The 2023 CAMRA Good Beer Guide has recently been published, and as usual there is plenty of interest in what has been included and what has changed from the previous year's edition....
The arrival of a new edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide always leads to a period of cross-checking and seeing what's in, what's out, and always throws up a few surprises. As usual, I have spent a little time looking at the latest edition, which, amazingly, is the 50th. Edited by Emma Haines, and with a foreword by the Prince of Wales (as he was then), the guide features over 4,500 pubs across the UK, almost 1,900 breweries, and more than 7,500 beers. One big change this year is that that pubs are grouped in their county by region, rather than alphabetically, with the breweries for that county with them, which has taken me a little bit of getting used to, but in many ways it makes sense, and I am sure it will be no problem to those who have not spent 40 odd years using the guide. After all there have been many changes over the years; the vitriolic comments about some of the beers in the early editions were soon left behind, the Try Also recommendations of other pubs in the area were likewise abandoned, and since lockdown the changing market conditions our pubs are having to face has meant details of pub opening hours are no longer included. Of course, so much more accurate and up to the minute information is available, whether it's on CAMRA'S own WhatPub? site or brewery or pub websites or socials, but that's not the full picture. Just as say the arrival of a new edition of Wisden, the weighty, yellow-covered almanac celebrates the arrival of a new cricket season, the arrival of a new Good Beer Guide celebrates the wonderful pub culture we have in this country.
And so, to the 2023 Guide. I have picked out a few places that have caught my eye so far, most are from my local area, but I have also dipped into other parts of the country to see what has changed there and where I should be planning future visits. Here's a few of them....
The Upper George in Halifax is a classic Victorian town-centre pub, a timeless testament to the town's comings and goings. It is over 40 years since I first went in, and whilst there have been long periods during that time when I haven't been near the place, fundamentally the pub hasn't changed very much. The George - as it is universally known these days (there was once a Lower George) - has a large central bar, around which there are several separate seating areas with TVs on the walls, and a pool room off to one side. There are two entrances, one down a narrow passage off Crown Street with which the pub shares its address, and another via a larger yard with outdoor seating off Cheapside. Back in the days when I first went in the George was a Tetleys pub, having previously been run for many years by Halifax brewers Thomas Ramsden & Son, whose Stone Trough Brewery was located a few hundred yards away across town. It is now under the control of national brewers Greene King but, save for a single hand pump selling Greene King IPA, the beer choice across the other 7 hand pumps is sourced from independent breweries such as Acorn, Elland, and Little Critters.
The George had until 2021 hardly ever graced the Good Beer Guide and then lost out in 2022 to the Alex which had unfortunately closed by the time that guide was published but has come back in for 2023 and deservedly so. The beer quality has been good when I have called in over recent months, and the beers are good value for money, with CAMRA discount available for members. I popped in this weekend, and on a damp teatime there was a lively atmosphere with plenty of people in; guys having a solitary pint, groups enjoying a laugh, couples surrounded by bags of shopping. With a traditional rock soundtrack playing over the speakers, it could almost have been any time over the past 40 years apart from a few tell-tale signs such as the card machine and Jeff Stelling and his crew going through the football scores as they came in on Sky Sports. The George brings a different aspect of Halifax's town centre to the Good Beer Guide, which over the past few years has been dominated by the newer bars that have opened in the town and is well worth a visit.
I only picked up on the fact the other day that The Stafford Arms, (opening picture) has made it into the 2023 guide. It is fairly near to me, but across the border in, depending how you look at it, Kirklees MBC or the Heavy Woollen CAMRA branch area. Situated in a prominent position on the edge of the village of Scholes on the hills above Brighouse, Bailiff Bridge, and the Calder Valley further confusion comes from the Bradford postcode. I am delighted for my friends Paul and June Dickenson that they have been acknowledged by CAMRA and have made it into the guide. This is a real testament to all the hard work they have put into this village local since they took over just over 2 years ago, particularly after a less than happy experience in the final period of their time at the pubco-owned Beck on Bradford Road in Brighouse.
The Stafford is a true free house, owned by a local farmer, and with a good relationship with the landlord and no restrictions on where the beer comes from, Paul has been able to concentrate on putting together a range that works well for his customers and maintains the high quality which has been acknowledged by Cask Marque status. Bradfield Farmers Blonde and Taylors Landlord are always on - the Farmers Blonde was in excellent form when I called in the other day - and another 4 cask ales which may include the likes of Moorhouses, Abbeydale, or Acorn are also available. The pub is warm and welcoming, the stove providing a welcome respite from the cold winds that can sweep across Hartshead Moor at this time of year. Just as at the Beck, live music is on at the pub most Sundays, whilst during the week they have a quiz and an open mike night. The Stafford has a loyal band of regulars, into which have been absorbed more than a few from the Beck.
During the 2020-21 lockdown, Paul spent a lot of time working on the pub. To complement the beer garden at the back of the pub, a new outdoor seating area at the car park side of the pub was built, being put to good use in the days of outdoor service, whilst over part of it an attractive wooden-framed pergola was erected, with hanging baskets making for an attractive display during the spring and summer months. The Stafford is a pub I have visited on and off over the years, and I am not sure if it has ever been in The Good Beer Guide before, and if it has, it has not been in recent years, but its inclusion this time is well deserved.
Over in the small Calder Valley town of Mytholmroyd it is good to see that Barbarys has been included in the guide for the first time. This small riverside bar which is run by Ben Adey, who used to have the Alex and Lantern in Halifax, is situated in a former shop on the main A646 road and is 5 minutes' walk from the railway station. It takes its name from the pub where the infamous Cragg Vale Coiners, a local 18th century counterfeiting gang, used to meet. I have not been here that often but have always enjoyed it when I have. There are 3 beers on cask and a number on keg, whilst there is also a pleasant riverside terrace for outside drinking.
|Welcome Back! The Star in Huddersfield|
Meanwhile, over in Huddersfield, I was especially pleased to see that The Star at Folly Hall was back in the guide for the first time since 2018, especially after the floods that had forced the pub to close earlier in the year and following my recent visit in which I saw the results of the fantastic restoration by landlady Sam and a group of regulars.
Over in Manchester, I noticed that the Vocation & Co bar near Bridgwater Hall and the Midland Hotel has made the guide, a little over 12 months since it first opened its doors. When I visited the following day and in the early days post-lockdown 2021 when we had to remain seated and follow social distancing inside, they were clearly still finding their feet, but they have obviously managed to get themselves established over the subsequent period. Over on Turner Street in the Northern Quarter, Hydes' flagship bar and boutique hotel Abel Hayward, named after a former mayor of Manchester, has also been selected for the first time, whilst back in for the first time in several years is the quirky and characterful Molly House on Richmond Street. The usual suspects - the Marble Arch, Smithfield, Crown and Kettle, Peveril of the Peak, Port Street Beer House, etc - are included again.
And finally, looking at the North East, there are a few changes in Newcastle which reflect the competitive nature of the pub scene of that city, but suffice to say that I am pleased to see that three of my favourites - the Cumberland Arms, Free Trade, and Crown Posada - are re-included. I also noticed that out towards the coast the former beer desert of North Shields is certainly worth seeking out as there are now 3 entries in the guide, but on the other hand I am staggered that the wonderful Left Luggage Room at Monkseaton Metro Station is not included this time around. But that's all part and parcel of the nature of this unique publication. There will always be arguments for and against what should be included, but we have to remember that it can only ever be a snapshot of the scene at a particular time. But there is always next year to aim for....
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