Friday, 16 December 2011

Greyfriars, Friargate, Preston

‘20 blokes dressed in miniskirts and dresses who walk into a bar….’
No, there isn’t a punch line this was just Greyfriars on a Wednesday.
Fortunately, I’ve been into this Wetherspoons pub before so I was mentally prepared for whatever rabble may await behind the big double doors.
‘They’ll catch their deaths dressed like that’, I thought as I picked my way around Wonderbra William and Tottering Tony.
Hidden in a corner set back from the cross-dressers was the Evening Post’s sports desk night out which was in full swing by the time I arrived.
In breaks between the main topic of conversation, Preston North End manager Phil Brown’s departure, my mind drifted worryingly back to the Men In Pink (MIP).
In most pubs, I realised, their presence would have turned most the locals’ beer sour.
But because the building had clearly been designed with a space rocket dealership in mind, there was plenty of room for people to keep out the way.
While the pub lacks history and character, it gives a great showing on the real ales.
In the interests of scientific research I attempted to count the number of pumps which stretch along the enormous bar but it proved too traumatic to try to shimmy around MIP.
So, I asked the barman for a pint of Ruddles and he asked me for just £1.65.
‘Thank you’, I said warmly. Adding in my head ‘You’ve just put me in the Christmas spirit for the first time’.
Next to me at the bar two elderly ladies stood waiting to order their drinks and had got chatting to MIP.
‘But I had to dress like this’, the lad said.
‘Now come on, next time you tell them it’s your party and you’re not going to wear that’, the lady said in a mock angry tone.
‘I could almost hear her adding ‘I’ve seen it all now, literally!’
I left happy at having enjoyed a good, honestly priced festive pint and was warmed by the realisation that if 20 blokes walk into a bar dressed in miniskirts and dresses, it at least gives the locals something to laugh about.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ship Inn, Fylde Road, Preston

When I talk to friends who studied at UCLan over the past decade many of them reminisce about great times aboard the Ship; the most recognisable pub in Preston on account it was painted orange.
For one or two of them to have eulogised about it, I could have put down to rose-tinted memories of happy times at university.
Lets face it you can have a good time pretty much anywhere you go during those student years.
Yet proclamations of ‘great’, ‘brilliant’ or ‘good laugh’ came far too frequently for me to dismiss their claims.
But when I arrived in Preston in 2007, all I found was an odd looking spray tanned building packed with big kids’ entertainment like punch bags and games consoles.
It was certainly crammed from wall-to-wall with every diversion imaginable to draw the students in.
But, it always seemed to be a bit of an uphill battle to keep them there and the pub seemed to be fast running out of space for gimmicks and attractions.
So, I was really pleased when a year or so ago they shut the pub and gave it a complete overhaul.
Gone was the David Dickinson tint along with all of the ‘attractions’ inside.
Instead they replaced pretty much every fixture and fitting, to create a clean, tidy and tasteful pub which would be as acceptable to your gran as it would an 18-year-old fresher.
They even installed three real ale pumps and improved the rear outside area with nice new seating and heaters.
But for some reason which I cannot quite fathom, it does not seem to have quite worked.
When Miss Chardonnay Sidekick and I visited on Wednesday there was no real ale available, though Miss Chardonnay said her wine was nice.
Neither were there any customers, save for one or two scattered around, though I think at least a couple of them were employed to operate the redundant karaoke machine.
I was also a little concerned to see the sort of tat returning which had been wisely swept away in the pub’s revamp.
Items such as lilos stuck above the bar and models of little ghoul skulls randomly dotted around the place did not bode well.
There is a board outside the pub advertising the tenancy and it seems to me almost everything is in place for it to be the student venue of choice once more.
Lilos aside it looks smart, has plenty of seating, a small stage for bands and an outdoor area.
All it needs is a bit of imagination to drag the students back and a little consistency to keep them there.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Market Tavern, Market Street, Preston

Elevated above the rest of us on a perfectly groomed whinnying high horse, the self-satisfied among our number may peer down their nose from time-to-time, to offer a little of the wisdom which has kept them galloping on such a formidable stallion.
‘Ahh but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ they say, closing one eye ever so slightly to emphasise the gravity in their words.
Imagine for a moment if we didn’t judge a book by its cover and instead took everything we saw at face value.
I would be bulk buying cans of a leading brand deodorant with the expectation a couple of sprays would bring hundreds of girls flocking to my door.
The £20,000 administration fee I handed over to a nice chap on the phone who promised to deal with my Nigerian lottery win would seem very reasonable considering I was set for a £15bn windfall.
And every time spam email dropped into my junk mail box promising various mental and physical improvements, would be moments for rejoicing.
So, whenever I have walked past the Market Tavern and saw groups of homeless people doing nothing worse than using nearby alleys to get out of the rain, or the Squires nightclub crowd congregating at the front, I have immediately been put off and gone elsewhere.
But on Friday night after a meal out with Miss Chardonnay Sidekick we decided it was a night for trying places which are not on our usual drag.
Inside we found the pub clean, cosy and welcoming, as far a cry from my snapshot judgement as it could possibly be.
There are comfortable chairs on a raised seating area, as well as several booths and nooks tucked away in corners of the pub.
In the ‘Olde Worlde Preston History Championships’ The Market Tavern has put up a strong showing with old pictures and histories of individual buildings and significant historic figures.
I got a pint of Double Amber which had found its way down from the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh and settled down for a relaxing pint in a pub which was busy but far from overrun.
Supping down my pint while sitting comfortably in my high backed chair, it was all going very nicely until that perfectly pruned high horse cantered into mind.
‘I told you so’, high horse rider proclaimed with a wink.
‘Damn it you’re right’ I growled.
‘What’s that?’ Miss Chardonnay Sidekick asked, a little confused.
‘Oh nothing’, I replied. ‘But while I think about it, that chap never called me back today about my lottery win’.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Old Vic, Fishergate, Preston

