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Mills and Micros: A Trip To Oldham....

I recently took a short trip across the Pennines to visit one of the largest towns in Lancashire and check out some of the pubs in an area with a rich and fascinating history. Here's what I found....


Oldham doesn't generally get a load of great press these days, but I have to say I have always had some affection for this former cotton town which sprawls across a large area to the north east of Manchester before it climbs towards the Pennine hills. A proud town, with solid roots borne out of the Industrial Revolution, the mills and associated industries that grew up around them gave the town some heft in the 19th and well into the 20th century. For a time, it was the world centre for cotton manufacturing: in 1871 the town had more spindles than anywhere else in the world other than the United States but having reached its peak in the 1920's with up to 360 mills in operation, the industry began a slow decline through the rest of the 20th century, although it continued to attract people to the town to work in the mills from other parts of the country and further afield, particularly Southern Asia. It ultimately left a legacy of mills, typically built of red Accrington brick, their names boldly proclaimed at the top of their towers; confident, evocative names like Ace, Durban, Egypt, Majestic, Maple, Ram, Raven. Those that weren't demolished were adopted for other uses such as warehousing, electronics, and other industries - the cotton industry had spawned a large bedding and textile industry in the area whilst several of the mail order companies like Great Universal that sprung up in the North West took advantage of the large floor space of the mills. Eventually life after cotton embraced wider uses such as offices, call centres, and apartments. The mills created a distinctive and fascinating Lowry-esque urban landscape which is still readily evoked today in several areas like Chadderton, Waterhead, and Hathershaw, with many of the rows of terraces which were built to house the workers still standing in their shadow.

Looking towards Oldham from Chadderton

The cotton industry brought wealth to Oldham and that is reflected in many of the civic and other buildings that still stand in the town centre from those days. Like all industrial towns, breweries sprung up to slake the thirst of the workers, and here was no exception, with the eponymous Oldham Brewery having a large number of pubs in the town. The brewery had been founded in 1868 and was registered in 1873 at the Albion Brewery at Coldhurst Street in the town. Like so many breweries from that time, they were very localised, with the majority of their pubs in Oldham, a few in Chadderton, Royton, Rochdale, and surrounding towns such as Ashton-under-Lyne, Mossley, and Lees. I remember years ago visiting the Waggon and Horses on the A62 between Delph and the Yorkshire border which has lain derelict for years, but I did visit some of their pubs in and around Oldham during my time living in Manchester in the 1970's, and I remember quite enjoying their OB bitter. But they were taken over in 1982 by Boddingtons who themselves were in their final years of independence, and once the 5-year agreement to keep the OB brewery open had expired, it was swiftly closed, and a chapter of local history was gone. On a happier note, JW Lees, who started brewing earlier than OB in 1828 at the Greengate Brewery in nearby Middleton Junction continue to thrive today as one of the country's leading independent brewers. Oldham has never been a place where I have visited pubs on a regular basis although when my youngest son was at 6th form college in the town, he and his mates founded a punk band called Here Lies Nugget, and there were several occasions when they had gigs in local pubs such as Whittles, a well-known music pub in the town.


Despite its historic pre-eminence, Oldham has tended to be something of an outlier on the railway network and nowadays doesn't even have a train station as the line that used to run from Rochdale through Shaw and then Oldham has been taken over by the tram. Reading a copy of the excellent More Beer magazine produced by the local CAMRA branch which sometimes appear in some of the pubs in Calderdale had inspired me to visit the town and so with a spare afternoon approaching I worked out I could get the train to Rochdale and then catch a tram from just by the station down to Oldham. Which is what I did, and about an hour and twenty minutes after leaving Halifax, I was getting off the tram at Oldham Central, having had a journey that went through pleasant countryside, suburbs, and industrial units. There was even an old cotton mill, Briar, forming the backdrop to the tram stop at Shaw and Crompton, now owned by catalogue company N Brown. 

