A Beer Weekend in Britain’s Most Popular Seaside Resort
May 29, 2003
Written by SilkTork
Blackpool, on the North-East coast of England sandwiched between Manchester and the Lake District, has been Britain’s most visited coastal resort since the late 19th century when train loads of factory and mill workers would take their annual holiday in the growing town. Three piers were built; a huge funfair with some of the world’s oldest and most famous roller-coaster rides; hundreds of hotels and guest houses; and, of course, loads and loads of pubs serving Northern beer.
A budget airline had recently opened a route to the tiny Blackpool Airport from London. With a promotion of flights for 1p plus tax to advertise the route this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. A whole weekend of sampling the frothy Northern style of bitter.
The CAMRA Good Beer Guide was dusted off and consulted, an internet search was done for Northern brewers with pubs in the town, and a friend in Blackpool was heavily quizzed. Notes were made and maps scrutinised. We were ready!
The Blackpool Rocks! weekend actually stretched from Saturday night to Tuesday night, with us arriving in Blackpool Airport at around 8.00 pm. The first night was spent at our friend’s house politely eating the rather nice meal he had prepared -- an agony of frustration because all I really wanted to do was get out there and start downing some cask ales. He had bought in some cans of Tetley and bottles of Old Peculiar, so we did have some Northern beers, but as those are available down South I was impatient for something new.
Sunday morning we visited Blackpool Model Village because I love those places. I was particularly pleased to see two model pubs, one of which was serving Old Rogue beers!
Then it was time for the first pub - The Saddle Inn. This is one of Blackpool’s most famous pubs, dating back to the 16th century. During the early 1900’s people would take horse-drawn carriage trips from Blackpool centre especially to visit the pub. The wood panelled walls of the Saddle are hung with rare, old prints and pictures, and there are still press bells along the comfortable benches that used to be rung for more beer to be brought out. The three main rooms are, The House of Lords, The House of Commons and Division Lobby. Until 1975 the Lords room was for men only, while the Commons room was for a man and his wife.
Just two beers here. First was Hancock’s HB, a poor quality session bitter. Hancock’s was a Cardiff brewer that was taken over by Bass. The brand is now brewed at the Coors owned Burton brewery under license from Interbrew. As with all the beers over the weekend, it was served with that smooth, frothy head so beloved of the Northerners. There was a bit of apple in the taste, but it was a poor beer. Next was Robinson’s Best Bitter. At last a real Northern brew. Robinson’s are a family run brewery that have been around since 1868; their most famous product being Old Tom. Best Bitter had a complex aroma and a good honey and apricot body. Tasty.
We then went to the Pleasure Beach and had two roller-coaster rides. The Big Dipper, a wooden roller-coaster dating from 1923, and The Grand National, which went so fast and dipped so much that we were flung up and down in our seats and were in danger of throwing up our beers! Our friend loved it and obviously wanted more, giving us scornful glances that suggested we were Southern wimps, but we decided to give The Big One a miss - a 205 foot drop at 74mph with 3.5 g-force would be too much for our delicate Southern stomachs!
We were now ready for a good pub session and selected The Shovels, a CAMRA recommended pub on the outskirts of Blackpool, and one of the few outlets for the local Hart Brewery. The pub itself was a modern faux olde worlde family affair - a style that litters Britain like McDonald’s burger wrappers. The food was terrible. They had a very loud and dreadful folk band, and then an impossible soccer quiz. Blech!
But they did have an outstanding selection of ales. Hart’s Two Beauties was first, a tasty but unremarkable bitter. A new Yorkshire micro, the Anglo-Dutch Brewery, provided a delicious elderflower flavoured pale golden ale, Spike’s On T’Way. The Northumberland Brewery had a beer called Kitty Brewster that caused some amusement with its pump clip of a busty barmaid revealing a bit too much. The beer had a nettle tea and lychees flavour with urine on the nose. The Lancashire micro Bank Top had a strawberry jam flavoured dark mild, Milltown Malt Brown Ale, which was a bit disappointing. The famous Thwaite’s Mild was available on keg and proved to be the worst beer of the Blackpool Rocks! weekend, although we had it later on from the cask where it proved more tasty. But the big beer of the night was Wolf Brewery’s Granny Wouldn’t Like It. Our Blackpool friend liked this so much he stayed with it all night. A full flavoured brew with deep smoky qualities, it fully deserves the reputation it is acquiring.
And so we staggered home, pushing hard against a strong Lancashire wind that was to constantly bother us over the next couple of days.
Monday morning we set off a bit late, catching a double decker tram to the North Pier. There I spied a Banks pub, Banks’s Saloon Bar, on the sea front. We went straight in. I was very keen on trying Banks Original, one of Michael Jackson’s Classic Brews and “one of the most famous mild ales in Britain”. Sadly it was only on a nitro keg and was served too cold so I didn’t experience the “oily, creamy, nut-toffee maltiness” just a long lasting shaving foam head. Also, it came across as a bitter rather than the mild it is claimed to be. The Banks Bitter, also served on keg rather than cask, was slightly more tasty with some nice citric fruit qualities including a bit of quince.
