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At Home In Accrington....

Despite being only about 30 miles from home, I had never been to Accrington in my life. Until last weekend that is, when the small Lancashire town was the setting for Halifax Town's home game against Barnet with the club's Shay Stadium currently being out of use. So we caught the train over and found some excellent and good value beer in some great places....

There was a bustling and eager throng of Halifax Town supporters when I arrived at the railway station just before 11.30 on a sunny Saturday morning, the air heady with the anticipation of a familiar day out but in different surroundings. The train was a few minutes late coming in, and then it took around 40 minutes from Halifax to Accrington. It was standing room only for most of the way, until Burnley Manchester Road, when some nimble footwork bagged some seats as the passenger mix changed, the Burnley supporters alighting for pre-match pints before their club entertained Brighton at Turf Moor whilst the usual noisy, Blackpool-bound hen party or two that always seem to get on here joined the train, embellished by balloons and wearing their hats for Hattie and sashes for Sasha.

It was my first visit to Accrington, which was basically only a couple of villages until the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Due to the presence of several streams in the area, it became home to a number of cotton mills, with the textile trade along with engineering and coal mining subsequently driving the town's growth. However, it has never grown into a big town like nearby Blackburn or Burnley; its population peaked at around 46,000, and today numbers around 35,000, which no doubt contributes to the community feel of the place. This is enhanced by the legacy of the Accrington Pals, who are probably the best remembered of the battalions enlisted in the early months of the First World War in response to a call by the then Secretary of State of War, the Earl of Kitchener, for a volunteer army. Kitchener's idea was to encourage men to join the army with their friends and support the war effort. And it worked, and so groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinctively local identity. But there was a downside to this; sadly, in its first major action, the battalion suffered devastating losses on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The losses were hard to bear in a community where nearly everyone had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded, with the legacy of those tragic days trickling down through subsequent generations so that it is hard to escape its shadow even now.

The Accrington Pals; their legacy lingers on

We walked down the hill from the station into town. The streets seemed unusually quiet for a Saturday morning, the market stalls selling cheese and sandwiches in front of the imposing town hall seemingly doing little trade. Along the streets there were the usual charity shops, takeaways, bookies, and vape shops you find in most town centres these days, but we also walked past a number of independent shops which gave the place a local feel, the bigger national names seemingly largely consigned to the town's Arndale and Peel shopping centres. We came across  the local branch of Spoons where a couple of guys were chatting by the door as they puffed on spindly roll-ups. We walked past a couple of other bars and the curiously-named Canine Club, to which we would return later. 

Our first stop though was a traditional street-corner pub just up the road called the Arden Inn. With an attractive traditional exterior, the signage reminding you this is Accrington and welcoming you to your friendly local, we walked into a smart, spotlessly-clean traditional pub that was separated into distinct areas which still reflected the original layout of the place. The bar was on the right-hand side as you walked in, with a pool table occupied by a couple guys in front of a TV screen showing Newcastle at home to Spurs in the early kick-off. Another room was showing the football on an even larger screen, whilst there was a quieter area to the left of the entrance to which we headed after we had bought our beers. There were four hand pumps on the bar which included Bradfield's Farmers Blonde, but most of us opted for pints of Butty Bach, one of two Wye Valley ales featured, the other one, HPA, having been sampled the week before on our visit to Birmingham, which is a lot nearer to their Herefordshire base. The beer was in excellent condition, a 4.5% well-balanced, sweetish bitter, its colour a warm, glowing gold (NBSS 3.5). With its excellent, good value beer, friendly landlord and joshing locals, the Arden Inn was an excellent pub in which start our day.

It was only a short walk then to the next place on our list, Grants Bar on Manchester Road, where a few other Town fans we know were already enjoying a pint. A large and prominent building opposite the former police station and magistrates court this is a smart comfortable modern bar attractively furnished and catering for both drinkers and diners drawn to its extensive list of home made pizzas. It also is home to its own brewery, Big Clock, whose vessels are tantalisingly close and visible from the main bar. The guy behind the bar had set up the brewery here in 2014 and was chatty and eager to speak about it, and the beers. The obvious question was "Why Big Clock?". He said he couldn't think of a name and looked around the room he was in, and yes, you've guessed it, his eyes fell upon a big clock. And so the brewery had a name, and as if to emphasise the fact, there are several clocks of varying sizes dotted around the interior of the bar. Whilst Grants Bar is the main retailer of the Big Clock beers, they also sell into a few other pubs locally, the guy behind the bar having passed the brewing baton on to concentrate on running the bar operation and business as a whole.

