A few years ago, London Midland trains ran a promotion where they sold a day ticket covering their whole train network for £15. It was a genius idea which was rinsed by me on several occasions. It was ideal for beer trips, and one of these I took to Stafford. And I was so impressed I went back the next day on a mission to drink in four counties in one day using the train. (I succeeded, I just didn’t blog about it because it was towards a book that I then didn’t finish writing). As long time readers of this blog will know, my normal strategy for discovering pubs in an unfamiliar town is just to start walking and see what I find, because I’m lazy and don’t like using the data on my phone.
This time however, I was directed by a friend who had ticker’s knowledge, and a plan. I met Peter in the Euston Tap in 2017 and we hit it off because we’re both CAMRA people who were drinking Imperial Stouts in the middle of summer whilst bracketed on all sides by young hipsters in ripped jeans. Peter visited Runcorn and had a bad pint in my local, much to my distress, and we decided to meet up again for a trip to Stafford in February half term. We later realised that the only time we could both do was Valentine’s Day, and so with assent from Mrs Peter and accompanied by my cousin Mark (the one who fell over) we hit Stafford to celebrate the patron saint of lovers by drinking mild.
Our first stop was The Bird In Hand, a Black Country Ales pub. It was pleasingly normal and old fashioned with a handwritten beer list which wasn’t on a lightbox or a pegboard or a selection of taxidermied rabbits holding pump clips. You begin to appreciate these things when you visit as many trendy craft bars as I do. I had Pig on the Wall which was an OK mild – nothing special but perfectly drinkable.
As we were leaving we were convinced to take a loyalty card which would take us to pubs all over the country in order to win a Black Country Ales rugby shirt – it’s exactly the kind of fool’s errand I would have entered into if I was more inebriated but this being stop number one I just stuck it in the back pocket. In the olden days, before sensible drinking became the way of things, you would have been encouraged to neck 100 pints in three days or something to get your hands on this prized item. Now you need a camper van and six weeks off work.
Our next pub was The Swan Hotel which had the giant face of Clare Balding and an engraved frying pan behind the bar. I had half of The Hoard by Backyard Brewing and hummed the theme to Detectorists in my head. There was the sense of drinking in a corridor as the hotel had a front and back bar and continued off into forever. We had an in depth (twenty second) conversation about the recent changes to pump clips to make them less pornographic. Having agreed that Castle Rock were right to change their Elsie Mo branding to reflect that women actually flew planes in the war and didn’t tend to spend much time at home in swimming costumes stretching their legs up against the wall for no apparent reason, we headed to the Market Vaults where we were confronted by the spectre of Dizzy Blonde and their 50s pin-up. Plus ca change…
The Vaults had a bit of a tasty crowd in. There’s an element of bikerness about it but with no bikes outside. The menu was in that weirdly aggressive font which makes it look like the chef is clipping out newspaper headlines to disguise his own writing. That didn’t inspire confidence. They had named one of the burgers after Morrissey. I wasn’t sure if it was because it was vegetarian or filled with bile and becoming increasingly stale. They also had, in the words of The Simpson, ‘a whole buncha crazy crap on the walls’. I had a pint of Director’s and I Untappd rated it as four stars so let’s say that by this point I was getting on the way…
Every beer ticking trip will inevitably now involve at least one Spoons and this was our next calling point. The Butler’s Bell is very attractive inside, though it does have it’s own tiny prisons for some reason. I’m sure they come in useful at kicking out time, or maybe you could put children in them to keep them from annoying the auld men. Or rescue dogs could live there. So many options.
The Vine hotel looked pretty deserted when we entered – no-one behind the bar, no customers. Apparently it is haunted by the ghost of a young girl who appears in the mirror above the fireplace but in my humble opinion ghosts can either get behind the bar and serve weary tickers or begone into the netherworld. Eventually someone showed up and I was served a Banks’s amber bitter (no spirits).
On my last two trips to Stafford I visited the stunning Joules pub The Rose and Crown, our next destination. I love Joules as a pub brand, if it can be called that. The interiors are always quaint and knowingly parochial and the beer is great. This one in particular has some lovely wooden plaques with the names of Shakespeare plays dotted all around it, and an open fire. On the way out we were given pens as a free gift. Talk about gilding the lily! I’m not sure whether this soup dragon reference is for the band, the Clanger-friend, or something else – answers in comments please. I had a Slumbering Monk, as if this is even a question.
Next to the Shrewsbury Arms where we were given a warm welcome despite being an odd trio drinking halves. Leon the gaffer was an affable chap who told me a funny story about Australia which I have now forgotten, I think because they had beers called Wincle Waller and Wibbly Wallaby on. I had a Wibbly Wallaby and found it pleasantly hoppy. Ha! Feel free to give me a tip for that quality joke. And look at that bar back! Full colour coat of arms on the glass, a pleasant cherrywood (maybe) – what a beauty.
Now to the second Spoons of the day, and what a beauty it is. One of a few to have resurrected the previous incarnation of the building, the Picture House is still a cinema and as well as the regular screenings has an apt Spoons Carpet. (For more Spoons Carpets buy Mr Kit Caless’s book ‘Spoons Carpets : An Appreciation‘.
Apparently I had a pint of ‘Crooked Hooker’ in here, which was accompanied by a pump clip featuring a rugby player just in case anyone thought I had gone rogue and started drinking from sexist beer brands. I don’t really remember though as I was enchanted by my surroundings. There’s a box office! There’s a balcony! Lovely stuff. I was so delighted by the exterior I made Peter and Mark have a picture taken.
By this point, having not adhered strictly to the pub crawl recommended measure of a half pint, we were seeking sustenance, and so scurried to the Sun, a Titanic pub. Surely I had a plum porter in here, surely! Untappd says no, but I feel in my bones I did. The Sun sells giant burgers which are nigh on impossible to eat demurely – and mine came with chips and an egg. Whether I specially requested this egg I don’t recall, but it was very welcome. I didn’t take any pictures at this pub so here is a bonus one of us all in the Picture House, just to prove I was actually there.
Sadly we didn’t have enough time for the last pub on the list, the Floodgate Inn Micropub, as we had to catch a train back to Runcorn where the Spoons is called the Ferry Boat and is not a cinema. A return trip to Stafford is definitely required as not only is my memory patchy due to booze/a lot of drugs after breaking my wrist, but it’s truly one of the greatest pub cities of all time.