume brewing these days, otherwise Thwaites would have kept their town centre brewery open. Constructing a new brewery of that size, back in the 1960's, was a bold undertaking and represented a substantial investment on behalf of the company.

It's a shame that it's been reduced to a pile of rubble.