Jane Stuart – Writer

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

Wigan Beer Festival

A beer festival! In Wigan! Well there was no way I was missing out on that. I tapped out a message to Wendy and Karina and invited them up from the West Midlands. We usually do the Manchester fest together but that had been cancelled this year. Could they be tempted by Wigan instead?

Of course they could! Because Wendy and Karina are ‘my tribe’.

We all booked our trains and were on for a c1030 arrival at Wigan North Western from our respective directions.

Wiganbound

My train from Blackpool North wasn’t until 0947 but I got to the station around 0915 because I was super excited and couldn’t sleep and once I was up I couldn’t stay still. As I had time to kill at the station, I popped to the refreshment kiosk, where I was pleased to find the woman behind the counter (is ‘barista’ the correct term here?) was way happier in her job than her predecessor.

‘Can I have an Earl Grey please?’

‘Of course. Ooh I love an Earl Grey, me.’

‘Me too. It’s delicious with honey.’

As I tried to balance the hot cup in my hands without burning myself – eventually using my hat as an oven glove – I wandered over in the direction of Platform 1.

My this train was loooooooooong. I headed instinctively for Carriage U (the unreserved one) even though I realised en route that I did, in fact, have a seat reservation on this train.

This was the London Euston train. It is still always a surprise to find a proper train from Blackpool as our line has not long since been electrified. I learned during my OU studies (which happily and quite accidentally included the history of Blackpool) that the train line to Blackpool was only built to fulfil the demand of the mill workers, who were previously WALKING here from Blackpool East, so desperate were they to get the resort that was purpose-built for them. So basically the idea was that, if they were prepared to walk here, they ought to be grateful for a crappy cattle train, which is what we still had up until very recently.

Now on the train, with the carriage to myself, I plugged in my phone to charge and settled back with my brew to read the next chapter of my book.

I’ll confess I’ve had this book on the go for a couple of years; I’ve just been dipping into the odd chapter here and there between other books – mainly because the chapters are long. But I feel the time is now right to see this book through to completion – for it has never been more relevant. Zweig writes about his experience living in Austria (and elsewhere) at the start of the 20th century (basically around the previous two world wars). It is a fascinating read. But – in the context of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine coming so soon after COVID – it is a very emotional read at the moment. I found myself welling up at the lack of freedom people had back then – which is so close to home right now. I am so grateful to be able to travel around the country doing what I’m doing right now – and this is exactly why I’m doing so much of it. Because I CAN right now and I couldn’t a year ago and who knows what the near future holds?

My reading was regularly interrupted by the ridiculous number of announcements on the train. As the train sat in the station, I was repeatedly told this was the train to London Euston and all the stops were listed. When the train set off, at least these would stop. But then we got the ‘see it, say it, sorted’ announcement – but I was in a carriage on my own and there was nothing to see, say or sort. Then there were more announcements as we approached Blackpool East, reminding people to take their luggage and personal belongings with them and mind the step onto the platform edge. FFS SHUT UP! I’m sure I saw something in the news a while ago confirming that these announcements were being reduced but they seem worse than ever right now.

I skipped off the train. Wigan is my happy place. I love it so much that I considered moving here when I relocated back Up North from the West Midlands. If you want to know why here’s my eulogy to Wigan, which explains all.

I was in a few minutes ahead of the girls, so I loitered on the station. Ooh there’s a vending machine. Let’s see if there’s anything of interest in there.

Of course I wasn’t going to buy one because I am on a diet. After a good minute standing there salivating over these, I forced myself to step away from the vending machine. But then I stepped back. I could buy one and share it with the girls. Then I’d effectively only be having a taster, like I did with the Winter Spice Twix in Hartlepool. But I was confused. The machine demanded EXACT MONEY ONLY…but there were no prices listed. Okay, I COULD have paid via card, but I saw this as a sign that I really shouldn’t be buying this, so I scuttled off down to the station entrance, out of the way of temptation.

Wendy and Karina soon arrived and I was instructed that I was leading the way, as they had never been to Wigan before. I rubbed my hands with glee and led them down the road to my regular caff.

