Friday, 28 September 2012

40 Express

Visited On 10 July 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So to the last leg of the reviews – covering all those pubs around the Nantwich Road and Mill Street traffic lights that didn’t get visited previously. And this starts at the Express, a popular pub on the corner of Mill Street and Herdman Street. There is one large bar area with another room housing the pool table, and a terrace out the back. There are also three handpumps, but all have run dry.

NO CASK BEER

Why so? There’s Wells Bombardier – via modern custom pump – and Greene King IPA, plus a guest beer which was Marston’s Pedigree. It’s explained that one barrel recently had to go back, and they apparently go through a lot of the stuff at the weekend, when there are the inevitable music and karaoke nights. But to run out of three cask beers is Not A Good Thing.

So it has to be another pint of John Smiths, which, as with so many pubs in Crewe, is dead cheap in addition to being totally dead. It is a brown colour, smooth to the point of terminal blandness, and may be mildly alcoholic. Authentic ingredients may have been used in the brewing process. But it is not worth me stumping up my discretionary purchase funding to drink it.

Lots of couples and groups gravitate to the Express, even early in the week. The dart board – raised up a step but within the main bar area – sees plenty of use. There are the customary screens relaying whatever sporting action is available. The locals are good natured and the service is fine. If only they could manage not to run out of cask beer midweek, it would be recommendable.

[LATER I decided to give the Express a second chance and on a subsequent Tuesday found that, although the Bombardier and IPA had again run dry, the guest beer, on this occasion Wychwood Hobgoblin, was available and rather good. Not everyone likes this beer, but I’m quite partial to it. So they intend to have a cask choice – it just doesn’t always work out]

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

39 British Lion

Visited On 3 July 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So do you want the good news or the bad news? Well, as the good news is longer, let’s have that first. Because it is, if only briefly, very good news indeed.

To finish off the evening that had seen three pubs out of three offering cask beer, I walk past Crewe station, and across the traffic lights at the crossing of Nantwich Road and Mill Street, to find the British Lion (aka “The Pig”) open for business. I hadn’t been sure whether it would be, having read that this well-established locals’ pub had closed. There is, ominously, a “For Sale” sign outside.

It’s a very traditional, narrow fronted pub with some seating in the front window and a games area further back, a beer garden outside and the bar side-on. The interior is basic but clean. And there are no less than four cask ales on offer this evening: Tetley Bitter and Mild (both sold nowhere else in Crewe in cask form), Black Sheep Bitter, and once again Shepherd Neame Spitfire.

Heck, I’ve not had Tetley cask mild for decades, so it’s one of those. There are plenty of punters in, and the locals are a friendly crowd, a sharp contrast with one or two of the places I’ve visited over the weeks doing the survey. The pub has been reopened by a bloke called Sean who is not only enthusiastic, but very knowledgeable about beer and cellar craft.

Food is on too – they’re doing filled baps for a quid a go. The mild is not bad, and there are a few others drinking it: this too is a contrast with all those sad souls at nitro-keg only pubs seemingly happy to sup whatever bland liquid is served up to them. There is a screen and news, sport and the rest, but you can hear yourself converse. It’s what a locals’ pub ought to be like.

And just to make sure, I have a pint of the Tetley bitter as well, and this too is very good, as good as what they serve in the Ship Victory in Chester. Sean and the regulars I had been chatting to say I should come back and visit again soon. This pub is a shoo-in for a top five spot. Except, except, except.

Yes, there is also the bad news. The British Lion had been closed once again a few weeks after this review was done. Why this happened is thus far unknown. But what I do know is that the folks selling the pub are – you guessed – Punch Taverns, and they want a price for it, including VAT, of a whopping £210,000. For the potential turnover, that looks prohibitive.

Crewe has lost quite enough pubs in recent years, and Nantwich Road has its fair share: the Bank has become a restaurant, the Earl was forcibly closed and is now the subject of a supermarket planning battle as it sits and deteriorates, so we can ill afford to lose locals’ pubs like the British Lion that are popular and serve decent beer. This shows all that is wrong with PubCos – read it and weep.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Crewe Arms Hotel And A Speed Record

In the last years before the Second World War, trains got faster, and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway looked to get a piece of the action that had previously been the preserve of its rivals the London and North Eastern, with their streamliners Silver Link and Silver Fox. A new train, the Coronation Scot, was launched, with a new, streamlined locomotive. A speed record attempt was decided upon.