Some years ago, when I first started at the Evening Post, I was sent into town on a Saturday afternoon to get a poll of people’s opinions on a subject, known as a vox pop.
I can’t remember what the subject was, but I do very vividly remember it raining, being freezing cold and windy, which meant people were not in the mood for talking to the likes of me.
Try as I might to sound enthusiastic and engaging as the wind battered my face and chilled my soul, I could barely squeeze an opinion out of anybody.
Suddenly without me knowing, another part of my brain kicked in and took over proceedings.
Moments later people were spewing out opinions like they were going out of fashion – ‘And another thing…’
Within minutes I was approaching the required number of views when a stern voice cut me off mid-patter.
‘What do you think you are doing?’, the barman asked as I interrogated one of his customers.
‘I’m from the Evening Post I’m just having a chat with people to get a few views for Monday’s paper’.
He stood staring at me arms folded, clearly unimpressed.
‘Why do you mind?’ I asked.
‘Bit late now if I do ain’t it pal’ he barked back.
‘Fair enough well I’m done now anyway, see you later’ I replied, before skipping out of the The Old Vic, with a pledge to myself, I would not return.
People say I am a stubborn chap but I can categorically state this is absolutely not true.
But return I did not, for quite some years until when I was walking past one day I realised the barman had been well within his rights to be miffed and was simply doing his job properly by challenging odd folk like me stalking about the place.
So, after snacking on a big slice of humble pie and custard, I went back to see what I had been missing.
I immediately regretted having given the place a wide birth for so long.
Inside, the pub is adorned with wooden beams and features, which under many coats of paint, look authentic and unaltered.
It is much bigger inside than its frontage suggests but, with separate seating areas around the central bar, it feels nicely cosy.
There are also plenty of television screens dotted around the pub which show live sport including 3D football, the merits of which I am yet to be convinced.
Having already achieved most of my limited criteria, I was also pleased there was a good selection of real ales and I sat down with a pint from the Three B’s Brewery in Blackburn, delighted at having found a bit of a gem on my doorstep.
I just wish I’d swallowed my pride earlier.
Is that stubborn?   

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Saddle Inn, Sidgreaves Lane, Lea, Preston

Two years ago The Saddle Inn  was closed down, overgrown and looked every bit to have served its last pint like so many other rural pubs.
Now it has been officially named the Best Family Pub in Britain, in the Great British Pub Awards. 
A bigger turnaround you could not possibly hope to see.      
Since reopening Graham and Angela Rowson have been steadily rebuilding their customer base, while renovating its extensive interior and grounds.
Now, the inside looks tidy and understated with a dining area and separate pool table section, with flat-screen televisions dotted around the pub.
Outside, the huge garden and lawn has been completely transformed, with a wide range of children’s activities and facilities.
During countless afternoons spent in pub beer gardens as a child, while my parents snook a cheeky pint or two, the best I could have hoped for was a rusty climbing frame or swing.
But at The Saddle they have decked out the large lawn out with a range of play equipment, mini football pitches and a mini golf green.
He also has pens for various cuddly-looking creatures and a beginners petanque/bowling green.      
It is the first pub I have seen with a separate building providing baby changing facilities as well as quirky ‘parking spaces’ for horses.
There is an extensive car park at the front of the pub which enables Graham to host a range of events such as car club meets.
When I stopped in, a motorhome was parked and hooked up to the pub’s electricity supply, while the campers enjoyed a few pints of real ale and some dinner inside.

At that moment I stopped in my tracks and finally understood the lure of the campervan.
If I go away on holiday, it is invariably under the cover of canvas, and I have found myself quietly sneering at the mobile retirement homes.
But, with plenty of real ale, a night in the pub and a bed right outside the front door, it all began to make sense.
A nice pint of guest ale has to be raised to Graham and Angela for saving a pub from becoming a soleless housing estate, and turning it into a national champion.

Fox and Grapes, Fox Street, Preston

If you have never stopped into the Fox and Grapes, my advice is to go along on Tuesday December 6. The good old cliché goes, first impressions last and if ever there is a night for good impressions, it is then.
Why a blustery cold Tuesday in November?
Well because on the first Tuesday of every month the pub holds its cult ‘For Fox Sake’ comedy night.
The free night, which is hosted by long-time compere Alan Donegan, manages to attract high profile comedians more used to performing on big stages, television and radio, rather than in the corner of a small pub.
But come these wits do in their droves, to try out their new material before performing on much larger stages around the North West.
A compere who knows many of the regulars and doles out merciless one-liners to them in between performances from some really sharp comedians, makes for a great atmosphere and a brilliant night.
And best of all its free. Well the comedy is, you still have to pay for the drinks but on that front there are always a good couple of real ales to choose from.
Inside every inch of wall space is covered with a clutter of beer mats, flags, pictures, foreign banks notes and countless other random items.
The first time I went into the pub I thought ‘That’s a bit much’.
Then when I got home with an aching jaw from laughing so much, I looked at the wardrobe and realised I was in the process of building myself a similar assorted collection.  
The pub also has a juke box, table football and television at the back but retains a strong feeling of tradition.
Having eulogised so long about the monthly comedy night, you could be forgiven for thinking it is the only night it is worth your while visiting the place.
This is not the case but if ever there was chance to give a lasting first impression, it is the first Tuesday of the month.

