A Widnes stroll!
On a warm, dry afternoon in late May, I boarded Arriva's No. 110 Runcorn-Warrington bus for Widnes to explore a few of that town's many diverse cask ale outlets. The first stop was Marston's 'Eight Towers' located on the edge of the Halton View estate and within sight of the nearby power station's landmark cooling towers. It's a large two-room restaurant and there are tables and benches outside. Four ales were available on this visit: Marston's 4.2% 'Sunbeam', Wychwood's 4.5% 'Hobgoblin' and Thwaites's 4.4% 'Lancaster bomber' and 4.1% 'Wainwright'. The latter, a pale-coloured bitter, was on fair form and it was a good, thirst-quenching start.
A 40 minute leisurely stroll on foot followed via a route through he scrubby, municipal green area whimsically named "The Bongs", which is perhaps a mediaeval Cheshire dialect word meaning wooded area near a riverbank. Here in this tranquil retreat there are views of the surrounding industry and, sweeping in the distance to the south, the sandstone hills of Runcorn and Frodsham.
Next up was Greene King's 'Church View' up on the edge of town at Lunts Heath. It has an attractive Tudor-style exterior, an extensive interior and it is chiefly a family-friendly restaurant. Three Greene King ales were on in addition to Cumberland, Ruddles, Tribute and Belhaven's 3.8% 'Golden Bay'. This Scotland-brewed Belhaven ale wasn't too bad. It was just a bit thin on flavour, in my opinion.
En route to Hough Green, via a green space known as "Upton Rocks", there is another lovely Tudor-style hostelry named 'The Tavern'. While it wasn't on my pre-planned itinerary, I did observe that it is a free house serving two cask ales, Landlord and Doombar.<.p>
The uniquely named 'Four Topped Oak' run by Ember Taverns was third on the list. Yet another family-friendly restaurant - and packed with customers on this late afternoon - they were serving four ales: Doombar, Black Sheep's 4% 'Ember Taverns Pale Ale', Brakspear's 3.4% 'Bitter' and Brains's 4.5% 'Reverend James'. For me, the deep, tawny-coloured malty ale that is the Wales-brewed Reverend James was the first richly-flavoured and hugely pleasurable ale of day. Noteworthy is this establishment's promotion of cask ale by way of chalk board detailing the current ales and the illustrated booklets describing ale types in general.
On the cusp of the evening, I continued on foot along the path running parallel with the Liverpool-Manchester railway line, passing Widnes station and taking in the leafy Victoria Park. Eventualy reaching the town centre, I called in 'The Grapes' on Widnes Road. This is a proper, traditional boozer comprising two rooms: a front lounge, today occupied by locals engaged in joyous, lively discussion and a rear function room for evening entertainment. The Grapes is special for its commitment to serving still cider from hand pump. I tried a half of the 5.2% 'Apples and Pears' from Lilley's of Somerset. Pale and crystal clear in appearance, and virtually odourless, this cider's foretaste was deceptively delicate. However, its lush, dry flavour soon developed quietly. Definitely a subtle one. Oakham's 4.6% 'Bishop's Farewell' was the cask ale on here.
Wetherspoon's 'Premier' is one large open plan room or hall. While it may not conform to everyone's idea of a convivial, traditional pub setting, the place was well populated and the bar staff were friendly and diligent. Being my final stop, I took it easy and surrendered to the Premier's languid hub-bub with a slow pint of the 8.5% Stockport-brewed 'Old Tom' from Robinsons. This famous yet uncommon dark beverage has fruity notes of date and raisin and a gentle bitterness. Other ales available were a 5.2% IPA from Lancashire's Lytham Brewery alongside Cumberland, Ruddles and Doombar. In short, pubs, cask ale and real cider are alive and kicking in this fair town of the Vikings. It's well worth a visit!