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Tuesday, 20 August 2019

"I come to praise Wetherspoon's, not to bury them"

If you'd told me, many years ago, when I visited my first Wetherspoon's pub that I'd be writing a post in praise of them, I'd've said, "Yer what?!?"

When they first appeared, I thought that Wetherspoon's pubs were something of an atmosphere, bad layout, poor service, dubious d├ęcor...not really proper pubs.

Over the years, though, they've evolved and many of my initial criticisms have disappeared or been ameliorated to some extent such that I am happy to drink (and eat there) in the absence of a 'proper' alternative.

Over the years, on our canal boating trips we've been saved from 'starvation' by various Wetherspoon establishments and it is my intention to offer thanks and praise.

The first, and finest, example of this is The Plaza, Rugeley. We first ventured in there in 1999 and I was 'blown away' by the interior of this converted cinema. It has saved us on many occasions, bieng one of the few places to get food in the centre of Rugeley...lunchtime or evenings. It has featured as #218 on this blog where you can read more about it.
Plaza, Rugeley 1999
 What follows will be a potted history of the other examples of when and where Wetherspoon's pubs have saved us in some very 'dodgy' places.

This next example doesn't quite fit the pattern, but it is a Wetherspoon's that we've visited more than once - The Golden Bee, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Golden Bee, Stratford 2002
The next one fits the bill perfectly, although we even had to get a taxi to the Golden Cross Hotel, Bromsgrove. The canal doesn't pass through Bromsgrove, but on this occasion we'd missed getting served food in the canalside hostelries near to Stoke Pound/Stoke Prior, so "Taxi!" it was. Similar circumstances forced us back there several years later.
Golden Cross Hotel, Bromsgrove 2002
Now for one that I had completely forgotten about - The Bear & Ragged Staff, Bedworth. As I recall, The Navigation by the canal was closed (or not doing food) meaning that we had to walk into Bedworth which, back in 2005 was quite a deprived area following the closure of the local coal mines, so pubs serving food were few and far between.
The Bear & Ragged Staff, Bedworth 2005
 Although we've visited quite a few Wetherspoon's just for a drink (Coventry, Rugby, Leamington Spa, Leicester, Stone, Wolverhampton to name a few) this next one was one of the best 'Saviour Pubs' on the list. We'd moored by the Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, the first two pubs we visited were dire (in different ways) and walking further into the town gave only the prospect of pizza, kebab or fish & chips on the street for lunch. Then we espied the shining beacon that was The Thomas Telford, Ellesmere Port. Lunch was excellent!
The Thomas Telford, Ellesmere Port 2012
Later on that same year, we found ourselves in Bingley (twice) on the Leeds & LIverpool Canal. At lunchtime there were no pubs doing food and the town was overshadowed by the brooding, boarded up, brutalist building that had been the headquarters of the Bradford & Bingley Building Society. However, we were saved by The Myrtle Grove, Bingley. On our subsequent evening visit we found proper food in a proper pub.
The Myrtle Grove, Bingley 2012
Along the Ashby Canal stands the town of Hinckley which we'd visited in the past and not had a problem finding food. On this occasion, the only place we could find was The Baron of Hinckley. And very welcome it was too!
The Baron of Hinckley, Hinckley 2014
Ilkeston, on the Erewash Canal is not somewhere that we visit often and with the town standing on top of the hill that the canal skirts around, it is quite a slog to get to the town centre. There are several pubs there, but only The Observatory, Ilkeston was doing food.
The Observatory, Ilkeston 2015
This next one is somewhat embarrasing for me. We were in the centre of Birmingham (my home city!) and yet still managed to miss the last orders for food in several places that stopped serving food at 8:30 - 9:00 pm. I was very frustrated by this lack of opening times and we ended up eating in The Briar Rose, Birmingham.
The Briar Rose, Birmingham 2018
This is one that you'll find most difficult to believe, but on our most recent canal trip, we found ourselves in Oxford one lunchtime and the best place we could find was The Four Candles, Oxford. We were moored on the river for the first time, so didn't really know where we were and didn't really have time to do much exploring, so it was a joyous moment when the Wetherspoon's hoved into view! I had one of the best value pizzas ever, here!
The Four Candles, Oxford 2019
 Finally, we move on to Hayes on the Grand Union Canal. There were quite a few basic boozers available but only The Botwell Inn, Hayes was offering food.
The Botwell Inn, Hayes 2019
 It was after three pints here that I contrived to fall into the canal...but that's another story!

