It hadn't been the best of journeys. A 2 hour-plus drive from home, most of it seeming to be spent following a mandatory, interminable, 40 mph speed limit on the M62 towards Warrington, followed by miles on the A49 through the leafy Cheshire countryside led by a slow-moving convoy of tractors and trucks which conspired to make Whitchurch seem further and further away with every passing mile.
I finally arrived in Ellesmere, in the north of Shropshire, a few miles from the Welsh border, in the middle of the county's own mini lake district. I parked up, and made my way to one of the town's two Good Beer Guide-listed pubs. The entrance was clear enough. A pile of assorted clutter next to a doorway in an otherwise ordinary street. I was at the Vault, which is based down a flight of steps, a quirky two-room cellar bar, with sanitiser, notepad, and pen on a little table at the bottom of the steps. To the right, the bar, with two beers on handpump. I opted for a pint of Cambrian Gold, from the Stonehouse Brewery, and grabbed a seat at one of the tables in the larger, main room. There were a few people dotted around, sat amongst a seemingly random assortment of props; an old pram, the odd tailor's dummy, that kind of thing. Some may have said junk, but then one man's tat is another man's treasure trove.
A group of people came in and sat at the table next to me; a cheerful Sunday afternoon group helping to create a good atmosphere. The Cambrian Gold was pretty decent, too; I rated it a 3 on the National Beer Scoring System scale.
My next port of call was to be the White Hart, set on a quiet street a few minutes walk away. I found it easily enough, but sadly, despite the sound of conversation from within, the door was resolutely shut; certainly not sticking to the pre-Covid Sunday opening times of 1pm to 1am as stated in the Good Beer Guide! It certainly has been open recently as this excellent blog from Retired Martin confirms, but it was another reminder of the need to check ahead in these times. Meanwhile, here is a picture of the tractor parked opposite the White Hart:
So with the White Hart unvisited and the opportunity to explore the meres that dot the nearby area, I have reason to go back to Ellesmere: away from the more touristy-bits around the mere it seems a quiet, unassuming town. I decided to press on to Oswestry, 8 miles away and where I had booked a room at the Travelodge for the night. A few miles out of town, I passed Park Hall, the home of The New Saints, the all-conquering League of Wales football team who for a time were known as Total Network Solutions, after their sponsors. This more than once prompted football pundit Jeff Stelling to announce on Sky Sports News, after yet another TNS victory, that "they will be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight!"
The hotel was situated on the edge of an industrial estate a mile or two out of the town. The adjoining Burger King had closed down, and that, together with pot holes and deep muddy puddles in the car park, gave a rather run down, forlorn feel to the place. But once inside, the hotel was fine, a typical small edge-of-town Travelodge, geared up for function without too many frills, just the job for the visitor who sees the hotel as merely a place to lay one's hat and park the car.
The pleasant lady behind the desk said it was about a mile into town, but as the sun came out and the temperature soared, I reckoned that was a tad optimistic, and it was about a 35-40 minute walk by the time I got there. I'd passed the agricultural showground, a large branch of Morrisons, an Aldi, the local college, and plenty of houses by the time I came to the Black Lion, one of Oswestry's two beer guide entries. And, surprise, surprise, it was shut, giving me a strike rate for the day of one in three! Disappointed, I trudged on along quiet streets, a stranger in a strange town, passing plenty of fish and chip shops that were open, and more pubs that were shut.
My spirits rose though when I spotted a micro pub on a corner, and it was open! And it looked like there was room inside too. This was the Bastion Alehouse, situated on the delightfully-named Leg Street, which had only opened last autumn and had therefore spent a fair chunk of its life closed by the lockdown. I got a seat in one of the window tables, a pint of the excellent Snake Eyes from Black Iris in hand, and surveyed the room. 4 beers on hand pump, more beers on tap, and a large fridge stocking cans and bottles. A screen displaying the beers behind the bar, light wood tables each with sanitiser, light grey painted walls. Most of the tables were occupied, with several of the customers enjoying the chat and banter with the friendly guy behind the bar. I rated the Snake Eyes a very decent 3.5, but I next opted for a pint of one of Shropshire's own beers, Hobson's Best Bitter from Cleobury Mortimer in the south of the county. Completely different in style, but nonetheless a credible NBSS 3. I was really enjoying the ambience and decided to get another pint before I left, and reverted to the Snake Eyes. I asked what time they shut on Sundays and was told 8.30, so having enjoyed my 3rd pint there, I said I would be back.
