A Beer Biography of The Author in Words and Pictures.



 

Photograph Gallery
Photograph Gallery

About The Author
Few things in life can top sitting in a friendly traditional pub whilst drinking a perfectly-kept and expertly-served glass of beer. That's pretty simple really - except that, in today's rapidly-changing retail environment, it is getting harder to find pubs that can confer such a pleasurable experience. Sometimes I marvel at how publicans can get such a basic formula so wrong. Experts can roll out their reasoning for the vast numbers of pubs that have closed, but the lack of this basic principle has, in my opinion, contributed to the downfall of this great British institution. Thankfully, however, there are still thousands of good pubs around the land. In order for them to be treasured by future generations I urge you to put a couple of quid in their till every now and then.

I have spent many an hour inside different pubs. Little wonder, therefore, that I started looking around the rooms in which I was sitting and wondering what things were like in former times. Long before the days of social media, I started writing a bit about my experiences and, as the years have rolled by, I developed a keen interest in the histories of taverns and pubs. However, looking at any building in isolation possibly misses the bigger picture so I often discuss some of the reasons how or why a certain pub evolved or, in some cases, closed its doors for good. In some cases I attempt to place certain pubs within their social or cultural context. In any case, I hope that readers will find something of interest. If any words on this website help to enrich a visit to a particular pub then so much the better.

So, who is this fruitcake waffling on about pubs and beer. Well, as a small child in 1968 I can tell you that I didn't like beer. The fact that I once found beer revolting will shock those who know me now - but it's true, when I was a wee whippersnapper I hated the stuff. My mum and dad once kept an off licence and general store in the Black Country and I can remember one Christmas that, when I finally got permission from the old man to have a sip of his Ansell's, I nearly wretched on the stuff. "Ugh, it's 'orrible" I said as I almost spat it out. And, unlike today where hoards of brats are running around pubs, I hardly ever visited a boozer when I was a kid. It was on the odd occasion when my parents nipped in for a few drinks on the way back from somewhere exotic like Stourport that I was allowed a bag of crisps and a bottle of pop whilst I sat outside in the cold as they enjoyed a beer in the boozer. Pubs were simply places where you were bored waiting for them to come out or where you played with some other little urchin in the beer garden.

Where it all started for me in 1958

I was born in The Lye, a Black Country town in Worcestershire once packed with old boozers. Always a little impatient, I was born four weeks premature in a shabby two-up, two-down hovel in The Dock. They had to go and fetch the midwife who'd supped a skinful of ale in the bottom Bell - probably the reason why I've got the most ridiculous belly button in the western hemisphere! My old man was a steel erector in those days - looking for work, he left County Monaghan after the war. Named Michael Kieron McMahon, he married Wolverhampton-born Shirley Green in the early-mid 1950's and they somehow wound up in The Lye. I was born in September 1958, making me slightly younger than Madonna - and almost as pretty. I'd look great with that tin cone pointy bra thing over my tits.

Like most people who are justly proud of their roots, I am happy to hail from the Black Country. Being born just on the edge of Lye Waste, widely regarded in olden times as being akin to hell, it is something of a revelation that I have only been barred from a pub twice! One imagines church leaders in neighbouring town's not daring to venture into The Lye for fear of heathens! The Lye Wasters [as they were known] were widely regarded as a lawless and Godless lot. Naturally, I like to boast that I'm a true waster!

Bell Hotel at Cradley Heath [c.1970's]

Despite the fact that I was born in Worcestershire, I grew up across the River Stour in Staffordshire after my parents bought an off licence on Reddal Hill Road, between Cradley Heath and Old Hill. In those days [early-mid 1960's] beer was dispensed through handpulls and jugs. I can still picture my father hammering the tap home in the barrel down in the cellar. And they were barrels not firkins or kilderkins. Customers would come into the shop with a bag full of empty pop bottles or suchlike and my mum or dad would pull the beer into a jug and transfer the ale into the bottles - quite tricky when the beer was full of condition. For pocket money, it was my elder sister's job to re-stock the shelves with bottles of Mackeson, Manns, Guinness and Light Brown and me, being the wee eeegit, had to take all the empties and fill up the crates to be taken back to the brewery. The offie was free-of-tie but my parents seemed to buy lots of products from Ansell's of Aston and in return we got loads of goodies throughout the year. For example, the sales rep would always bring a big turkey at Christmas.

