So the mission was clear: to boldly go where no man had gone before. Well ok, a few had gone before but not many lived to tell of it. Why? Because we’re talking about Wales: of course. Yes, that far-off land of fierce tribes such as the Silures and the Ordovices. To be fair, we were visiting Cardiff and South Wales which, we were reliably informed, is quite civilised and not a muskeg like North Wales. So with expectation and just a little trepidation, the wagon train of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury CAMRA set off for pastures new.
On a campaign such as this, as any Roman legionary will tell you, it’s wise to surround yourself with seasoned veterans. So naturally I headed for Jack and Jill, as campaigners don’t come much more seasoned than these two. Once we were underway, our drinking plans for this adventure were outlined by Stopwatch Sid’s erstwhile Padawan: Bingo Billy, who had kindly forsaken his award-winning bingo calling duties for the duration and was to be our guide for the weekend. And a fine job he did as well.
Now I don’t know if you realise this but it’s a long way to Cardiff from the idyllic plains of Lancashire. Horses and mules and their riders all need sustenance to maintain their strength. So before we reached our first official stop: Cheltenham, we were obliged to call in at the Crown in Wychbold, Droitwich. This is a large, rather attractive looking, Marston’s roadhouse pub of the variety that has become something of a rarity in the North West. It did offer several real ales from the Marston’s range and one immediately stood out to me. Banks’s Mild was a one-time favourite of mine many moons ago. I couldn’t recall the last time I tried it, so it seemed the obvious choice. Sadly many a beer has run down the urinals since its heyday. It’s changed; my palate has changed, so suffice it to say that it wouldn’t be my first choice again.
It was then time for the afternoon’s excursion into Cheltenham. Naturally, like blood sucking leeches on an open wound, a swarm of thirsty CAMRA members soon descended on the nearest pub. However, rather conveniently, there are several pubs on the High St and so my posse decided to explore those further along. First stop was the Old Restoration, a large mock-Tudor affair. An impressive number of, largely unknown, pumpclips awaited us. A couple of samples were tried that didn’t excite; so the decision was made to have a beer that someone else had already ordered. A half of vinegar was duly delivered. When this was pointed out, the barman’s excuse was that it was “an unusual beer”. It was swapped for something else but I was less than impressed.
On the opposite end of the same block as the Old Restoration lies the Vine. This has an appealing, rare, green tiled frontage and consists of a narrow room smartly spruced up in contemporary style. Hook Norton and North Cotswold Shagweaver were both on good form. Further along on the same side of the road is the Swan. This is a modern Marston’s house with a pleasant little beer garden. The beer range, particularly given the choice elsewhere, showed exactly all that’s wrong with the tied system. You can have any beer as long as it’s a middle of the road Marston’s brown/copper/auburn beer. Hobgoblin? I think not. To be fair, the Brakspear I had wasn’t in too bad nick, just on the warm side. Across the road is the Strand. With its airy, open plan modern style and large shop front windows, this looks like a high end conversion. It’s got a nice patio area and the beer choice was the best so far, with Gloucester Galaxy proving a winner.
It was then time for the main contender to step forward. The Sandford Park Alehouse just shows what can be accomplished in a short time. A former nightclub housed in a Grade 11-listed building, it only opened in 2013 and yet managed to win CAMRA’s coveted national pub of the year award in 2015. It may boast 10 handpumps and 16 keg lines but as we all know, quality is king and it has a well-deserved reputation for delivering on that. I particularly liked the large beer garden and the Oakham Citra was excellent.
Friday and Saturday night saw us wandering; some may say staggering, round the watering holes of Cardiff. It’s a very compact crawl and whilst it may not yet rival the beer goddess that is Manchester, it has plenty to offer the discerning imbiber. Although busy, it seemed a little quieter than Manchester would at the equivalent time. Having said that, the young lass relieving herself in an alleyway did remind us that the two cities have more than just beer in common. Tyson’s Top Tip: when in foreign lands seek out the autochthonous drinker for up to date info. The locals also appreciate it if you can muster a few words of their native tongue. Here I found repeating “eich defaid hardd” had them nodding sagely.
In the shadow of the Millennium Stadium lies the Urban Tap House. This is a large, quirky-think student design here-pub operated by Tiny Rebel. No surprise then to find it offers an excellent range of cask, keg and bottled beer than can be enjoyed in rooms of differing décor. Apart from their own good stuff, I enjoyed Windermere Pale alongside several other guest beers. Across the street is the City Arms, a two-roomed Brains house that sells 10 real ales as well as the same amount of that evil keg filth. Cask came out on top though; with Bude’s Pendeem American Pale being the pick of the crop.
If it’s evil keg filth that you’re after, you can satisfy your unnatural lust al fresco style at Brewdog. Talking of craft, if you want to see what craft was like before, erm, craft ‘arrived’, then check out ZeroDegrees. This swanky, US style, brewpub is part of a chain that were bringing craft to drinkers well before Brewdog hijacked the concept. The upper floors are reserved for diners but you can relax and enjoy a glass of beer-and pizza-on the ground floor. The black lager, American Wheat and Pilsner were all excellent and required a return visit. Beer is served cool via a font but the beer comes straight from the tank and is CAMRA endorsed, so you know it must be good for you.
I fared much better with the beers in Mumbles, Swansea. The Pilot is a small local on the seafront. Their own Pilot beers were quite acceptable to the drinking man, with the Pilot Light delivering a nice refreshing crispness. The Park inn was another cosy, terraced, side street boozer of a type sadly all too rare in Manchester these days. They specialise in Welsh beers, but try not to hold that against them. Last but certainly not least was the Mumbles Ale House. This is a tiny micropub on the ground floor of a standard terraced house. A proper pub with no keg or other unnatural distractions. Just some excellent beer, cider and perry along with top-notch banter. The tres petit unisex outdoor loo is a gem where, as the locals say, there isn’t room to change your mind.
The Old Swan aka Ma Pardoe’s at Netherton is a nationally famous pub and one of the last four remaining English home-brew pubs from 1974. It’s on CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors and is a treat for pub architectural aficionados. I’ve been here many times over the years and while it’s undoubtedly a great place, the beer isn’t the best. Certainly on the last two visits, I remember discussing the matter with several others who had the same opinion.
This time the Olde Swan beers were either diacetyl or unduly harsh and chewy. Unwilling/unable to stomach an afternoon of them, a breakaway party made for the hills. Well the nearby Bulls Head, to be precise. This community local, despite seemingly being the antithesis of the grand Swan, is another CAMRA success story. It has recently been bought free of tie and now sells Holden’s Golden Glow. Not only was the beer excellent but the welcome from the staff and customers was top rate as well. Thus it was with a heavy heart that we quaffed out final pints, got our exit visas stamped, saddled up and headed back to our homesteads.
The lesson here, to everyone’s amazement, is that you CAN go to Wales and still really enjoy yourself.