So, here endeth my paean to JD Wetherspoon and how their pubs have saved us from 'starvation' over the past 20 years of canal boating...all hail Tim Martin!!

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

#262 Swan Hotel, Brewood, Staffordshire : 1987 to 2018

Another village that we probably could have visited more is Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal. There are three pubs (were four, but the Admiral Rodney is now a small housing estate!)

The pub we're most likely to visit in Brewood is the Bridge Inn (#224) which is the first pub you come across as you ascend from the canal cutting into the village. There are occasions, though, when we make the short walk into the centre of the village where both the Red Lion and Swan stand on the sides of the village square.

The first time we ventured into the Swan Hotel was on the evening of Wednesday 8th July 1987.
Back then it was an M&B pub and quite a lively, basic village local.

It was a good number of years before we set foot in the Swan Hotel again.
 This was a lunchtime visit on Wednesday 31st August 2005, just 18 years since our first encounter. The main change was that it had beome a Free House. Inside it was little different from before.

We didn't leave it so long before the next visit which was on the evening of Wednesday 8th September 2010.
This time there were no discernible changes - inside or out.

Our most recent visit was a lunchtime stop on Sunday 26th August 2018.
Remarkably, it was still unchanged from 2005. It also doesn't do food on a Sunday lunchtime so I survived on a diet of pub snacks and a couple of pints of Salopian Lemon Dream, which was gorgeous!

Friday, 26 July 2019

#261 Royal Oak, Gnosall, Staffordshire : 1996 to 2018

On our fairly frequent trips along the Shropshire Union Canal we haven't stopped at Gnosall/Gnosall Heath as often as we probably should given the number of pubs within walking distance of the cut!

The Boat Inn (#241) is canalside, so often we don't venture any further and, the first time we did was on the evening of Tuesday 3rd September 1996.
I remember little about it; we probably had a pint and moved on!

It was a while before we returned, although we'd stopped at Gnosall on other occasions.
This was on the evening of Tuesday 30th August 2005 on our way back from Chester. In the intervening nine years it had undergone considerable changes and, seemingly, a change of ownership from Ansell's to (I assume) a pubco.

It took us another thirteen years before we returned, this time on the evening of Sunday 26th August 2018.
Unsurprisingly, it had changed again, both externally and inside. The interior is now somewhat soulless and modern. Although we got there just in time, we decided not to eat as it still wasn't yet 7pm - that turned out to be a miscalculation on our part (as detailed in the entry for the Boat Inn)! Again, we had one pint and moved on.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

A Slow 'Race' Around Uttoxeter

I've somewhat fallen behind in reporting on our Proper Pubs Day Out in Uttoxeter, mostly because my holiday jaunts got in the way. The trip has been extensively covered here and here by Pub Curmudgeon. So, I'll try and race through it with a few of observations.

We were a select band of just four (Paul, Peter, John and me) that met up at Stoke Station for the short journey to Uttoxeter on board this train.
The Staffordshire countryside looked lovely, if a little sodden, as we made our way to our destination (although I must say that it was the only time on a train that you could hear overhanging tree branches slapping against the carriage!)

It was a short(ish) stroll from the station to our first pub.
The Old Swan is the town's Wetherspoon's and, at just after 11am it was ticking over nicely.

Next up was a short walk away, which would be something of the theme of the day as most these great boozers are within 1- 2 minutes walk of each other!
Ye Olde Talbot was the scene of my first ever pint of Bass!
I found it to be reasonably palatable and would down a few more before the end of the day!

Next up was our lunch stop.
The Bank House Hotel is slightly away from the centre of Uttoxeter (a whole 5 minutes walk!) and this was where I had my first ever pint of Pedigree. I didn't like it as much as the Bass, but my companions rated it as one of the beers of the day. Lunch was good, both in value and content, especially as we had the personal attention of the chef!

Then we moved on to (probably) the most well-known pub in Uttoxeter.
The Vaults is a tremendous little pub with at least four Bass hand pumps. I partook of the Bass once more! I'd taken this picture a little earlier and it shows the landlady/barmaid just arriving for work as it doesn't open until midday.