Most yoofs these days seem to start drinking by the time they're ten years old. In my case, I had to wait until the ripe old age of sixteen. The Hawthorns on The Ross in Blackheath must have been desperate for custom in 1974 and turned a blind eye to delinquents like me asking to be served. So teaming up with Pip Oldaker, Terry Parkes, Steve Attewell and other mates from Rowley Regis Grammar School, we were able to use the bar frequented by the town's old lags. They used to enjoy seeing us suffer by offering us their Capston cigarettes and watching us coughing and spluttering between sips of our Ansell's Mild. Another haunt of our misspent schooldays was the Foxhunt in Old Hill's Garretts Lane where we'd drink Banks's Mild in the back room. Most of the pubs in my area were tied and sold Banks's, M&B or Ansell's. Although my local was the Waggon and Horses on Reddal Hill Road, I became a regular of The Bell on St. Anne's Road, Cradley Heath. This was an Ansell's house and I liked their bitter a lot in those days.

One of the regrets of my teen years was the fact I didn't have a mentor who could steer me towards places selling Batham's and Simpkiss - I would have to wait a few years to experience the delights of these smaller breweries. I sort of fell into the crib team for The Bell and I would play away fixtures in many Banks's or M&B pubs. However, even the M&B pubs sold proper cask ale in those days and the Springfield Bitter was fair to middling.

My beer horizons were broadened in 1977 when I left home for Yorkshire and discovered Theakston's beer when it was something to behold. Punk didn't seem to get as far north as Northallerton but The Fleece was a pub with beer to make your hair turn spikey. Other discoveries - and remember I was but a mere novice - were Marston's Pedigree in the Cross Keys at Bellerby and Samuel Smith's in the Oak Tree at Catterick.

These were the days when to sample different beers you had to travel a bit and by 1980 I was living and working in Hampshire. Most of the pubs seemed to flog Courage beers so I sought out a few watering holes that sold Ind Coope Bitter from Romford. However, I wasn't far from Surrey so it was possible to find exotic treats in Farnham where pubs like the Queen's Head sold Gales. There was one particular pub just outside Aldershot that sold an extremely dark mild - black almost. We'd be in the boozer just after the gaffer took the bolt off the door and we'd drink around twelve pints of the stuff whilst playing bar billiards, then head off for a curry. Invincible - that's what you are in your early 20's. You can drink up to two gallons and still be up for a monster dish of spices - and feel nothing the next morning. Up for a cooked breakfast even.

Schultheiss Berliner Weiße

If Farnham was considered exotic then I was in for a culture shock in 1981 when I headed to Berlin for a few years to sample Berliner Weiße and a lot of Schultheiss Pilsener. After drinking a lot of this cold fizzy stuff for a few years I found it difficult to get back into the swing of things when I arrived back in England to drink 'warm' bitters. Quite often I'd find myself ordering a lager - there, I've admitted it.

A music devotee all my life, in 1989 I opened a record shop in Dudley's High Street. Not dissimilar to the shop featured in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity", it was a slog making money but was rewarded by the number of interesting people that walked through the door. I still drink with some of the friends that I made in those five years. A weekly ritual used to be the short pilgrimage to the Lamp Tavern where a good measure of Batham's Bitter was consumed.

Another boozer that I enjoyed in the early 90's was the Wharf at Old Hill, a Scottish and Newcastle pub but kept by an enthusiastic beer bloke who sold lots of interesting ales. Still drinking with old school pals Pip Oldaker and Robert Mears, trying the beers on the chalkboard was a very hit and miss affair. However, I developed a taste for ales like Hook Norton Old Hooky. This was also the era of the Allied-operated Holt, Plant and Deakin empire and fine pints of Entire could be found in a variety of outlets.

