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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.

With the Northern Premier League season finishing a week earlier than the EFL (even that’s been rebranded since I’ve been away), the bank holiday weekend presented me with another opportunity to watch my beloved Blackpool.

Ahead of the weekend’s travels, I took the opportunity to spend Friday night with the girls (Karina and Wendy).  We were hitting Hednesford, as I had never been out there – and there was a new micropub on the block that needed a visit.  We met up in The Wellington in Birmingham, where we each enjoyed a different stout to get us warmed up for the evening.  Despite dozens of new places opening up in Birmingham during the city’s transformation over the last few years, the Welly remains a firm favourite, being the go-to pub for real ale drinkers in the city centre.  It even has a pub cat.  It was busy in here tonight but we managed to secure a table.  You are allowed to take your own food into the Welly and we tucked into our respective packed lunches ahead of the evening’s libations (Sweet Chilli & Flame Grilled Chicken Mini Fillets for me, from my new Snackery of Choice, Co-Op).  We booked our train tickets from the pub, using The Trainline app (which offers mobile tickets, saving time queueing at the station).  Despite the internet being traditionally slow in the Welly (being a pub where people prefer to talk to each other or read), it is still better to spend waiting time with a beer in your hand than not.

As we waited (and waited) for the train on the platform on New Street station, I was reminded why I stopped using the train for my commute many years ago.  This was traditionally the worst-performing line of the worst-performing rail franchise in the country.  It was reassuring to find that, despite the network having since changed to West Midlands Trains, the service remained unreliable.  Despite the train having ‘Shrewsbury’ on the front as its destination – and the next train (after ours) on the same platform having the destination of Shrewsbury – we boarded the train nonetheless, as everyone else was doing so and sometimes herd mentality takes over.  Before boarding, I had checked with the girls that it was ok if we did end up having an impromptu night out in Shrewsbury – and it was agreed that it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen (there are some great pubs in Shrewsbury).  However it turned out that this was the Hednesford train after all, which we were almost disappointed about.  We tucked into more food at the table on the train and arrived in Hednesford around 1830.

We had six pubs on our list to visit tonight and Wendy had plotted our route for the night, which involved quite a bit of walking to start with, before ending up in the town centre.  Our first port of call was The Bridge, which had been recommended by a senior CAMRA member – but which we had been warned about by a local friend as being ‘a bit cliquey’.  We arrived fully expecting everyone in the pub to turn around and stare at us as we walked in, but this didn’t quite happen.  As we approached the bar and inspected the pump clips (and I photographed them, which is how I remember them so I can tell you later on), I became aware of a man seated at the bar staring in our direction.  We carried on about our business regardless and selected our beers.  Tonight’s selection was Banks’s Bitter, Thwaites Wainwright, Backyard Citra, Salopian Hop Twister, Westgate Hopping Mad and Froth Blowers Barking Mad.  Seemingly, you don’t have to be mad to drink here, but it helps.  As we took a seat at a free table, my eyes scanned the pub for anything noteworthy.  I was pleased to see from the food board that Sunday dinners were offered all week round, which is a rarity and a massive positive.  I noted all the locals had their backs to us, with the exception of one man who I caught looking in our direction, who quickly turned his head the millisecond I caught his eye…and of course there was that man seated at the bar, who still hadn’t taken his eyes off us. Completing my scan of the room, I spied a jukebox, although suspected we might be burned for witchcraft if we dared to select our own tunes in this local pub (for local people).  

We had a bit of a hilly hike to the next pub, The Cross Keys, so were in need of a drink by the time we got there (I always enjoy a pint more when I feel I’ve earned it).  Being in my work attire, I wasn’t really wearing suitable footwear for all this walking, but my feet were bearing up pretty well.  I had been in this pub before many years previously on a pub judging mission for Walsall CAMRA, but I didn’t really remember it.  There was a good range of beers on tonight: Bass Premium Ale, Holdens Golden Glow, Three Tuns Stout, Burton Bridge Bitter, Wye Valley HPA and Salopian Oracle.  We took a seat in a football corner, under Hednesford Town and Wolves shirts, with Burnley on the tv (I had to try very hard not to be offended by all three).  As us three girls sipped at our glasses of stout, we noticed that all the men in the room were drinking lager – and definitely heard Ena Sharples mentioned in conversation from across the room.  I can think of worse role models!  On a visit to the Ladies, I heard a woman enter the room swearing and cursing to herself before entering the cubicle next to me.  I was a little afraid to leave the safety of my cubicle before she had left the room, but I talked myself into it.  As I stepped towards the sink, I found her stepping away from rummaging in the bin:

‘Ah I feel better now I’ve rearranged that.’