Grants Bar: look carefully and you might spot a brewery, a pizza oven, and a Big Clock

There were six hand pumps on the bar, with all the beers today from Big Clock. Several of the beers contain honey, but not the best seller, named after the Accrington Pals. I ordered a pint of this 4% blonde, well-balanced pale ale with a crisp finish whilst several of the lads went for Sunny Boy, a blonde ale with a touch of honey and an ABV. Others on parade included Bitter and Twisted, a reassuringly traditional amber ale weighing in at 4.3% and Honey Stout, a 5% oatmeal stout. There was also a large range of traditional ciders, their boxes stacked on shelves to the side of the bar. The verdict on the beers was positive;  I really enjoyed my pint of Pals (NBSS 3.5), and the other lads enjoyed their pints too, so there was no resistance when someone asked if we should get another one.

The boys, a few Pals, and a large alarm clock

As we discussed the prospects for the forthcoming game, the clock (big or otherwise) moved on, and it was soon time to drain the last remaining liquid from our glasses and leave the delights of this wonderful pub behind. Completely different to the Arden Arms, Grants Bar was similarly an excellent place, and is highly recommended if you find yourself in Accrington. Keep your eye out for the Big Clock beers too.

It was probably around half an hour walk from Grants Bar to the Wham Stadium, the home of Accrington Stanley, so some of the lads set off to walk there, whilst a couple of us older guys took a cheap taxi ride there instead. We crossed over the town centre and climbed a hill into leafy suburbs, where a little further on we were dropped off near to a pub called the Crown, behind which was the stadium, and indeed it was historically known as the Crown Ground. One of the lads who'd made his own way to Accrington was crossing the road having just parked up, and we decided we had a time for a quick pint. We walked in to a busy pub with so many familiar Town fans already in there that we could have been in Halifax. Whatpub? said that Ossett White Rat and Sharps Doom Bar were the beers on offer here, but I didn't see anything other than their own 4% Crown Pale Ale, a pleasant enough beer (NBSS 3), whilst I couldn't be certain who the brewer was, I would guess Moorhouses. the Crown was a friendly place, food is a big part of the offer, along with live sport on TV, and is smartly decorated, with a large mural opposite the bar commemorating the Accrington Pals.

It was time to go next door into the ground, which can be accessed directly from the pub car park. The Wham stadium takes its name from the brand of sponsors What More UK Ltd, who are (for those who like to know these things) the largest distributor of plastic storage boxes in the country. It was then I thought my mind was playing tricks; I bought a programme from a familiar face and then I paid my money to the usual guy I see when I go through the turnstiles at the Shay! Some food? Whilst the offer was somewhat limited, the pies were from the Accrington-based Clayton Park Bakery whose products I had enjoyed previously. And then into the stand; the ground is fairly small for a Football League club, with a capacity of 5,450, but there was no trouble accommodating today's crowd of 1,447. With low stands on three sides, the open end opposite afforded pleasant views over the nearby West Pennine Hills. The pitch was in immaculate condition, and ironically considering we were here because our ground was waterlogged, the sprinklers were operating. The teams came out to warm and enthusiastic applause and cheers. Town were playing Barnet, who were in second place in the National League, having clinched their place in the play-offs a few weeks earlier, whilst Town were 7th and in the final play-off place. Any hopes Town had of strengthening that position today were soon dealt a sharp blow when minutes into the game sloppy play in defence allowed Barnet to slip in and score a goal. Minutes later, another mistake, and Barnet were 2-0 up. And that's how the scoreline stayed, Town huffed and puffed and struggled to make an impact over the course of what was a disappointing game, although with results going our way elsewhere they did manage to cling on to 7th spot. But full credit to Accrington for stepping in and allowing the game to be staged here, and making us feel very welcome.

The Wham Stadium, Accrington

We set off walking back into town, but we hadn't got far when a taxi stopped beside us, a window wound down, a familiar head popped out, and asked if anyone wanted a lift. I leapt in, and five minutes later we were stopping outside the afore-mentioned Canine Club (opening image). As its name suggests, yes it is a club but there was no burly guy on the door asking for ID, we were just able to walk straight in. And I haven't a clue why it has the name it has, as there wasn't a dog to be seen. But what a great atmosphere there was in this working men's club. Busy with a clientele covering all age groups from young ladies to gnarled old guys, the welcome was warm and friendly. Football was playing on TV in both the lounge into which you enter the club and the games room beyond, from where the click-clack of pool balls could clearly be heard. Laughter was in the air; cheery barflies parted as we went to order our beers, a Moorhouses Blond Witch for me at the welcome price of £2.90 a pint. And it was in excellent condition, cool, refreshing, and full of flavour (NBSS 3.5). The rest of the lads joined us, got their beers, and we found some seats without any trouble, nobody coming over to say you can't sit there, it's Brian's seat, he'll be in soon. I loved the Canine Club; cheap and cheerful, a little bit bonkers, but full of the warmth of lovely friendly people.

And that was Accrington. It was circumstances that had brought me here rather than any grand plan, but I found a smashing little town with some great pubs, good, value-for-money beer, and friendly people. And I can't wait to go back again. Although, hopefully, it won't be because Halifax Town can't use their ground again....

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