Day One: Thursday
Earlier this week I received a message from Sandy, the organiser of Wigan Beer Festival, enquiring if I’d like to be on the beer judging panel for the Champion Beer of Britain Premium Stouts and Porters. Er…yeah!!! I only ever need a sniff of an excuse to go to Wigan at the best of times but I’d have been mad to pass up this opportunity.
I frantically researched what the hell that involved. I had been trained on beer judging by a couple of excellent teachers (Gaz and Sally) but that had been years ago. Eventually satisfied that I could give it a good go, I began to look forward to what would now be two successive days in my happy place (much needed after the woeful football of late).
I boarded the 1104 from Blackpool North to Wigan North Western, armed with an Earl Grey (black, bag removed).
I spent the short journey trying not to spill my tea (this was a rattler with no tables) and reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. I’m currently writing a memoir so this book forms part of my research (i.e. reading as a form of procrastination to avoid editing).
I landed in Wigan at 1150 and skipped across the road and through the welcoming open door of my favourite chippy in the North West (Steels in Clee remains Champion Chippy of Britain for me – read here for why).
Was 1150 too early for a chippy? I dismissed that thought as quickly as it entered my head.
‘Mini fish, chips and gravy please! I’ll be eating in.’
‘Gravy? That’ll be £5.50 please. D’ya want me to shut door for ya?’
‘Ooh that’d be great, thanks.’
I took a seat next to the fish tank and began to salivate.
The chippy soon began to fill up but my food was delivered in good time.
This was already my second meal of the day, as I’d scoffed a pizza toastie before I’d left the house. The plan was to line my stomach ahead of a good session on the beers. I couldn’t manage all of the above but I gave it a good go before heading off to the fest.
The free festival buses weren’t running yet as the festival didn’t officially open until 1730. I smiled as I remembered the homeless man who offered me a swig of his cider while I was waiting for the bus the other year.
I headed off on foot in the direction of Robin Park. I felt a pang of sadness that Wendy and Karina weren’t with me this year as we’d made this walk together last year. But the sadness was soon overpowered by excitement and I soon found myself smiling as I always do when I’m in Wigan. Wasn’t it nice of the woman in the chippy to shut the door to stop me from getting cold? That was typical Wigan. It’s the people here that make this town so special.
I had glanced at my route on Google Maps but muscle memory took me most of the way. This allowed my eyes to wander and take in my surroundings.
It was Asda where we’d got lost last year, so I referred back to the map. I eventually located a hidden path on the right hand side of the supermarket down by the River Douglas. It being daylight and me being in good spirits I gave it a go.
I soon emerged by the sports stadia
And – ta-da! – here I was at the leisure centre where the fest was being hosted.
I arrived here a good hour early. Ordinarily of course I’d kill time in a pub but I wanted to have a clear palate ahead of the beer tasting so had deliberately avoided the pub.
Sandy was surprised by my early arrival but I assured him I was happy to amuse myself. I grabbed a Diet Coke and sat and read my book for a bit.
Nick came over for a chat about Lincoln (my fave little city) and he’d been to Strait & Narrow on my recommendation (see this article I wrote for Pellicle all about Lincoln’s best pub).
At 1400 it was time to gather for the beer judging. Of the eight judges, six were women, which I was pleasantly surprised to note.
We had six beers to judge but we weren’t told what beers they were until after the voting was in and the results confirmed. They were all in excess of 5% ABV, which was quite the alcoholic start to a beer festival! I’m not sure exactly how much I sampled of each beer but it will have been around a third. Still, six thirds equates to two pints of the strong stuff before the festival had even started.
We were to score each beer out of ten on appearance, aroma, taste and aftertaste. It’s rare that I’ll have a beer with a particularly alluring aroma (I tend to make other people smell it too when this happens). The aftertaste isn’t something I tend to observe generally and I’ll confess I enjoyed this more mindful drinking process.
After the judging was complete and our scorecards handed in, I chatted with fellow judge Jo from Wigan Central who had selected the beers for this year’s festival. I enquired after the Beer & Chocolate Pairing Evening at her wonderful pub and she confirmed this had been a huge success. They do this around Valentines every year and I’m very tempted to go next year.
I also chatted with another fellow judge, Pandy, who was quite the character. Again in true Wigan fashion, when I said I was feeling the beer and fancied a walk to clear my head, she invited me to her house for a cup of coffee (‘I only live over the road’). I politely declined but listened with interest to her stories of beer drinking in the 1960s (‘your choices were bitter, mild or mixed’).
Pandy also suggested that our palate preferences could be influenced by our early taste experiences. A couple of beers we’d tasted had liquorice/aniseed flavours which we’d liked – and we’d both also enjoyed Black Jack sweets as children. I mused that the reason I don’t like cider that tastes of cider could be because my first experience of alcohol was Diamond White.
