Although the GBG said both pubs only open at 12 noon, it's always worth checking out if you are early because as they (well, I) say, "no lookie, no gettie innie". Especially as pub number one was just outside the railway station. It was a swarming mass of activity outside, and I could see a few bald headed silhouettes in the window. A promising sign.
But experiences such as Hambleden and Robin Hood's Bay mean that just because a pub looks very open, doesn't mean it is. So I cowered outside like a scared stray dog, until a chirpy looking gent bounded down through the car park, so I asked if it was open.
"Yes, if you go through that main door, walk to the bar, and ask for a drink, they will serve you!" he said in the most unintentionally patronising way ever. (Cheers mate, I know how pubs work).
1221. Queen's Head Hotel, Congleton
And as I walked around the perimeter of the pub to the bar, I was aware that this pub probably hadn't shut from Friday night, full of raucous middle aged blokes - the kind who appreciate "top bantz" eating bacon sandwiches too enthusiastically, taunting a hungry barmaid "do you wanna bite?" with them as she served me a Moorhouses ale from a reassuringly standard selection of best bitters. Behind me, a man picked up the pub acoustic guitar and played the Jaws theme, to a round of applause from all. Under these circumstances, it was important I didn't stray too far from the bar in case of more excitement, so I wedged in between blokes and the one man who looked like he was having a thoroughly miserable time - he left when I photographed him in a "my wife doesn't know I'm here" kind of way. The pub would have been big enough to sit in a quiet area away from the bar, but where's the fun in that? As jaunty MOR tunes played and barstaff bopped up and down, one of the ringleader blokes started randomly shouting "Sports Mixture, Sports Mixture" and jumping around and shaking and pointing. But then they all left, turns out this was the pre-cursor to some jolly boys outing to a football match. And then, in the solitude, the old-skool pub veneer slips a bit, and you start noticing the odd specials board, and the fact that the hand dryers have a drip tray, and you start to wonder what Congleton is really all about?!
|Entrance hall bric-a-brac|
|The kind of dudes I had to put up with early on in here.|
|Contemplative misery man knows he shouldn't be here|
|If you try this diet for a week, you'll be shitting fruity liquid.|
|Hand dryer drip tray - a BRAPA first (not counting those wrong Dyson things).|
Dad text to ask if Congleton was another poncey Cheshire town, but the further in I got, the more I'm convinced it's suffering from an identity crisis. Part of it screams "I wanna be no nonsense, Stoke style" (it has an oatcake shop doing a roaring trade for heaven's sake) but the other part is a bit flouncy Nantwich twee. An old man said good morning from across the road which was lovely. The place is just confused, a view shared by a man I'd meet in Bollington's Vale later.
After all, what in the lord's name is this monstrosity they are advertising?
|We gonna rock down to Ale Avenue (or not)|
1222. Barley Hops, Congleton
And pub number two was symptomatic of the town, feeling like a bottle shop micropub, but actually preferring the title of Beer & Gin Cafe which you'd simply not be able to get away with in South Yorkshire. I was the first customer today, about 25 minutes after opening time, and the flustered female half of this couple run 'cafe' was apologising for not being better organised as they'd had an incredibly busy Friday night - as she pulled beers through and disinfected surfaces in an impressive display of multi tasking. "I owe you a fiver", she says as I paid for my beer, but in a top example of teamwork, hubbie appears on the scene and hands me it out of his back pocket. You don't get that in Wetherspoons. I'd envisaged one of those situations where I stand at the bar, and we chat on BRAPA, gin, bottled beer and the like, but as they seemed busy, I took a seat near the door and tried to act like the pub flag bearer for unsuspecting interlopers. And people did arrive. And they chatted. And they sampled pub gin. Waaaah, why was I the loser in the corner no one wanted to dance with?? Well, that's how it goes. When I said hi to one highly strung baldster, he said "HELLO MATE I DIDN'T SEE YA THERE!" Errrm, you don't know me mate, I was just being friendly. The pub turned to look, and they confirmed this with a sterile glare, the type their ancestors used on dying bears, writhing in agony, having just been tortured. My ale was a bit warm. I left, early for the bus.
|Own beermat was a plus point|
|A couple arrive and get chatty|
|Gordon's (gin) alive!!|
|Nice view of this bottle shop gin micro style thing.|
The bus driver floored it towards Macc, I was getting off before at a place called Gawsworth which unbeknownst to me was just a bend in the road so I pressed the bell a bit too late, and an old man's shopping went flying. Ooops. But no one minded, silly place to stop a bus on a crazy grass verge.
The pub was a minute down the road opposite, sun was out again .....
1223. Harrington Arms, Gawsworth
"Ahhh, a heritage pub - feel the quality and that unchanged centuries old feel..." I told myself for about the first 5 seconds on entering the long thin hallway, only to have my dreams shattered as a wedding party oozed out of the cracks, making the bar area an awkward experience. A girl apologised and moved "I'm not in the queue", (well it's not a queue cos we are at a bar in a pub, I almost said), but they had plenty of staff on to ensure I was served in surprisingly quick time. Good, cos an awkward silence has ensued, a stand off between locals propped on stools, and crazy wedding goers. I bellowed "Pint of Unicorn" in my best Cheshire accent and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, am sure one farmery looking chap from the 1860's had tears in his eyes and was ready to shake my hand. I had a quick nosy in each of the beautiful side rooms, but all full so I looked wistfully like "what might've been" and headed outside into the sun. My table was soon shared by scousers with bad teeth, but a funny blonde lady joined me and loved the idea of BRAPA despite branding me a "total pisshead". Nice. We had a wasp invasion, so I watched them all cower in fear and got out the GBG. Sadly, removing the breweries section means it doesn't quite carry the same heft for wasp extermination these days! I told my new friend I thought having an afternoon wedding was weird but she thought morning ones were weirder cos you can't get drunk before. I managed to kill an elderly wasp that landed on me, although my "I blew it off" comment didn't turn out like I'd hoped. As if to illustrate the similarities between dangerous irritating pests and errrrm ...wasps(!), the wedding party hopped into taxis and left me in peace. Too late to go back inside. Great pub and my experience hadn't been spoiled by the circs.
