Thursday, 14 October 2021

Taking stock of Stockport

Last Friday’s visit to Stockport, was the first long distance rail trip I’d undertaken in 19 months. It follows the last journey, of any significance, I’d made since early March 2020, and that too just happened to be a “Proper Day Out.

It also marked my first visit to Stockport since the spring of 1978; a date that ended the post-graduate year I’d spent living in nearby the nearby town of Romiley. Somewhat ironically, my first term as a student at Salford University, was also spent in Romiley, staying with my aunt – my mother’s sister to be precise.

Student accommodation was hard to come by, especially for people like me who had secured a university place right at the last minute. My aunt and uncle had come to the rescue, by offering me a room in their newly built house at the top of the town – much to my parent’s relief, I imagine. With nothing much to do at weekends, I would make the short journey, by bus, into Stockport, for a look around, plus the odd pint or two.

Stepping off the train last Friday, it seemed as though the town had really changed, but as I made my way towards the old part of Stockport, towards the first pub of the day, what I was looking at became increasingly more familiar. One thing that I don’t recall, was the number of planes flying low, overhead. They hadn’t been present back in the mid-70’s, but with the huge boom in air travel over the past 40 years, mirrored by the expansion of nearby Manchester Airport, the whine of those jets overhead, wasn’t exactly a surprising.

Before looking at the pubs, what about the journey? I took the train of course, but it was a very different railway that I travelled on compared to that of the 1970’s. Back in my student days, the whole network was owned and run by British Rail – a state-owned enterprise, responsible for everything, from the tracks to the train, plus the signals to the stations.

On the whole British Rail delivered, but the organisation lacked cash and was starved of investment, and today, following the botched privatisation of the railways, trains on the London-Manchester route were operated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail Group – in conjunction with Stagecoach. Then in December 2019, the rolling stock was given a new coat of paint and the franchise handed over to Avanti West Coast.

Comfortable, fast and on time, my outward journey from Euston, took a mere two hours. The return journey was slightly longer, as it followed a different route – via Macclesfield and Stoke, rather than Crewe and Wilmslow.  My only gripe is there were no USB charging points, or standard three-pin sockets for that matter.

I arrived in Stockport with plenty of time to spare, so after exiting the station, I followed Pub Curmudgeon’s detailed directions, and made my way towards the first pub of the day, and the agreed meeting place. Sensing that I would be too early, I took a look around the town’s attractive Covered Market Hall. This Grade II listed building dates from 1861 and is home to a multitude of different and independent retailers.

Stockport’s compact and historic town centre is easy to get around on foot. It's also a world away from the town’s rather ugly, 1960's Merseyway Shopping Centre – the area that I remember from those visits to Stockport, almost 50 years ago. The old town is also home to three of the seven pubs that I visited (other participants on the day out, visited a couple more).

Pub Curmudgeon (Mudge), who not only organised this “Proper Day Out,” but also acted as out guide, has produced a definitive, two-part write-up of the pubs, so I won’t attempt one of my own. Instead, I will paint a brief picture of the seven hostelries, as they all had something special to offer, and contribute to

Grouping the pub by brewer/owner, we visited two Sam Smith’s pubs – the Queen’s Head and the Boar’s Head. Two Robinson’s outlets – the Swan with two Necks and the Arden Arms. Two free-houses – the Railway and the Petersgate Tap, plus what for me was the final pub of the day – the Sun & Castle – a Holt’s pub.

The two Sam’s pubs, whilst contrasting in size, are all that one might expect from this most traditional of Yorkshire brewers. Multi-roomed, with plenty of wood panelling and both selling some very good Old Brewery Bitter. OBB is “beer from the wood” in the true sense of the word, as it is still delivered in wooden casks. At £3 a pint, it was also the cheapest beer of the day.

Unfortunately, the ban imposed by Samuel Smith’s eccentric and autocratic owner Humphrey Smith, on the use of all electronic devices, means that apart from a couple of surreptitious shots taken in the Queen’s Head, I was unable to record and share the interiors of the Queen’s or the Boar’s. So, if you want to experience either of these unspoilt gems, you will have to visit them for yourselves.

The two Robinson’s pubs feature on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Interiors. The Swan with two Necks is, long, narrow and features much wood panelling and several different rooms. The interior dates from 1926, when the pub was re-modelled. The Robinson’s Unicorn Bitter – an old favourite from my student days was in good form.

The Arden Arms is a solid, 19th Century brick-built pub, situated a short distance from the town centre. It features three rooms, a serving hatch for a bar, and also has a reputation for good and reasonably priced meals. Most of us took advantage of this, although given the Arden’s popularity, it was a good job that Mudge had pre-booked a table for us. My cod, chips, and mushy peas (small portion), was just right, as was the Unicorn Bitter.

So, what about the two free houses? The Railway, opposite Stockport’s rather down at heel retail park, is operating under the threat of execution, and is one of several buildings on that side of the road, earmarked for demolition to make way for – you’ve guessed it, yet another retail development. It seemed very much a locals’ pub, but the staff and customers were friendly enough, and with a wide range of beers stocked, there was something to suit everyone’s tastes. My Dunham Massey Porter was excellent, and others amongst our party found their own choice of beer, equally good.