Coronation was blue with white stripes, but otherwise similar to Duchess Of Hamilton, seen here at the National Railway Museum

The problem was where to do it. The LNER had a mostly straight main line from London to the north, what is now called the East Coast Main Line. The West Coast equivalent had rather more curvature. Where was the equivalent to the southbound descent from Stoke Tunnel towards Peterborough? The stretch chosen was the last few miles from Whitmore summit towards Crewe.

So it was that new loco Coronation, with senior Crewe North driver Tom Clark at the regulator, set off from Euston on its demonstration run. Three men well versed in timing trains went along armed with their stop-watches. All was routine as the train passed Norton Bridge at a mere 60mph, but then Clark steadily built up speed, and after Whitmore he gave Coronation her head.

The acceleration carried the train through 100mph, and the three recorders reckoned it had ended with a maximum of 112.5, just short of Silver Fox’s 113. But Tom Clark had left his braking late, and when a full brake application was made, only two miles were left before Crewe, and only a mile and a half before the first of the switches and crossings that would take them into Platform 2 (now Platform 12).

The speed limit over these was 20mph, but the vacuum brakes of the time had only slowed the train to just under 60 when it hit the first switch. The men with stop watches were already on the floor. Crockery flew around in the dining car. The footplate crew hung on grimly, fearing the worst as the locomotive just about remained on the track. There was much relief when it was brought to a stand.

After those on the train had collected themselves, all repaired to the Crewe Arms Hotel for much needed refreshment and food, there to be told that the maximum speed attained had in fact been a brief 114mph. This enabled the record to be claimed for the LMS. There were raised eyebrows and some quiet disbelief, but the record stood. It was not to last for long.

The following year, the LNER made sure, with Mallard putting the record out of sight with a top speed of 126mph. And so the day in June 1937, that almost ended up with a brand new train being wrecked on the approach to Crewe station, was after that largely forgotten. But for that brief period of time, a product of Crewe works was officially the fastest locomotive in the UK.

And that’s why the Crewe Arms Hotel has something it can celebrate.

Friday, 21 September 2012

38 Carriages Bar at Crewe Arms Hotel

Visited On 3 July 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

This was a difficult one to call: was this bar a pub? Well, it had to be open to the public, it had to keep regular hours, including opening during the week, and it had to offer the kind of things you’d expect from a pub. The Crewe Arms Hotel’s Carriages Bar does all of these. It even has a regular quiz night, so it’s definitely a pub.

Some railway companies built their own hotels. The Midland Railway did lots of this, including the one at their St Pancras terminus in London. But the London and North Western Railway (LNW), who along with their predecessors effectively built the town of Crewe from very little, did not. The Crewe Arms just happens to be across the road from the Station (as does the Royal, of Corner Bar fame).

Carriages Bar is on your right after you pass through the hotel’s main entrance. And this evening there are not many punters, but there is a handpump dispensing Shepherd Neame Spitfire, another beer that has been trunked a long way from its brewery (Faversham in Kent), and another recent arrival to the cask beer scene (Shepherd Neame used to do nothing stronger in cask than their Best Bitter).

The barmaid is a little nervous about my request for a pint – “It’s my first evening” – but after giving it her best shot, and with a little encouragement to take it gently with the pump to get a full measure, we’re just about there. And it was worth waiting a little bit longer, as this is one excellent pint of Spitfire, a big mouthful of hops and very characteristic of the brewer’s style.

Is there a drawback? One mild criticism is that someone has put the screen (and its very obvious sound) onto Gordon Expletive Deleteding Ramsay’s latest demonstration of culinary expertise, which, coming from within a prison, features people who do not hesitate to mix expletives with him. There is an awful lot of Paul Dacre Editorial Meeting going on in that show.