|Chaos at the bar|
|The groom says goodbye to pub freedom as he steps into the scary outdoor light forever|
|The pub being good from the outside too|
|Drink with wedding lady|
|Take that wasp, not a bad place to die.|
Back at Macclesfield bus station, a dull and dingy affair which makes Doncaster look like some kind of fun factory, I didn't have time to breathe (but did have time to pee) before I was off on the number 10 towards Bollington. Phew. I went all the way to the termination point, as this seemed closest to pub 4 and I found it just down the road .....
1224. Poachers Inn, Bollington
Make no mistake about it, today wasn't really about Congleton or Gawsworth, it was Bollington that brought me to this part of the world as it was next alphabetically in the GBG for Cheshire. From the stained glass entrance door to the old lady faced down on the first table I saw, this was always going to be pub of the day. It took me a while to locate a member of staff, but I could breathe in the calm carpetted cosiness of this amazing pub. I ordered a pint of Storm Beaufort, the young friendly barman with element of Prince William if he gave up on the royal life and decided to do something useful, telling me the beer was a new barrel and was very lively, which probably helps explain why this was such a good quality ale too. The only other customers were a friendly young couple over to the right, wrestling for some strange reason with two dogs bigger than them - not Twogs, but the fact that one of them was called 'Andy' seemed pretty peculiar. At one point, the girl almost rode on the back of the non-Andy dog just to keep it under control. After they left, I heard voices and Mrs Faceplant had woken from her slumber and was now chatting amiably with P.William like she'd been fully coherent all day. WHATEVER luv, I saw ya. On the way out, I said bye and thanks but made sure I looked at the old lady as if to say "I KNOW" but she looked blankly like "You must be confusing me with my drunken twin sister". Hmmm. Classic pub.
|The entrance door impressed me|
|Almost totally out of it. Even brave enough to take a piccie.|
|View to the bar|
|My pint and great beermat slogans|
Across town, if you can call Bollington a town it felt like a sprawling village, was the next pub. But not before I'd realised I couldn't get a bus to Poynton for pub six cos they stop running about 2pm or something stupid. A second aborted Poynton attempt! Am going to leave well alone now til I see whether it is in the 2018 GBG.
Boring BRAPA stat of the day ..... This next pub was key in that it was number 1225, 100 above the quarter (1125) mark, which makes me feel psychologically like I do have a chance of staying above the 1125 come with cross-ticking in early September. It was also my final tick on page '35' (not counting the closed when I visited Sandstone in Broxton) so finally feel like progress is being made in this tricky but not ridiculously difficult county.
1225. Vale Inn, Bollington
As I crossed the road and heard the excitable strains of Jeff Stelling (he wasn't on the loo) coming through the window, you knew the football season was back. But as I walked into the pub, there was no screen so must've been coming from a neighbouring house. The interior felt like a bit of an anti climax, I'd imagined a 'pubbier pub' and having been to the Bollington owned pub in Macclesfield, am sure that was more cosy and lounge-like (though I was rather drunk at the time). It was all a bit too high wooden stools, bare boarded clinical, and it was saved in the main by a healthy band of happy jovial locals, all choosing to stand in the vicinity of the bar area rather than space out and use the full room - why people do this, I don't know but it must be some weird social thing, body warmth, pack mentality, who knows? The old boys at the bar were a particularly chirpy bunch, helpfully advising that their favourite ale "Long Hop" had just gone back on, and although the pump was still turned around, I should go for it anyway. I did, and best quality pint of the day. Cheers chaps! I got talking to one guy in particular, nice man but a bit "my views on pubs and ales are definitely correct even though I probably spend 95% of my life in the same seat in the same pub". His 5 all times faves were this pub, York Tap, plus Waters Green, Wharf and Park Tavern - all in Macclesfield which is convenient. The Poachers is "okay depending on the beer" and Bollington and RedWillow are the 2 best brewers. Poynton has nothing worth visiting (though I later read Bollington own the GBG pub in Poynton so comments seem even more bizarre). I feigned a loo/phone call scenario as our conversation had gone on long enough, and perched behind him hearing lots of people talking about Burnley in an excitable way. An decent pub, but no way anywhere near the Poachers for best pub in Bollington.
Even though it was only 5pm and I felt relatively well and focused, I had so many ideas floating around in my mind (mainly Stockport based) about where I could go to for my sixth and final pub, I ended up doing nothing and was back in Piccadilly by 6pm with a coffee on the train back to York - ooops, how did that happen?
The highlight had probably been seeing the Bromley football squad get a respectful round of applause from Macclesfield's station guards, presumably for working out how to cross a bridge.
Another step in the right direction for Cheshire, I'll be back in the county in a fortnight, and I'll be back in Greater Manchester on Tuesday night for the latest leg of that. I've been put on 9-5 so again it'll need to be something not too taxing.