Kuckoo, Fox Street, Preston

Anybody who follows my weekly ramblings will have guessed I am a man of simple pleasures.
Real ale, traditional pubs and a bit of atmosphere and/or big screen football just about covers my spectrum of taste.
Fortunately across Preston and Lancashire I have discovered many opportunities to indulge this passion.
“Old before your time” some say of me, while others chime in with unfounded accusations of a “belligerent refusal to try anything new”.
But on a Friday evenings, as I nestle down in a corner close to an open fire with a nice pint of real ale, I can’t help smiling at the naivety of these delusional fools.
But, of late, these moments of epiphany have been followed by an irritating nagging sensation, of there being something I should have done.
Something you have happily ignored but remains, loitering at the back of your mind, like an overdue visit to a distant relation you don’t really like.
So, with a heavy heart I abandoned hopes of real ale and tap rooms, and headed into Preston; destination somewhere ‘different’.
I headed along Church Street and quickly turned back, cursing myself for such folly.
I was ready to give it all up and head home, content at least that I had tried, when I remembered Kuckoo, on Fox Street.
I knew it was new, trendy and had no real ale. It sounded perfect so I gave it a go.
Inside, a virtue has been made of darkness or at least a premium put on lighting with sweeps of red seating, to create some sort of gothic boudoir fusion.
The bar predominantly serves cocktails and, looking at the menu, I tried not to work out how many pints I could have had in the Blue Bell (four) for the price of one cocktail.
But, watching the barman perform a ritual of twisting, turning, throwing and shaking as he prepared my drink, it was clear cocktails are serious business here.
I intended to stay for one drink before retreating back to one of my safety zones but I kept on hitting a stumbling block; the music.
Throughout the evening the bar consistently played great indie and rock tunes which cannot help but brighten up an evening.
Before I knew it, several more perfectly prepared cocktails had slipped down and the most of the evening had gone.
At its height the bar was packed solid, but unlike some places in the city centre, the atmosphere always remained relaxed and friendly.
I left after midnight happy at having enjoyed a really good night out but simultaneously grumpy as those chiming voices came flooding into my head.
“Told you so”,  they said.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Mad Ferret, Fylde Road, Preston

I have never been interested in these Warcraft type games where people spend hours painting little funny shaped figures with mystical powers, in preparation for imaginary wars. I just didn’t get it.
But on the other hand, if they were to swap fat goblins for pubs, then I would be right on it.
Each city or town entering ‘Pub Craft’ would put forward four or five venues with particular strengths, assets or features, to do battle with the best offerings from other areas.
The winner would, of course, rule the world and all the beer in it.
Now, you may well scoff at the idea, ‘It’s ridiculous’ I hear you say, ‘We’ve not got the numbers to rival our more illustrious North West neighbours, let alone the world.
‘But wait a minute’, I reply, ‘Pub Craft is not about sheer volume of run-of-the-mill boozers, it is a battle of the very finest pubs with specific specialist powers.
And I think Preston would boast Pub Craft elite fighting force to rival any.
For sport and real ale you have the Old Black Bull on Friargate.
The Black Horse, also on Friargate, would give most pubs a run for tradition and atmosphere.
The Continental, on South Meadow Lane, has got the culture category wrapped up  and The Saddle Inn, in Lea, has more outdoor attractions than a theme park.
But, in the all important live music category, The Mad Ferret, on Fylde Road could face any similar venue without shame or fear.
Many places will stick on a live band to bash out a few covers on a Friday night to sell a few more pints, but here is a pub whose owner clearly has a real passion for live music.
Throughout the week, every week, music fans pack the pub to hear live bands playing original material.
From rookie musicians having their first taste of live performance at the open mic night, to popular signed acts or more obscure experimental music, it is all covered in a week’s line-up.
One of things which has surprised me since I have been going is how much of it is free.
There have been numerous occasions I have walked home after seeing three really good acts thinking I would have been happy to pay to go in.
Then again, I think I probably just had a couple of extra pints to compensate.
Set across from the students’ union The Mad Ferret is inevitably a big draw for many students but it should not put off music fans of any age.
Preston’s nightlife may fall short in volume and variety but with our elite battalion of Pub Craft World Champions marauding ever onwards, we can take comfort in the knowledge that quality is better than quantity.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Black Bull, Pope Lane, Penwortham