Then it was time to move on, but the next pub on our itinerary was about a mile out of town and, as fully paid up members of the Old Codgers Society, none of us were particularly looking forward to the walk. This is where Paul's wife Jackie came to the rescue. By some strange coincidence she was in the neighbourhood in her car and free to take us to The Plough.
It is a pleasant enough little inn that fulfils the criteria of being a 'Proper Pub', but I'm not sure that it would have been worth the walk there and back.

Soon, we were heading back into town for the next stop of the day. 
Thanks to Jackie and Paul for arranging our little 'excursion'.
Next up was The Old Star which was just off the Market Square. By this time my memory was starting to fade. It was another lovely little boozer in a town of lovely little boozers!

Then it was on to our only micro of the day.
The Horse & Dove was a pleasant, airy micro with a good layout and beer. I'm not sure what the building was before and I've been trying to decipher the ghost sign on the upper floor. I've managed this much "Wilks Favourite ***uouse Millinery Dresses", but that only helps a bit.

While we were in the pub I took this photo which gives a good idea as to how close the pubs are.
Ye Olde Talbot being our second pub of the day.

The next pub was a bit further away but still no more than 5 minutes!
The Smithfield Hotel was another proper pub that was fairly busy, it now being 6pm on a Friday evening. Paul had with him a photo of the pub he'd taken in the mid 1980's and in comparison to today's shot there were few apparent differences.

We were on the final leg of our day out heading for what should have been the last pub of the day.
All I remember about the Black Swan is that this is where I finally succumbed and reverted to a half of Carling!

As we had a little bit of time to spare, we ventured back into The Vaults for a final half before the journey home...Carling for me again!

The trains were on time...and so ended another fine Proper Pubs Day Out. Not as many attendees as on other occasions, but we all had a good time so, as ever, its quality, not quantity that matters!

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Canal Pub Crawling - Part 3

We pick up our journey having spent an evening in Curdworth at The Beehive and White Horse, neither of which are canalside pubs.

BIRMINGHAM & FAZELEY CANAL - Curdworth to Fazeley Junction
COVENTRY CANAL - Fazeley Junction to Atherstone (above lock 6)

Again, we set out at about 09:30 with the aim of descending Curdworth Locks and having a lunchtime stop at Fazeley.
The first pub we passed was the Dog & Doublet, Bodymoor Heath B76 9JD at 11:30, but it was too early to think about stopping. We have visited there in the past and it is a great little pub.

Also, there were still a few more locks to be negotiated and we finally moored up at Fazeley Junction at 13:10. The pub we selected for our first pint wasn't, technically on our route (we were turning right at the junction and this pub is 100 yards to the left!) but we still went to the Three Tuns Inn, Fazeley B78 3QS.
This view from the A5 doesn't give the impression of a canalside boozer, but the garden at the back leads all the way down to the canal. It is under relatively new management and they don't do food anymore, but it is still a proper boozer. So, we had a pint and moved on to the Fazeley Victory (for Lunch) and the Three Horseshoes (still a great little pub).

So, it was back to the canal and onwards onto the Coventry Canal. It wasn't long before we were passing another watering hole.
The Gate Inn, Amington B77 3BY was the next canalside boozer we passed by at 16:25. Although the picture doesn't show it, the garden was very busy on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon. This is a pub we've stopped at previously, but not very often as it is only 90 minutes away from Fazeley, our preferred stopping place.

We continued our journey, passing another place we've never stopped at (16:55).
The Samuel Barlow, Alvecote B78 1AS is part of Alvecote Marina and is a relatively new addition to the canalside hostelries club having been built in 2003.

Again, it was way too early to stop as we pushed on to Atherstone. We passed through Polesworth which has several pubs, but none of them are overtly canalside. Having been caught in a late deluge, we moored up halfway up the Atherstone flight of locks just after 20:00. As we headed into town I took this picture of another pub we weren't going into today!
The King's Head, Atherstone CV9 2PA is another pub that we've occasionally visited, but when there are so many other pubs to choose from in the town, it tends to lose out! Today was no different and we walked into Atherstone for several pints and a curry.

COVENTRY CANAL - Atherstone (above Lock 6) to Hawkesbury Junction
OXFORD CANAL - Hawkesbury Junction to Newbold-on-Avon

We started off in drizzle and rain which didn't really abate much until our lunchtime stop, but we did pass another pub that we've visited in the past.
It was 11:05 and as tepmting a proposition as it was, it was still too early to stop at The Anchor Inn, Hartshill CV10 0RT. It looks as though it has been refurbished since our last visit, but being about 90 minutes 'sailing' time away from Atherstone it is generally a place we pass by.

