In Search Of The Great British Pub

Travel the world and you won't find a watering hole that can beat Northern boozers for serving a decent pint. Here's my guide to the only pubs that raise the bar where real ale is concerned.
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The boozer, the lusher, the local and so on; call public houses whichever nickname you like, but in Great British culture, “the pub”, is an institute steeped in tradition containing a wealth of history and fascinating knowledge under its roof as well as it being a welcome retreat from life’s every day hustle and bustle. No matter where wayfarers may roam on their travels worldwide, they’ll never find pubs, and real ale, to match, or be bettered, than those in the UK (maybe a few brews in Belgium would give the British ales a run for their money, though?). With over 50,000 pubs to choose from, all with tales to tell, you’ll never go far wrong in a British city, town or a one horse village, for a watering hole. Sadly, however, alehouse numbers are on the decline and dwindle dramatically every year.

The Irish stake claim there’s always the craic going on in the local while the fiddler, flute & accordion players belt out a tune to jig to. Really, most only serve stout or lager. And, how many Irish ‘thyme’ pubs have you come across around the world that are all very much the same-old-same too? The Aussies would also have you believe that standing at the bar drinking a ice cold lager out of a schooner, pot or stubby while a million flies are circling around your head is truly “gggreat.” Well, I’ve been in establishments in both countries, and many many others too, and they just didn’t do it for me. The Great British Public House rules the roost - full stop.

I have two ambitions in life: one is to drink every pub dry, the other is to sleep with every woman on the earth – Oliver Reed

Over the years I’ve travelled the length & breadth of the British Isle in my quest to find the perfect pub and also the most quintessential ale. Only long gone are the drinking dens that our forefathers drank in during the Bronze Age, and the tabernas the Romans erected at the sides of the roads for when they took a break from laying the-black-stuff in sweltering conditions – what did the Romans ever do for us? So, being a bit of sleuth on both the pub and real ale front, I take this quest very seriously indeed, I tell ya.

Seriously, though, pubs and ale have become a bit of a fetish of mine of late. Instances like seeking out a certain artificial alehouses and special brews that have been fermented seem to be becoming to the forefront as a healthy-hobby/needs-must/OCD. But, there are chains of public houses and certain brewery owned ones too, that I won’t give the pleasure of my company and step over their threshold to sup their so-called keg beer they serve up! No thank you.

So what does tick all the boxes for being a great British pub and the perfect pint too. Well, I’ve ventured to the Isle of Arran Brewery by train, ferry and automobile to sample their wares. I’ve also took in weekends away on the South Coast of England and old sailors haunts. And recently, I went down The Smoke making a pilgrimage to the pub voted 2011 National Pub of the Year, The Harp, near Covent Garden – this amongst others in the metropolis. I won’t go to in-depth on the ales that quench my thirst, I’d be rambling on forever but, the hunt for the Holy Grail ale goes on… and on… and…

These pubs epitomise what I’m after in a pub and they present my weekly fix by hand pump.

But where I know best for a good working man’s institute and a proper pint with a proper head is, the North West and Lancashire. And more so, my place of birth, Preston – the North does deliver some mighty fine ales in decent gaffs I’ll have you know. Many a time I’ll jump on the rattler on a Saturday and head over to Manchester or Liverpool for a day on the ale. Such pubs as the Peveril of the Peak in Manchester where Nancy, the landlady, at 80 years young, has run the bar for 40 years and opens the gaff when it suits her. Plus there’s the Ship & Mitre in the ‘pool, which is a 1930’s Art Deco building houses a host of ales where you can whet your whistle with from such glasses as nips. These pubs epitomise what I’m after in a pub and they present my weekly fix by hand pump.

Up/down town Preston: my first port of call is usually the Ye Old Blue Bell, which is a Samuel Smith owned and where the ale is kept well - it’s bloody reasonable/cheap as chips to boot. The place is full of characters and loveable rouges, and it’s a pleasure to absorb the atmosphere as well as the bitter. The pub opened in 1716 and is the oldest public house that still serves ale to this day in Preston. Only in the first 12 months of opening the landlady was taking to court for keeping a ‘disorderly house’ in the establishment – prostitutes kept customers entertained on cold, winter nights and long summer days too. She was fined the grand sum of, £2. There are also tales of ghouls and ghosts haunting the building. In 1944, a Yank solider, based in Bamber Bridge during WW II, began slagging the British Forces off while stood at the bar. A serving Brit didn’t take to kindly to his comments and stabbed him to death where he stood. There’s also meant to be a priest hole in the cellar.

