Don’t worry 70s economics fans, a deep dive into Schumacher is coming but before then a wander around what once was an iconic pub crawl of these parts and what it means to me personally.
The hillgate mile was many years ago an iconic pub crawl in and around Stockport. A strip with a high density of pubs that had come about to service high density housing and factories in the area. Much of that housing had become flats and many factories closed and with it the need for so many pubs. The area and its pubs was in decline when I first encountered it and whilst now there has been a revitalisation of the area with new build nicer looking flats there will never be demand for that number of pubs again. It was noted not only for the number of pubs but the variety of brewers that owned pubs under the tied system. Before a landscape of free houses, with most pubs tied, here were a number of pubs and a variety of beers on offer from most of the local breweries of the time.
As a result the local CAMRA branch developed a tradition of an annual Christmas pub crawl along the area. Kept now more for reasons of tradition than the quality or variety of pubs on offer it must baffle all but the old timers. No one in the town now talks of the hillgate mile but back when I was a sixth former, they did, and me and my mates every so often used to have a crack.
Middle age is a time many reflect on life and death. It is a time you realise there are more years behind than ahead of you. More memories to remember than memories to make. These can lead to melancholic thoughts, middle life crisis’s as dramatic life changes are made. Not just a vain attempt to recapture youth but often a realisation that the time left is finite so the time to achieve that goal is now, not later at an indeterminate point when you’re a bit more financially secure.
The natural cycle of life and death sees you eventually become the older generation of your immediate family when parents pass away and sometimes you see a future you like, and some people see a future they don’t. These melancholic thoughts did not occur as a result of my father passing some six months previous. Over the past year he and I had become closer as his care needs increased and I saw a frail man get frailer that was once an active and vibrant man. I seemed to want him to stay among us more than he did. He missed my mother and he’d talk often of her, and it was important there was someone to listen. I enjoyed the last year spending more time with him. I think he knew that, that he wasn’t a burden or obligation. I wanted to spend time with him, knowing time had ran out. I had adjusted since then. More focused on the administration of house clearance and probate applications. I could now wear his watch and not only see the time of day, but it came with a fond memory rather than have a bit of an embarrassing moment where a stranger touches your arm and you return to reality and you are asked if you’re okay.
This moment of melancholy came from a Facebook message and subsequent funeral. A school friend had died. A man younger than me. Of cancer. I hadn’t really kept in touch that much recently. Male friendships can be somewhat functional. He was only up the road in Salford, having moved there when he met his wife and settled down with her and his new stepdaughter. Six months younger than me. Dead. A few years back another mate had died too. This time leaving a wife, no children but a successful business employing many people.
Statistically I’ve years left. At my last GP MOT the Doc said I was in decent nick. The years have been kinder to me. A life of pissing about with computers rather than manual labour had not worn me out. But heh. A grandfather dies in in 50s, the 1st of my fathers 3 heart attacks occurred in his 50s. Maybe I’ve fewer years than I think or hope. School mates. People of my generation. The lads who are no longer lads but grown men with a bit of grey in their hair, if they still have it. They are starting to keel over of the various cancers and conditions that will now take a few of us on the road to our final destination. Shortening our plans and leaving lives uncompleted.
Of the four of us that used to hang out in the sixth form, one according to his social media is living a successful and enviable life abroad, one succeeded by many of the metrics people are judged but never hit the big 50. One didn’t really enjoy career success, seemed resentful on the rare occasion we’d either meet or more recently chat over social media, but now won’t collect his pension so none of that matters really.
