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Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

The Road to Wigan Beer

Ah lovely, lovely Wigan.  Whilst I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I fell I love with Wigan, I’m pretty certain it wasn’t whilst I was almost drowning on the muddy banks of Springfield Park.  I do remember fondly an early visit to the JJB Stadium (as was), when we were not used to visiting stadiums on retail parks, so we undertook our pre-match drinking at Frankie & Benny’s – which comprised early afternoon cocktails, which was novel but most enjoyable.  We grew fond of a couple of pubs over the years on our visits to Wigan to watch Blackpool.  The Swan & Railway was an early favourite, later superseded by the Anvil.

Nowadays, Blackpool FC notwithstanding, I enjoy more regular trips to Wigan – basically with any old excuse.  I can often be found darting round the corner from Wigan North Western to Wigan Central (one of my favourite pubs in the country) at every snatched opportunity. I managed to quaff a pint there once during a 20 minute train connection…and was back on the station platform with ten minutes to spare until my train was due. I’ve called in at the Station Cafe (just down the road on the right) for breakfast on my way home from local gigs. But despite my regular visits, I recently realised that I really needed to do Wigan justice and bestow upon it a proper, unhurried visit – and, of course, a blog, which it is more than worthy of.  I plotted points of interest (pubs) on a map and during this process I realised that yet another micropub has sprouted up since my last visit. As if I wasn’t excited enough! I now had way too many pubs plotted on my map and resolved to be selective (ten is plenty). 

I was buzzing on the morning of my visit. I was greeted at Birmingham New Street station by a lifesize Noddy Holder made from Lego; I managed (not without some technological difficulty) to secure Kylie tickets; it was December, when I’m always excited anyway because IT’S CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAS; and I was going to one of my favourite towns to watch my favourite band, The Lancashire Hotpots, to celebrate all things Northern. Today was going to be a good day – there was simply no choice in the matter. 

I skipped off the train at Wigan North Western…at least I thought it was Wigan North Western. That was the stop after Warrington Bank Quay, right? Hang on…it looked like Wigan…but there was something…wrong. Muscle memory guided me out of the station and – no, not that way! You know how hard Wigan Central is to leave – that’s it, turn right. I had arrived a little early so took a seat in the bus shelter and study my map for a few minutes. By now I had realised what was wrong. It wasn’t raining. I’m not sure I’d ever been to Wigan before when it hadn’t been raining. I called up my weather app for reassurance. Phew! Rain was forecast for this afternoon – and indeed the entire week ahead. I began to feel a little better, but the current state of affairs was still disconcerting. It felt like I was in a parallel universe.  As I sat pretending to wait for a bus (but really waiting for the pub to open) I recollected the last time I had found myself in this bus shelter…

In early 2018 I had seen a flyer for the Wigan Beer Festival and the logo was a pie with a face, arms and legs.  Right – that’s a fine excuse for another trip to Wigan.  So off I went.  Now the festival was taking place at the Robin Park Arena, opposite the football ground, which was a 20 minute walk from Wigan North Western station. Ordinarily I would have walked, but I was on a tight timetable today, so decided to take advantage of the bus service provided to the festival from the stop directly outside the station. Almost as soon as I took a seat in the shelter, I realised that I had just let a shuttle bus go past, the ‘Wigan Beer Festival’ sign not visible until the bus was pullling away. Nonetheless I was committed to my method of travel now, so I sat back and waited for the bus to return. Meanwhile I made friends with a homeless man (and his dog) who sat beside me in the shelter and we chatted away for a good fifteen minutes to pass the time before the bus arrived.

‘I wish this bus would hurry up – I’m getting thirsty now.’

My new friend opened his coat to reveal a bottle of cider.

‘Do you want some of this?’

Bless that man. I didn’t partake, of course, but this was just one more reason to fall in love with wonderful, wet, warm Wigan.

The 2019 Wigan Beer Festival is coming up, at the same venue, running from 28th February until 2nd March – and the festival flyer can be found here, if you’re tempted:

http://beerfestival.wigancamra.org.uk/documents/WBF2019/Festival_Poster_2019.pdf

But back to today – my first port of call was The Anvil. Here I was greeted by a delightfully friendly barmaid, who called me ‘love’ three times during our transaction, which involved me purchasing a half of mild (a bargain at £1.28). There were a few locals already seated at the bar but I headed to the lounge, where I had enjoyed many a good day out with my Blackpool friends before and after matches at Wigan over several years. Today, however, the lounge was empty – oh and how it felt empty without my friends. I messaged my friend Karen, one of the few who still go to Blackpool matches, saying how it just wasn’t the same here without my fellow Seasiders; she replied how she felt the same in the pub before Blackpool matches now. As I emitted a little sigh, up crept into my vision a Babycham bar mat, carefully framed and hanging on the wall. Oh Wigan, how I love you for always but always bringing a smile to my face. When I reluctantly got up to leave, I got a little lost on my way to the Ladies. Almost before I even realised I’d already passed the door I was looking for, one of the locals had already leapt off his seat to show me the way. I really didn’t want to leave this pub, but duty called and my map wouldn’t tick off pubs by itself. 