Oh, and one other nit-pick: there is nothing about the railway connection. That’s a pity. I would have at least expected something about the occasion when the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, successors to the LNW, claimed the UK rail speed record in 1937 – a claim made at the Crewe Arms Hotel. It was a questionable claim, and came after a distinctly hairy arrival from London.

So before the next review, I’ll post something about the press trip of the all-new Coronation Scot, and the disbelief of the men with the stop-watches. Nice pint of Spitfire, that. Unexpected bonus to the evening.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

37 Brocklebank

Visited On 3 July 2012
Here's the photo ...


Another long walk – back up Weston Road from whence I started – and almost up to that roundabout at the end of Nantwich Road – brings me to the Brocklebank. This is a new build food pub and part of the Brewers Fayre chain. A significant part of its raison d’ĂȘtre is to do with there being a Premier Inn next door, but as it’s a short walk from the station, there is plenty of potential trade from outside.

It has a strong family orientation during the daytime and at weekends, and food is always on, with the usual range of dishes and platters. The business traveller can relax with a generously sized platter of various snacks and a pint for around a tenner. And immediately opposite anyone walking through the door is a pair of handpumps which this evening are mainly dispensing Marston’s Pedigree.

Well, I don’t mind if I do. And there are more brownie points as the barman offers to top it up before I even think of asking. It’s a very serviceable pint of Pedigree, too. OK, it’s probably FastCask, but they’re making an effort and it’s served cellar cool as well. A fair proportion of this evening’s punters seem to be just in for a drink and perhaps a gathering, which suggests it’s doing something right.

Once again I have to say it: if pubs that are food outlets first and ordinary boozers second can put a cask option on, anyone can, and without wanting to labour this particular point, having decent service and good beer at these places means IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE. While some older pubs struggle, the new boys seem to do fine.

Why that is has to do with several things: backing and commitment in the case of chain pubs, presentation, demographics, and those all present PubCos are all contributory factors. But pubs like this one suggest the idea that the whole industry is on the skids are simplistic at best.

You could do a lot worse than the Brocklebank. A pleasant surprise, and maintaining this evening’s 100% cask choice record. And now, as someone once said, for something completely different.

Monday, 17 September 2012

36 Rookery Wood

Visited On 3 July 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the (wrong) map (pub on roundabout)

And so another evening’s surveying begins, more in hope than optimism, as I take a suitably long walk down Weston Road, past the industrial estate, past the Tesco Order Fulfilment Centre, and past the Honda dealer that never seems to have anyone in looking at buying a car, and across the road by the roundabout at the end of the link road, to the Rookery Wood.

This is a new build pub with the accent on food and families, and is part of the Fayre & Square chain. Given the length of the trek from town, and that, unlike the Duke Of Gloucester, there is little in the way of local residents, it’s more than likely that most of its business comes from passing trade, and that most of that trade arrives and departs by car. So we might be talking lots of shandies and soft drinks.

But on arrival – entrance round the side, from the car park – there is the pleasant surprise of not one but two cask options: Sharp’s Doombar and Wells Bombardier are offered this evening. So I select Doombar, which the barman tops up when requested. The service is a little perfunctory, although in his defence, there are plenty of orders to process and he’s on his own.

The beer is OK, and watching the stream of orders I note that there are plenty taking advantage of the “two for £10” offers. The barman also gets extra brownie points for suggesting that punters get their pint shandy made with cask beer because the taste is better. He’s having to make up quite a bit of shandy, so as I thought, most people visiting are also driving.

You wouldn’t routinely walk this far out of town – and potentially along the pavement of a busy main road after dark – to have a beer, but the food offer is evidently popular, and if places like this can offer cask beer, anywhere can (they could quite easily rely on nitro-keg, like the Woodside). It’s interesting that the latter is the only food pub so far not to offer cask.

So one for summer lunchtimes, and early evenings when you’re a bit peckish, then. Good to see a choice being offered. Next!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

35 Gaffers Row

Visited On 26 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Three pints of fizz out of three so far this evening, but the trek ends where I know I can get a jar of decent ale. The Gaffers Row, so named because of the railway cottages opposite on Victoria Street, is the local Wetherspoons outlet and to no surprise at all has around eight cask choices either ready or available soon. The large and low ceilinged space is a little dark and deceptively well filled.