There are three places in the Good Beer Guide in Oldham Town Centre, along with one further out which would have to wait for another day. The quickest way to get to my first stop off was to walk up through the modern brick edifice of the Spindles Shopping Centre which I had last been in several years ago. I passed several empty units and there was a somewhat forlorn feel about the place. Once I got out on the street above though, people were milling around, buskers were making music, kids were tugging on balloons as mums with prams and bags of shopping were weaving their way through the bustle. I was heading to Tommyfield Market, where the indoor hall has a micro pub situated amongst the butchers, the bakers, and drapery stalls. The market was reasonably busy with afternoon shoppers as I hunted down the micro. Situated at the opposite end from where I had come in, next to a cafe, was Cob & Coal.


I walked into a single room bar, with the bar itself situated to the right with a few seats around the walls close by. Then to the left was a cosy lounge area with additional seating. There was also seating to the front of the bar outside and also in an area to the other side of the walkway which bumped up the numbers quite significantly. A few people were sat inside when I arrived. From a choice of 6 handpumps, I ordered a pint of Rudgate Jorvik from the man behind the bar, for which I was charged the princely sum of £3.20. I took it to one of the stools in the bar area and took a sip. Wow, it was good, clean and refreshing, easily worth a NBSS score of 4. As I drunk it, people were coming in, predominantly middle-aged or above, some with a dog in tow, although a number of fans of Oldham Athletic fans called in for a pre-match pint. There were also a smaller number from the Latic's opponents, Eastleigh. A lady came in and went behind the bar and conversation and laughter followed between the bar and customers. And it seemed very much part of the life of the market, with people calling in with bags of shopping, and I noticed in the seating area opposite that people were being served food from the neighbouring cafe to go with their drinks. I ordered another pint, this time going for Lucy, a 4.5% pale featuring Liberty, Delta, and Simcoe hops from Liverpool brewery Strawberry Fields. This was also in great form, also the same price, and I also rated it as a 4. 

What a great little micro pub! Cob & Coal was friendly with loads of Lancashire warmth, had great beer, and great prices, but like all the best pubs, it was greater than the sum of its parts. A visit is heartily recommended, but don't think of going on an evening or a Sunday; being situated where it is, its hours are restricted by the times that the market is open.


Cob and Coal; great little bar

I walked back through the market, exiting via the first entrance I came across. Outside, there were more market stalls with plenty of folk milling around in the sunshine. I followed Google Maps to my next destination, which was just over 5 minutes' walk away back down the hill. This was a pub I had been in before, but it had been a while ago. After walking down a walkway with the modern Odeon complex on my left and screened-off building project to the right, I turned right and the pub was there, set in a red-brick terrace. A guy was puffing on a cigarette by the doorway, talking into his phone.


The Ashton Arms is a Good Beer Guide regular, which until recently has been something of an oasis for lovers of real ale in Oldham town centre. It is a traditional free house with an open-plan interior set on two levels reflecting the slope on the street outside. The bar is on the higher level, and there is a range of up to 6 cask beers. I decided to go for a pint of Holts Bitter, which cost me £3.00, even cheaper than Cob and Coal! I headed down to the lower level and sat at a table beneath one of several TV's showing boxing dotted around the walls. Most of the tables were occupied, with many featuring a solitary, generally middle-aged, bloke with a pint, watching the boxing, looking at their phone, or staring into space. A docile bulldog with sad eyes was working the room, plodding from table to table as if checking everyone was ok. It felt like a local's pub. The beer was another great pint, which I rated NBSS 3.5. A guy finished his pint, and headed out of the door, and with the noise of the boxing from the screen above starting to grate, I moved like a ninja to claim his now empty table. There was a menu on the table with pub food at some low prices, which kept drawing my eye. I finished my pint. I spotted Steak Canadian on the menu at £3.50 - it had been years since I had last had one! So, when I went to the bar to get another beer, along with ordering a half of Trinnacle Bitter from Millstone, I ordered one.

The beer was £1.15 for a half, making it proportionately the most expensive beer of the day, but it was another good one, clean-tasting and well-balanced. My sandwich came, thinly-sliced steak with fried onions and a little fresh salad on the side, just like I remembered from all those years ago! The bulldog appeared, his pleading eyes suggesting that his responsibilities extended to food tasting.... I can confirm that it was delicious, and it hit the spot as a soak midway through the trip. The Ashton Arms is another must-visit in the town, friendly and good value for money, but please note it is a cash-only pub.