After another couple of hours, passing through Nuneaton (no canalside boozers!) and close to Bedworth (and the now defunct Navigation which is a rather large private residence [that is up for sale]) we arrived at Hawkesbury Junction and a pub that it would be a crime to pass by.
The Greyhound Inn, Longford CV6 6DF is a proper 'old school' canalside pub that also does great food. There have been times when it has been so full that we've caught a taxi into Coventry! Being a cool, grey Monday, I was half expecting it to be closed, but it wasn't and we had our obligatory three lunchtime pints and some lovely food.

Now we were on the homeward stretch of the journey as we joined the Oxford Canal by passing through Sutton Stop Lock. The rest of the afternoon was grey and drizzly and we passed no canalside pubs before our evening stop. The Elephant & Castle closed many years ago (and we'd never visited it as it was only 20 minutes away from The Greyhound!) and I'm not counting the Rose & Castle in Ansty. Althoiugh the garden runs down to the canal, there's nowhere to moor and access is always via the road!

So, the next pub we came to was the Barley Mow, Newbold-on-Avon CV21 1HW, by which time it was 19:50.
Back in the day, this used to be two pubs actually next-door to each other! Now they've been combined to provide a pub and hotel. There were plenty of locals in the bar and there is a restaurant section, but we preferred to eat in the bar where there was some was a fairly quiet Monday night!.

OXFORD CANAL - Newbold-on-Avon to Braunston Turn
GRAND UNION/OXFORD CANAL - Braunston Turn to Wigram's Turn Marina

This was the final leg of our journey and, as we both had to dash off to prior engagements as soon as we got back to base...we didn't stop for lunch!

After Newbold you get to Rugby quite quickly and we passed by a pub that we used a few times when it was first built, but it is now a Harvester which seems to have turned its back on the canal.
It was only 09:45 when we passed the Bell & Barge, Rugby CV21 1RG, so we wouldn't have stopped anyway, but you can see how the mooring has become so overgrown.

The next, and final pub we passed was something of a surprise.
It was 11:45 when we passed The Waterside, Hillmorton CV21 4PW and, on another day, we may well have stopped for an early lunch...but not today! However, that wasn't the surprise. The penultimate time we'd passed this way, we did stop at the Old Royal Oak which had been the name of this pub since my first visit on my first canal trip in 1980. Indeed, it was still the Old Royal Oak in September 2018 when we last passed this way, but (from what I can glean from TripAdvisor) it changed from a Hungry Horse into a Pub & Carvery in October/November 2018.

We pushed on, past Braunston (not passing any more canalside pubs) and on to Wigram's Turn.

So, on this leg of the trip we passed 10 canalside pubs and went into just three, which is the best percentage of the whole trip.

In conclusion, in seven days we passed 34 canalside pubs and actually went into just 8 of them. Of those 34 pubs, we have never been in 5 of them! (The trip was 104 miles, passing through 120 locks and took 50 hours 5 minutes)

Had we stopped at every pub, we would never have completed the journey in 7 days, but if time was not part of the equation, you could probably do it in about a fortnight without any stress.

What has really surprised me is that, before we did this, I'd have estimated that we stop at about 50% of the canalside pubs, whereas the reality is 23.5%. (Although, over the years, we have been in 85% of them).

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Canal Pub Crawling - Part 2

Last time you left us at the Navigation Inn, Lapworth at the end of our second day of boating in our week-long trip around the Midlands.

STRATFORD CANAL - Lapworth (Lock 14) to Kings Norton Junction
WORCS & B'HAM CANAL - Kings Norton Junction to Worcester Bar
BCN MAIN LINE - Worcester Bar to Old Turn Junction
B'HAM & FAZELEY CANAL - Old Turn Junction to Saturday Bridge

 The day started off cloudy and dry, but this soon turned to persistent rain and by the time we'd passed through 13 locks and two lift bridges we were ready for a drink and some sustenance...but not here!
The Wharf Tavern, Hockley Heath B94 6QT is a place we've stopped at on many previous occasions, but it was only 12:05 and we still had a long journey into Brum. So we sailed on by.