Why Not - Once a Mighty Pub

There was a key event in the early 1990's that really got me interested in real ales. A couple called Trimble and Spike took over the already-excellent Why Not Inn at Cradley and, suddenly, a local pub of mine started to stock beers with strange names that I'd never heard of before. Apart from The Bell in the 1970's, this was the first pub I used to frequent at least three times a week. And every time I walked into the pub Spike, a nutcase and beer monster, used to collar me and encourage me to drink all the strange brews he'd had delivered. It was a fabulous period of enlightenment though I'll never know how I managed to stagger home after a night on something like Dent Kamikaze.

For some bizarre reason, I decided to undertake a post-graduate course [I'm a geographer by the way] in Further and Higher Education. My days as a teacher and lecturer were short-lived but it was during this time that I met my partner Emma. My first tactic in getting her interested in real ale was to introduce her to Batham's Mild. A decade later, she's a complete real ale nutcase and is a devotee of the beers of Belgium. Indeed, during our extensive travels in search of that next great pub or beer, Belgium is a regular destination for us, particularly events such as the Poperinge Festival of Hops.

So there you are - a very brief beer biography. As for the components of the website - well, they just tie in with my own interests of geography, history, architecture, walking, cycling and sitting in a classic pub drinking a heavenly pint of beer.

George Best

I did once have a drink with George Best - it wasn't my fault, honest guvnor, but it ain't all been about drinking - I have managed to do other things in life. Being featured on John Peel's show was a highlight of my radio fame and I did once get to do Desert Island Discs - it didn't quite have the same audience figures enjoyed by Kirsty Young's guests but I hope somebody was listening to Radio Shropshire that evening! Backstage with Black Umfolosi was a hoot and I've managed to meet some of my heroes like Billy Bragg and Richard Thompson. Not that all my encounters with the rich and famous have been with people I'd like to share my last beer with - I remember trying to tell a crap joke to Jim Bowen - his face was a picture. I once got a promotion on the basis of trying to headbutt the Radio 1 D.J. Simon Bates whilst he was on stage [the bouncers got to me first] and I've even had dinner with Joan Collins - how freaky is that?

Snowdon The Hard Way [1989]

Incredibly - for a beer drinker that is - I have been an active sportsman and I guess my best physical achievement was cycling up Snowdon in 1989. Running the Berlin Marathon was a piece of cake in comparison. I've pretty much tried most things - rock climbing, abseiling, boxing, canoeing but I was only sort of good at orienteering and did have a collection of trophies before I had a bit of a life laundry. But on the latter score, it is the mountain of CD's and books that clutter the house though the dawn of the MP3 era is a possible salvation.

Time-Trialling

Unfortunately, bicycles take up much more space than CD's and it's getting hard to find storage space for more bikes. And yet the collection is still growing. I have always pottered around on two wheels but, in something akin to a mid-life crisis, I have become more than a little obsessed with speeding along on a carbon machine - as a Mamil [Middle-Aged-Man in Lycra]. I fully realise that I am on the inevitable decline that we all have to face but I am determined to make the most of my latter years. It can be dangerous and I have spent quite a few hours in the local hospital. But it's not all about RPM's and I do enjoy a two-wheeled pub crawl, often with our dog in a trailer!

Albion vs Everton 1969

Football remains a bit of an obsession. My father was the member of the Irish clan who drifted the most southerly when he arrived in the Black Country. The rest of the family didn't drift far away from the ferry and settled in Liverpool. Consequently, despite growing up in Cradley Heath, frequent boyhood visits to Lancashire resulted in a life-long love affair with Everton. My mum took me to my first game in 1969 when they played at The Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion. Everton lost 2-0 but it did nothing to stop me covering my bedroom wall with posters of players such as Joe Royle and Alan Ball. These days I also keep an eye out for my local team of Halesowen Town. I even managed to get them elected into Danny Baker's "Totalitarian League of 2009."

Emma in Pubs

On the cerebral front, I did once enter the National Scrabble Championships and somehow wangled my way into the quarter-finals. Trouble is, none of my friends will play with me anymore. My best friend is my partner Emma who really is a treasure. I guess there's some inevitability in the fact that many couples end up doing the same things, but we really do share a great deal - from vegetarianism, ersatz socialism, ethical values, cynicism, a broadsheet crossword, musical tastes, walking, cycling and, of course, beer - a key cornerstone of my life.
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Personal Favourites
A gallery of drinking experiences that will forever live in the memory. Some of these photographs may be in pubs that are not widely regarded as classics. However, as is the ephemeral nature of drinking, the pleasure is in the moment. On one given moment, on one given date, these places hit all the right notes in all the right places so, as such, they brought much pleasure to our beer-drinking lives.