Station Cafe

This caff is dead handy for the station and I’ve always liked it. However, en route to Southport (was that only THIS pre-season – it seems like forever ago?), I was put off entering by some atrocious spelling mistakes in the window. Under the tutelage of David Crystal (a brilliant writer on the English language), I am attempting to be less anal about things like bad spelling and grammar. But I still cannot help but think that, if they are so careless about spelling, how much love do they put into their food? Well today I was going to put this to the test.

The caff was busy – full of people who looked like they were going to the beer festival (you can just tell) – but we spotted an empty table in the corner. Karina cleared the dirty pots into the adjacent bench seating area where no-one was sitting and we took over the table.

As we’re all (not) dieting, this caff was part of our strategy to have a healthy day out. If we filled up on SlimmingWorld friendly food before we arrived, we’d be less likely to snack on crap at the fest. Karina and I each ordered the Full English but Wendy was even better, ordering an omelette with salad. With our breakfasts came a drink. I ordered an Earl Grey and was sent away with this.

No water, no mug.

As I got back to the table in a state of confusion, I realised I couldn’t even put the teabag on the table because it hadn’t been cleaned, so I just sat there clutching my teabag hoping that someone would be over with a teapot or something before too long. This is the sort of thing that only happens in Wigan because it is a culturally unique town. A homeless man offering me a swig of his cider? A stranger coming over to show me her giraffe tattoo? Yes those things happened to me in Wigan. There is always SOMETHING. And today it was being sent off clutching a teabag.

I sighed with relief when a mug of hot water arrived and I dunked my teabag in the water before depositing the limp teabag on the saucer. Then breakfast arrived.

This was the least SlimmingWorld friendly Full English I had had. Since the caff deconstructed my tea, I’m going to deconstruct their breakfast.

Egg: Tasted of lard.

Bread: Would have preferred white and not buttered. In my defence, I didn’t ask for this. But it didn’t seem like a brown bread kinda place.

Bacon: Decent.

Sausage: Liked the innovation – cutting it in half to look like two sausages. Only had a taster of this.

Beans: Strangely dry. Possibly overcooked?

Hash brown: Very good and perfectly cooked.

Black pudding: Only had a taster of this.

Over breakfast, Karina casually dropped into conversation that she had had shots last night and I chuckled inwardly. She was fresh as a daisy today and I was thinking back to Dave at Cardiff who was ‘dead’ and off the alcohol altogether the day after shots. And here was Karina, off to a beer festival the morning after. This is why Karina is ‘my tribe’.

The second stage of our healthy beer festival-going was walking to the fest instead of getting the shuttle bus. Miraculously it wasn’t raining in Wigan – nor did it all day – which allowed us to easily stick to this decision.

Early on in the walk, we realised the group ahead of us were going to the festival too. I shut down Google Maps and we all went into follow mode.

The walk took us past Prospect Brewery.

Quite possibly one of the worst photos I’ve ever taken.

And Wigan Pier.

We soon lost sight of the people we had been following but the chaps behind us looked like festivalgoers too, so we slowed to let them overtake us so we could follow them. But was this a mistake? They appeared to be heading into Asda. Was there a shortcut through the supermarket? I referred back to the map and we decided that we’d walk round Asda instead. Even before we were off the car park, the men we had been following were now back ahead of us, so we switched to follow mode again. But then they headed into Greggs. Had they cottoned on that we were following them and were they trying to shake their tail? If so, it worked. But now we could see the football/rugby ground ahead and knew we were close.

Wigan Beer Festival

And here we were! At least…we thought we were. Inside the Robin Park Arena there was signage for COVID vaccinations and what appeared to be a gym – and it had very much a clinical feel like a hospital.

This was a good sign.

And soon enough we were in!

Immediately on entry into the sports hall that was currently a beer festival venue, I presented my CAMRA card and my credit card, the latter of which was taken away for what seemed like five minutes. I’m not used to my card being taken out of sight. Was he even coming back? Eventually it was and I was presented with a tulip glass (at my request – pint glasses were also available), some beer tokens and a festival programme. Ah it was great to be back at a beer festival! It had been over two years (Manchester 2020).

