The ‘virtual’ Black Country

Michael Sibbald re-creates a Black Country trip in his back garden

The Covid-19 crisis had already scuppered plans for my birthday, and the beer festival helpers’ trip to Birmingham. May 23 was marked in my diary as the pinnacle of the Oxford CAMRA “out of area trips”, the one to the Black Country.

Those who have never done this may wonder why so much fuss is made about going to a few pubs in the area around Wolverhampton, but those who have done it know. To avoid further disappointment this year I decided I would stage my own Black Country trip in my garden on this very day, and I brought in a few bottles of beer for this purpose. The plan was to do a highlights tour as the garden was not able to accommodate more than five pubs.

Drinking in nearly the Great
Western, Wolverhampton

The starting point was my summerhouse, which was pretending to be the Great Western in Wolverhampton itself. Ambience was provided by hanging pictures of GWR steam trains on the wall and doing the latest Wolverhampton Wanderers pub quiz on the laptop. A Holden’s pub, the Great Western also serves Bathams and usually has a guest or two on so I went for a bottle of West Berkshire’s Good Old Boy. Another feature of the pub is its pork bap. A ham sandwich in warm bread was the closest substitute available; pork, ham, it’s the same animal isn’t it?

A short meander up the garden path, past the greenhouse, brought me to the Beacon at Sedgeley, the home of Sarah Hughes brewery and a pub with a historically interesting interior. Always a regular stop, this afternoon it was being substituted by the river view terrace. To be honest the river was once referred to as a ditch by an American friend who lives next to the “mighty” Savannah river in South Carolina, and “terrace” could be misleading. But geographically it is a river, the River Stert, one of the major tributaries of the Thames in Abingdon.

The servery at the pub is a kiosk-like area in the middle of the bars, and this old-fashioned detail was emulated by me having to walk all the way back to our kitchen to get more beer. The usual tipple of choice in the Beacon would be Ruby Mild at 6.5%, but only a half as there would always be lots more to get through before the day was over unless, as occasionally happens, it is the last stop and a half would be about the limit. Shepherd Neame 1698 is a similar strength but as it was bottled, the whole metric pint had to be drunk. Sometimes consequences just have to be pushed to the back of the mind.

The real Britannia

Located at the other end of the garden, the Gornals were the next stop, Upper and Lower, and this is where it gets really clever. The conservatory is about a foot higher than the patio onto which it opens, so this was an ideal area for both. The Britannia in Upper Gornal is a Bathams pub, where bitter or mild is the choice. It’s referred to locally as Sally’s and internally features a little bit of interest in the back room.

The comparative detail our conservatory boasts is a wall that gets wet on the inside every time it rains, the locating of the leak so far proving to be beyond the ability of man. Old Hooky provided an ideal accompaniment to watching a rerun of the first half of Wolves knocking Manchester United out of last year’s FA Cup.

Looking towards the Gornals…. or not!

Stepping out of the conservatory onto the patio brought me to Lower Gornal. The Fountain is a pub that has been a bit up and down in the last few years but now seems to be moving in the right direction, and came recommended by a friend who lives close by. Never having visited this pub it was down to reading the Good Beer Guide and Whatpub to provide the atmosphere.

Black Sheep Milk Stout may never have appeared on the Fountain’s beer list but it appeared in a glass next to me, as the second half of the FA Cup game got under way.

Detail of bathroom tiles showing the “remarkable” similarity in aquatic theme to the Swan

Of all the other good pubs in the area, the Swan at Netherton is one not to be missed. With its many rooms and famous tiled swan attached to the ceiling it was to be represented by our house, as it too has several rooms. The front bar, or – as we refer to it – the upstairs toilet is also tiled and this too has an aquatic theme. But instead of a swan it boasts a frieze of fish tiles.

Unfortunately it was now getting on towards dinner time and on any other trip like this dinner is a meal I don’t usually get, so heeding the five-minute warning it was just a look round the door this time and I managed to get

The real Swan……

home just before dinner was put on the table. Although no time was available for drinking at the Swan the front bar did turn out to be the most visited room of the afternoon.

So there it was, another great day out. I ought to thank Tony Goulding who would have driven the minibus, Matt Bullock who would have sorted out the pubs to be visited, and the rest of the gang who would have gone, making the day so enjoyable. Until next year…

…..and the real Swan motif