Monday 24 April 2017

BRAPA - Back on the Cheshire Trail.

Saturday was one of those up and down days where, for every positive, there seemed to be a negative just around the corner, followed by a positive again.  I wouldn't call it an emotional rollercoaster, but a very pubby rollercoaster, on this, day one of my "Spring Festival" week.

Spot the deliberate mistake!
I got myself to Sandbach on the train, well not quite, as the station was actually located 1.5 miles away in another town called Elgood or Ellways or ElWestBrom or something Ellish.  Poor research on my part, but the good news was that I was nearer Middlewich, and therefore had 5 minutes extra to get myself to a bus stop and wait for it.  Confused?  You will be!

Middlewich felt very "Cheshire", the men all smelt of success and smug satisfaction with tans and wavy hair, but a proportion of the women folk looked like something from a Victorian based Hammer Horror production, silently wailing and wondering where their teeth had gone.

Another good slice of fortune followed as I realised my bus was travelling straight past my first pub of the day, along a pretty canal location, where a man was opening a canal lock (71) with his arse (like they do).  "Open all day, every day!" screamed the pub sign in keeping with the GBG and WhatPub 11am official opening time.  So did it open at 11am?  Did it chuff!

11:08am so I strode across town to the other GBG pub, which was open.

1084.  White Bear, Middlewich

Being open on time was sadly, as good as it got for this pub in my experience.  I was served by a stodgy young Mark Robins of similar charisma, and looking helplessly around me for a 'pubby' seat / area of pub, I realised posing tables with horrid metallic chairs in the main bar was as good as it was going to get.  Much of the pub given up to dining, or those impossible low flung leather settees.  A moody looking tattooed Strongbow drinker had the right idea, so I sat near him and didn't make eye contact.  My ale was warm and a bit limp, suffering from "first pulled of the day" syndrome, all pubs should be made to put such pints in their steak & ale pies like the Fox Hole in Piercebridge, in my opinion.  With wicker baskets of random logs situated at my feet serving no purpose, I thought it's all very well housing your pub in a building from 1625 and boasting about it, but what's the point if you're going to be lame?   Needless to say, my emergency beermat was out already.  A smiley old man lightened the mood, and got a run through of the ales from a friendlier barman, "non Mark Robins".  Sadly, he didn't like stouts, porters, or beers that were at all hoppy so his good mood didn't last!  At least he got plenty of free tasters.  And then I did my obligatory "walk wrong way to toilet" but I found a secret cosy upstairs room, before NMR saved me!

I sauntered back to the canal, and what a beautiful sunny day it was.  I sat on the canal and waited for the pub to open, which it still wasn't, until 12 noon when the doors flung open - I gave it 2 extra mins for etiquette reasons, then walked in.

1085.  King's Lock, Middlewich

I was greeted by a very cheery cute barmaid with flowers in her hair, looking like she'd just walked out of the 1960's.  The pub doors had flowers on too, and it seemed only a matter of time before Dougal from Magic Roundabout walked in with Zebedee.  She made the mistake of asking why I was here, so after boring her with BRAPA for a bit, she spoke passionately on local ale and the Middlewich ale scene, which surprisingly took as long as 3 minutes to complete!  Just as I was about to quiz her on the 11am opening time fiasco, a bunch of canal-people came in.  It started with cider-lady, then a man who was mortified not to see a brand lager he recognised before asking for the most 'standard' one they had!  She gave him a Czech pilsner which he supped very tentatively, I tongue in cheek told him "he was very brave!"  He didn't get the irony.  Then some spirited local lads arrived, spoke about 'real' cider.  Turns out our flowery heroine knew one of them (Giles from Knutsford) but he gave zero shits about this revelation.  Then a stern man from Somerset demanded to know whereabouts in his home county Orchards brewery were based.  She found out for him, but he'd not heard of it and his wife consoled him by stroking his arm.  Classic pub this one, recommended.

Mrs Cider knocks back something cidery.

Better pint here, but corked display bottles were a turn off.

Spirited local lads featuring the enigma, Giles, from Knutsford
I walked down the canal, avoided getting my arm broken by a huge swan, but the bus stop had red tape up and 10 mins later with no bus in sight, I'd convinced myself it wasn't stopping here when I saw it on the horizon.  Hooray.  A few mins later, I was in Sandbach 'proper' though a road was closed so the bus driver told everyone he had to stop outside town on a roundabout.  

A 10 minute walk later, the pub appeared and there was no mistaking it .....

