Traditional pubs continue to call time across the country, but in Crewe there’s been something of a fight back in recent years. Closures are no longer common-place, and the variety and finery of new entrants has pumped fresh life into the town’s social scene. An industry on its knees? I disagree.
Check out the excellent Crewe Pubs book by former town mayor Howard Curran (pictured below, left) and the extent of the industry’s decline either side of the new century is all-too evident. That exhaustive research, published in 2004, depicted a vibrant drinking scene centred around heavy industry and the labyrinth of terraced houses that dominated the town’s core until the late 1950s and early 60s.
Then town planners, concrete shopping centres and the unbridled desire to widen roads altered the landscape forever. Swathes of old housing stock disappeared, and with the arrival of indiscriminate cranes went corner shops, cobbled streets and cosy pubs. It was brutal.
Evocative names like the Adelphi Hotel, Blue Cap Dog, Masonic Arms and the Dog & Partridge all faded from sight many years ago, before a wave of closures in recent times decimated West Street. The George, Lion & Swan, Polish Club, Wolverton Arms (Monkey), Bulls Head and, most recently, the Prince of Wales have all ceased trading; apartments replaced ales forever. The contraction of core railway jobs at what was Crewe Works is an obvious reason.
The painful story, however, was repeated across the town. Even grandiose houses like the Cross Keys (below) and Earl of Crewe couldn’t buck the trend, just as the Burton, Victoria, Rockwood, Royal Scott, Vine and Cumberland Arms succumbed to relentless financial pressures. We all wept into our beer; but not enough people used them. Across the bars that remained, it was grim news that dominated conversations.
And yet there is real hope for those seeking quality and originality in and around Crewe. The Borough Arms (Thomas Street) raised the bar as the new century dawned. A raft of fine beers appeared, and a micro-brewery burst into life in its basement. Within a few years the pub blazed a trail for ale, craft beer and imported lager enthusiasts throughout Cheshire. It scooped multiple awards along the way. No pumping music, just fabulous well-kept beers and a devoted following.
Soon after, a national label also appeared. Not everyone’s favourite, but JD Wetherspoon’s Gaffers Row doffed its cap to the Crewe railway past and brought its extensive range of pumps and bottles at affordable prices. Like it or loathe it, it ticked a multitude of boxes. Crucially, it kept people in and around the shopping zone.
In the background there were new developments, out-of-town locations perched on the major arteries that bring trade into Crewe. Although a wave of restaurant-cum-bars shared little in common with the back street boozers of old, suddenly there was choice. The Farmhouse (Beefeater at the end of West Street/Coppenhall Lane), the Duke of Gloucester (Crewe Green roundabout) and, most recently, the Four Eagles (Dunwoody Way). Now these are predominantly eateries with homogeneous bar areas, pandering to kids, businessmen and coffee drinkers. But they have also helped to raise the standard, force aged boozers to consider a refit – or at least splash out on a lick of paint, and to finally fix the leaking toilets.
The real game changer occurred amidst economic gloom when the UK housing bubble burst and the banking sector went into meltdown. Hops Belgian-style Café Bar opened its doors, and the Off Beat Brewery (Thomas Street – you MUST check out their “Firsty Friday” sessions) started to expand. The latter now ships beer all over the country, and has ambitions to go mobile with it tasty menu of beers and very tempting pizza oven. More on that another time…
Hops, well, what can you say. Sat opposite the historic Christ Church, outdoor seating for the warmer evenings, beers and lagers from all four corners of the globe, shabby-chic interior, great chat and a decent array of nibbles – ooh, and for the meat eaters, perhaps the best pork pies in Cheshire. It’s a heady mix.
With old-timers like The Crown and Cheese Hall also offering a few decent casks, there was something of a real-ale trail developing. Even the Waldron (the refurbished old job centre, later Albert’s Corner) joined the party, although it could never match the sheer diversity offered by Hops and the Borough.
A few hundred yards away, nestled amongst old locos, decrepit wagons and a plethora of railway and engineering memorabilia, the Rail Ale Festival was launched. An annual event in early September, it mixed heritage and hops to wow enthusiasts and attract many newbies to the craft beer and real ale scene. Last year there were seventy pumps!
Most recently Crewe welcomed something most would associate with the bigger cities, a venue that wouldn’t look out of place amongst London’s finest hipster districts. The Beer Dock rattled the mould, leaving some confused but many delighted. Shelves heavily laden with bottles from all corners of the country, and beyond. Lagers, craft beers, IPAs, ciders, stouts and much more. But it wasn’t just a shop; throw in some quirky seating, add several beer pumps atop a Belfast sink, and it was a weird but very cool boutique bar. They have even opened upstairs, such is the demand for this kind of chilled-out environment.
Crewe at last boasts the choice previously available only to those prepared to jump on a train and head out of town. Hops joined the Borough in attracting a raft of awards, while others realised the need to up their game on the ale front. The Brunswick, Hop Pole, British Lion (below), Corner Bar (old Royal Hotel) and Rising Sun always served up good standard brews, but the number of pumps, choice and quality went in the right direction. Even the Horseshoe (a one-time, very average Robinson’s house on the northern fringe) enjoyed an impressive makeover, emerging from the builders’ ashes looking a million dollars and offering a tempting rack of casks and kegs.
If the council (Cheshire East or, more locally, the recently formed Town Council) wanted to take Crewe to another level, then the old market hall is ripe for revamp. Steeped in history, situated near four or five pubs within a couple of minutes’ walk, and opposite the Lyceum Theatre, what an attraction this could be. Imagine a bottle bar, cuisines from all continents, beer and wine tasting, real street food, alternative but subtle entertainment, shared seating, a place to meet and greet, celebrate, enjoy. Check out what Altrincham did recently.
What, they’d do that in Crewe? You’d hear many scoff at the idea, but why not? With a huge investment in retail bubbling away on the planning desks, HS2 on the horizon, new homes boosting the town’s population… if ever there was an opportunity to elevate Crewe it’s now. Beer is booming; Crewe and its people should ride the renaissance wave into the future. Cheers!