Next up was Tap ‘n’ Barrel – but my excitement had got the better of me and I arrived before the Martland Mill Brewery Tap had opened. I loitered outside for a few minutes, examining the contents of the window of a spooky shop across the road, before the doors of the pub opened slightly after noon, letting in four thirsty visitors (it wasn’t just me). Our hostess apologised for the delay in opening, which was a result of her having a fight with a pop-up Christmas tree, which was now standing proudly in the corner by the bar.  The pies on the bar looked mightily tempting (when in Wigan…?); however I resisted owing to my diet and opted instead for a half of Coach House Gunpowder Mild. Now you know I love a mild, but also Coach House are one of my favourite breweries. On my first visit to Liverpool Beer Festival (if you haven’t been – go! It’s in the crypt of a cathedral – an amazing venue), Coach House had several fruit beers on sale – and I spent the whole session drinking fruit beers – starting and finishing with their lush banoffee beer. This mild today was equally quaffable and I enjoyed it as I listened to the man at the next table striking up a conversation with a complete stranger at the next table about the universal subjects of football and music. Other beers on offer here today were Spinners Gold, Lancashire Loom, Knocker Upper, Wobbly Weaver and Empire Smoking Pistol.

Now it was time to head further north out of town – to an area packed with new pubs. As I headed back through town, I smiled as I observed a woman wearing enormous earmuffs and a man with a huge beaming smile playing Jingle Bells on the accordion. Have I mentioned how much I love it here? 

My next stop was a place I had visited previously and knew to be the most exciting bottle shop I had ever visited (sorry Cotteridge Wines – you’re awesome too!). This was Northern Beer Temple. On my last visit here, the shop had a special licence for the day permitting drinking on the premises, and I had enjoyed a couple of beers relaxing into a sofa in the back room. I was hoping for the same again today, however this was an off-sales only day, although the owner said he was hoping to get a full licence to open the lounge all year round. Meanwhile I had to be content with taking away some of the amazing array of beers he had for sale. Now this is only a small shop but the range of beers is exquisite. I struggled to limit myself to three and to be honest just had to stop looking at the beers, else I might have bought the shop! I settled for a Tiny Rebel Sloe Gin Juice, Cassels & Sons Double Cream Milk Stout and Wild Weather Colour of Despair Cherry Cascadian Dark. Do you see what I mean? They were practically the first three I looked at. I needed to leave this shop pronto. 

Next on my hitlist was Albion Ale House – however this was closed on the day of my visit (although I had diligently added opening hours to my map, according to which it ought to have opened at 2pm). This was a shame as I recalled from my previous visit that the landlord was very friendly and amazed us with the revelation that this tiny micropub managed to fit a dartboard and darts team in it. But, hey ho, it wasn’t as if I was short of pubs to visit today, so I simply diverted to the next one. I was getting some good walking in today and I passed some interesting topiary on the next leg of my crawl, of a woman and child sweeping up. But back to pub matters: Docs Symposium. This is more of a cafe bar but does have a good selection of ales (Beer Monkey Blonde for me please). Other beers on sale were Abbey Original, Revolutions Candidate Session Pale, Prospect Silver Tally and Jaw Brew Drop

Next up was a new bar, Sherringtons, situated in a converted hardware store.  This is not a micropub in the traditional sense – as it gives equal weight to beer, wine and gin – but it was a lovely place and worth the walk.  Anywhere that sells Bowland Hen Harrier gets the thumbs up from me.  Other beers on offer today were Wily Fox Crafty Fox, Wily Fox Red Eyed Nelson, Hophurst 2 Round of 6 Before Breakfast, Wily Fox Karma Citra and Wigan Brewhouse California.

It was now time to eat, so I headed for The Raven, which appeared to be the only option for dining on my route today.  Now this pub was the scene of my favourite ever encounter with a Wiganer…

A couple of years ago I had been reading in a CAMRA magazine about all the micropubs that were popping up across Wigan.  I diligently plotted them all on a map (together with a few old favourites) and raved about my forthcoming trip to anyone who would listen.  My friend Dan was swept away on my wave of enthusiasm and asked if he could come along. Now Dan is considerably posher than me and isn’t from The North – indeed his only experience of The North was a day out in Manchester. Little did he know what was in store…

I advised Dan that it was always but always raining in Wigan. He laughed and promptly turned up on the morning of our trip without an umbrella. Now to say Wigan (nay a day out with me) came as somewhat of a culture shock to Dan would be an understatement. There was a lot of walking between pubs, so an umbrella was purchased tout de suite (not for my use, as I either hardly notice rain or find it invigorating). Dan gazed in wonder at our surroundings and paused for a moment agape at the window of an enormous launderette.  Dan was astounded at the price of beer, which was considerably cheaper than the Birmingham prices we are used to.  I couldn’t see any of this – it was just home to me, being The North.