She smiled and headed back to the lounge.  As I made my way back to my seat, the man who had given me directions to the toilets asked if they had been ok and I confirmed that his directions had been excellent.  The locals here were much warmer and I could see myself happily spending an evening here in the future.  Although not when Burnley were on the tv.  We supped up and moved on.

We were heading into town now – and the next stop was Kraftt.  We weren’t sure what to expect here – and were certainly surprised by what we found!  As we stood at the bar contemplating what to have – and murmuring to ourselves about there being no dark beers on – a man at the bar urged us to follow him through a secret doorway.  Always being up for an adventure – and feeling safety in numbers – the three of us followed this stranger through a couple of doors, emerging next door into an Indian Smokehouse (which smelled divine) and sports bar.  Well we hadn’t been expecting that!  As we approached the bar, we noted it was selling the usual sports bar fare, so headed back (slightly bemused) through the door marked ‘disabled toilet’ to the craft beer bar.  On tap in here were: Green Monkey, Cornish Rattler Cider, Lagunitas IPA, Elvis Juice, Fruitesse Fruit Beer, Warsteiner Pilsner, Salopian Kashmir and Salopian Cliff Edge.  As we ordered our drinks, our new friend pointed out the DJ, who was playing a selection of electro-pop vinyl (none of which was familiar to us).  We were lucky, we were told, as he’s normally here on the last Friday of the month, but on this occasion he was here on the first Friday instead.  He asked where we were from and Wendy mentioned that I was from Blackpool before I had time to shush her and point out that we don’t talk about that round these parts (Hednesford Town having beaten Blackpool in the FA Cup in 1996).  We took a seat close to the DJ – who seemed to increase the volume the moment we sat down (perhaps we were too loud already?) – and surveyed our surroundings.  Within a few minutes, a drenched couple walked in, ordered their drinks and sat down practically with their backs to each other, looking thoroughly miserable and not speaking to each other. 

We were lucky with the rain ourselves tonight, having missed the apparent deluges between pubs.  We had three pubs left on the agenda now, but chose to go off course to visit the micropub, Heddins Ford, for fear that it might close earlier than the other pubs – and we definitely didn’t want to miss this one.  Oh and what a treat this pub is!  On cask tonight were Backyard Blonde, Prospect Harlequin, Backyard Aethelred and Backyard May the 4th Be With You (this one not being on until tomorrow, as it was only the 3rd today).  As I was considering what to have, I looked up to see the barman waving a can of Fierce Cafe Racer under my nose (at Karina’s bidding).  Fierce is my absolute favourite brewery in the whole world (I even made a special visit to Aberdeen last year to visit their new bar), so I wasn’t going to be able to resist this, despite knowing that raiding fridges in bars is Never A Good Idea.  Dear reader, we couldn’t bring ourselves to move from the bar here – and the other two pubs (one being a Spoons and the other only having Sharps beer on) – were promptly scratched from the itinerary.  I enjoyed two cans of Cafe Racer – as well as a beer from a brewery I had never heard of: Stewarts (sic) Skeleton Brews.  I had spied some Red Leicester Mini Cheddars for sale and drew the girls’ attention to them several times, hoping they’d buy them so I could try one (despite the fact we are all on the same diet and shouldn’t be eating them).  Eventually the barman placed a packet in front of me.  I perused the packet – and looked up the rest of the series (Stilton and Smoked Cheddar) – and the barmaid told us that they sold selection packs of the three flavours in the local supermarket.  As I salivated, I resisted purchasing or opening the packet under my nose.  As beer has the known effect of diminishing willpower, eventually I gave in and asked the barman if we could have the Mini Cheddars as a reward for entertaining him for the last couple of hours.  Dear reader, cheek has its rewards sometimes, and we tucked in within seconds of obtaining his consent (unlimited free food being allowed on our diet).  I can report that they had a good Red Leicester aftertaste – and I will be looking out for the rest of the series when my willpower is next diminished (I don’t expect this will be the too-distant future).