Another boozer that I make tracks for is The Wellington, in the heart of our now ‘city.’ This is situated on the most crime ridden street in England according to the Governments facts and figures – really? The Wellington pub – which I dare to set foot in – is more than often full to busting with a cosmopolitan mixer of Saturday shoppers dining, this while taking a break from running up their credit cards. Wellie grub has a word of mouth reputation for being top notch and is under a tenner. Regulars who’ve their own spot at the bar nod at newcomers, all very friendly indeed. The pubs interiors are a blend of the old and new with a real log fire radiating intense heat and dark oak panelling is polished so intensely you can see your reflection in it plus there’s a stained glass window of Preston’s coat of arms is on display. The aforementioned is a medieval Paschal lamb which dates back centuries with PP underneath; PP standing for either Princeps of Palis, Prince of Peace or Proud Preston. Less than a bottle throw away was a factory, the Gold Thread Works, est. 1827, which closed down two years ago that provided the Queen with thread for her wedding cake, the Titanic staff’s uniforms piping, Winston Churchill’s Knight of the Garter and, they faked English spies operating behind enemy lines realistic ribbons for their German medals. Not bad that for a manufacture and pub on the roughest street in England, is it? I also asked the landlord what he thought of being labelled in the bracket of a street to avoid at all costs. The look back sufficed! Police get facts and figures wrong again, shock horror.

Moorhouse’s Blonde Witch, Prospect Brewery Blinding Light and Three B’s Doff Cocker – heaven in a pint pot.

There is an abundance of pubs that I frequent in town, like the Old Black Bull, Bitter Suite, The Old Vic and The Greyfriar (where I use my 50p off CAMRA vouchers) that have on a multitude of ever changing ales. Favourites of mine during the warm periods that we’re now having are all local brews - which you ‘should’ support - these being Moorhouse’s Blonde Witch, Prospect Brewery Blinding Light and Three B’s Doff Cocker – heaven in a pint pot. I also equally love porters, winter ales and stouts when there’s a nip in the air to warm the cockles.

But I would state the Black Horse is without doubt a pub with fixtures and fittings that are second to none. This Grade II listed Robinson owned alehouse that has a protection order on both its exterior and interior, and so it should have. Slap bang in the middle of town, the Black Horse internal features and furnishings take you way back to when life was more black & white, wasn’t all materialist and bling bling look at me/this newfangled gadget I’ve purchased on HP/tick. You’ve even got a choice of three doors from three different streets to make an entrance; this is the only pub in UK which has this accolade. Very confusing for a drunk if they’re ever turffed-out. The floors are mosaic tiled, and the curved ceramic bar is 1 of only 20 left intact. There’s also acid etched and leaded glass panelling’s, bevelled mirrors and dysfunctional bell pushes galore. At weekends they open a function room upstairs that hosts a wide variety of events too. A tranquil retreat from city life, the Black Horse is.

I also like a good real ale ramble on many a Sunday when the sun has got its hat on. And over the fields from my humble abode, around 3 miles away, is the Ye Horns Inn. Originally a working farmhouse it opened its doors as a coaching inn in the early 1700’s. Today the Pub Heritage Group has added the Horns to their National Inventory of historic pubs. Because behind the bar is a ‘parlour’, where many moons ago farmers would swig ale out of tankards while they haggled, traded and swapped livestock such as cows, sheep & pigs – I don’t mean literally, as in, they brought them in the parlour caked in manure though. There are only two other pubs that have similar rooms behind the bar servery now left in UK fact fans. And only recently on my travels to Whalley and Clitheroe, I stumbled on the New Inn which had 10 cask ales on – paradise.

So, gentlemen, please be upstanding and raise your glasses to the Great British pub, and the real ale that they serve too – CHEERS.

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