Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

A Summer Stroll Around Stratford

Every time you set foot out of the house you are embarking on an adventure, with often little idea of what the day will have in store. Now I love a good adventure. It might involve football, a gig, the seaside, a beer festival and/or an epic journey – and of course just sometimes I make a point of including a few pubs (purely for your benefit, you understand, dear reader). Today was one of those days – destination Stratford Upon Avon, the home of William Shakespeare.

Of course sensible drinking is a must, so food must always be factored in on such days, so the first pitstop was Walsall’s finest caff, Jack & Ada’s, which is just by Walsall Bus Station. Here I was met with enquiries as to where today’s adventure was taking me. The answer was Stratford Beer Festival and a number of Stratford pubs. The music in here was very good today – 50s/60s caff classics – and this was an excellent start to proceedings. I chuckled at the Bovril and Oxo on the drinks menu – and was delighted to see Yorkshire Tea on there. Perhaps controversially for a Lancashire lass, I am very partial to a beverage from the wrong other side of the Pennines. But that would keep for another day. An all day breakfast (very good) and a banana milkshake later and the mission was underway.

We caught the train from Walsall to Birmingham New Street (far more painless than I remember my commute being back in the day), proceeded to get confused on the short walk across to Moor Street Station (this happens every time) and boarded the train to Stratford Upon Avon. This was a bargain £9.10, funded from my bingo winnings from the night before (middle aged? moi? I’ll have you know I was asked for ID in a pub only last week).

There was a free shuttle bus from Stratford station to the beer festival, which was at the usual venue of Stratford Racecourse, a good half hour walk from the station. I had attempted this walk previously, got lost several times and ended up hurdling fences (the irony was not lost on me) to get to the festival. The bus was surely safer. The music on the bus was somewhat eclectic, with Mike Oldfield, The Four Tops and Aerosmith accompanying us en route.

Stratford Beer Festival is one of my favourites. There is a room housing the beers (70+) and ciders & perries (30), a separate room with a seating layout that is very conducive to conversations with friends and strangers (new friends), additional balcony seating upstairs, exciting food stands outside (Cafe Mexico, The Lazy Pig, All Day Breakfast Club, Pipers Crisps), musicians performing outside (audible inside if the window was opened) and also ample outdoor space around the racecourse for an al fresco drinking experience in the sunshine (today was a beautiful day).

The beers I enjoyed here today were: Saltaire Blackberry Cascade, Little Valley Vanilla Porter, Leeds Midnight Bell (a delicious 4.8% mild) and White Rabbit Brew 2 (a 6.9% stout). The first three were Yorkshire beers (I find these hard to resist – a good job I don’t live there) and the White Rabbit was a collaborative brew between two local breweries.

I was queueing for a burrito at the Mexican food stand when the enticing aroma of The Lazy Pig pulled me in the direction of a Steak Burger with onions and jalapeños and Heinz Firecracker Sauce. And boy was that good!

My winning streak continued with a £1 prize on a charity scratchcard and my friend won a cat sign on the tombola, which we agreed was a sign he needed to get a cat (although that wasn’t strictly what it said). A harmless, necessary cat.

I have always enjoyed visiting beer festivals – not just for the wide range of ales, but for the sense of community, with so many friendly people. Once you have been to one or two, you start to see the same familiar faces of people with whom you automatically have something in common (love of beer and pubs – Stalybridge Station almost always comes up!). I was pleasantly surprised to see so many friends here today and I also made some new friends here too.

Much as it would have been delightful to stay here all day, our mission was to explore the pubs of Stratford, so we reluctantly left our friends behind and set off armed with a map of selected Stratford pubs, Google Maps and a cat sign (yet no sign of a cat…).

Rather handily, there was a map of local pubs in the festival programme. Whilst this did not tally with our map, it at least proffered a good starting point close to the racecourse – The Salmon Tail. This was a cosy horseshoe shaped pub with a pool table at the rear and a beer garden at the front. The beers on here today were Hook Norton Hooky, Purity Pure Gold and Timothy Taylor Landlord. I could use poetic licence here and pretend I had one of these but I was a bit hot and instead enjoyed a refreshing Old Mout Kiwi & Lime Cider with ice. Expel me from CAMRA if you must.

There was a great quote from Frank Sinatra on the wall: ALCOHOL MAY BE MAN’S WORST ENEMY, BUT THE BIBLE SAYS LOVE YOUR ENEMY.

This pub was on a main road and although the beer garden was fenced off from the pavement, there was some traffic noise. Still, a welcome oasis, as pubs usually are. My friend opted for some exciting crisps (we were taking our eating very seriously today) – these were Burts British Hand Cooked Potato Chips – Fish ’n’ Chips flavour. These were a bit rocksalty for my palate but were admittedly quite fish & chip like. More of that later.

I was excited about the next pub, the first on our planned itinerary. I had been here before and it had a delightful quirk of a grocery shop attached to it. It was brilliant. I learned from the festival programme (for it was also on their pub map) that the name had recently changed from The New Bulls Head to West End. Alas immediately on entering the pub I peered to the right only to find the grocery shop had been gutted, to be replaced with a pub seating area. I am melancholy as a gib cat. In vain hope that I was looking in the wrong place, I asked the barmaid if the shop had gone, and sadly she confirmed that it had been gone for six months.

The beers on here today were Purity Bunny Hop, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Purity UBU and Sharp’s Doom Bar.