Now the most striking thing about Wigan – and I think what caused me to fall in love with the place (not that the price of beer hasn’t helped in this regard) – is its people. On my day out with Dan, we stopped for lunch at The Raven, a pub famed (at the time) for its pies. Now we know Wigan itself is famed for its pies, so this was a firm X on my map as a pit stop for lunch. Dan and I found ourselves seated and ordered our food. I hadn’t managed to persuade Dan to go full on Northern and order gravy for his chips, but he was damn well going to try one of mine. After all, I was introducing him to Northern culture today – and the local cuisine forms an important part of this. Just as I was explaining the delights of a nice, moist chip, a woman approached our table.

‘Oh, do you want the condiments?’

‘No…I just wanted to know where you got your jumper from. I love giraffes.’

The woman rolled up her sleeve to reveal a giraffe tattoo.

‘Oh…nice! Er…I’m not sure…I’ve had it a while now… Oh!  It was from Marks & Spencer.’

She shook her head: ‘Marks and Spencer?  Ooh no, I don’t think so…’

With that, Giraffe Woman retreated back to her seat and I swear Dan couldn’t speak for a good 15 minutes.

Nowadays Dan and I tend to meet up in Birmingham to enjoy the theatre and museums but one day I’ll take him back Up North because frankly he allowed me to see my homeland from a fresh perspective – taking time to stop and really look at things – and appreciate it even more than I already did.

On my walk back into town today I had passed what I thought was the laundrette that had transfixed Dan so much – and had to look twice as it now resembled a washing machine graveyard, with an explosion of mechanical parts scattered around the shop.  I almost shed a little tear for a memory of Wigan lost.

So today my friend Chris was in town and we had been swapping beer tips on our respective (but separate) crawls around Wigan.  He had alerted me to the Wily Fox Dark Flagon, a rum porter, on sale here.  I couldn’t resist ordering a pint of this to enjoy over a leisurely lunch.  The other beers on offer were Robinsons Dizzy Blonde, Moorhouses Raven Bitter, Phoenix White Monk and Tetleys Original Cask.  This was no longer a speciality pie pub (banned on my diet anyway) and I ordered gammon, egg and a jacket potato.  As I placed my order at the bar, I was asked where I would be sitting.  I hadn’t taken a table yet, so hesitated to answer.  The barman said I could go and join the man sitting in the window if I wanted – he wouldn’t mind and was harmless enough.  I wanted to sit in the back room though, to reminisce about my encounter there with Giraffe Woman.  I found a table, sat back and relaxed with my delicious rum porter.  A few minutes later, Chef came out, asking who had ordered the gammon.  I confessed it was me, expecting to be advised that the gammon was off the menu.  Not at all – Chef wanted to ask if I wanted pineapple and a salad on the side, to make sure I was happy with my meal when it came.  What lovely service.  Chris turned up to say hello and also to chastise me for finishing off the barrel of rum porter that he had recommended, as he and his friends had come back to have some more.  I said they could have the remainder of my pint for a tenner but they weren’t having it.  After a hearty lunch and a lovely pint, I stood up to leave and took a minute to get my coat back on and zipped up. 

‘Mind you don’t forget your bag, love,’ said the woman at the next table.  Bless.  Everyone here really is lovely and helpful – and every single encounter I have had with a Wiganer has been a positive one.  I want to live in Wigan one day.

Now it was time to be sociable, so I went to join Chris and his friends at a pub I had deliberately left until last, as I knew how hard it was to leave: Wigan Central.  The boys had managed to secure a booth, where I joined them for an hour or so.  This magnificent pub is located in the railway arches and has been designed with a railway theme, complete with departure and arrival boards for Wigan North Western station (situated around the corner).  The booths resemble train carriages, with the ‘view’ on the artwork in the windows changing with the seasons – we had a snow scene today.  There were also overhead luggage racks for storage of coats and bags.  Here I enjoyed one of my favourite beers from my favourite brewery, Fierce Dirty Sanchez, a lovely winter warming chipotle porter, which emits a nice burn down the throat.  Another quirk of this pub is its snackage.  Today there was a scotch egg menu, which included one containing ‘chickpeas, fresh Scotch bonnet chilli, grated cheese, onion and garlic wrapping’.  Oh if only I wasn’t on a diet!  Despite the excellent beer choice on offer here (as always) – cask, keg, bottles and cans – I stuck on the Fierce for the duration, until it was time to head off to my gig.

Chris had advised that there was a new craft beer bar open this evening upstairs at the John Bull Chophouse – called The Hop House – so I called in here simply because it would have been rude not to.  This was very busy so I decided I was only going to stay for a quick third – oh but they had some exciting beers on, so which to choose?  I opted for the Elusive Three Headed Monkey raspberry, honey and oatmeal milk stout over the Tiny Rebel Christmas Milkshake, although that was a hard decision.

By now it was of course raining, which made me happy, and I skipped across the road to The Old Courts for an evening’s Hotpotting – enjoying The Lancashire Hotpots in concert.  If you have never been to Wigan – or never been Hotpotting – I can heartily recommend both as being wonderfully uplifting and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

NB since my visit, a Wigan Real Ale map has been launched, featuring (and to be found in) 22 ale houses across Wigan, some of which are featured above, and some of which I am yet to visit myself.  Well now if that’s not another fine excuse to visit Wigan in 2019, I don’t know what is… 

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