|Beer going down well at the Bastion|
My mood had been elevated by my time in the Bastion, and my next stop was only a minute or two away. This was the Bailey Head, a large pub situated in a large square, with tables outside that were mostly occupied but with plenty of socially-distanced room inside. I was shown to a table below a screen listing an impressive selection of cans that were available. Slightly frustratingly, it didn't show the beers on cask - although I was told subsequently that there is another screen around the other end of the bar displaying the draught beers and ciders - but the lady doing the table service reeled off a list including some fine beers. I opted for a pint of Thornbridge Astrid, which I rated a 3, as was the half of the 5.2% Single Hop Citra from the Stubborn Mule brewery in Altrincham. Despite the good beer and friendly atmosphere, I did feel though that the Bailey Head, the town's second Good Beer Guide pub, was a little short of the character its imposing exterior suggested lay within.
|The Bailey Head, Oswestry; imposing|
I called in next at the Griffin, just around the corner, which was a large, rambling pub. It was fairly quiet, with only a few punters around. I ordered a pint of Stonehouse Station Bitter, which was an OK 2.5 on the NBSS scale. I retreated to a deserted room, and for the first time that evening thought about getting some food, but I decided to sort that out once I had paid my second visit to the Bastion. Upon my return there, again most of the tables were full, although most of the occupants had changed over the intervening hour and a half. I ordered a pint of Bunji, from the Mobberley Brewhouse near Knutsford, a very refreshing 3.8% Session Pale made with New Zealand hops (NBSS 3). I got talking to a couple of ladies who ran a gym in the town, and who, judging by the cans of Arbor that filled their table, liked their beer too, and that was confirmed by one of them who said she was a massive fan of Brass Castle beers. I finished my evening with a very drinkable Citra Mosaic from the Kernel Brewery, and managed to resist the temptation to get another. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Bastion Alehouse, my favourite pub of the day by a country mile.
I was pretty hungry by now and so went in search of some food. I spotted an Indian restaurant, but when I went in, they said they were closing shortly, so no joy. I then spotted a kebab takeaway, so I decided to grab one and take it back to the hotel. Whether it was the attraction of the food, I don't know, but it didn't seem to take anywhere near as long to get back to the hotel, where I scoffed it eagerly before having an early night.
|Famous son: Wilfred Owen|
The following morning, I got checked out and drove into town, parking up at Sainsburys where there was free parking. I went for a wander around town, and I quickly realised that I hadn't done the place justice yesterday. There were some pretty impressive timbered buildings, some beautiful gardens with a statue to one of the town's famous sons, the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, and the church of St Oswald's, parts of which date back to at least the early 13th century. This is a mere youngster though when compared with the oldest feature in the town; this is the Iron Age hill fort of Old Oswestry, which dates back 3,000 years. There is also the Cambrian Railway Museum in town, acknowledging the town's history as a railway town, although the nearest station on the network now is in the village of Gobowen, a few miles away. The long-term vision of the Cambrian Heritage Railways Trust, who have a museum near the former railway station, is to restore passenger services to Oswestry. The town, which is only 5 miles from the Welsh border, also has a large number of pubs, many of which I passed as I walked around the busy Monday morning streets: shame I hadn't ventured to this part of town the day before.
|Oswestry in bloom|
|Visitor Centre, Oswestry|
|A pub I didn't visit in Oswestry|
I had one more place to visit before I headed back north, a couple of miles out of town at Weston. This was the Stonehouse Brewery tap, which is reached by turning off the A483 close to an industrial estate, but is actually set in attractive grounds behind some cottages and beside the Cambrian Heritage Railway. Based on my luck of the previous day, I didn't actually expect it to be open. But I needn't have worried; as my car crunched into a large gravel car park around 12.15 the door was clearly open. I looked around, and there were a load of picnic tables socially-distanced on a lawn in front of an orchard. The brewhouse was a large modern shed, with a stone building in front and a large marquee with more picnic tables to the side. I walked through the doorway into a room with a large barbecue to the left and a number of tables to the right. Beyond was a further room with a bar, shelves stocked with bottles, and a few spaced-out tables. A girl was cleaning as I walked in, breaking off to serve me with a pint of Station Bitter from the brewhouse next door, and which was visible through the window at the side of the table where I grabbed a seat. The beer was spot on as it should be straight from the brewery, and on this form I rated it NBSS 3.5. I had a pleasant chat with the girl, who was called Gwen, and she told me about the brewery, which started in 2007, has a 100bbl capacity (that's 28,800 pints), and as well as brewing they also make cider from their own orchard, have their own distillery on-site, and have recently been turning their hands to sanitiser! They have won several awards for their beers, and some of these were displayed on the window sill beside me.
|Stonehouse Brewery Tap|
Gwen told me that the place can get very busy particularly from Wednesdays to Saturdays when they do food (they are closed on Sundays). And with plans to eventually run the trains on the Cambrian Heritage Railway from Oswestry to the brewery, it is likely to be even more popular in the future. I bought a few bottles - and some hand sanitiser - before I left, and said I would call in again sometime to what is a very pleasant bar with some good beer.
It had only been a brief visit to a part of the world I'd never visited before, and whilst it was disappointing that not everywhere was open, there is plenty there to lure me back for another visit....
|Stonehouse Brewery and Taphouse|