1086.  Old Hall, Sandbach

The pub may well have screamed Brunning & Price from the outside, but I think I'd entered through the correct door as I found myself at a basic quiet back bar, which felt anything but,  and was greeted by a fantastic Asian barmaid who chatted to me about the weather (obviously) and such a gaggle of barmaids (if that's the right collective noun), who all seemed happy and genuinely enjoying working there, which sadly seems rare in such pubs.  Pint of the day was had here too, Merlins Gold or something.  I sat down facing the bar, and listened to the staff chatter, classics ranged from "I've told my boyfriend Kieran I'm not kissing him anymore unless he gives up smoking", to "I went to London and didn't understand how Underground ticket machines operated and I was like, soooo embarrassed!"  The scintillating chat was cut short by unfolding drama in the sky, a police helicopter had been circling for ages and the blonde barmaid (who looked more cutthroat and ruthless than the others) peered out of the window to inform us all there'd been an "incident".  An exceedingly jolly friendly couple, blonde and tanned like an 80's "after they were famous" pop duo, explained a man had been run over and the locals were filming it on their mobiles rather than helping!  Meanwhile, an old bugger who was possibly a Mason drank tea out of this elaborate china tea set, just to remind us all this was a Brunning & Price after all.  But my favourite one yet.

Masonic tea set man.
I thought there's no way I'll get a bus back to Sandbach railway station due to all this transport road closure chaos, so was up for the 30 minute walk, when a bus appeared out of nowhere, scooped me up, I asked are you going to THAT railway station, he said "the errrm errrm Sandbach one?" just to prove no-one had heard of this place, and a few mins later, I ate my lunch in the sun on the platform.

Changing at Crewe (no pubs there today, I've got other plans for that town), I found myself FINALLY in Alsager as I've been promising to visit this pub for about a year now,

1087.  The Lodge, Alsager

I don't think I've been in a BRAPA pub yet where the first line I hear is "don't worry mate, she's just gone to change the Becks".  Becks Vier that is.  I think the man (one of three customers including me) just wanted an excuse to talk to someone.  Problem is, this pub was so deliciously basic, it was pure genius and almost impossible to write about.  Just three people, sat in a room, drinking and reading with background sexy jazz music.  The third customer, an elderly gent with an air of the Italian plumber about him, was like a kid in a sweetshop - "oooh oooh, I'm loving this VPA, give me another, oooh oohh and a bag of those other mini cheddars while you are there!  Aaah haha lovely"  Had he escaped his wife or something?  Anyway, the 'other' mini cheddars were crinkle cut cheese & onion if you care.  Becks man pulled his blue cap down over his eyes and went outside to smoke, three Chinese youths came in, wanted some real cider (theme of the day?) and I decided that nothing of note was going to happen, so I headed off.

8 ales were on 4 pumps!  

The wood in wicker basket didn't annoy me in here!
I'd given myself plenty of time for the train, and wasn't even concerned when a doddery old lady stopped me to tell me I was walking on the wrong side of the pavement!  Apparently, she should be on the outside because she could see what was coming towards her.  I humoured the old cow, but just then, I noticed the level crossings coming down and I needed to be on the other side, and there was no railway bridge - a Euston train had been delayed!  Arrrghh.  So all I could do was stand and watch as my train then arrived and left again, barriers still down, so frustrating!  

But then I realised I only had half an hour wait, and Hull City scored two goals with ten men, and all was well with the world again.  And how good was this weather anyway?  

Back in Crewe, Leyton Orient fans were on their way back from Port Vale doing what they do best, acting weirdly.  And after some teenagers got in trouble for stopping the train departing on time by holding the doors open for their mate, I was relieved when I was finally in Holmes Chapel on the way back up to Manc.  

Accidentally quite a good photo
1088.  Old Red Lion, Holmes Chapel

But less relieved when I saw the Ember Inns sign sticking out a mile!  Firstly a Brunning & Price, now an Ember, jeez, I was treating myself today(!)   But if the B&P was very strong, this was one of the most Embery Embers I've ever been in.  The barman was of the sycophantic variety, presumably he'd been injected through the skull with the Ember drug just minutes before.  He excitedly remembered a humourless bald bloke next to me.  "You were at my easter quiz weren't you?"  Baldie reluctantly admitted the charge, and gingerly told him "We couldn't use our usual team name of 'the Bald Eagles' because we had ladies in our group'.  Delivered so dead-pan, I stifled a chuckle.  I wasn't chuckling soon as, having been proud to remember the CAMRA discount, I was still charged £3.80 for a pint of Proper Job, nowhere near the quality of same drink I had in Seven Red Roses, Lower Early.  The pub had a vague whiff of vinegar, mixed with cheap perfume from the kitchen staff.  I sat on a comfy(ish) stool but with the amount of wall partitions, a low hanging lampshade, and a swathe of Magnolia walls, I've never felt so stifled and claustrophobic in such a quiet area of a pub in BRAPA history.  It was soul sapping.  Baldie had relaxed by now and tried a joke based on his hatred of music rounds in pub quizzes "if you tested me on music on my own iPod, I'd get them all wrong!"  It went down like a lead balloon.  Then I got cramp in my leg due to the weird chair/table juxtaposition, and all that remained was to play my Ember bingo game to stop my crying!! 