The next pub along is also one we've stopped at on many occasions.
The Blue Bell Cider House, Earlswood B94 6BP was perfectly placed as it was now 13:15 and we were a few miles closer to our intended evening destination. Since our last visit the pub had been redecorated and had less of a 'tired' feel and the food was very good - still proper straightforward pub grub.

After the refreshment we were back on the water for the long afternoon's journey to Birmingham which necessitated passing more watering holes! First up was Lady Lane Wharf, Earlswood B94 6AH (at 16:05) which is a place we've never visited.
It gets good reviews for its food and beer (it has been, maybe still is, in the Good Beer Guide) but because of its position (relative to our other regular stopping places) and the lack of nearby moorings we are unlikely to break our duck any time soon.

A bit further on (16:55) is a place that we've stopped at on many occasions, usually when we're heading away from Brum, but not today.
The Drawbridge Inn, Shirley B90 1DD is situated next to an electrically operated lift bridge which is on a very busy cut-through so we tend to encouter quite a few impatient drivers as we operate the bridge. Today it was rush-hour on a Friday, so it was even busier than normal!

Further along towards Birmingham is another pub that we've stopped at on previous occasions, but nowadays there is nowhere to moor up as the banks have become overgrown.
The Horseshoe, Kings Heath B14 5EL is an old school boozer on the Alcester Road, not far from the Maypole (for those who know Brum). It was now 17:50 and it was still a couple more hours before we reached Central Birmingham for a safe place to moor.

Further on we come to Kings Norton Junction where we turn right and head in towards Birmingham on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. There are no canalside pubs along this stretch as the canal and railway line (Cross City) keep each other company all the way to Five Ways.

Once we hit the city centre there is a 90° turn by The Cube where, somewhat inevitably, we meet one of the party boats heading out of town, but manage to avoid any collision.

As we pass through Gas Street Basin we successfully negotiate the Worcester Bar which leads us onto the BCN Main Line for a short stretch. We pass by the Tap & Spile B1 2JT (not pictured) and the Canal House B1 2JR which was formerly the James Brindley. It is now 20:10 and we're ready for a drink!
But we're still not quite there; we pass through Broad Street Tunnel and turn right at Old Turn Junction to enter the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal where we moor up by Saturday Bridge - it is now 20:20 and we'd passed The Malt House B1 2NX, again without entering!
After mooring up, it was straight out to The Shakespeare B3 1JJ and an Indian meal at the Raj Doot, neither of which can be considered as canalside venues.

Day 4
BIRMINGHAM & FAZELEY CANAL - Saturday Bridge to Curdworth

Saturday started out grey and drizzly as we set off down the Farmer's Bridge flight of locks that head north taking you down and under Birmingham. Before we've even passed through the first lock there's a canalside pub.
It is way too early for a drink (09:50) in The Flapper B1 2NU. I haven't been there for many years and it is likely to have been closed and replaced by flats by the time we pass this way again. When I was a student this was the Flapper & Firkin, but now it is a music venue and feels more like an estate pub. A brief summary of the situation is here.

We pass no more canalside pubs until later in the afternoon following lunch at The Bull B4 6JU and after descending the Aston Lock flight. Towards the edge of the city comes a pub that I've never been in and, when you see the canal frontage, you'll understand why.
I give you...Tyburn House, Castle Vale B35 6AA. From this view, if you didn't know there was a pub there, you'd be none the wiser. It was now 17:15 and we had no plans to stop! Britain Beermat has visited the Tyburn House and put his thoughts on his blog Life After Football.

We still had the three Minworth Locks to negotiate before we passed by a pub that we've visited on numerous occasions, but at 18:10, we still had a bit more travelling to do.
The Boat Inn, Minworth B76 9AE is another lovely little local boozer that also does food and, for us, is more suited to lunchtime stops.

We passed one more (that I failed to photograph, being otherwise engaged) which was the Cuttle Bridge Inn, Minworth B76 9DP. This is a place we've frequented both in it's present guise and in it's previous incarnations as The Kingsley, but our destination of Curdworth was just along the cut, so we didn't stop.

So, two more days into the journey and we've passed by another dozen canalside pubs, but this time we only went into one of them! That is a pretty poor return. If we had stopped, and had a pint in each one, the trip would have taken three times as long.

However you dress it up, these statistics are a definite surprise to me!