The Petersgate Tap, is a modern free house, which opened in 2016 in the premises of a former shop. With a range of interesting beers – both cask and craft, as well as traditional ciders, the Tap had a good atmosphere, and was a nice place to sit and chat, whilst comparing details of other fine pubs, up and down the country and experienced over the years. My choice of beer was another dark one, this time the Dark Angel Stout from Durham Brewery.

Time was marching on, and Mudge was anxious to move on too, as there were still three more pubs on the “official” itinerary to visit. The advanced party went on ahead, leaving me to follow on once I’d finished my drink, and my conversation with Quosh and his girlfriend (actual names unknown).

With the aid of Google Maps, I found my way to the Sun & Castle, situated along the aptly named, Middle Hillgate. Fortunately, this solidly traditional Holt’s pub was on the route back to the station, and luckily as well, Martin, Will and the two Peter’s had waited for me to arrive. There was even a pint waiting for me as well – thanks Martin!

It’s a long time since I last drank Holt’s Bitter; a beer I regarded as one of the most bitter and heavily hopped, during my student days. Time and tastes have changed over the years, and there are now plenty of other beers that are even more heavily hopped than Holt’s, but my pint was still very pleasant, despite my palate being somewhat jaded, and me feeling rather dehydrated.

The advanced party were eager to move on, and there was no way I was going to keep up with them, especially as it would mean rushing my pint. I bade them all farewell, thanked them for their company and wished them a safe journey home. I also checked the quickest route back to the railway station.

I left the Sun & Castle in good time and arrived at the station in plenty of time for the train. Time enough, to dive into the nearby Sainsbury’s Local and purchase food (sandwich), plus drink (water) for what my Irish colleague Annette, would call a “train picnic.”

The train itself was on time, and not especially crowded (something of a surprise for a Friday evening). The journey back to Euston was uneventful, and after stuffing my face and reading for a bit, I dozed off. It had been a brilliant day out, that was made all the better by the company of members of the “Beer & Pubs Forum.”  

After an absence of over a year and a half, it was great to be able to travel un-hindered, drink freely in pubs and enjoy one another’s company once again. Fingers crossed, there will be many more such trips!


Curmudgeon said...

Very good write-up - I'm afraid I haven't got round to posting my Part 2 yet, although most of it is written.

One point of information - the ordinary-strength beers in the Railway are still under £3, and the Holts Bitter in the Sun & Castle was only £2.60, so the Sam Smith's isn't the cheapest non-Spoons beer in the town.

The planes will certainly be more numerous than in the 1970s, but I mentally blank them out and they don't bother me in the slightest.

Greengrass said...

What a wonderful day out, drinking good ale with old friends in well run pubs. I have just enjoyed a similar experience with my son.

retiredmartin said...

Great read, and the number of planes was noticeable but I think it makes Stockport what it is.

I'd missed how cheap the beers were in the Railway and Sun & Castle, so probably an average of £3 a pint if you'd had a pint in the Spoons as well !

I can't imagine revisiting a town 43 years after you lived there !

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks everyone, glad you all enjoyed the write-up. It looks like I wasn't the only person who missed the keenly-priced beers at the Railway, plus Sun & Castle.

The aircraft didn't bother me, especially as I live and work on one of the main flight-paths to Gatwick. It was just that their presence wasn't something I remember about Stockport.

As for leaving it 43 years between visits - well, that's what sometimes happens when life gets in the way, but I liked what I saw, and felt that in the main Stockport had weathered the intervening decades remarkably well, and is definitely a town worthy of a return visit.

Looking forward to reading Part 2 Mudge, when you get round to posting it. I'm particularly keen to discover what the Armoury was like as, given its heritage status, it was one of the pubs I wanted to experience. (An opportunity for a return visit, perhaps?)

Pleased to hear that you had a great day out too, Greengrass. Such occasions are well-deserved after what we've all experienced over the past 19 months!


Great trip report. Nice looking fish on the plate, was it sole or a regular cod/haddock?

Paul Bailey said...

Regular white-fish, most likely cod, but possibly haddock. Excellent value too, at £7.50, and that included bread & butter!

Britain Beermat said...

Great write up Paul. I've also read Mudgie's and it looks to me that the Sun & Castle was the best pub in what was a very good field of seven crackers.
A top effort from you getting there from London and it looked well worth the effort. Bring back British Rail!!!

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the write-up, Beermat. Mudgie certainly did us all proud. It's hard to single out a pub that stood out above the others, but although we didn't spend that much time there, I really liked the multi-roomed, Boar's Head.

Apart from the cost, mitigated by the use of my Senior Railcard, Stockport was a doddle to get to, being just under two hours from Euston.

As for British Rail, what we are seeing at the moment, is re-nationalisation by stealth. Last week, our local train operator, South Eastern, was taken back into public ownership, due to financial irregularities. It joins LNER, who were re-nationalised, three years ago.

Curmudgeon said...

I'm a big fan of the Boar's Head, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed by this visit as it was pretty quiet and the beer was below par. It was the first pub I visited on reopening day on 19 July.

Britain Beermat said...

Two hours from Euston is mightily impressive!! It can take me that long to get from Derby to Coventry on some routes!!!