My parents were in town last year and had read about Peter Kavanagh’s in a Good Beer Guide or similar tome. It had been over a decade since the last time I was there and sounded a note of caution. I always thought of it as a charming pub, but a bit rough around the edges. The last time (in the last century, unbelievably) I was there a girl on our table had her purse nicked by a man apparently desperate to find someone to skin up for him.
But they ploughed on regardless – and they very much enjoyed it. It made me wonder why I hadn’t been back for so long – and question the nature of how we view different parts of town, perhaps due to things that happened years ago that could probably have happened anywhere.
So on a rainy Saturday I gathered up a bunch of mates – the same ones I led on the London Road pub crawl a couple of years ago – and headed off with the idea of a Georgian Quarter pub crawl. This is an area that’s well served by pubs; pubs that largely sell real ale to boot.
The drink has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, with trendy hostelries such as Bier and The Lodge inventing a kind of ‘real ale chic’ in Liverpool, all dimpled pint mugs and local microbreweries (as an side you can have a lot of fun inventing names for real ales. Old Hobbit’s Knapsack; Hairy Stoat’s Nadgers, that sort of thing).
On the whole I think the real ale regeneration is a good thing, though I suspect that, for some of these pubs, their supposed love of IPAs, porters and stouts doesn’t amount to much more than a marketing gimmick. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but real ale does require some careful handling or all manner of horrible things can happen to it, as befell Cains’ specially-brewed beer at the Liverpool Beer Festival earlier this year.
Pete Kavanagh’s serves several real ales, among them when we visited were Birkenhead brewery Peerless’ All American IPA, a robust pale ale with a citrus-y notes that you probably wouldn’t want too many of – at a hefty 5.2 per cent. There’s also Liverpool Craft’s American Red, which I have previously enjoyed, and an ale from the George Wright Brewery in Rainford.
It’s excellent to see local breweries being supported like this and amid PK’s characterful – and rather oddball – surroundings with its transistor radios strung from the ceiling and unusual collection of pictures and curios it’s a winning combination. Imagine the most bonkers house clearance shop – or a secret attic room at the top of an ancient relative’s house. Then imagine that attic room sold brilliant beers.
The pint in PK’s accompanies one of the more unusual topics of conversation – famous mass murderers in this case. We deliberately have our backs turned to a lone television in the lounge. It’s that dead time between Saturday lunchtime and early evening so the place is rather quiet, though the front snug-like lounge is full of regulars. Good beer sits on the copper-topped tables and catching up with good friends is a simple, all-too-rare pleasure.
We head next to The Caledonia, at the other end of Catharine Street, a part of town I suspect I’ll always associate with late night / early morning parties. It’s looking a lot smarter these days and the pubs have also gone up in the world. Landlady Laura King has done wonders with the Cale, which now offers good food, good beer, excellent music from the likes of Loose Moose and Blind Monk Trio and its own chess club.
We sup Northern Brewing’s Jewel IPA and Milestone’s Shine On – two beers from further afield that are very drinkable. We also eat pork scratchings, because bar snacks are an important part of any pub crawl; the salt and fat of such snacks are good complements to the bitter notes of, well, bitter.
The Cale, like Peter Kavanagh’s, has a piano. To my mind every pub should have a piano, where possible. Bar billiards, a good jukebox and a dog are other elements that I personally welcome. In a former incarnation the Caledonia had four washing machines along the back wall. A neat idea – have a pint while you wash your pants – but it never really came off. Now it is an honest boozer that ticks all the relevant boxes and has something of a community feel, especially on the well-attended music nights.
Next up is The Belvedere, a pub that might escape your attention for years if you weren’t looking for it. Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac off Falkner Street, it feels rather like it’s in its own little world, and that makes it feel rather special.
The Belvedere has one rather small lounge and a small bar area. It always feels busy because you can only get about 30 people inside it in relative comfort. In the Summer people spill onto the pavement outside; in Winter the open fire is lovely to behold.
We sit in the lounge – a rather spartan room with vinyl carpet tiles, tables, chairs and very little else. No TV, jukebox, fruitie or any other form of entertainment. The message is clear – drink your booze and talk to people. Our conversation turns to Communism, as is to be expected after three pints. We drink Sandpiper Pale ale from the Brimstage brewery on the Wirral.
Next up is Ye Cracke, a regular stop and a default choice in the city centre for its good ales and lovely beer garden. Ye Cracke has loads of history – one of the pubs The Beatles actually did spend a lot of time in; the extraordinary mural in the back room being painted by one of John Lennon’s art-school tutors 50 years ago.
It’s also curiously laid out, with the peculiar War Office snug forming a room within a room. It’s big enough to house half a dozen people around the single table and was created to house Boer War bores who could swap tales of derring-do and dysentery without offending passing drinkers.
These days it’s best used to entertain passing pub crawlers on their fifth pint – Spitting Feathers from the Cheshire Real Ale Brewery in this case – and talking bollocks about town planning and the tried-and-tested ‘hottest curry in the world’ tale, which always goes down well.
Ye Cracke is an excellent pub; I visited it hundreds of times and never had a problem – and the same goes for the vast majority of pubs in town – the old maxim of not being a dickhead in such places has generally seen me right. But I did once see someone rather matter-of-factly glassed a few yards away from me in there several years ago.
There was a sense that Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter had a bit of problem a decade ago with scumbags – there was a heck of a lot of transient residents and some of the pubs in the area did not seem to openly discourage them.