***

Next morning it was time to head up to Blackpool for a weekend of football-related activity (punctuated by some pubs, of course).  Obviously I didn’t want to be getting up too early today, after last night’s fridge-raiding exploits; but nor did I want to get stuck in Bank Holiday traffic.  So it was 9am when Pam collected me to head up the M6 and across the M55 to Sunny Blackpool.  Neither of us had been sufficiently organised to bring food for the journey – although I grabbed a four-pack of Diet Cream Soda from the pantry on my way out of the door so I could rehydrate on the northbound journey.  The traffic was mercifully kind and we arrived on the Fylde Coast before noon.  As I unpacked my rucksack, my nose informed me that there was a stray falafel in there (left over from last week’s trip) – and my jim jams and my dress for tomorrow’s Presentation Night both reeked of spices.  I took the clothes out to air in the hope that the smell would subside.

Now despite all of last week’s research into the best pubs to visit pre-match, that went out of the window today, as we ended up wandering the streets of Blackpool in search of beer.  We started off at Velvet Coaster because I wanted to show Pam the tremendous view from the rooftop terrace.  It was sunny if a little nippy here today and we found a table at the very front of the roof.  We watched the go-karting, the tourists arriving with their jet-skis – and saw a number of heritage trams (some of which I had never seen before), which were in action for the Bank Holiday weekend.  There was a good range of beers in here today and I had a Pheasantry Mikado Mild to wash down my Chicken Jalfrezi, after which I was feeling much better – and ready to face the day ahead.

On departing, we were advised via text that there was a music festival on at The Waterloo – and a charge of £15 to get in.  Well that scuppered our plans.  Now on Lytham Road, we weren’t particularly close to any of the pubs researched last week – and the clock was counting down to kick-off.  We ambled in the direction of Bloomfield Road and decided to call in at The Bridge to see if they had any ales on.  Happily, they did.  As I waited for my Ossett Yorkshire Blonde to be pulled, I felt something brush against my leg.  I turned round to see a man hoovering the floor dressed as Freddie Mercury in the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video.  Yes, I was definitely in Blackpool!  We settled in the quietest corner we could find and watched a bit of the John Higgins v David Gilbert world snooker semi-final.    

Next stop was the old club shop at Bloomfield Road for the memorabilia Swapperama.  It has been a while since I had been to one of these and it was good to catch up with some old friends as well as finding some old issues of the AVFTT fanzine that I edited around 20 years ago.  There were badges and programmes and books aplenty.  There was also a play zone where kids were playing table football as well as football games on computers (sorry I’m not up to speed with these things, having not played any football related game since Football Manager c.2005).

We continued down Bloomfield Road to pay a visit to Bloomfield Brewhouse – which turned out to be an unexpected treat.  There were a number of good beers on here today and I ordered a Bowland Hen Harrier.  All the staff were wearing tangerine and white – and there was a DJ in hotpants (bit cold for that, love) delivering rocking tunes.  The atmosphere was brilliant.  This place is definitely worth a pre-match visit.  The menu looked good too.  If I hadn’t already eaten, I’d have been tempted by (a quarter of) Black Pudding & Bacon Bon Bons with garnish & mustard mayo.

Finally it was time to head back to Bloomfield Road for Blackpool v Gillingham.  I sat in the West Stand today, where I preferred the view and concourse – although it was bloody cold in the stand!  Note to self: next time buy a hot drink to wash down the Maltesers.  And don’t buy Maltesers because you’re on a diet!  The match was rubbish so that’s enough about that.

Post-match we walked down to No. 10 Alehouse, which was very busy, but we managed to find a free table at the back of the pub, where we settled down to watch the Newcastle United v Liverpool match.  I enjoyed a pint of Phoenix Black Bee, a honey porter, which was an odd combination that grew on me the further down the glass I got, especially improving after I had eaten a delicious Thai Beef & Ginger Stir Fry.  I like this pub a lot.