Foraging a hoppy trail of discovery across the country’s finest pubs, Camra those discerning connoisseurs of all things ale, search far and wide for perfection in a pint glass.
Taste, body, texture, temperature, these hawk-eyed experts can analyse it all in a gulp.
And, in scenes reminiscent of film Gladiator when deposed General Maximus Decimus Meridius, (Russell Crowe), stands in the Coliseum waiting to learn his fate at the raising or lowering of his thumb, their rulings are the final word in pubs and beer.
If you were to somehow swap Crowe for a plucky landlord trying to make sure his beer his kept ‘chiller cool’ and Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) with a chap holding a clip board and possibly sporting a beard, you will get the idea.
So, where marauding force leads, I follow at a safe distance like a peasant feeding off their scraps.
One of the new entries into Camra’s Good Beer Guide empire is The Black Bull, tucked away in a corner of Penwortham.
Having never been before, I was struck by its appearance, which resembles a rural pub in a quaint country village, as opposed to its actual home, plonked among hundreds of houses and a row of shops. 
Then on the inside, I was a little surprised again, that with a swathe of green paint across all the walls from waist height downwards, the interior did not quite match the impression I formed moments earlier.
After a scoot around the pub my friends and I found one of the few remaining unoccupied tables and I settled down for a pint of Moorhouse’s Blond Witch, chosen to toast the sun having emerged for the first time that day.
The pub was comfortably busy when we arrived early last Saturday evening and a steady stream flowed through the door and straight to the bar throughout the evening.
With friendly staff, a good atmosphere and crucially for the Camra battle chiefs, up to  four well-kept real ales, The Black Bull has based its success on the real values a pub should hold, without resorting to fancy revamps or new-look images.
A valued and honourable foot soldier for the Camra battalions indeed.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Sun Inn, Windy Street, Chipping

I recently went for a cycle ride into the Ribble Valley, but as soon as I hit Chipping,  and the Sun Inn, I knew my ride could well be over after just a few measly miles.
I stood outside gazing as families, friends and locals ambled in for a pint and a spot of Sunday dinner, realising their afternoon’s plans were infinitely more appealing than mine.
I would like to say it was willpower alone which kept me away, but in reality I realised there probably would not be many buses to get me home again on a Sunday.
So, with a vow to return, I ploughed on into the countryside where I soon faced the same dilemma at the next village pub.
Ignoring the fact they ruin a good Sunday cycle ride, it is great there are still so many appealing country pubs close to Preston and their survival depends on cyclists and walkers stopping off for a drink or ending their outing with a meal.
But the Sun Inn has an ace up its sleeve which no other pub can boast –a ghost called Lizzie Dean!
Legend has that in the 19th century Lizzie, who was a scullery maid was tricked into bed by a young rogue on the promise of marriage.
With the deed done, he then married her best friend which prompted Lizzie to hang herself in the attic of the pub.
She is said to have left a suicide note requesting she be buried at the front of the church so her lover and best friend must walk past every time they go to church.
Lizzie’s ‘presence’ at the pub has attracted ghost hunters and groups from far and wide, generating lots of welcome publicity in the pub.
They have even gone as far as naming a dining room after her, making a virtue of her, well loss of virtue.
For those not taken with ghosts there are traditional pub games, books to borrow and lots of real ale and hearty looking meals, there is plenty to recommend the Sun Inn.
On the Sunday afternoon we visited, it was so busy there were no seats left and we found ourselves in the yard at the back.
But with a nice pint of Black Sheep and no bicycle to drag me away, I was set for the afternoon.

*Congratulations to all the pubs which have been named in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, including the Running Pump in Catforth.
The Saddle Inn, in Sidgreaves Lane, Lea, Preston, has also been named the UK’s Best Family Pub, in the Great British Pub Awards – a fantastic achievement.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Jumping in a lake - a sobering experience

Regular visitors to this blog will be well aware I like pubs and I invest a lot of my spare time in pursuit of the finest examples.
While a top sportsman like Wayne Rooney would consider himself ‘in the zone’ as he lets fly an unstoppable shot, my equivalent would be nestled next to an open fire with a good pint of Black Sheep.
So it will come as no surprise to hear that doggy paddling across a freezing lake in Scotland, or hauling my carcass around a running course, are not activities which naturally agree with me.
But on Saturday September 24 I am travelling up to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Swim, a 2km outdoor swim in the icy cold Strathclyde Lock.
I will then be jumping into a car and travelling back down to Preston to take part in the Preston 10k run the following morning.
The third leg of my challenge will be to remain standing for long enough after the run to make it to the nearest pub!
So far my training has resulted in a sprained ankle, which as I write is strapped up with frozen peas – all has gone to plan so far!
I am doing these events in memory of my dad Brian, who died of pancreatic cancer five years ago, at the age of 56.
While many cancers have seen brilliant progress in diagnosis and survival rates, pancreatic cancer which has the lowest survival rate of any cancer, has seen no such improvements.
I am raising cash for the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund and if anyone would like to donate at it would be very much appreciated.
If anyone would like to know more about pancreatic cancer and the research which is being conducted into it can visit

Many thanks Ben

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Lamb and Packet, Friargate, Preston