Yes, because of the way that much of the seating is partitioned off, it’s not immediately apparent how many folks are in. Let’s say there are more than at the Victoria – dozens more. And it’s not hard to see why: the choice of beers, the low prices, and all day food offers make up for it being a chain pub with a slightly formulaic set-up.

So what’ll I have? Choices, choices. A pint of Wincle Undertaker, a pleasant dark beer and a real relief after that crap pint of Guinness at the Victoria. I find a nice bar stool by the window and relax. Some are sitting outside – it’s still quite warm at this time of the evening – so they can have a smoke. Some are snacking, others sharing a bottle of wine. All are catered for here.

Another pub that provides a decent pint and food too – so what does that tell us? Yes, once again, IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE. The beer is certainly a decent end to this leg of the survey – or is it? No it isn’t. No, sod it, I’m going back to the bar to order another. Dammit, after all that crap earlier I’ve earned it. What’ll it be? Coach House Summer Sizzler. Why not?

This is another of those summery golden ale thingies. It’s not half bad, very different to the Wincle Undertaker. According to my notes, there were four other cask beers on including Abbot Ale and Ruddles Best, a cask cider, and up and coming cask beers included Slater’s Diamond Jubilee. Wetherspoons aren’t everyone’s idea of a pub night out, but you could do a lot worse, and I already did. Three times.

And with that, it’s time to wend my weary way home. But like the man said, I’ll be back.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

34 Victoria

[Update at end of post]

Visited On 26 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

From West Street and its remaining two pubs, it’s a middling walk to Hightown, land of closed shops, and then over the road to the Victoria, yet another pub that has spent some time out of use recently, and another that is advertising for someone to run it. It’s huge inside, but on this evening most of the space is taken up with hardly anyone at all, apart from a couple on the pool table.

This is in a raised area at the street corner end of the bar. There are several seating bays which correspond more or less with the window layout, a stage at the other end of the pub, and a lot of standing space. There is a handpump on the bar, but it has no clip and is, once more, merely an ornament. So guess what? Yes, here it comes.

NO CASK BEER

Well, I’ve had two pints of allegedly smooth bitter so far, so let’s have a change. I’ll have a Guinness. This is poured, and after some cash changes hands, the barman piles off. I can’t blame him – there’s stuff all work for him to do. So I take a sip of the supposedly predictable dark nitro-keg and discover that the lack of effort applied by staff at the Victoria extends to not cleaning the lines regularly.

This is one rank bad pint of Guinness, although not quite as nasty as the one I had to suffer at the Raven on Brookhouse. And it tells me why there are very few takers this evening – plus, of course, this place is less than five minutes’ walk from the Gaffers Row (Wetherspoons) where this evening’s survey will conclude (review to follow) where the prices are keener, the choice better, and the beer less nasty.

Where the Victoria makes money is in its weekend trade – for which read Thursday to Sunday – into which it fits live music, student nights, and the inevitable karaoke. Otherwise it’s pretty dead. Like right now. And if you’re going to insult the punters by serving a barely drinkable pint to them – particularly unforgiveable when all you’re flogging is nitro-keg – you shouldn’t be surprised if they go elsewhere.

And you also shouldn’t be surprised if you’re Admiral Taverns (yes, it’s them again) and you can’t find anyone daft enough to take this place on. The Victoria is a strong contender for a place in Crewe’s list of worst pubs. Away to the Wetherspoons for something to wash away the nasty taste of that iffy pint of Guinness with something coming out of a proper beer container.

[UPDATE 18 September: since visiting the Victoria, the pub has put out an advert proclaiming a Marston's Pedigree offer. This caused the thought to enter that some consideration was being given to raising their game. But, soon afterwards, the advert vanished, so the return visit was cancelled. And the place is still host to another advert, a large Admiral Taverns one, asking if anyone wants to run it. Not a good sign]

Monday, 10 September 2012

33 Prince Of Wales

Visited On 26 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the (not totally accurate) map

So from the first surviving West Street pub to the last. The Prince Of Wales prominently displays the assertion “Your Local” where it used to say “Thwaites”. And that is the default beer offer. This is a slightly more well turned out place than the Brunel Arms, but despite an old display in the pub listing “Thwaites Cask” among the offerings, you know what’s coming.