Now it was time for the loo review! Of course these were quirky as this was Wigan. These cubicles had instructions on how to dispense the toilet roll.
After a little break and a bottle of water, I consulted the beer programme and drew a little circle by the ones I wanted to try. I’d later fill in the circle with an emoji that reflected my opinion of the beer.
As I was chilling with my first beer (above), the man who had served me came over in a bit of a flap.
‘Could I just check your card? I think I might have overcharged you.’
He hadn’t – but again how typically Wigan this was. I wouldn’t have even noticed.
I needed more food to soak up this beer so I perused the two stalls. Last year I’d been a bit nonplussed by the burger so I decided to give the Dutch food stand a try. Here’s what I had.
This was my favourite beer of the day.
It wasn’t long before I’d reached capacity and needed to head home. Starting on those strong ABVs was a killer! But I was planning on returning to the fest tomorrow so there was plenty of time to sample more lovely beers.
I took a different route back to the station – I wasn’t fancying that riverside path in the dark so I diverted via main roads. I dived into a shop for a bottle of water and boarded the 1918 train back to Blackpool North. This was one of the big national trains (not a Northern one) and it was a more comfortable ride home.
It had been a great day out – as all trips to Wigan are – and I was already looking forward to heading back tomorrow.
Day Two: Friday
I’d had indigestion in the night and Paddington (my accountability bear) wasted no time in explaining why.
Hence Paddington was coming with me to Wigan today to help me make better food choices.
I was too full for breakfast so I headed out with an empty stomach. At Blackpool North, Paddington picked me out a Summer Fruits Alpen Light and an Earl Grey for the journey.
There was a lengthy queue for the 1104 this morning, this being the first full day of Wigan Beer Festival, which was due to open at noon. I spotted Gary from Cask & Tap ahead of me in the queue but didn’t want to push in. I was soon joined by Chris and Kev, who I sat with on the train. We spent the journey catching up on beer and pub stuff (I noted Chorley Pub Festival in my calendar) as well as general miscellany. I only ever really see these two at beer festivals but they’re always great company.
On arrival in Wigan, the lads jumped in a taxi to get to the festival early. But I knew I needed to eat before I got there, as there was no way Paddington would let me eat anything on sale at the fest. He’d advised that they served jacket potatoes at the Swan & Railway (just across the road from Wigan North Western) so it was there I headed.
But not just yet, as the doors were steadfastly shut. A quick Google search confirmed the pub opened at noon – and it was only 1150. It was nippy out, so I loitered in the warmth of the station, eyes firmly on the pub doors, willing them to open.
As soon as they did, I skipped across the road – narrowly beaten to the doors by a couple of men who had also been lurking nearby. While they were being served, Paddington looked at the menu and decided a jacket with chilli would be good for lunch.
After yesterday’s early retirement, I had a strategy today to start on the lower ABV beers. This plan was blown out of the water straight away.
Beer and food now ordered, I took a seat in the narrow room to the right as you walk in. Our hostess called over to apologise but they’d got no jacket potatoes. As I was considering the menu for a suitable alternative, she began shouting.
‘You’re a shit guide dog! You’ve still got your harness on! You’re still working!’
Oh dear. Someone was in trouble. I tentatively approached the bar to order my Roast Beef Yorkie (not 100% Paddington approved but he conceded it was better than chips). Here the telling off was explained. Apparently this guide dog (who works for a customer who he’d just dragged in) gets very excited when he sees our hostess, to the extent that he pulls his owner across the road (with no regard for traffic) when he sees her. Today he’d run behind the bar to greet her, despite both of them being on duty. I chuckled as I returned to my seat. I could write a book on the characters of Wigan and might well do that one of these days.
Here’s my scran.
Right. Now it was time to walk off that lunch! I bypassed the beer festival bus (every half hour from outside the station) and marched directly to the fest – once again chuckling to myself on the walk as I recalled shit guide dog woman.
I didn’t need to do any prep for today’s fest as I’d already got the beers I wanted circled in the festival programme.
Beer soon in hand, I sought out Chris and Kev and joined them at the back of the bench seating. The conversation was mainly about food. I learned that the air fryer is good for Yorkshire Puddings. I recommended Crimpit for air fryer toasties. And Kev told me about Cowmans Famous Sausage Shop in Clitheroe, which definitely needs a visit next time I’m there.
Soon feeling the beer (having started on the strong stuff again), I went for a stroll round the hall in search of the Brewery Jewellery stand, which I’d seen on Twitter the previous week.
I had a good chat with Clare, who’d travelled from Newcastle to sell her wares. I purchased this pair of tangerine and white earrings, which are made from the label of Almasty Brewing Donkey Butter.
As I don’t wear earrings very often, my piercings seemed to have healed up so I couldn’t get them in. I tried the next day back home, though, and managed to get them in.