They say university is a chance to reinvent yourself.
For some going to away to study represents a long-awaited chance to break free from old routines, habits and friends, to start afresh.
For others it is an opportunity to do something different, a hair cut perhaps or a whole new wardrobe.
But others take more drastic measures in the days and weeks before they leave to begin their degrees, overhauling all of the above and much more, creating an entirely new persona to parade in front of strangers who don’t know any different.
Of the people I have known take a ‘personality reboot’ the success rate has been mixed.
Some, you can immediately tell look really good and feel happy, while others are clunking around in heavy leather boots with nose piercings which have gone septic.
So when the Lamb and Packet reopened after a summer overhaul I was keen to see which route it had taken.
I am seldom shocked walking into a pub because there is generally, very little to be shocked about, but shocked I was.
The entire interior has been completely stripped out, leaving not a single shred of the old place.
Instead it has been painted a kind of beige colour with bright lighting, high stools, sweeping corner seats and a stylishly tiled floor which all combines to create a clean, airy modern bar.
In terms of a personality reboot, the Lamb and Packet’s has been monumental.
From being a stalwart Friargate drinkers’ pub, unchanged and seemingly unchangeable, it has become the ultra sharp, chic bar of a post-smoking ban era.
For a while I lamented the sweeping away of a traditional pub’s character.
But as I worked my way through my pint of Thwaites Wainwright, I came round to thinking there could not be too many people who will miss the old place, otherwise it would not have had to change.
There was one major drawback however, which jarred horribly with me – the music.
I didn’t notice it so much when I first went in, so taken aback I was with the pub’s new look, but with disco beats and happy/scratty/ yappie pop tunes blaring out, it was hard to ignore for long.
I went back a second time, praying I had caught it at a bad moment, but instead found myself tearing my hair out a second time.
For me, when it is late afternoon something a little quieter would be better and if they feel the need to roll out the disco beats, at least wait until Saturday night when people are in the mood.
With this ultra fresh facelift and an enticingly cheap food menu, the Lamb and Packet seems to be reaching out for the students who are about to converge on the city with freshly replenished loans and their latest new looks to flaunt.
It was a brave move taking such an extreme shift in image and despite the music, I am sure this is one personality reboot which is here to stay.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Running Pump, Catforth Road, Catforth

Anyone who drinks regularly in a busy city centre pub will become accustomed to an unwritten, unspoken, maybe even subconscious code of practice, which should steer them away from bother, towards a good night out.
This ‘code’ for which I cannot think of an amusing name, contains rudimentary guidance such as ‘Do not go and sit at someone’s table you don’t know unless they invite you’, ‘Do not insist you want your beer in a jug with a handle on it’ or ‘Do not tie your dog up outside because it will either be clamped or stolen’.
There are, of course, variations and some codes are inevitably more effective than others.
Before I had even got the bar at the Running Pump I was faced with a dilemma which went against the grain, jarring horribly with my code that has served me so well.
Coat hooks. A line of them. All out away from view of the bar and the seating areas. 
‘If you leave anything out of your sight in a pub then don’t start sobbing when it disappears’, is one of the rules I live by.
But there were already a couple of coats which had been left there hanging, vulnerable and unguarded. So I thought ‘When in Catforth….
The 300-year-old pub was packed and we had to wait to get a seat but it was great to see a rural pub busy, with so many of them dropping off the map, including the Bay Horse just down the road.
Eventually, the perfect seat became free right next to the bar and close to a well-established open fire, I was made up.
In the two main bar areas there seems to have been a real effort to preserve much of its original character, rather than replacing features with modern, rustic-looking decoration, while a side room which holds a pool table, is a little more modern.
After enthusiastically seeing off a pint of Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, I stood up to get in a pint of Unicorn, when I noticed a plaque on the wall above the seat which read ‘Old Farts Corner’.
A premonition perhaps but why fight it?
I had such a good night I forgot I had been away from my sweaty old coat all evening but it was, of course, still there.


The Black Bull, Garstang Road, Preston

If a pub was to be judged on floor space alone, this pub would win hands down.
It is an enormous hulk of a place. You could set up a department store in it and still have plenty space left over.
But if you go into the pub on a Friday night you will immediately realise every metre of this ‘super-size me pub’ is needed.
It is often packed solid with jolly drinkers, many of whom I am told make a weekly Friday pilgrimage from Garstang. I always thought there one or two decent pubs in and around Garstang but, the Black Bull it seems, is serving the pint of choice.
Maybe it is because it is the only pub which can hold so many of them, I don’t know.
Inside, the pub is thoroughly modern, light and bright without slipping into the trap of slabs of offensive chrome and mirrors everywhere. Given the choice I would always pick a traditional pub but here is a place which is clean, modern and thoroughly welcoming.
Part of its draw is an almost aggressive array of discount meal menus which helps put hundreds of bottoms on seats.
I was speaking to an old chap whose grandchildren took him into the pub for a meal during the winter. He got a table next to one of the ultra trendy but genuine open coal fires and ‘had the best tea I’ve ad in’t ages.’
 In fairness he doesn’t get out very much but the pub which is slap in the middle of Fulwood and perfect for a stop-off.
Outside the pub has a reasonably sized beer garden which includes large umbrellas, heaters and a smoking shed.
On one of the main roads between Preston and the motorway it won’t be the most peaceful pint you ever swig but there always seems to be plenty of people there when I go past on a sunny day.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Guild, Fylde, Preston