In the sixth form, none of really knew anything of pubs. We knew they were an adult playground and somewhere we ought to venture into. One of the Houses of Fun, maybe, to paraphrase Madness, though that was really about sex not pubs. Other lads and cliques talked of pubs they got served in, pubs they didn’t. Where they asked you your age and where they didn’t. Techniques for looking older. One lad grew a ridiculous moustache, there was always one that did, I later realised. A local strip of pubs had an almost mythic reputation in our sixth form. A street full of pubs. It was a challenge. You couldn’t do them all. The hillgate mile. From the perspective of the school, you’d start this pub crawl at a pub called The Blossoms. Yes, that one. Where the pop band gets its name. Then you’d walk downhill along a street that at that time was mainly pubs and run down factories and shops on their last legs. It was a time of decline for the area but there was still a lot of pubs and we knew no better or had fewer choices.
I thought I’d go for a walk along where the four of us used to go, firstly as 16/17-year-old lower sixth formers then as upper six formers, then as students returning home from university and going for a drink in the Christmas holidays. Until we all drifted apart and then a website called friends reunited got going followed by Facebook and these blokes sent me messages and we’d talk about meeting up for pints. Not meeting up for pints, just saying we should, we would.
I googled the pubs as you can now and could not then. The Blossoms didn’t appear to open until 3pm on the Sunday so I started at the point we more often than not ended. The Red Bull. I walked past the Bishop Blaze, a closed pub we rarely went in, on my way. I wonder if they’ll be more closed than open pubs on my stroll? The Red Bull is not the pub afficionados finished the hillgate mile on. But it was more often than not the one we did. This was as far as we got. At the time we started, to the time the bell rang, this was where we were. We had gotten this far. We never did the crawl with the intention of completing it. It was pints in every pub and lingering where we felt like it, pool, darts, and back then we got as far as here. Any farer and you’re in lower hillgate. The town centre.
Back then lower hillgate was grotty strip of sex shops, tattoo parlours and low rent outlets and a couple more even grottier pubs. There are still a few bohemian bong shops but there appears a stab at respectability with vinyl records and a trendy srip of craft bars and al fresco street furniture drinking. I could sneer at it but as its one of the areas you can get a solid pint of wife beater strength authentic kraut lout, so I won’t. Maybe the subject of a future post. Me drinking among the trendy.
I can’t think of a pub more transformed from then and now, than the Red Bull. In some ways an entirely different pub than the one we drank in. Some years back the pub bought the 2 neighbours and expanded each side. It had become a modern smart dining pub. From what was a really old school boozer with stone floors and an outside toilet to a modern casual restaurant. A change it is possible to lament.
Years later I remember taking a different set of mates in here when I lived in Liverpool. We were flying out of Manchester on a lad’s holiday. My parents were happy for us to stop over at theirs and drive us to airport. You’ve gotta see this pub, lads. It’s like something your granddad drank in. Out of a different era. As a novelty, they loved it, but a novelty isn’t a business plan.
We can lament modernisation as losing something without seeing the value of what we are gaining. The pub is now no longer a novelty but a place you would want to go for a meal and a few pints. I walked around the pub. The pub had retained features. The little room to the left of the entrance with the stone floor and fireplace was still there and pretty much as it was. Inside the pub were parts of the old pub that those that remember the old pub will find pretty much preserved.
I sat and drank an Amarillo pale ale in the little part of the old pub on a bench seat. Card tapped, card preferred. I could pay with cash but no one did and she wasn’t sure there was change in the till. It would be the end of an evening, here. A busy noisy pub, not a quiet Sunday afternoon. We’d be pissed by now. Not on Amarillo pale ale. On bitter or lager of varying types. The beer was cool, refreshing, tip top form. Want to know more than that? The pub always had a reputation for good beer and as far as I’m concerned still does. Quiet on a Sunday afternoon. A few other couples in. I remembered an argument in here. Between my 2 dead school mates, Irrelevant now, lads, God, I struggled to remember what that was about. But they were both very animated and I remember apologising to other patrons as we left. Something I doubt they’d argue about sober, but it was very important to them at the time. Were we asked to leave, chucked out, or did I suggest it was time we left?
