Wetherspoons. take ’em or leave ’em, eh? Travelling the country frequently in the early noughties, I went in dozens of the blighters. Converted cinemas, converted banks, converted offices. Conversion after conversion. To be frank, the majority served one purpose. Cheap food. That’s because (other than a few isolated instances) the beer was mediocre. I learned which ones to trust and which to leave alone.
I can count the ones I trust on one hand. However, sometimes, you overlook what’s closest to you. So, using the Wetherspoons International Beer Festival as an excuse, I found myself entering The Bulls Head on Manchester Road in Walkden. A mile from my front door. And, to me at least, a rarity. A restored pub by JD Wetherspoon!
The Bulls Head
In my mid to late teens, I had quite a few friends in Little Hulton, but, being a Salford lad, the Bulls Head was something I passed on the bus. I can only recall actually entering the pub once. It was a fairly grim place. A Whitbread plaything (from memory), it followed ‘fashion’ and was even named – at one point – “The Amsterdam Bar (with Sound and Light – I kid you not!) Some years later, after a stabbing in 2011, the pub was shut. It wasn’t the greatest of boozers, but Walkden could ill afford losing another pub.
Wetherspoons were rumoured to be having a presence in the newly developed Ellesmere Shopping Centre. To my surprise, they took on The Bull, spending a reputed £1.3 million on a total refurb.
They did a superb job.
It’s a large single floor space. Whilst – technically – a single room, it has the feel of multiple areas. Lots of area given up to eating, but a number of different areas within gives a bit of choice of where to settle. Lots of local history pieces on the walls. A map on the floor depicting the ‘hidden canals’ that were used to transport coal underground to the Bridgewater Canal for distribution on the canal network.
Being the International Beer Festival though, gave us a chance to sample some imported cask conditioned beers. So, what did I start with?
Marstons Single Hop – Pacific Gem!
(That surprised ME as well!) A pale beer at 4% abv. This had a gentle lemony citrus aroma and maybe a hint of candied grapefruit. The flavour was light and subtle with more than a hint if citrus hop. Not had a Marstons beer for ages due to previous disappointments, but this was such a refreshing pint.
Devils Backbone Brewery – American Amber 4.8% abv
The first of 3 ‘International’ beers this evening, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (but brewed for the fest at Adnams)! This red beer (or ‘deep copper’ if you prefer!) had a lovely American hop citrus aroma. This was a beltingly (new adjective?) lovely balanced beer with a big malt body offset by distinctively citrussy American hops. Lovely.
Good George Brewing – Pacific Pearl 5.5% abv
Described in the tasting notes as ‘The Brewers take on a Black IPA’ – From Hamilton in New Zealand (but brewed in the UK for the festival by ex-Thornbridge brewer Kelly Ryan), this was a deep ruby to black coloured beer. A gentle fruity hop aroma to this one, but in the body there lurked a licorice like hop torpedo! Really nice this. So good that I had to have two!
Vasileostrovsky Brewery – Siberian Red 6% abv
(forgot to snap!)
From St Petersburg (but brewed at Banks Brewery in Wolverhampton, this is a deep red coloured beer. Some blackberry on the nose. A full-flavoured fruity malt beer with some hoppy dryness in the finish. Red beers aren’t usually my thing, but I gave this a go for my sleeping draught and found that I really enjoyed it!
To sum up. The Bulls Head may not be everyone’s idea of a great pub. For my money though, ‘Spoons did a really good job with this and brought a much-needed variety of ales into this area. The inside of the pub is really well done with some unusual high-backed chairs.
They have, in the process of renovating this lovely building, created a fabulous space to the rear. Col had been in The Bull on many occasions and the back was never this spacious! Nice tables, comfy seats, nicely lit. It was needed tonight as the pub heating was set to sub-tropical!
(Just a small section of the outside space!)
I wouldn’t ordinarily have written this single pub visit up, but the festival is on until next Sunday. Whilst I know that ‘Spoons aren’t everyone’s cup of lapsang, some of the beers on offer look superb (Ionian Coffee Porter anyone?) and it would be a shame to let prejudice get in the way of some really good beers that we may never see again!
Having been in three or four times now, The Bulls Head may be entering into that rare club. Wetherspoons that I trust!
On that note…..