My intrepid weekly jaunts have so far taken me out to sup pints in a wide range of venues, from wonky-windowed old country pubs, to bargain-priced sports bars and, ahem, ‘suburban gastro’ pubs.
But, there is one very important element right at the heart of our city’s nightlife, which I have so far neglected to include - the student pub.
It cannot be overstated how much Preston relies on the ever-increasing flow of students pouring into the city laden with student loans, which are very quickly exchanged for drinks and big old night outs.
In the vicinity of the University of Central Lancashire there are a glut of pubs which cater for just these people.
Your archetypal student pub is not hard to spot, it is usually painted a funny colour on the outside and packed with funky furniture on the inside.
If in any doubt as to the intended audience, look out for big kids’ toys like a punch machine or arcades.
I decided to head for The Guild because I knew they would be serving at least two real ales and the ‘entertainment’ machines had been removed.
It is a big  imposing pub with lots of seating areas, including leather seats ideal for sinking back to force someone else to get in a round.
There are also screens dotted around the pub showing live sports including Premier League football.
But when a match is on, the seats particularly the lazy leather numbers, are taken quickly.
For me the best feature of the pub is a television screen which is set above a double doors facing through a window outside.
It means that on a fine day you can sit under the covered terraced area or on one of the benches behind and enjoy a match without missing a rare day of sunshine.
The ‘outdoor screen’ is limited in that you have to be square on to get a good view, so you will need to get there early to get a good seat.
But then again you will be sitting out in the sun so it doesn’t really matter.
In fact as far as outdoor drinking goes, the pub has much more space and many more benches than any of its neighbouring venues.
So if you want to take inside outside, this might be the place to go.

Ribble Pilot, Mariners Way, Preston

A group of friends and I once decided to pop into the Ribble Pilot for a quick pint before seeing a film at the Odeon.
It was one of those bad decisions which don’t have any bearing on your life whatsoever, but you rue them as if they had sent you into a spiral of decline.
Firstly the pub was awful. Tired, dreary, run-down and outdated, the bar maid chuntered her way through a quiz to a handful of disinterested drinkers, interspersed with lengthy breaks for great bails of tumble weed to roll on through.
My second regret was needing the toilet throughout the film.
But several months ago the Ribble Pilot, which is part of the ‘Two For One’ chain, closed for a long overdue refurbishment.
I expected a lick of paint and perhaps a new carpet but they really went all out with a major overhaul and extension.
Inside, the pub is now brighter and cleaner as you would expect, but the overriding first impression was how much bigger it seemed. A seemingly small extension onto the side has made a huge difference.
But I was more pleased with what the pub had done with the land surrounding it.
When I first moved to Preston I was really surprised more had not been made of the waterfront bar potential of Preston Dock.
It seemed to be crying out for a line of pubs, bars and restaurants charging over the odds for the same thing you can get in the city centre, except without the view – like Cardiff Bay.
Now at least the Ribble Pilot has cottoned on to this with extensive grassed seating areas around the pub, including a pergola and kids’ play area.
It may be hemmed into the corner of a retail park but it is a start.
Miss Chardonnay sidekick and I decided since we were popping in, early evening on a Friday, we would stay for tea.
So, with our beer garden waterside view secured (though thankfully not too close because the water is a bit green at the moment) we had a meal to welcome in the weekend.
Scanning the customers, I was surprised how many groups of young people were doing the same thing.
 Clearly dressed up for a night out, they were starting in the Ribble Pilot for a cheap dinner before heading out for a night on the tiles.
This certainly would not have happened a year ago.
The pub was also very busy which offers hope for The Waterfront pub which is currently closed but undergoing a major refurbishment.
It was recently damaged by fire but if they do a good job on the re-fit, it seems there is the customer-base to make it work.

The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston

Since starting this column I had repeatedly resisted the urge to review the Continental because it already receives lots of publicity in our newspaper and plenty more elsewhere.
But temptation, that most beguiling of mistresses, finally grasped a firm hold of me and whisked me to the bar, before I had a chance to protest.
When I first moved to Preston nearly four years ago I would regularly pass the pub on the way to a jog in the park and think what a great shame it was the place was shut.
With Avenham and Miller Parks on its doorstep and more importantly my house less than a mile away, it seemed to be in the perfect location.
It was though just a distant dream and I fully expected it to be converted into ‘stylish riverside apartments’.
So when the pub’s grand opening arrived I was rejoicing and calling for a city-wide Bank Holiday to be declared.
Inside the decoration has been kept clean, simple and airy, making it an inviting environment for a meal out with the family or a pint with friends.
The owners have also got it right in the beer garden, with a large grassed area and simple flower beds with lots of patio seating and covered areas with heating.
On a sunny day the conservatory and garden a real draw for everyone from park strollers, to runners, cyclists and of course many of my fellow real ale enthusiasts.
The pub goes all out on its ales and always has a wide selection on offer.
If I was to pick a fault here it would be a real struggle but I would say they stock too many golden ales, where I prefer a slightly darker beer.
But, with all that eulogising done I am only half way through the story, probably less.
Based at the pub is an independent company called They Eat Culture which uses a converted kids’ play room to put on everything from plays, to live music, writing classes and comedy.
From nothing, this organisation has become one of Lancashire’s leading lights for attracting and showcasing creative talent.