Now it was time for some standing up drinking with Gary (Cask & Tap) and Peter. The latter soon proved himself to be one of those people who I shouldn’t be drinking with.
‘I really want to try the Clay Brow Nano Brewery one.’
‘Oh the Papa P’s? Yeah that’s really good.’
‘It’s 10% though. I’m worried it’s a bit early for that.’
‘Oh just have a third – you’ll be fine.’
Dear reader, I wasn’t fine. I somehow managed to spill most of it on my sunglasses case (which still smells lovely, by the way) and the floor. And this under the watchful eye of the festival organiser and my CAMRA branch chair. I was later (jokingly, I think) ribbed for bringing shame on the branch. I decided this was probably a good time to move on…
Gary and his bunch were leaving, too, on a pub crawl of Wigan. I was all over that and arranged to meet them at the first pub of their crawl. They were getting the bus but I needed some fresh air and Body Magic so I walked it. I could even go back by the riverside path, as it was still light.
I arrived at Pub #1 ahead of the others and contemplated the beers.
I knew, though, that another beer at this juncture would not be sensible. Paddington suggested a soft drink, so I ordered a Diet Coke, as that was all they (and most pubs) had in terms of sugar free ones. After peering into the back room to confirm the others weren’t there, I grabbed a stool at the shelf opposite the bar, where they’d be sure to see me when they arrived.
When they rocked up five minutes later, we headed into the back room, collecting seven chairs which just about fit round a small table. After some Blackpool pub chat, I got up with the intention of taking a photo of something across the pub. Before I got there I was stopped in my tracks.
‘Are you Jane? I read your blog!’
This was Brian, a Sheffield United fan from Chesterfield, who introduced me to his friends, Kieran and Jim.
‘Jane writes blogs about beer and football. They’re very good.’
We got on to football – a subject I had been hoping to avoid today – and I sighed as I confessed I was resigned to Blackpool being relegated.
‘Oh well. At least you’ll have a nice local match at Fleetwood next season.’
At this point I turned heel and took that photograph that I’d got up to take.
The Blackpool bunch were moving on to Real Crafty, which I knew could be lethal for me, what with all those lush strong dark keg beers. I decided to leave them to it and head round the corner to join those Sheffield United fans, who were on a crawl too and seemed lovely.
This crawl is really just muscle memory now. I know the pubs I love and my feet take me there. The Blades were already at the bar and offered me a drink, which I wasn’t going to refuse. Now what did they have on?
I had the plum porter obvs.
We got to chatting about the Amere Biere, the non-hazy Hazy French Bitter which you may recall I’d had in The Chapel in Middlesbrough the other week. I was told the story of the Saint Mars of the Desert brewery, which was apparently local to Sheffield. I’d never heard of them and added their taproom to the ever-expanding list of places I wanted Martin to take me to on a future visit to Sheffield. In addition to today’s recommendation, their personality oozes out from their website.
Through the window of the Anvil we observed rugby fans gathering on the opposite corner – and we were puzzled as to why they weren’t waiting for their coach in the pub (as football fans would). Apparently Wigan Warriors were playing away at Castleford Tigers tonight. Given that I’m disillusioned with football at the moment, I am of a mind to find another sport or sports to enjoy while the football is shit. Indeed, before football took over my life, I was really into a range of sports, including snooker, tennis and athletics. I’d even watch the motorsport and wrestling and kabbadi kabbadi kabbadi. Basically any sport that was on terrestrial tv back in the 80s. So, in an attempt to find some sporting enjoyment somewhere, I’ve just sought out the highlights of this match and somehow surprised myself by enjoying them.
I have no idea what’s going on but understand this much:
- It’s a physical sport
- Wigan Warriors were dominant (‘easy, easy!’)
- They get points for those touchdown things and fewer points for kicking the ball over the goal
- They have sponsors written on their bottoms
- The opponents seem to be less interested in tackling them the further they get up the pitch (is this allowed in the final section at all?)
I still don’t know if it’s rugby league or rugby union or what the difference is and which one is the Northern one (I presume this one?) but that’s all part of the learning curve.
Anyway Wigan Warriors seem quite good so I might get some joy if I start supporting them. Plus it’s another excuse to go to Wigan. I’m now following them on Twitter and I’ve got their fixtures in my calendar. I also note with interest that their fixture calendar runs from January to September so I’d get to watch them in the summer. And they play on seemingly random days between Thursday and Sunday, but rarely on Saturdays. Oh yes – I’m all over that. I remember the joy of falling in love with football back in 1990 – and with Chase and non league football more recently. Could rugby replicate that same feeling? I might just give this a go…
Before we headed on to the next pub, I purchased a copy of the latest Wigan Athletic fanzine from behind the bar to have a read of later.
It’s an unwritten rule that I can’t see a fanzine without buying one. I learnt on my last visit to Wigan that rugby has fanzines too.