NO CASK BEER

The same idea as the Brunel is being used, to flog nitro-keg cheaply. So it’ll be a cheap pint of allegedly smooth Thwaites keg, then. This is indeed smooth, and it achieves something that not even John Smiths and Worthington Creamflow (tm) have managed – it tastes more or less of nothing. There’s certainly no taste that suggests it’s related to the same brewer’s cask bitter.

What of the facilities? There’s a stage at the far end of the lounge bar, so no doubt there is music now and then. The usual screens relay sports when they are on, and the ubiquitous karaoke is advertised. Some comfy and slightly higher than usual chairs are also provided, which is welcome. But the barman does not need to spend 100% of his time serving, which tells you all you need to know.

Let’s cut to the real issue here: the only pub in the area that is pulling in the punters right now is the White Lion nearby on Ford Lane. But whether it keeps that place has to be uncertain – it, and both the surviving West Street pubs, have either closed for a time or been the subject of uncertainty about their future in the recent past. And they’re all chasing a rapidly dwindling market.

Beer sales continue to decline, and keg is declining fastest of all. The Crewe pubs that master in cask beer are doing fine. The consistently popular ones offer a cask option, with the only exceptions being the Imperial and White Lion, which both sell themselves as sports bars and happen to be well placed to take advantage of having no immediate competition for that market.

As with the Brunel Arms, the Prince Of Wales gives the impression of just staggering on and not really having any idea how to stave off the inevitable decline and ultimate closure. It would not surprise me to come back a year from now and find one or both of them closed. Snap out of it guys, we need good pubs. But right now this isn’t even an average one. And that’s a sad conclusion to have to make.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

First Offbeat Firsty Friday

After visiting every one of Crewe’s forty-odd pubs – well, the ones that open during the week, that is – I found precisely none of them offering beer from the town’s own microbrewery. Offbeat, which operates from an industrial unit next to the West Coast Main Line on Thomas Street, is run by Michelle Kelsall (hence “great beer brewed by a chick”) and has been brewing for less than two years.

It's all about this kind of thing ...

But the six barrel plant seems to sell everything it produces, and the beers have garnered their share of awards. So it was with no little expectation that I set out to walk over – best travel option when it involves beer – to the brewery for their very first open evening yesterday. The weather, which has been indifferent throughout the summer, could not have been better. And there was a barbecue. With food.

A modest entrance charge of £1 was made, the beers were between £2 and £2.50 a pint – yes, seriously – and food was thrown in. What’s the catch? Well, there isn’t one, unless you have a problem with plastic glasses or enjoying hot dogs containing sausages made partly with spent malt from the brewery itself. Plus you could do a tour of the brewery, not that it’s a long job.

... which is brewed in here ...

OK what of the beers? I sampled five, and let’s just say that they are definitely as strong as advertised, if not more so, especially the stout. I started off with Outlandish Pale, a 3.9% bitter which set the tone – well hopped and tasty. Then, following a swift hot dog – that’s swift as in consumption, folks – it was back to the bar for a Kooky Gold, yet another of those golden ales, which is brewed with Cascade hops.

The only beer I wasn’t so sure about came next: Unhinged Ginger is, to no surprise, flavoured with ginger, but unlike Hardknott Cold Fusion, there is no subtlety in its presence. It’s uncompromisingly ginger beer (as it were). The Out Of The Ordinary Stout was excellent, but with a strength of 6.5%, to be treated with respect, as was the Out Of Step IPA, a 5.8% brew which continued the well hopped theme.


... and then served in here

Somewhere among all of that was another hot dog, a chat to other visitors, and a listen to the band who were playing in the upstairs of the brewhouse. All too soon it was time for last orders, as the bar closed at 2200 hours, which on reflection was a sensible idea. There was more than enough opportunity so sample any or all the beers on offer, and then plenty of time to wend one’s weary way back home.