Ye Olde Blue Bell, Church Street, Preston

This week I have travelled back in time and fallen head over heels in love.
In case you were worrying I have not auditioned for a re-make of a shameful ‘comedy’ in which Nicholas Lyndhurst travels through a random time portal to the Second World War, and pretends he is a secret agent.
No, this is the real thing because I went and spent the evening in Ye Olde Blue Bell.
After just a matter of moments within, I was smitten; my heart was stolen.
And what could possibly capture the affection of such a, ahem, discerning drinker?
Well the price. A pint of real ale cost me just £1.60 and my friend’s lager weighed in at £1.91, meaning the round came to an astounding £3.51.
To think, for almost four years I have been traipsing the city’s pubs and never realised that within 20 minutes of my front door was a real portal to a decade ago or more which would, no doubt have the aforementioned time traveller trotting up north to give it a whirl.
Mr Lyndhurst (I’ll persist with the awkward analogy now) would no doubt be bowled over with the incredible time-travel themed prices which must be the lowest in Preston.
But he may also point out the white-washed exterior walls looked like they had last been painted when the average price of beer was £1.60.
I would tell him in no uncertain terms to stop being so rude point out its external appearance is a ploy to deter those who are not worthy of voyaging back to an era before every pint of beer was strangled with tax.
And if that didn’t work I’d tell him I’m not taking him in.
Aside from the bargain prices inside the Samuel Smiths pub, it is clean and tidy with lots of seating areas and snugs, which again seems to hang onto its original layout and character.
I can’t quite describe the colour of the walls and there are some interesting figurines dotted about the place but all things considered, from now on I will be jumping back into the Blue Bell time machine as often as possible.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Wellington, Glover's Court, Preston

After several years spent in and around the pubs of Preston I like to think I have got to grips with the nightlife here; where to get a good pint of ale or watch a match and which places to avoid at all costs.
To me walking down a high street and knowing where everything is, shops, pubs or the Post Office, is the mark of knowing a place.
But a recent conversation with an 87-year-old gentleman called Bob Lang, who has lived here all his life, made me realise my ‘local knowledge’ was barely a superficial scratch on the surface.
“I’m off to the Wellington”, I said.
“I used to drink in their on leave during the war.
“As you walked in there was a little bar on the right, it was only four-feet wide and the landlord would sit there and take the money from the customers while his wife was rushing around the place.
“It was a good place with a homely atmosphere, it was not a regular town pub in those days.
“There were houses all around and no flats, so there were lots of local people going in.”
Today, the pub Bob frequented while on leave from the Merchant Navy, cannot rely on bringing in local residents, partly because many of the streets which clustered nearby have gone.
Now discount drinks offers like pitchers of cocktails for £6.50 adorn the walls and an impressively sized juke box draws in the hordes for pre-club drinks, or a Saturday night stop-off.
But while the core of its clientele has changed, from the description Bob gave me, the pub’s layout may not be so different.
On many a night out I have found myself sitting in the small tap room at the front keeping out of the way of the crowd, warming myself in front of the open fire during the winter months.
In fact, viewed in this light the whole pub seems to hang pleasingly onto its traditional character.
You might not have had bonanza Tequila offers or such like during Bob’s day, but I imagine if he was to walk back in today, there would be enough of the old place to evoke a few happy memories of wartime comradeship and battles to beat the American GIs to the bar.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Sun Hotel, Friargate, Preston

At long last the football season is upon us, the waiting is over.
The concept of ‘summer’ with long, lazy, free weekends to stroll in parks or laze in the sun is all well and good but in Britain it just doesn’t work.
Perhaps you will get a scorching hot day or two during the week which may raise hopes for a weekend of spirit-lifting sun, only for it to turn grey, miserable and uninspiring by Friday.
There are only so many disappointments one can take before losing faith in the heady romantic ideal that is summer.
Before long we are counting down the weekends before the start of the football season so we can forget all about sandcastles and sun cream.
A week ago proceedings, finally, proceedings got underway.
After going up to Carlisle on the Saturday to see my team Notts County play, a few friends and I headed into Preston on the Sunday to watch the Community Shield and headed for Sun Hotel, on Friargate.
Strangely for a pub in Preston city centre, I could not recall ever having been into it before and despite teetering right in the centre of the student area, it was filled with a healthy amount of thirsty regulars.
Taking aside a closely fought Manchester derby on the big screen, there is, in my opinion, a good reason the pub was so busy; it has been maintained as a locals’ pub.
While some in the area have been ripped up, torn apart, revamped and re-styled with bright colours and silly gimics, Sun Hotel has remained a simple straight forward pub.
It is quite a small place compared with somewhere like O’Neill’s nearby but has plenty of seating, a big screen with Sky Sports, a pool and table and several real ales.
With scarves around the pool table it also pledges its allegiance to Glasgow Celtic FC while much of the rest of the wall space it given over to those ubiquitous old scenes of Preston.
The notable difference here with every other pub in Preston is the pictures are also accompanied by good pieces of local history which are certainly worth a pause for thought.
With the Premier League about to roll into its second weekend and the weather urging us to forget it is August, the one place you might just find some summer fun is by sitting back and relaxing in the Sun.