Local hero: The Ashton Arms

It was only a couple of minutes' walk to the next and final pub of the crawl. I walked past the attractive Lyceum Theatre, and there on the corner at the end of the street was another attractive property, with some outdoor seating behind a white picket fence was Fox & Pine (opening picture). I walked into a busy bar although there is a room upstairs as well. The beer choice was more varied than either of the previous stops, with a number of kegs beers occupying a space on the bar along with a varied range on cask. There were 10 hand pumps, with beers from Black Edge, Durham, Three Brothers, Bank Top, Beartown, Pictish, plus Draught Bass. I opted for a pint of the 4.4% Pike Pale Ale from Black Edge - cost £3.20 - and looked around for somewhere to sit. The room was full, all the tables were occupied, and clearly Fox & Pine was a go-to place for the discerning Oldham beer drinker. In the absence of any spare tables I went to have a lean on the mantlepiece at the other end of the room, but then a big guy sat at a table nearby invited me to sit in one of several empty seats at his table. I did, I tried my beer, another good one, NBSS 4. The guy was called Darren, he was friends with the chef there and he shared some of the pub's background history with me. It had only opened in 2020, despite its well-established look and feel, and immediately before opening as a pub the building had - ironically - been home to an Alcoholic Relief centre.


It turns out it is run by the same people who have the Cob & Coal, and the owners and many of the clientele from there gravitate down here when the shutters go up at the market. And what about the name? Well, owner Michelle is from Leicester whose football team are nicknamed the Foxes, and the original name for Oldham Athletic was Pine Villa. And football was a topic to talk about, particularly when the chef who was from Hereford and a supporter of his local team, joined the table. Darren was an Oldham supporter, and with the Latics playing in the National League for the first time in their history, the club was into new territory. I noticed on my phone that Town fallen behind at Aldershot in their game there. Much football talk ensued. I ordered another pint, this time of the 4.5% Session IPA from Three Brothers, which was another good beer from this brewery, again served in great condition (NBSS 4), and at a good price of £3.20. Like the previous two places I had called in this was a great little spot with a similar friendly atmosphere and some good beer.

I finished my beer, bade my farewells, and walked the short distance down the hill from Fox & Pine on to Union Street, where a few minutes later the tram to take me back to Rochdale appeared. It had been a great afternoon; three excellent pubs which all had something special about them, and I can thoroughly recommend you try them all. I am hoping it won't be too long before I'm heading back to visit them again myself....

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Comments

  1. Hi Chris, I enjoyed your article about Oldham, a town I visited on a handful of occasions, back in the mid-1970’s, when I was a student at Salford University. I was surprised to learn that Oldham’s rail link had been converted to a tramline, but didn’t the same thing happen at Bury?

    Those few trips, 40+ years ago, were the only times that I managed to sample Oldham Ales. The bitter was especially good, if I remember right, pale in colour and with a pleasing hop bitterness. As you point out, the brewery’s distribution area was very tight, as a housemate and I found to our cost. We wanted to sample Oldham Ales for the first time, and thought that if we continued far enough, out of Manchester, along the Oldham Road, we would find one of the brewery’s pubs.

    We were on foot, and abandoned our quest somewhere between Miles Platting and Failsworth, without coming across a single Oldham Ales pub. We caught the bus back into central Manchester, and ended up cycling to Oldham, several months later. An Oldham Ales pub, somewhere near the market, finally allowed us our first pints of the brewery’s mild and bitter.

    My final visit to the town, was several years later, when I arrived by train. The British Rail DMU I arrived on, really struggled as it made its way up the hill, and it was Oldham’s windswept, and rather desolate location, at the top of a hill, that put me off making future visits. Cold, wet, and windy, were my final impressions of Oldham, but your article does show the town in a different light. It also jogged my memory enough to make me suspect that I might have been in the Ashton Arms, especially given its GBG status.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great write up Chris. We don't do so bad in ROB do we? Thanks too for the More Beer mention too. Come back soon.

    ReplyDelete

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