All the tables were already occupied, despite us arriving at what was near as damn it the opening time of noon. But there was tiered bench seating at the back (front?) of the room, so we claimed a spot up there. I was eager to grab a beer, so I left my coat and headed immediately down to the barrels.

The beer list (and barrels) was divided into ‘pales’ and ‘darks’ (also ‘ciders’ and ‘keg’, but I wasn’t going there). My strategy was to start on the pales, even though I don’t really like them, to save me from going too strong too early.

Pink.

By the time I had got back to our seats, beer in hand, Wendy and Karina were still studiously reading through their programmes marking off the beers that they wanted to try. Wendy even had a BRAPA-esque green Stabilo highlighter pen, which made me chuckle. I love these ladies so much.

I sat back and sighed contentedly as I surveyed the room.

By the time I had finished my first third, I had scanned the programme and realised there were no other pales that took my fancy. So I headed straight for the dark bar.

Best cask of the day.

Here I was greeted (and served) by Ian from Blackjack who recognised me from Beer Twitter. I was also recognised by Sandy, one of the festival organisers, who I congratulated on not only getting the festival on at all, but it being such a brilliant one.

And there were the familiar faces too: Chris, Kev and Pete from Blackpool, who I seem to see at all festivals in the North West. How lovely to see them again. And the last two years vanished in an instant as we chatted away as if we’d never been apart. That is part of the joy of beer festivals (and pubs). Friendships formed there transcend months and years apart. Like the football, I suppose. It struck me today – after COVID – that it is the social element of beer festivals that is my favourite part. Today was like being back in the bosom of the beer family again in a way that can’t quite be replicated in a pub. This is why CAMRA beer festivals are so important.

Key: Lovely cherry flavour but very bitter finish.

As you may have already noted, I had remembered my beer judging emoticon method, although there wasn’t much room to annotate in today’s programme. Maybe something for the editor to consider for next year.

As I stood nattering to Chris about the benefits of different pub mapping apps (yes this is the sort of thing we talk about at beer festivals), the festival photographer was wowed by my tee.

‘I have to take a photograph of that! But get your glass filled up first…’

Oh if I must…

Wasn’t getting the promised flavours here.

I was invited to pose enthusiastically and poor old Chris was charged with holding the photographer’s light, which I though was hilarious, as he had come here to drink, not work.

The photographer confirmed he was from the Wigan Post & Observer and said the photos should be up online that afternoon. And sure enough…

I had a little work to do at the fest here today (technically, of course, it’s ALL work, in the form of research for this blog). I had been fastidiously collecting beermats for Ian from Clitheroe (East Lancs CAMRA) for months and they had been taking over the house, so I had brought them to hand over to him today. I couldn’t remember what he looked like, as I’d only met him once, when I’d pounced on him at a beer festival (Manchester 2019) because he was wearing a Clitheroe Beer Festival tee and I was planning my debut mission to Clitheroe with Chasetown. So I told him I was wearing a bright yellow tee and hoped he’d find me instead. And that he did. We had a good natter about beer and football (during which I was shocked to see how low down the table Colne were) and I handed over the custodianship of the beermats just in time before I started scrapbooking them myself. Collecting beermats is a niche area of pub/beer culture that I’m resolutely not getting into because I’m terrible for things like that (I have every match ticket, programme and fanzine that I’ve ever bought at the football over the last 30 years).

I also had to hunt down Rick, the Chairman of Blackpool Fylde & Wyre CAMRA, as I had a specific question about beer dispense methods, which is something I don’t understand. I found him and he, in turn, handed me a form for me to fill in for my nomination as Branch Secretary, which I seem to have volunteered for. It’s a role I previously held for Birmingham CAMRA and enjoyed. I only gave that up for mental health reasons, when I decided I preferred staying home and crying for months on end (another reason I fill my life with joyful things and good people these days).

Back in the bench seats with Karina – Wendy off beerhunting – I spotted a book in Wendy’s bag, so we decided to have a nose. At first glance it appeared quite raunchy but, as the blurb progressed, the protagonist choosing to index books in a library in Cornwall, we decided we wouldn’t be reading this one. And why had Wendy brought a book with her anyway? She was with one or both of us all day. And I know I find it impossible to retain what I’ve read after I’ve consumed more than a pint or two.