How many were there? Scores of them. It was only a pity that the folks from Chester couldn’t make it, but I had an extra one to make up for them. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

My thanks to Michelle and her team for a very generous reception, which hopefully will happen on the first Friday of next month. This kind of event deserves your support. Find any reason to be in Crewe and turn up. You know you want to.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

32 Brunel Arms

Visited On 26 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the (not quite accurate) map

And so the evening came to pass when West Street was surveyed.

There were, not so many years ago, many pubs in this part of Crewe. But that was when there was both lunchtime and evening trade from the nearby railway works. Now only a few hundred work there, and they tend to drive in and out, so no visits to the pub. And the population demographic has changed, with much of the older housing stock being flattened.

So the Wolverton Arms is boarded up and abandoned. The George has been demolished. The Lion and Swan closed, burnt down and was then flattened. Nearby, the Delamere Arms has closed, and the LMR Club has just been pulled down. There are only two survivors, and the Brunel Arms, on the corner of Goddard Street, the cobbled street which once upon a time led to the works entrance, is the first.

There are a couple of punters outside having a smoke, and another doing the same outside the side entrance in Goddard Street. Such is the extent of choice, given that this phrase has to be wheeled out once again:

NO CASK BEER

There is a handpump on the bar, but its sole function this evening is for the barman to lean on it while talking to one of the locals. I survey the uninspiring array of nitro-keg offerings and select John Smiths, not out of any liking for it, but because, well, having a pint in every pub is part of the blog’s mission statement. It is, as ever, mildly alcoholic, and because it’s “extra cold”, takes longer to dispose of.

What else is there to tell? The interior is rather worn, the pool table sits at an awkward angle for the area selected for its presence, trade is steady but unexceptional, and the whole atmosphere projects the image of an enterprise that knows it’s doomed and is just waiting for someone to call time on it. It is signally dispiriting. And that’s a shame.

The sole USP of this place appears to be that it sells nitro-keg dead cheap, and that’s that. You might just as well get some cans in from Asda and invite some friends round. Come on folks, you’ll have to do better.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Euston Tap

Visited on 29 June 2012

When the old Euston station was ritually trashed in the early 1960s to make way for something more spacious and modern, the long lamented arch might have gone, but the two gatehouses somehow survived. And these have now been turned into a matching pair of bars, the east side housing the Cider Tap, and that at the west side the original and more popular Euston (“Craft Beer House”) Tap.

The brews on sale vary: there’s more information on the website or their blog. The description tells you all you need to know: eight cask beers and twenty keg ones, with the latter not the usual bland mega-brews you get in most pubs. The sight of all those taps lined up behind the bar is impressive even before you sample the beer (dispense of cask beer is apparently assisted by electric pumps).

This firepower of dispense is backed up by around 150 varieties of bottled beer, and for those still not happy, wines, spirits and soft drinks are available. So what brings me to this popular watering hole on a fine late June evening? Well, I was in London for Netroots UK the following day, and had arranged to meet former (and reformed) Daily Star freelance Rich Peppiatt for a chat.

Rich had been keeping a low profile for a while, and all was soon explained over a jar of Buxton Moortop – no silly London prices here, just three notes per pint – which was, as Sid Waddell might have said, in a word Bloody Excellent. He had been putting together his show One Rogue Reporter, which would run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. If he was lucky it might make some money.

Exactly what is in the show, and which current and past figures from the tabloid roll of shame may or may not figure in it, the unusual methods deployed, and the identity of who gets done up like a kipper, are, well, look, I’m not telling you that – you’ll have to go and see the show. If it isn’t on near where you live, then, oh I dunno, start a protest movement until someone gets him to put it on.

Anyhow, what kind of punter frequents the Euston Tap? Well, on the evening in question the place was heaving, with crowds spilling out onto the street outside. That there are none of the heavily promoted national keg brands on sale clearly doesn’t put folks off: trying something new does not faze as many people as the admen would like to think. Anyone and everyone is there.

The only drawback may be for those who want somewhere to sit down when enjoying their beer – because the popularity of the place makes that very hit and miss. Visit this bar when you’re in London. Make time to call in before catching your train. Like the L’Oreal advert might have put it, it’s worth it.