Memory plays tricks on you. Some think it’s a record and you play it and it’s the same song every time. Some evidence suggests it’s a living thing and with every recollection it plays back within the context of what we are thinking and feeling at the time. We recall it different, omitting difficult elements, adding in bits that burnish our view of self. How different are my memories to what we actually said and did? I remember it was a joyful and hopeful time. We were lads with a future and world to explore. We were excited and keen to dive in.
I walked up to the Sun and Castle for a pint of holts bitter. Past a closed pub I think might have been called the Black Horse? Maybe. A grotty dive but one that served cask Boddingtons. Boddingtons was a big brand of the time, more often advertised by the still beautiful Melanie Sykes. The smooth keg version was available in another pub but in there it was a hand pulled cask. More of a lager drinker, ale that was advertised on the telly was obviously something to give a go to. That, my friends, was where I first noticed there was a difference between keg and cask beer. They were different tasting beers. My pint of hand pulled Boddingtons was a different beer to the keg one I had earlier in the evening. You learn all about beer when you start drinking it. In that closed pub that was never much of a pub even when it was open. On the corner of a junction where the famous Strawberry Studios recorded music you may have listened too.
I liked the Sun and Castle. It wasn’t that much different. Didn’t seem to be. They had closed the left bit of the pub a while back but that was now opened. The right bit of the pub was where the punters were sat. Seemed brighter and cleaner maybe but not a transformed pub. A decent boozer with more of a working-class clientele. My pint was a pound cheaper than the last gaff and named “bitter” I approve. Cash preferred though you could tap a card. A cracking pint of bitter too. I went to watch the football at the far end. Local people enjoying a Sunday afternoon pint. Busier than the last pub. I should make an effort to come in here more often. It’s the type of pub I like. A respectable pub, not rough, but not gentrified out of its character and soul. The sweet spot you don’t often find.
I recalled we’d once pulled in this pub. I think so. We were not amazingly successful with girls but we did occasionally crack it. Not really on this strip of pubs, though. Am I merging a number of memories into one and creating a new one? The sexual politics change over the years and I’m led to believe the youth of today may consider a group of lads chatting up a group of girls to be unacceptable? It wasn’t back then. You made your shot, if they didn’t tell you to piss off you were in, if they did you left them alone. This time we were in. My doing too, I think. I’d struck up the 1st conversation then waved my mates over to crack her mates. It seems small but another life lesson learned in a pub. That if you tried chat up lines, by and large you got mugged off. An innocent conversation starter and before you knew it girls talked to you. You just had to pretend you weren’t trying to pull when you were trying to pull. Girls liked you to be normal not churn out lines. Who knew? The fun house of trial and error as the social skills of life are picked up.
We’d got phone numbers and went to the pictures with them later in the week. A gentleman doesn’t reveal more nor invite you to sniff his finger, we were not the inbetweeners. God, I can’t remember their names or what they really looked like. Memories. When I try, they look merged in with a pop group called All Saints. They weren’t the All Saint though. Of that, I’m sure. Maybe because they were dressed in a similar fashion. A look of the time.
Are things that different now? Boys still want to meet girls and girls still want to meet boys and that’s why you had a shower and put on clean clobber and splashed on some aftershave before you went out. Because girls liked that sort of thing. Maybe it’s all Tinder these days with the kids. How they meet each other. I think it was nice when it was pubs. You didn’t bother lone drinkers, old people, but if you were with your mates, it was fair game to talk to a group of girls with their mates and you’d quickly find out whether you were in or not. Mainly not. But you remember the games you won.
Male friendships are functional. Why were we friends? We really didn’t have that much in common barring a liking for computer games. Was it simply that we had to be in a pack, so this was our pack? A pack for bothering girls, having pints and having a laugh together. A moment in time.
