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Big Light on Bolton....

I hadn't been to Bolton for 30-odd years, and with the Manchester Christmas Markets kicking into action and the ensuing crowds I decided to venture a little further and check out this Lancashire town whose famous residents have included Peter Kay, Fred Dibnah, and Samuel Crompton....

I arrived at Bolton's extensive and somewhat oversized railway station around an hour and a quarter after leaving Halifax. I don't know if it had been subliminal messages getting through to me following Peter Kay's announcement a few days earlier he was going back on tour after an absence of 10 years but here I was in his hometown. Indeed, as I had been walking towards the station in Halifax, I even heard a bloke announce to his family as I walked past them that their booking to see the Bolton comic, who made catchphrases out of everyday mundanity like garlic bread and the big light, had been confirmed. Much as I like Peter Kay though I was here to check out a few of the town's pubs.

I searched on the CAMRA app for the nearest pubs, and a few minutes later, after leaving the main drag and wandering down a couple of unpromising back streets, I entered an attractive and quiet square with a memorial in the middle. There were a few bars down each side, including a Spoons, but I was here to visit the Northern Monkey bar which is run by the brewery of the same name who are based in the town. It is a pleasant, modern one-room bar but on two levels, based in a former restaurant. As I walked in a number of tables were already occupied with a mix of people of varying age, whilst a young family were occupying the pool table. Much Monkey branding was evident around the room; on posters, around the bar, on the menu on the tables which offered pizzas, loaded fries, and the like. The bar sells mainly beer from its own brewery in both cask and keg format, but with a few guests as well. I ordered a pint of Last Drop, from Northern Monkey, a 3.5% clean and refreshing pale which got the day off to a good start (NBSS 3.5). I liked Northern Monkey, there was a good atmosphere, and the staff were friendly.

I had been planning my day out and realised that the location of the Good Beer Guide pubs in Bolton meant I could only realistically do 4 of them on this visit; the town's long-established Bank Top Brewery's tap was a mile or two out of the centre, with another couple a similar distance out. So, I had looked at WhatPub? for other potential places to call, and experience has taught me that these can sometimes be amongst the best to visit (eg. the Cracke in Liverpool which I visited earlier in the year, which I see is in the 2023 Guide). And the next pub I visited was another one not currently in the guide, having been dropped after featuring in the 2022 version.

The interestingly named Swan and Bannisters in fact consists of two bars; the Swan is a more traditional pub, whilst Bannisters is a bar that doesn't open until later in the day but stays open longer. It is a large and impressive Grade ll listed building situated on a corner of Bradshawgate not far from the parish church. The two bars apparently share staff and the cellar and feature similar beers, and from the front you enter via a shared archway which leads into a covered yard. I turned left into the Swan which was open and from a number of hand pumps on the bar I ordered a pint of Flat Cap from Bank Top, which is a well-established brewery who started out way back in 1995. The beer, which is a 4% pale amber bitter, is one I had not had in ages, was excellent; well-balanced, refreshing, and delicious, and in great condition, easily worth a National Beer Scoring System rating of 4. The pub itself was a standard town-centre pub with Sky Sports (showing City in the process of losing home to Brentford) on several TV screens. The tables were mainly occupied by middle-aged blokes at this time, though I suspect it may well change as the day goes on. Worth a visit, especially if the beer is always this good. 

It was just around the corner to the next pub, another one from WhatPub? and an altogether different kind of place. Situated on Churchgate is Ye Olde Man & Scythe, a half-timbered gem which is supposedly the 4th oldest pub in the country. Now these things are always contested and there are plenty of contrasting claims, but there is no doubt that this has place been around a long time! The friendly lady behind the bar kindly gave me a leaflet about the pub which suggested the pub may have originated in the 12th century or even earlier. Bolton itself is old: way back in 1253 it was granted a charter to allow it to become a market town and borough. The pub has over the years from its wattle and daub beginnings survived fire, witnessed a massacre, and a beheading, so not your typical pub CV, and oozes its history. Inside, there is a standing area in front of the bar, a drinking corridor, and a further room at the back, a window revealing a small, enclosed courtyard. There is a room to the right as you go in, with another larger room with dark wood panelling off the corridor, but with a mix of different people popping in, the history doesn't appear to be overwhelming to the average Boltonian. I ordered a pint of Flat Cap (another good beer, NBSS 3.5), and went to sit in the small room with old photos, pictures, and other bits relating to the pub's history. I sat enjoying my pint and checking my plans on the CAMRA app, my only other companion being a guy in a mustard-coloured jumper. A fascinating pub that you should visit if in Bolton.

