2022 was another good year for discovering UK pubs I hadn’t visited before, and I’ve narrowed these down to five of the best. A three month tour of Europe over the summer reduced the time I had, and despite visiting some top bars abroad, I decided to keep it simple and stick to the UK. So what’s the criteria? I confess to a bias towards what beer blogger and tweeter @OldMudgie calls “proper pubs”, those “whose primary function… is for people to meet and socialise over a few drinks”. They won’t be mainly focused on dining, they’ll sell cask beer, be welcoming, and have a regular clientele. If they are relatively unspoilt that’s a bonus, and I’m also fond of a good quality refurbishment.
Ship Isis, Sunderland
This is a Victorian pub dating back to the 1880s on the edge of Sunderland city centre. In 2011, after a couple of years of closure, it received a magnificent refit from Jarrow Brewery which created a bar with high quality Victorian style fittings and an elegant wood panelled saloon. One of the reasons I was there was to take photos for Camra’s Outstanding Conversions and Restorations website but I was soon to find out that it was a top pub in lots of other ways. I was one of the first there on a dull Friday lunchtime in February and was able to take some decent photos of the interior without annoying any customers.
There was a choice of five real ales and about six keg beers and I started with a good pint of dark Wensleydale Dub. It soon filled up with Friday afternoon punters and became quite lively, encouraging me to stay for a few more halves and a chat with a couple of blokes who had knocked off early from their work at the university.
Spinners Arms, Carlisle
My trip to Carlisle in April was a mission to visit all the remaining pubs designed by State Management Scheme architect Harry Redfern. If that makes no sense to you, look out for my next blog post which will reveal more. The Spinners is about 2 miles south of the city centre in the village of Cummersdale, and there’s no bus service. There is however a nice footpath and cycle route along the River Caldew which you can pick up near the cathedral.
The pub was built in 1930 in Redfern’s favourite Arts & Crafts style and although the pub has been opened out inside, there are still lots of original features like wood panelling, leaded glass screens and a Delft-tiled fireplace. It’s owned by Carlisle Brewery and three of their cask beers are on tap. I got chatting to the landlady about the Redfern connection and the brewery and the locals joined in. It was Wednesday evening and as musicians started arriving I realised that I’d stumbled across the bi-monthly Irish music session. I do enjoy a bit of diddly dee so it turned out to be a great evening.
White Horse, Beverley
I’m not sure why it took me so long to visit the White Horse as it really is a national treasure which I’d been aware of for years. The pub is better known as Nellie’s after Nellie Collinson, the licensee who ran it from 1952 until 1975. It was taken over by Sam Smiths Brewery who have preserved it much as it was, with multiple simply-fitted rooms with wooden or tiled floors. The main bar has marble topped tables and a bar counter added by Sam Smiths to replace the table used by Nellie. The room in the photo above is the Scullery with an uneven tiled floor, a black range in the fireplace to the left and an old shelving unit with plates to the right.
It’s a Sam Smiths pub which means it comes with its odd house rules like the ban on using mobile phones (though card payments are now accepted). I’m not sure if there is a ban on taking pictures with a camera, but if there is, I can confirm that the pub staff had no I idea that was taking the photo above. So if you can manage without your smartphone, don’t have children and don’t swear, I’d highly recommend a visit to Nellie’s!
Sun Inn, Clun
The Sun in Clun in Shropshire is another pub I’ve been aware of for a while, since I read about it in Roger Protz and Homer Sykes’ wonderful book The Village Pub from way back in 1992. 30 years later I finally made it, and it seems that not much has changed in that time. It still has “a wealth of exposed beams, flagstones, settles and a huge fireplace decorated by ancient crooks and fire irons”.
Back then the Banks’s beer was served by a Victorian ‘signal box’ beer engine (above right). The beer engine is still there but sadly no longer in use, and the Banks has been replaced by a selection of ales from Hobsons, Ludlow and Wye Valley breweries. The pub had been owned by Three Tuns Brewery of nearby Bishops Castle as indicated in the photo above left, but shortly before my visit they sold it to new owners.
It’s obligatory when writing about Clun to quote A.E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad:
The country for easy livers,
The quietest under the sun
Houseman wasn’t talking about bodily organs, but it’s worth mentioning that there is another pub in Clun, the White Horse, just up the road. This almost made it into my top five and I can recommend it for its good ale and food and the chance to try out beers from the Clun Brewery.
Cross Foxes, Shrewsbury
You can tell the Cross Foxes is a proper pub by the queue outside before opening time. It’s a traditional boozer with no food and and big sales for its Draught Bass. I’ve always like Bass, and although I’d have to agree that it’s not the classic it once was, I still think it’s a great pint. Having said that, my brother tried one and then switched to Three Tuns XXX. Bass is impossible to find in my part of Yorkshire but there are are large pockets of popularity from the South West through the East and West Midlands right up to the North East.
We were on one of our frequent trips to Shrewsbury Folk Festival and it was a longish walk across the picturesque town centre and across the River Severn to the Longden Coleham district. The pub was full of locals though we were warmly welcomed by the bar staff. Its a traditional L shaped pub with a nice old Bass mirror just visible in my photo (above right).