(Oh, and if anyone else mentions the effin' Sam Smiths pub in Holmes Chapel being better, that's a spot fine of £3.80!)

A very Ember range, but who nicked the Doom Bar clip?

Thoroughly claustrophobic

Only scored 5 on the Ember Bingo though!
The next train to Piccadilly didn't stop at Chelford, which was kind of on my list, so I took that as a sign to be disciplined, have an early night, as I had a big day in Derby on the horizon.  More on that later.



  1. I shall comment more fully at a later time, but in a bid to win the quiz, is the answer that the opening time for the festival should be 11:00 rather than noon. Or are you one of these pubs that doesn't follow its listed opening hours?

  2. A lot more obvious than that Tom, but you are right. How can I slate King's Lock opening time when my own festival opening time says 12 noon. Very hypocritical of me! Am writing up Derby in a second.

    1. The obvious answer is the month but as you have corrected that in my book it no longer counts as a mistake.

    2. Well Tom, there's no "my book" about it. My quiz = my rules! So comply or get charged under code of conduct, though I think you may prefer the latter knowing you!!

    3. You should know by know that I don't do compliance. I have every confidence in clearing my good name in the event that the charge makes it to trial.

      Chelford should easily tie in with some of 'Greater Manchester' to the south of Stockport - places like Cheadle Hulme. A GM Wayfarer is valid there.

  3. Quite how the Kings Lock is in the GBG I do not know. Called in during a canal walk last summer and two of the three real ales were vile and the third was lukewarm and very thin. A very poor pub.

    1. That doesn't sound like the King's Lock - are you sure that you're not mixing it up with the Big Lock like retiredmartin did (or the King's Arms)? The King's Lock is small and on the Sandbach side of town, the Big Lock is big and on the Northwich side. If anything the King's Lock tends to keep its beer on the cool side - certainly a degree or two cooler than the White Bear which is the other GBG tick in town.

      Doesn't normally have beer from outside Cheshire though - guess the debate was about Orchard Pig cider?

      And to be fair to the pub, its own website says it opens at 12, it's CAMRA that have got it wrong.

      The Old Hall's one of the better B&Ps, the building has enough charisma to disguise the B&P-ness. If you're ever in Sandbach again, its little brother is the Lower Chequers, behind the Saxon crosses. It's a Joules house, which isn't my favourite brewery, but it has similar 16th-century charisma with fewer bottle blondes.

    2. It was the Kings Lock. The main point was the very poor condition of two of the beers. Called at the Big Lock later. The Cheshire Cat was ok but no more. In general most of the pubs we visited in the Northwich/Sandbach area during our Cheshire Ring walk were fairly average.

    3. Hi John, yes am also surprised you had such a bad experience in King's Lock but just goes to show how you can be lucky/unlucky "on the day" and how different people's experience of the same pub can be.

      Thanks qq for the Cheshire advice, really enjoyed my day and the King's Lock did read my blog and have told WhatPub / CAMRA to amend opening hours to 12 noon, a good result! But yes, I should always remember to check pub website which I rarely do.

      Glad you agree on Old Hall, cos I'd been to the B&P in Thelwall and found it a bit depressing! But this was really good, and I guess if I was the visit Sandbach again, it'd probably mean Lower Chequers had made it back into GBG.

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    5. It was just the "too warm" thing that surprised me, the King's Lock has a reputation for going solidly the other way. I guess they either had a cellar problem or the line hadn't been fully pulled through at the start of the day. I drink there maybe once a month and I can only think of two pints <NBSS3 there - one was a leftover from their festival in June, one was one of those NBSS2.25-ish ones, just a bit sub-par; when I mentioned it it was a case of "Let me see...[pours taster]...I'm not serving that, what will you have instead?". Even GBG pubs will have the odd dodgy one, it's all about the attitude to complaints (and customers not being too British to complain....)

      I think the thing with B&P is that they are coming at pubs from a restaurant angle (the parent company owns Frankie and Benny's, Chiquito etc), so effectively they're restaurants with a pub theme. The formula works with Sandbach or Sutton Hall (near Macclesfield), the building is so special that it doesn't feel like a chain, and you appreciate that the service is so slick. Some of their other places are more mundane, and then the slickness becomes oppressive. Still, gastro-Spoons seems to be what people want.

    6. B&P was an existing independent business that was taken over by the Restaurant Group and, as far as I can see, they haven't really deviated all that far from the original formula.

  4. If you use the GBG in Cheshire you will soon come to realise that the main criteria for selection are breadth and rarity of beer range, not quality.

  5. Standing as you can only helplessly watch your train departing. So me and John at Pudsey this year!

    1. Quite similar, so you didn't have a physical barrier blocking you unless you count Tim!

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