Merchants 1688, Castle Hill, Lancaster

In my experience the moment one steps from the platform edge onto a train, they effectively agree an unbinding, legally unenforceable contract which risks everything and promises little.
It says something like in return for the possibility of a seat, a nice view and a chance to read your book for half an hour, we (the rail network) are going to make you absolutely no guarantee you will get to your destination at any time resembling the appointed hour we offered to you just moments ago.
So when I boarded the train at Preston Station I was not surprised to hear it would be delayed leaving because another was delayed coming from Birmingham and its passengers needed to get on the Preston train.
So, when I came to change at Lancaster, my connection which was not half as important as one from Birmingham, had long since grunted out the station by the time I arrived.
With one hour to kill I started wandering towards the city centre when I hit upon the Merchants.
 ‘I need go no further’ I told myself with a smile and headed straight for the bar.
The interior is made up of a network of windowless cellars, into which are placed rows of tables and chairs with a pool table in end cellar.
It was inevitably dark and slightly gloomy but it captured the atmosphere of such an unusual building perfectly.
It could have been brightened up with more lighting but then what would you be left with? Strip lighting in a load of tunnels.
No, with the gloom and glimmer and darkened corners, it feels every bit the authentic pub of yesteryear.
But it was a lovely day, so after selecting one of the five real ales on offer, I headed out the front to find a spot in the sun.
With flowerbeds and shrubbery, the small front seating area is very pleasant but for me the magic of this pub is its unique interior.
I can just imagine it on a cold night in the depths of winter.
With a group of friends, a few pints and no windows to remind you of the driving rain outside, it must be a difficult place to leave.
 But leave I had to, to catch that train and as it goes I suppose I should thank those delayed passengers from Birmingham, for allowing this passing encounter with the Merchants of Lancaster.

Th'Owd Tithe Barn, Church Street, Garstang

Looking at Th’Owd Tithe Barn two things are immediately clear; firstly it is a very old building and second it clearly was not built as a pub.
Then again, I suppose those more perceptive than myself may have guessed that from the name, before they even arrived at the pub.
I had in my head it may have been some sort of early prototype for a city centre regeneration project featuring flagship stores and cinemas.
But in fact it is an old barn dating back to 1710 which was used for the storage of corn and only converted into a pub in 1973.
When you enter its agricultural heritage is made abundantly clear with a huge range of old farming equipment clamped to the walls.
Firmly fixed though they all undoubtedly are, there are some angry looking saw-type blades placed high above our heads, which would make cracking props in some sort of earthquake action or horror film, as they come crashing to the ground decapitating unsuspecting regulars.
“Cracking pint of Lancaster Bomber this”, regular Chris would say to his wife Regular Abi, as she begins to lift her glass to her mouth.
Pausing for a moment she replies; “Well you know me Regular Chris, I’m more of a….” and splat, she is skewered straight down the middle before she had the chance to voice her approval for one of the pub’s other real ales.
Being a former barn the roof is extremely high, giving it an airy feel and while the designers have gone to town on the agricultural theme, it stops it appearing vacuous.
The windows are also very small which stops much natural light getting in but with candles on every table and large open fires, a virtue is made of the lack of light, to create a cosy atmosphere.
I am a huge fan of a good beer garden and / or a cracking view and on this front Th’Owd Tithe Barn, set right on the bank of the Lancaster Canal, is hard to beat.
At the front of the pub facing the canal are rows of benches on a patio which sits directly next to the water.
With canal boats steadily easing into and out of moorings while ducks wander carefree on the bank, as others which were not so lucky are brought out on plates to hungry diners, makes the perfect setting for a relaxing afternoon pint.
On this occasion, we decided to sit inside and have a Sunday lunch which was tasty and plentiful but as soon as the sun comes back, I will be back down for a tranquil waterside pint.

Wheatsheaf, Water Lane, Ashton, Preston

The decline of a local pub often follows a familiar, slippery descent with accentuated with clawing grabs at survival as they descend unstoppably into the abyss.
First there may a drop in trade, followed by a couple of quick changes in management.
With the new face behind the bar failing to tempt stay-away customers back in, a series of quick attractions are hastily thrown together to turn the place around. But the arcade machine remains redundant and there are better quizzes around.
With men already outside measuring up the anti-vandal window guards, a desperate publican may turn to discounting, heavy discounting. When you see boards outside pleading for you to come in and get hammered and still have change from a tenner, the death call may not be far away.
So, when I handed the barman at the Wheatsheaf a £2 coin and he returned with a pint of Pride of Pendle and a small clutch of change, an alarm bell immediately rang.
But the thought was but momentary.
Independent brewery Amber Taverns bought the pub, a former Last Orders, a couple of years ago and seems to have made the pub into a major success.
The pub is big, open and clean with huge screens all around the place, literally showing wall-to-wall live sport.
With a guarantee of being able to get a good view of a game, groups of football supporters head straight for the pub on match days, while many five-a-side football teams will also traipse in after their games.
But the pub is more than a hulking great sports bar. Set close to a dense housing population in Ashton, it stands as a really good community pub, while others close down.
Old chaps will sit in a quiet corner (the same seat they have always sat in) reminiscing  about how ‘These Premier League lot these days are a soft bunch rolling on the floor’.   
Couples, young and old, will stop in for a drink or do battle in an organised games night.
While many suburban community pubs drop off the map, the Wheatsheaf shows, there is hope yet.