A familiar face that I could not place headed in my direction and came to sit with me. I knew I knew who he was but where from? I hunted for clues in what he said. He knew Rick but I couldn’t place him in a Blackpool context. My mind whirred. And eventually it struck me. This was Chris from Stockport CAMRA who I’d met in City Arms in Manchester the other week. It’s wonderful how my beer family is beginning to grow in my new (and original) home of the North West.

A woman on the row in front was heartily tucking into a whole (ring) black pudding and I gazed on in awe. Damn I love Wigan! I also realised I was beginning to feel the beer, so I headed off on a mission to survey the food outlets.

There’s nothing remotely healthy there, is there? I plumped for this.

Spicy Chicken Burger with salad and sweet chilli sauce.

There was a LOT of bread (white again) here – to the extent that the flavour of the barm overpowered the burger, which takes some doing. I ate most of it, save a mouthful of bread.

Here are Karina’s loaded fries from the Dutch counter.

The toilet situation here was odd. You weren’t allowed to take your glass with you, instead leaving it at the door and taking a peg with you. When you got back, you could exchange your peg for your glass. It’s a weird system that I don’t really understand (can anyone explain please?). Anyway, I got round this by leaving my empty glass with the girls for my toilet visits.

Absolutely pathetic hand drier. Mercifully there was a stronger one alongside it.

There was a pub games stall that I went over for a nose at, with no intention of playing, as I’d had a few beers by now.

I did, however, watch on amused as a volunteer on the stall demonstrated how the skittles worked.

Back at the dark beer counter, I had a good natter with the volunteers behind the bar.

‘Ooh I love your pink shirts!’

‘They’re not pink! They’re cerise! That’s what they told us, anyway…’

The volunteers had written their names on their glasses to claim ownership – one lady had a sticker with her name on it and one chap had written directly on his with marker pen.

‘You can get them engraved over there, you know. Go over and speak to the guy – it would be a great advert for his services.’

Said engraver was also selling badges (nothing I fancied for my hat) and tankards.

This one caught my eye but not at £120 thank you very much.

I bemoaned the lack of obvious pie logo on the festival glasses this year because I love the little guy. However I did find him on an old festival tee that was for sale.

I went up to the gin bar for a nose but explained that gin makes me catastrophise, so I can’t drink it. The man manning (personing?) the stall said he’d spoken to a man yesterday who had the same problem with whisky. Moral of the story? Stick to beer. There was an interesting looking cherry rum on this stall too but I knew that road led to bad places, so I stepped away from the stall.

I had been putting off visiting the keg bar but eventually I had exhausted all the dark beers that I’d fancied on cask. It was now time for this little beauty.

Oh my. This was worth every penny of the £4 for the third.

It tasted like an onion bhaji in a glass. It had ALL the flavour – exactly what I want from a beer. I was so glad I’d tried it.

Now we had tried everything we wanted to, it was time to reluctantly leave the festival. We had been here for six hours and that time had flown by, we had enjoyed ourselves so much. What a happy place this was. However I needed to introduce Wendy and Karina to that extra special little corner of Wigan before they caught their train home…

Wigan Central

Obvs it is impossible to skip this place on any visit to Wigan. This micropub is one of my favourite pubs in the world. Why? The beer range, the snackage, the vibe, the layout, the proximity to the station, the arrivals and departure boards so you can keep an eye on your trains, the fact that it’s like a train but it’s also like a station, the way they change the ‘scenery’ from out of the ‘train windows’ by season…just EVERYTHING about this pub is magnificent.

Tonight’s cask ales were thus:

I went for a half of the smoked porter, which was lush.

Wendy miraculously managed to find a vacant table in the window, which we promptly took over.

When I returned to the table after a toilet break (forgot to take my phone but there was a poster advertising the Wigan Beer Festival afterparty the following night), Wendy was already queueing at the bar for a second drink. This was the danger of visiting Wigan Central after a sesh – you want EVERYTHING all at once. Of course I headed immediately for the Beer Library (because I wanted everything too), where I spotted something quite irresistible. I directed Wendy to sit back down as she had bought the last round and took her place in the queue (yes queue – this is a very popular pub). And here I was again handed something strange to go back to the table with.