Pubs to Visit Before You Die
This shortlist of excellent pubs is going to be completely outdated in no time at all. Pubs change or, even worse, close. So, this shortlist represents a sample of some of the pubs that you should drink in before it's too late...

Brussels - A La Mort Subite

Madeley - All Nations

Bradford-on-Avon - Beehive

Pensax - Bell Inn

Worcester St.John's - Bell Inn

Smalley - Bell Inn

Goathland - Birch Hall Inn

Helston - Blue Anchor

York - Blue Bell

Aldbourne - Blue Boar Inn

Ventnor - Bonchurch Inn

Upper Gornal - Britannia

Poperinge - Britannia

Gent - Brouwzaele

Brugge - 't Brugs Beertje

Walterstone - Carpenter's Arms

Colwall - Chase Inn

Burton-on-Trent - Coopers' Tavern

Elton - Duke of York

Dunkerque - L'Estiminet Flamand

Sheffield - Fat Cat

Stanton-in-Peak - Flying Childers Inn

Wolverhampton - Great Western

Wervik - Grooten Moriaen

Halesowen - Hawne Tavern

Great Chart - Hoodener's Horse

Ratlinghope - Horseshoe Inn

Reynoldston - King Arthur Hotel

Bristol - King's Head

Emelgem - Kroegske

Kemmel - Het Labyrint

Highgate - Lamp Tavern

Bringsty Common - Live and Let Live

Northampton - Malt Shovel

Claines - Mug House

Prestbury - Plough Inn

Killay - Railway Inn

Litton - Red Lion

Snargate - Red Lion

Liverpool - Roscoe Head

Stourbridge - Royal Exchange

Fritham - Royal Oak

Liverpool - Ship and Mitre

Bishop's Castle - Six Bells

Birlingham - Swan Inn

Hanley Castle - Three Kings

Cirencester - Twelve Bells

Brussels - Verschueren

Halesowen - Waggon and Horses

Gent - Waterhuis aan de Bierkant

Slad - Woolpack

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Ansell's Bitter - That's Better

Work in Progress

Ansell's - The Better Beer

Life on Two Wheels
A gallery of cycling adventures and moments of pleasure derived from riding our bicycles. Some people think I'm obsessed with cycling but what's not to like .. the open road, quiet country lanes, seeing the countryside up close and personal and a highly pleasurable mode of transport to and from the pub. These photographs feature me and my riding partner La Goddess du Vélo.

Life's Too Short
A gallery that shows it's not all about drinking, though there are some beery moments here too! But, as if to prove that there's not enough hours to cram it all in, this set of photographs prove that work only gets in the way of life's simple pleasures. You only get one innings so make the most of it.

Beers to Drink Before You Die
Like the list of pubs in the column to the left, my list of favourite beers has changed over the years - and continues to do so. But here is a list of beers that, at some point [usually the first taste], blew my mind or made me wet my pants with excitement :

Westvleteren Extra 8%

Ilkley Black Summit

Rochefort 8

Fixed Wheel Carbon Black IPA

 

Purity Ubu, Sint Bernardus Prior 8, Batham's Bitter, Schneidedr Aventinus, De Ranke Guldenberg, Oakham JHB, Whim Hartington IPA, De Ranke XX, Durham St. Cuthbert, Van Eecke Poperings Hommel Bier, Newby Wyke Bear Island, Stanway Stanney Bitter, Cannon Royall King's Shilling, Holden's Special, Six Bells Big Nev's, Westvleteren Extra 8%.

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Quotation
Morrissey
"Work is a four-letter word."
Morrissey

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A Life in Music
Another of my passions is music. Whether or not this list reveals anything about my personality is a moot point. However, this is a selection of albums [not in any particular order] that will remain on my playlist ...

Ballboy - Club Anthems

Happyness - Weird Little Birthday

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Publican

Public Bar Stained Glass
 

Woman Serving Beer

Brewery Buildings