Despite my initial dismay that I wouldn’t be able to stock up on jam and kitchen roll (I decided to use their electricity to charge my phone in my Very British Protest at this), the longer I spent in this pub, the more I liked it. It still had quirks, just different ones. There were pickled eggs and pickled onions on the bar, barrels as tables and some very entertaining locals, including a Great Dane called Cooper, who was the size of a Shetland Pony. Oh and the large leather sofas were sooooo comfortable! I would return to this pub (perhaps with a tin of beans and a pint of milk).

It was starting to become apparent that Stratford was a very dog-friendly city. This surely vastly reduced our chances of finding any cats to review today for @thecatreviewer on Twitter. As we discussed our mutual feline acquaintances – including one particularly antisocial beast – we mused whether cats also reviewed people and wondered how we would score out of 10 from their perspective. Cats, that can judge as fitly. I must remember to get some more Dreamies for my handbag.

Next stop was The Dirty Duck by the River Avon. Here we were immediately greeted by an amusing notice attached to a tree in the beer garden: ‘Please be aware that our Mulberry tree berries fall at this time of year and could stain your cloths (sic). If you sit under the tree it is at your own risk and no fault of the management.” Would people really complain about that? Dear reader I was only in this pub for maybe 20 minutes and during that time I heard a woman asking for a burger without a burger but with a chicken breast instead. “We don’t offer plain chicken burgers, just Southern Fried Chicken”. “Well, I’m sure you could, you just mean it’s just too much effort.” I am glad I don’t work here.

The beers on here today were Morland Old Golden Hen, Greene King IPA and Dirty Mallard. I opted for the latter as I had never heard of it. Upon checking it into Untappd, it became apparent that this was in fact a Greene King House Ale rebranded for the pub. I felt duped. I cheered up, though, when I noticed a shelf with two framed photographs of dogs (one signed!) and a bust of Shakespeare wearing a t-shirt.

We walked further alongside the river and saw signs for The Original Old Chain Ferry (offering crossings at 50p per person) and Mini Golf (tempting but not taken up). We also passed houses with little Shakespeares as door knockers.

Next stop was Garrick. This was a handsome pub very popular with tourists and it is reportedly haunted and Stratford’s oldest pub. The beers on offer here today were Garricks Shakesbeer Best Bitter, Greene King Abbot Ale, Greene King IPA and Morland Old Hoppy Hen. I opted for the first one, only to realise that I had fallen for the Greene King House Ale rebranding trick again. Sly devils.

We were getting hungry again now and I perused the menu. Tempting though the English Goat’s Cheese and Grilled Peach Salad was, it wasn’t really for today, so we continued on our merry way.

Next stop was Queens Head, which had much more of a locals feel and I liked it instantly. Not least because there were no customers (on further inspection, they were all in the beer garden) but also because Bros were playing on the jukebox (was this why all the customers were in the beer garden?).

The beers on here today were Sharps Doom Bar, Fullers London Pride and Wadworth 6X (I had this one and it was lovely). I was the first customer of the new barman and he seemed pleased at pulling his first ale. We retired to the beer garden (where else?), which was very bird friendly with lots of bird feeders and a number of tame birds enjoying the facilities (were there no cats in Stratford at all?). The locals here were also friendly, greeting us with a jovial “hello” as they arrived with their shopping.

Now we could smell the chippy from across the road and…well we couldn’t not, could we? It smelled so good and people were queueing out of the door for their chippy tea. We obligingly joined the queue. I chuckled at the photographs of kingfishers and Kojak behind the counter (the chippy was called The Kingfisher, but I’m not sure how Kojak is relevant). Now, being from Blackpool, I have very particular standards when it comes to chippies. Despite them having ‘run out’ of gravy (it wasn’t on the menu, but they said they would get some more in), the chips and curry sauce were quite delicious. This was indeed a good chippy and I would be sure to seek it out on a future visit here.

The penultimate pit-stop of the day was The Old Thatch Tavern. The beers on here today were George Gale & Co Seafarers English Ale, Fullers London Pride, George Gale & Co HSB and Fullers Summer Ale. This was a comfortable pub that served delicious-looking hearty English grub (so many customers were tucking into pie and chips or pie and veg that I wondered if there was anything else on the menu). There is certainly not a shortage of good food in Stratford. This pub had Shakespeare in a stained glass window. We watched a bit of Wimbledon on the big screen before moving on to the final pub of the day.

This was Stratford Alehouse, a popular micropub just a five-minute walk from the train station. The beers on tap here today were North Cotswold Moreton Mild, Stratford Upon Avon Malty Pig Bitter, Wantsum Hengist and Stratford Upon Avon Louis’s Pale Ale. The fridge also caught my eye and I could not resist taking away with me a can of Sonnet 43 Rogue Range Miss Scarlet’s Revolver (toasted coconut mocha porter). If you only visit one pub in Stratford, make it this one. Friendly, quirky, walls adorned with all sorts of interesting paraphernalia – and, last but not least, good beer.

Today was a tiring but most enjoyable day, rounded off in traditional, nay compulsory, style with a nightcap at Tilt in Birmingham, where a Fierce Kindred Kunindra (Thai coconut porter) was the beer highlight of the day.

In summary, Stratford is a good choice for a day out, with plenty to see and do – it really is a beautiful city, packed with culture (I saw Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter as Antony and Cleopatra here on a previous visit, it’s not always pubs!). The food is excellent and there is no shortage of pubs – we didn’t even scratch the surface today. In addition to the Stratford Alehouse there is one other Good Beer Guide entry, Bear at the Swan’s Nest Hotel that you may wish to try on a visit here. If you haven’t been to Stratford before, hop on the train from Moor Street one day and enjoy an adventure of your own. Just don’t expect to see any cats.