We left the Banks pub and went off in search of The Wheatsheaf, another CAMRA recommendation. A scruffy looking pub on the corner of a busy main road, it didn’t look that welcoming, and we wondered if we should turn back to The Flying Handbag pub we had just passed - but the sign outside saying that it was a gay pub put us off. So, into the Wheatsheaf we went. Wow! We were charmed immediately by the large log fire with comfy inglenooks, and the dark, smoke filled atmosphere. The place looked as if it hadn’t been touched since the early 1960’s, and the customers looked as if they hadn’t left the place since then. Every customer was a character, mostly old men with cloth caps and deeply lined faces, sipping quietly at their pints or reading the papers. The owner looked even more ravaged than Keith Richards, but was friendly and obviously keen on his beer. Sadly the kippers with brown bread had sold out so we settled for a chip butty and the Phoenix Brewery’s Resurrection. Phoenix is a Manchester micro founded in 1982 that originally traded under the name Oak Brewery. This was followed by Hound Dog, a tasty bitter in the Whippet Series from the Cottage Brewery. By this time I was starting to appreciate the smooth, creamy Northern style of serving beer.
We reluctantly left the cosy atmosphere of The Wheatsheaf to explore a very windy Blackpool town centre, and to buy some cock shaped rock. Then we began to wend our way home. We spied a Wetherspoon’s pub, The Auctioneer, on the road back and so nipped in for a couple of drinks. As usual, Wetherspoon’s were having a Real Ale Festival. The pub itself was rather bland, but it did provide the winning beer of the Blackpool Rocks! Weekend. J.W. Lees is a family-run Manchester brewery dating back to 1828, mostly famous for their Harvest Ale. On cask was J.W. Lees Brooklyn Best, an American pale ale made with the assistance of Garrett Oliver from the Brooklyn Brewery - a scintillating display of citric flavours. The American hop influence is getting stronger and stronger in the UK, and Lees Brooklyn Best is a wonderful marriage of British and American skills. We finished the evening with Thwaite’s Blooming Ale, a clean and refreshing bitter.
Tuesday, our last day, was even more blustery than the day before, but we proceeded with our plan to catch the tram all the way to Fleetwood in order to see the famous indoor market. We had a nice tub of cockles when we got to Fleetwood, but the market itself was full of old ladies knickers and cheap batteries, so we caught the next bus back to Blackpool and some more beer.
I was keen on visiting The New Road Inn, a Jennings pub. Jennings is a family brewery based in the Lake District, and dates back to 1828. Unfortunately we got off the bus at the wrong stop and had a long walk along Talbot Road before we found the pub. It looked good from the outside - like a stone built manor house - but the inside was in a rather tired art deco style. There wasn’t much of a choice, but there was Old Smoothy Lakeland Ale which I’d never tried. Sadly this was a poor quality bitter, though there was an unusual hint of carrot in the flavour. Sneck Lifter, a famous Jennings beer, was available on cask, and proved to be quite tasty, taking third place, after Granny Wouldn’t Like It, as beer of the weekend.
We then hurried out, keen on having a late lunch at The Wheatsheaf, just down the road, but we came upon The Ramsden Arms Hotel, almost next door to The Wheatsheaf. Various claims outside that the pub had won various awards including CAMRA pub of the year tempted us to go in. Another big wow! Lots of brass, jugs and animal heads hanging from the walls. Bags of atmosphere. As this was a Tetley’s pub we started with a Tetley’s Dark Mild which had a strange shifting aroma of horse leather and bleach, but was very smooth with nice licorice notes and some sea salt. Next was Cain’s Bitter. Cain’s is a Liverpool brewery with a history dating back to 1850, though they have been bought and sold a few times so are no longer independent. This was a decent bitter with a nice fruity finish.
We then popped into The Wheatsheaf for our late lunch, but were too late for food, so hurried away and made our way to the ever dependable Wetherspoons where they had Thwaite’s Mild on cask. From the cask this mild displayed a caramel and nutty quality which wasn’t apparent from the keg, but it still didn’t deliver much of an impact. We finished up with a very tasty Caledonian 80/- which had a rusty honey quality followed by raspberries dipped in buttery caramel.
Now it was time to pack and get to the airport. When we got there we were informed that the plane was delayed. As Blackpool Airport is very small we were able to go outside to the nearest pub, The Air Balloon, to wait for our plane. I had a nitro-keg, Calder’s Premium Cream Beer, which was almost the worse beer, but the keg Thwaite’s Mild still held that trophy. After we had passed through the airport gate we were informed the plane was still delayed, so I finished the weekend washing down a tuna sandwich with a Worthington’s Bitter, another dreadful nitro keg. But we’d had a brilliant weekend. We had discovered several new beers, sampled some famous brews, experienced some of the delights of this popular resort, and been utterly charming by three quite extra-ordinary pubs. Blackpool rocks for sure!
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The CAMRA pub of the year tempted us to go in. Another big wow! Lots of brass, jugs and animal heads hanging from the walls. Bags of atmosphere.
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