Getting back to our digs in Fleetwood proved a massive faff.  We walked half an hour back into town, during which time I realised my body was aching because I was walking in unsuitable shoes (heels).  The subsequent tram journey was running smoothly until we got to Bispham, when we were promptly turfed off and pointed in the direction of a bus that we needed to get to continue on to Fleetwood (a consequence of engineering works, later research revealed).  Now this bus was not lit and was pitch black, to the extent that we had to feel for passengers before we accidentally sat on a stranger’s knee.  We somehow managed to find vacant seats at the back of the bus and the lights came on seconds after we sat down.  Our fellow passengers were impatiently singing ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ as the bus showed no signs of moving.  I was by now extremely tired and had wanted to go to bed for some two hours.  As the downstairs passengers entered into a sing-off against the upstairs passengers, I was tempted to pipe up with a rendition of ‘Road To Hell’, as I imagined this is what the journey to hell must be like.  I just wanted to sleep!

Of course, when we finally got back to digs, I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow – but not before confirming that I would resolutely be having a Good Lie-In tomorrow – and sniffing my jim jams, which happily no longer smelled of falafel and somehow smelled freshly-laundered.  Result!

***

Dear reader, it was 1115 before I surfaced on Sunday.  We took lunch at the Cafe Royal, where I enjoyed roast beef with all the trimmings, followed by a sherry trifle, washed down with a pot of tea.  Now it was time for some shopping as, in my packing haste, I had only packed one set of underwear, but was away for two nights.  In the absence of Marks & Spencer, it was Asda to the rescue!  Tights already in hand, as I perused the pants, Karen pointed out the comedy pants section and suggested I buy some Marvel knickers.  Amused by the concept, my eyes turned to the ‘character’ pants: Marvel Avengers, Friends, Star Wars, Wonder Woman (who buys pants like this?).  Of course I ended up buying a pair of Bambi knickers as a memento of the weekend (and can confirm they’re very comfortable).  The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling and I caught up on Friday’s Corrie and did a bit of writing.

That evening we headed back to Bloomfield Road for the end of season Presentation Night.  It had been years since I had been to one of these.  This was partly a research mission, as I help organise the end of season bash for Chasetown FC; and partly an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones.  We started and ended the evening in Rowleys, which is a good meeting place in the absence of a supporters bar at the club these days (no ale, mind).  The presentation night itself, in the main hospitality suite at the club, was pleasant enough, although it was more corporate than entertaining.  We were spoilt with Ian Holloway, weren’t we?  With no beer on offer, I resisted the Drink Of The Devil provided on the table (wine, which I don’t touch) and stuck to draft Guinness for the duration.  The food was:

Starter: Ham Hock and Garden Pea Terrine, Cream Cheese & Herb Pate, Sweet Plum Relish and a Herbed Croute.

Main: Oven baked supreme of chicken stuffed with a ricotta and tarragon farce Garlic infused crushed potato, creamed savoy cabbage with crisp pancetta Finished with a warm chic (sic) pea salsa.

Dessert: Warm Chocolate Brownie serve with Chocolate Soil(!) and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

The highlights were the accompaniments to the starter and the ice cream.  As we were on Table 20 (of 20), we were served last, but at least we knew we had time to mingle while we waited, and that time was put to good use, as I caught up with friends from my old BISA days, again going back some 20 years.

Would I go again?  Yes, I think I would, as I like a good party to round off the season – and it is a good opportunity to catch up with Seasider friends.  This was always going to be a bit of a strange one, though, with the room by no means full – and some distance between the players, staff and fans.  This is very different to what I have become used to at Chasetown, where everyone knows everyone and we are a little family.  Next year will be better.

The journey home the following morning was once again smooth – and I spent most of the time on the M6 looking at the other cars, deciding on the preferred make and model of my new mode of transport for next season.  I’m well aware that my return to Blackpool has coincided with my diet and sensible drinking regime going out the window – and getting back to driving will help set me back on the right course.  But for now I’m putting the travelling to bed, while I immerse myself in my new football job with the North West Counties Football League – and writing my first novel.  I’ll report back in soon though, as I’m bound to get itchy feet before too long! Enjoy your summer, folks!

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