I walked past 2 more closed pubs. One the Golden Lion had a sign up denoting it was once a pub. The other, nothing. Can’t remember what it was called. Did remember it had keg Boddingtons and the worst most horrible pub toilet you’ve ever seen in your life. Not quite as bad as the infamous scene in Trainspotting but nasty. So bad it became a pub we skipped as even the smell of fags didn’t mask the pisser. Yeh, we had standards. They were pretty low, mind, but had them we did.
So far, I’d had 2 cracking pints in pubs that were far nicer than my youth. Yet there was fondest in memories. The standards of that time were poor, but we thought that normal and accepted it. Its good people would not accept that now and demand better. But it didn’t seem so bad at the time.
I pondered whether to go in the Crown. It didn’t mean that much to us lads. Not for reasons you may think. It wasn’t rough. We didn’t swerve it like the CAMRA lads do because it’s keg. It’s a small pokey pub and pubs were busier back then. On a Saturday it was 3 deep at the bar, nowhere to sit, turn around you nudged someone with a pint in their hand. We usually looked in then moved on. I’ll go in. Still small, still keg. I had a pint of Boddingtons out of nostalgia. Cash only. My god, that beer has changed. Not a cask/keg difference. A different beer to the keg Boddingtons the still lovely Melanie had hawked at my generation. A thin watery beer with almost no body. Like brown tap water. Close your eyes and you’d mistake it for a light cooking lager, not an ale. A Dunkel cooking lager maybe? But not brown enough to be a Dunkel beer. Weird, odd, unexpected. Not horrible though. Drinkable, cold, fizzy. A slight sweetness, little or no discernible bitterness. What a curious thing this beer now is. I wonder who still drinks it? The pub itself had a warm community feel to it. I think it served the local flats and appeared an established part of the community. Those that may wonder how such places keep going need maybe look at who they serve. They serve a clientele that like to leave the house or flat and come have a communal drink within their neighbours. I liked the pub. I liked the people in the pub. An outside beer garden was open, so I thought I’d sit in the sun and reflect. Wish I’d had a Madri though.
Up the road to the Star and Garter. The favourite pub of the four of us. We’d often get no farther that this pub if the pool table or dart board was free. I’ve only rarely held that coveted status of local, where the bar staff know you. In here for a short period of time, they knew us. If the bar was busy the old bloke behind the bar would spot us and hold up four fingers and one of us would reply with four fingers back and we’d get four pints. For about six months before we all parted company to the universities of our choice, we were actual locals in here the gaffer recognised,
It was a cask pub back then, keg now. It has flicked between the 2 over the years. Years ago, I came in here with some work mates at a time it had gone keg and first thought about joining CAMRA. Not so much about beer. At the time I rarely went in pubs and mainly drank Czech lager from Tesco at home. I thought it sad traditions were being lost and pubs should have proper bitter like in olden days. I didn’t want to start going in them myself so joining CAMRA to support that sort of thing seemed like a way to support tradition. Dear me.
Cash only. It was smooth bitter now. And wow. A really nice pint of smooth keg bitter. Many people interested in beer conclude that smooth keg bitter is basically John Smiths, A bland soapy beer for old men. By this example Robinsons produce a really decent keg bitter. Tasty, colder than cask, not soapy. Cold and tasty and sinkable and a bit lighter than the Unicorn best bitter. A world of difference from the Boddingtons. I liked it. You don’t have to.
The pub was quiet. An outside area needed a bit of weeding. There were no outside areas back then. Clearing out the yard and putting some tables out is a feature prompted by the smoking ban. I don’t recall pubs being that smoky. I remember people smoking in them. But it wasn’t a thing to be bothered about others smoking. It took years of telling people other peoples fags were killing you before people started to bother about it. I wondered why no one bothered about the air quality by the busy road but its only recently we’re being told that is killing us now they want to ban cars.
Maybe I should not be so blasé. Half a group of lads dead by middle age isn’t a statistic that will burnish my cause. I’m not aware of a particular high mortality rate of our school class. Maybe its being mates with me that whacks your mortality.