‘What’s going on there?’

‘That’s your beer toppers.’

Confused, I inspected the contents of the little bag. There was a Mini Oreo, two big chocolate buttons, a wrapped mint chocolate and a marshmallow. This was brilliant! Definitely next level from taking my own Flake to dip in my banker like I did at Hartlepool. I necked what was remaining of my smoked porter so I could get on with playing with my new beer. I poured the beer in the glass and chucked the marshmallow in there. And everything else I dunked.

What an adventure! As if I even NEEDED another reason to fall in love with this place.

And it had dogs.

Admittedly not the best angle.

The Blackpool CAMRA lot were in here, so I ambushed them and insisted they didn’t get the train home without me, otherwise I would withdraw my offer to stand as Branch Secretary. My strategy here was that, if I had company, I wouldn’t fall asleep on the train home.

As we stood up and gathered our coats as the girls headed off to catch their train, a lad at the adjacent table piped up:

‘Are you getting the train back to Blackpool now?’

I was wearing my Blackpool FC bodywarmer, which he must have clocked. It turned out he was a Manchester United fan and (now I’d had a few beers) I found it impossible to have a civilised conversation with him, instead ranting about how they hadn’t needed to beat us on the last game of the 10/11 season to relegate us – they had already won the league, irrespective of that result. I had to walk away. But how nice that strangers are keen to talk to you in this pub.

As I went to stand in the back room with the Blackpool boys, a man seated nearby indicated that he wanted me to move my hair so he could see what the badge was on my bodywarmer. He was a local Sheffield Wednesday fan and his uncle had played for them. He knew that we had played Reading recently and he also knew someone who played for them. I’d have loved to have chatted with him more but sadly it was time for us to head off now.

Our train home was slightly delayed but we managed to make our connection in Blackpool East.

Which is gradually becoming tangerine…

I only now remembered that I should have let Lee know what time to collect me from the station but he wasn’t picking up, so there was only one thing for it…

Cask & Tap, Blackpool

It’s VERY handy for the station, this place. We were here in no time at all and were greeted by friendly staff (one of whom we were delivering back from the fest) and these pump clips.

I had the Blackedge because they’re one of the breweries I look out for now, being one of my faves in the region. And, speaking of regional faves, they’re getting Green Duck beers in here on my recommendation – one of my Black Country faves. I really ought to visit this pub much more often than I do. I get such a warm welcome, I feel like I’ve been a regular here for years, whereas in fact the pub itself hasn’t even been open a year.

They do train takeouts here now too. Genius.

Standing at the bar nattering away, I suddenly spotted the keg taps.

Woah a Vocation Naughty And Nice?! That was the same range as the Best Beer Ever I’d had in Cardiff the other week. I immediately ordered a third and cast my other beer aside. I wanted to spend the rest of the night with this beer and this beer alone. It is up there with Josh Bowler and the green sawfish at The Deep in Hull as one of the most awesome things I’ve experienced EVER. In fact, that must be what heaven looks like: drinking Vocation Naughty & Nice and watching Josh Bowler play, with a huge tank of green sawfish as a backdrop.

By now I’d managed to get hold of Lee and secure my lift home. While I waited, I found myself nattering with Lee from Cask about our former home of Walsall.

Then my Lee collected me and I was safely returned home. Phew! What an amazing day that had been. What an absolute joy it is to have beer festivals and pubs and friends and freedom restored. I hope you’ll join me in drinking to that.

If you’ve never been to a beer festival, I hope the above might tempt you along to one soon. Fleetwood Beer Festival is coming up in October and you can buy your tickets online here.

Coming Up: Stoke City v Blackpool & Cheshire Pubs then Manchester GBG Crawl: Northern Quarter

If you’ve enjoyed this article there are many more to read on this website. You can navigate using the menus above. All of my content is FREE but you do have the option to buy me a beer on a forthcoming trip by clicking on the link below:

Thanks to Robbie and Archie for buying me a couple of beer cards at Wigan Beer Fest.

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