Several friends were beaten up in the area and ladies of the night could be easily found lined up along Gambier Terrace. I no longer have that impression of the area – or this end of town generally now – but it still pays to not be a dickhead in most walks of life.
Off then to The Grapes – a pub that once rejoiced in the unlikely name The Sick Lizard. The Grapes is another typically small city-centre pub, with patrons arranging themselves around the horseshoe-shaped bar as best they can. The Grapes boasts a lovely beer garden and generally has quite a range of beers, but I’ve never really taken to it in the way I enjoy Ye Cracke and the others.
There’s a real mix of clientele in The Grapes, from students to CAMRA types and everything inbetween. I was one mistaken for a drug dealer in The Grapes (having previously been mistaken for an undercover police officer in Lark Lane’s Albert).
That’s part of the ‘thing’ of these Liverpool pubs, I think. The unlikely characters with a twinkle in their eyes are, by their natures, unpredictable and you take the rough with the smooth.
I have a pint of a beer I don’t recognise apparently called Victualler’s Choice. It’s rather vinegary and close to being off, but the excellent Tane Mahuta from Liverpool Craft Beer Company and 24 Carat from Liverpool Organic are both on, so there’s plenty of choice. If you’re not a beer person The Grapes has an excellent range of spirits. I eye up some oddly-proportioned nude portraits as I attempt to drink my beer.
Time is flying by – and we need to head to another tiny ale trail pub; the Roscoe Head further along Roscoe Street. This pub is frequently referred to as ‘the little Roscoe’ as there’s another pub called The Roscoe Arms around the corner (last time I was there I duetted Mack The Knife as Bobby Darin while my mate sang it – very convincingly it must be said – as Louis Armstrong).
The Roscoe Head has some sort of claim to to be the oldest pub in Liverpool. It has two compact but rather lovely rooms, a small bar area and a snug that’s more akin to a cupboard that anything, served – often confusingly for new patrons – by two separate doors.
Our gang squeezes inside and we sup pints of Butcombe’s Mendip Spring, certainly not a local beer but a good one. Two of the pub crawl gang think their respective pints are on the turn and the beers are replaced without question by the lovely, saucy and rather mad barmaids.
The Roscoe runs a variety of quiz nights throughout the week – and if cribbage is your thing you might want to investigate the pub’s team. And clearly it’s doing something right – the Roscoe has been named in every edition of the Good Beer Guide since 1974; you’d need only two hands to count how many UK pubs have notched up this feat. Later this year the Roscoe will stage a beer festival – on the street outside.
By this stage some of the group are calling it a night. It’s nearing that moment of no return, where further drinking indicates that a genuine binge has been perpetrated. Cut your losses at a reasonable time, and with five or six pints gone, and there’s a good chance of salvaging the next day from a hangover.
But good beer can play a part too – I’m a firm believer that you’re likely to dodge a bad head in the morning if you skip the more artificial lagers of the world. Mind you, drinking ‘live’ drinks can have its own drawbacks, but that’s one for another day.
We stagger down the road to Renshaw Street’s Dispensary, a pub that’s never less than heaving when I’ve been there. This is a pub where I don’t remember ever sitting down – it’s generally standing room only and tonight is no different.
I go for a Titanic Plum Porter, a deep, rich beer that’s very nice but a bit too heavy for this stage of the night. The Dispensary always has plenty of choice though, perhaps the most of any pub in the city centre bar the formidable Ship & Mitre.
The Dispensary has quite a few plasma screens up showing the football – the first, I think, of the pubs we’ve been in since Peter Kavanagh’s that has actually had a television on. Looking around I see a lot of people gawping listlessly at screens. It’s easy to get sucked into staring at a screen in a pub, even if you have no interest in whatever’s showing on it.
Pubs seem to have transitioned to places where we gather to do something – watch footy or a band; have a meal; do a quiz. But we should look at pubs in a different light to the way we do at the moment, I would suggest. Going down to the pub to watch a match is all well and good – for atmosphere it’s hard to beat – but I think we should go to pubs more to talk.
Simply that. Talk to your friends, to your other half, to your parents, to strangers. Make a date with a friend you haven’t seen for a while; choose a pub with good beers, witty environs and a friendly welcome. Sit with your back to the television and put away your phones.
Talk about what you’ve been up to recently, sport, politics, your shared history and stories, architecture, mutual friends, serial killers, satellite TV shows and the fall of the Ceausescus (the latter three all cropped up in our Georgian pub crawl).
In fact, go further than that. Make it a habit. Make one day a month your pub day and go regardless. If no-one will go with you, take a book (something else you probably find you don’t have enough time for). Work your way through the different beers, sample the food and stay for the pub quiz. Play away, dip your wick. See multiple pubs, don’t stay faithful to just the one.
Pubs need us. But we need them too. As little social anchors that pull us towards our friends, colleagues and acquaintances – perhaps even lovers. We should not forget their value to us; nor should we ignore what a tremendous simple pleasure they offer. The pleasure of simply hanging out with our friends while enjoying a good beer in these oddball, cosy, fascinating places.
I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. As often as allows I’ll be visiting new pubs around Liverpool and writing about what I find there. Beers, barmaids, bar snacks, bullshitters, billiards and book clubs. Though it may be tough I’ll do my best to have a few pints at each one, find out a bit about the place and report back. I may call it ‘Bitter Experience’. Ahem.