The Old Man and Scythe; a Bolton surprise

It was only a couple of minutes' walk to the next pub, down a side street off Deansgate, on Crown Street, right opposite the Phlebotomy Centre. The Millstone is a Holts pub and had a real local feel to it despite its town centre location. I ordered a pint of Holts Bitter and went and sat at a small table near the bar. The beer, which maintained the cheap prices I had encountered so far on the trip, was another good pint (NBSS 3.5). On a large TV opposite, England were in the early stages of their defeat by Samoa in the Rugby League World Cup semi-final, as an old guy in a flat cap who would fall into the description of a "character" who everyone seemed to know entered the pub. He got his drink and plonked down noisily across the table from me, not engaging in conversation but huffing and puffing loudly. I suspect I might have been sat in his seat, but I am not a mind reader, well not after 4 pints anyway. The pub overall did have a friendly atmosphere, which I was finding was a common theme in the places I had visited over the afternoon, but it did occur to me that it was in places like this that Peter Kay could have drawn inspiration for some of the characters for the classic Phoenix Nights.

I probably spent more time to trying to find where the next place on the list than I actually did when I got there. It was located within the Market Place, a re-furbished and modernised indoor retail centre, the entrance to which was also off Deansgate down Knowsley Street, opposite the rather striking Methodist Mission Hall.

I walked into the modern shopping mall, the sort of place I normally avoid like the plague (unless it involves a visit to HMV in Manchester's Arndale Centre). The bar I was looking for was located downstairs, and after a couple of minutes I spotted groups of people sat at tables with glasses in front of them. I walked into the semi-open area that is Great Ale at the Vaults and ordered a half of Wensleydale Semerwater from a choice of three hand pumps. I found an empty table away from the bar, with the soundtrack a mix of the sounds of kids having fun in the adjacent play gym overlaying the usual bland mall music. The beer fortunately was pretty decent (NBSS 3), but I didn't hang around. I can understand why a bar in a place like this will attract customers, but as someone who wasn't involved in shopping or had kids enjoying themselves in the play gym which would make this a useful spot to escape for a pint, its charms were somewhat lost on me. As I was finishing my beer, a guy at a neighbouring table waved across at me. It was the guy with the mustard jumper from the Old Man and Scythe, now with a mate. I didn't ask but maybe they were here to collect their kids, meet up with their partners who'd been shopping, or maybe they genuinely liked the place. Each to their own, of course.

I had one more place to visit, and my walk there took me past some more striking buildings such as the town hall (opening picture) and the attractive Le Mans Crescent, re-named in the 1970's in honour of Bolton's twin town, which reflect the prosperity the cotton and other industries once brought to the town. Unlike many towns and cities I have visited over the past few years, Bolton seems to have maintained a thriving shopping centre with less of the empty units you see in so many towns. The Market Place I had just left had been busy, and my final port of call took me into another market, though one far removed from the one I had just left.

Bolton indoor market is a sprawling, lively place, with as much humanity evident as goods on the stalls. Unlike the sterile atmosphere I had just left behind, this place was lively, with shoppers and traders bustling and jostling, wrangling and jangling. It was in amongst a sea of stalls laden with bedding, household goods, and end-of-range clothing that I came across my final destination. One for the Road is situated in the market's Lifestyle Hall and is a well-established bar that seems to work in harmony with the market, rather like Cob and Coal in Oldham's Tommyfield Market. It has been open for around 8 years, with the guy running it telling me he'd had it for 5 of those. It was busy, and even though there were plenty of bench tables around, all were occupied. I asked a couple if I could leave my pint with them while I went to the loo, and I ended up sitting with them when I got back. They were Billy and Christine, a lovely couple from Eccles who regularly come to Bolton and enjoy this bar for the quality of the beer. And the atmosphere, Billy said, as one of the nearby market traders who was in the process of closing suddenly burst into song, serenading all and sundry. They were United fans, and Billy had been involved in football coaching and had nurtured the early careers of one or two future Premier League players. The beer here was very good: I had 2 halves, one being Sublime from Flagship Brewery (NBSS 3.5) whilst the Cascade from Stockport Brewery was equally good.

It was time to leave, so I said farewell and made my way back to the station to get my train home. Based on this visit, Bolton is an interesting place with some great pubs with one or two surprises, some attractive buildings, friendly, down to earth people, and well worth the trip....

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