Speaking of which, have you subscribed to my fanzine yet?
Swan & Railway (again)
This was the natural next stop on the muscle memory pub crawl of Wigan and it seemed I was now part of the Sheffield lads’ pub crawl and I was fine with that.
I photographed the beer board and the train departure board which I hadn’t noticed before.
I’ll confess I’d been relying on my camera having better vision than me here, as I couldn’t read a word of these boards from my position at the bar. Indeed I only knew one was train departures because I overheard someone discussing it. I can now see that this was only one page of a four-page beer board, so I’ve only given you part of the story here (soz). That said, I did photograph the pump clips for you yesterday (see above) and they probably hadn’t changed too much in the interim. Indeed I again had the Porteresque Irish Cream because my eyes simply wouldn’t recognise anything else.
My new friends again included me in their round and we commandeered the table in the corner at the back of the same narrow room I’d occupied yesterday.
This is Brian’s beer – I think it was a dark mild – and I needed to photograph it because LOOK AT IT IT’S BEAUTIFUL.
Brian started telling me about a form of traditional dancing called rapper sword dancing, which apparently he was travelling to Rochdale to see next week. I was reliably informed that it was like morris dancing but better and with women. I can’t remember if I’ve told you this before, dear reader, but I have a phobia of morris dancers. This came to light in the Bartons Arms in Birmingham when I was there to enjoy a beer festival but found myself surrounded by black faces and bells and it was quite a small space I was in and they were everywhere and it was bloody terrifying. Not long after that, I was at another beer festival at the Old Mo (also in Birmingham) and the morris dancers were outside and the beers were outside so I rushed into the beer garden to get the beers in between sets and settled at a table safely indoors (or so I thought) but there was a tv monitor in the room showing the morris dancers. Soon after that I was on a bus and I heard a little bell ringing and was triggered – were these morris dancers stalking me? – but it was just a bell on a girl’s bag. Even now – years later – the sound of a bell triggers me. And, frankly, I just don’t ‘get’ dance. So, sorry Brian, you aren’t going to sell this to me. Here’s a video if you’re interested to see what rapper sword dancing is but I haven’t watched it because I can’t bear to.
I was pleased to be interrupted from this image of morris dancers by a man who approached our table.
‘Excuse me – are you Jane? I love your blogs. They’re essential reading for beer lovers, just like Martin’s.’
This was Paul from Chester and his remarks underlined to Kieran and Jim (who’d never head of me) that my blog was worth looking up. I handed out my card to make sure they remembered.
Paul sold the virtues of Chester pretty well and tried to demonstrate that it wasn’t really that difficult to get to from Sheffield. I’m overdue a visit to Chester, too, having not visited since my first ever Hotpots gig, which was in the pre-blog days. Perhaps I’ll add it to my close season itinerary (along with Blackpool East).
Right – onwards to the traditional (compulsory) last stop of any Wigan pub crawl…
I attempted to buy a round in here but my new friends weren’t having any of it. I didn’t protest too hard. I couldn’t get anywhere near the always-busy bar to photograph the pump clips for you so here’s a snapshot of my Untappd checkin instead.
And here are the taps, which I could see from my vantage point.
The pub was very busy but we managed to secure a free table in the back room. It was reserved for Diane at 1900 but that wasn’t for another half an hour so we’d be all right for a bit. We settled down and chatted more about beer and football and all was right with the world. Today was a delightful day in my happy place with lovely people and great beers. What’s not to love about that?
We were politely moved on from our table by staff at 1900 after two beers (I think). Somehow I lost the others on the way back through to the next room (I went to the Ladies, they went to Wallgate Chippy on my recommendation). I went to say hello to the Blackpool bunch but soon noticed I was being frantically beckoned over by a man at the next table. I went over to see what he wanted. This was Andy, a Blackpool fan who lives in Wigan, who wanted a selfie with me. I dread to think how that turned out as I was at the end of a two-day sesh, although it seemed to look ok at the time.
As I waited on the platform at Wigan North Western, a man enquired:
‘Is it you?’
What is it about Wigan that I get recognised EVERYWHERE? This did make me chuckle. Perhaps if I keep writing about Wigan so enthusiastically I might get a statue there one day.
I managed to convince Gary et al to join me on the 1918 train home as this was the posh national train with tables and everything. Well, dear reader, not only did this one have tables but it had magic chargers on the tables.
It was like we were in the future. Or at Rugby Services.
What a brilliant couple of days that had been. Every time I go to Wigan I fall in love with the town and its people a whole lot more. Thank you Wigan Beer Festival for being a thing and an excuse to go to Wigan. And Wigan, just keep being Wigan. Lots of love and see you soon (for the Hotpots winter tour, if not before).
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Next Up: Manchester GBG Crawl #7.