I was never much cop at pool, but decent enough at darts. I was happy the place was still going. Hopeful it was busier on a Saturday night. Envious of the lads might turn up for a game now.
I wandered on, past 3 closed pubs. The fairway traded under a different name back then and was a Robinsons pub. Then it became a freehouse and banned a lot of the locals and when it became middle class enough and the beer obscure enough it won a CAMRA award then shortly after that shut. Trip advisor seemed to indicate that those deemed smart enough to be allowed in, liked it and those that weren’t, didn’t. The other pub had been shut for years.
The Wheatsheaf was the first pub I’d ever boycotted. Way back when they had barred my recently deceased mate’s rougher older sister for something or other and for a while, we didn’t go in. Not until he said it was okay, his sister wasn’t bothered about it anymore and we could go in. So, there you have it. If one of the lads won’t go in, none of you do. I can’t remember what she did to get barred but it was likely the kind of thing pubs are in their right to bar you for. Without being disparaging, she got barred from a fair few pubs and it wouldn’t surprise me if she still did. I thought how people age and how your life is written on your face.
Cash or card, either is fine, pal. Wainwright Amber in here.
A beer I’d never had. I quite like the blonde Wainwright in the bowling club in
Edgerly. The Amber isn’t so much a pint of bitter, but the blond with a bit of
caramel. To my taste at least. If there was one pub, I was initially wary of
this afternoon, it was this gaff. All pubs were quiet on a Sunday afternoon,
but I figured they had cask turnover over the weekend. This was one I didn’t
know much about. It was worth the gamble though. In decent nick despite being
the only one on it. Not the greatest beer but decent for what it was. The pub
we boycotted and then we didn’t.
I remember it being a place you could get foster’s lager in a world of Einhorn. Back when Paul Hogan advertised it. A more contemporary range of fashionable lagers available today, fosters no longer cuts it I think, unless your offer is the cheapest pint of lager in the vicinity.
A last one in the Blossoms. Back into a smarter more middle-class pub of the type Robinson now do. I insisted on calling the Unicorn, best bitter, as it was, and the old girl on the bar understood what I meant. Card preferred, cash acceptable. Smarter now. Tidier. It used to be a little more careworn before Robinsons decided it was a beer shrine and a pop band decided to adopt it. Still unchanged and multi roomed. The back room where we used to go for reasons I cannot remember. Maybe because that was the smart room and other 2 weren’t. All three are the smart room today.
A welcome pint of proper Robinson Best Bitter. Proper bitter. Drank because the Macc Lads drank proper bitter, not lager and my dead mate liked the Macc Lads and something I was talked into occasionally and didn’t start to like until I returned for a drink on a university break.
Lads. No longer here. The pubs still are. Some didn’t outlive my mates, some did. I hope the remaining ones outlive me. I hope that isn’t as soon as I sometimes fear. I hope there’s more memories to make in pubs and not just memories to recall. Because that what pubs really are. Spaces people make memories together. Some good, some bad, recalled sometimes without the best of clarity.
We talked about meeting up for a pint or two along this strip, after the first of us died, then we didn’t and now we won’t. A small drop in the ocean of the many memories of many people that pass through these spaces. Ghosts if you will. Memories only there for those that recall them. Ghosts I’ll never see because they mean nothing to me, but laughter I will hear that no one else will.
I walked home happier than I began. My melancholy shifted with a few pints drank slowly over an afternoon. Smiling over a memory of a time 4 lads liked a drink, walked around some pubs because we were told those were the pubs you should go round and laughed a lot and enjoyed themselves and had hope and excitement at the prospect of leaving home and going to universities. Something to keep and treasure and remind myself of. The gift of still being here. That extra time I’ve been given, they were denied. There’s more to do, more to see, more memories to make. Of places, of people, of good times, of bad times, and time to enjoy a drink. Play until the whistle. Play every moment. The whistle is coming.