Visited: Tuesday 4 August 2009
There is a good pub in Birmingham city centre. I repeat: there is a good pub in Birmingham city centre.
One of several big differences that struck me when I moved from Birmingham to Sheffield five years ago was the pubs. For a city of a million people Birmingham seemed remarkably short on nice pubs. Partly, yeah, this was about the beer, and how the dead hand of Mitchells & Butlers had choked the ale culture out of the city down the decades. You had the execrable Brew XI, and vinegary, emetic pints of badly kept draught Bass, and that was if you were lucky. In other pubs, come the late 1990s, there might be a plain, tokenistic Greene King IPA or Abbot, but really, you could make that shit in a Sodastream these days. Most of the time I was forced to drink Guinness.
But also, other than the beer, so many of these pubs were just not very nice. With a lot of them, they were just too big to be nice. Old coaching inns, towering over dual carriageways in the south Birmingham suburbs, Sunday dinner pubs like the Old House at Home on Lordswood Road, all vast, cavernous spaces within. Jasper Carrott once joked about the sparse crowds at Birmingham City’s home games: “I said to the bloke standing next to me” – cupping his hands here, to shout to someone way distant – “OYYYY!” Maybe that’s why so many Birmingham pubs seemed cold and unfriendly: you can’t very well start a cosy natter when the nearest fellow drinker to talk to is standing at the bar a quarter of a mile away.
I lived in Birmingham for twelve years and when I moved away I’d have told you there were two really good pubs in the city: the Anchor in Digbeth and the Bell in Harborne. Now that I’ve visited the Wellington, I can reassure you that there must be at least three.
(That’s assuming that the other two are still OK, and during my time in Birmingham this would have been far from a safe assumption. You could hardly nip out of the pub to make a phone call without coming back to find it converted to a shouty shirty townie bar with a bouncer checking your shoes.)
I’m visiting the city for work and, rather than squeeze onto a rammed Crosscountry train home at rush hour, I’ve phoned my brother Jon, who lives here, to see if he fancies a pint. He’s already out, with a mate who’s come to visit from back home, so I’ve gone up to meet them at BrindleyplaceTM and we’ve had a couple of dull pints of Bombardier in the desperately dull Malt House, overlooking the canal in the rain. I remember people telling me about this new place, the Wellington, so I get Jon to find it on his internet phone and we’re there.
Straight away there’s a nice buzz about the place. It’s 7pm on a wet Tuesday evening and the Wellington has the perfect balance: not so packed that you can’t get served or sit down, but busy enough to generate a warm, agreeable hum of chat. There’s an L-shaped bar to the right of the door as you come in, with a room further back, sort of semi-separated off. And there are something approaching 15 real ales on tap. Wooo!
The job of choosing is made easier by two or three screens displaying an ale menu, and grading the colour of each beer from 1 (light) to 5 (dark). Each is also given a sort of reference number from 1 to 15 and the screen bizarrely implores drinkers to order their ale using this. Fixed on trying a local brew – and refusing point blank to order it by number – I go for Fireside, from the Black Country Ales brewery: an amber beer, quite light for its 5% abv, with a few layers of flavour and a playful butterscotch finish.
Jon, Emma and I take a table in the back room next to a couple of friendly-looking lads of about 30 who are playing chess. We banter pleasantly about our home town and swine flu and the relative merits of our phones – typical pub stuff, and the chess lads lean over and laugh with us here and there. We could easily get talking. But I’ve got less than an hour here before my train. I wish I could stay all night. It’s bloody lovely.
Even the toilets are nice. The gender imbalance this blog witnessed at the Corn Dolly remains in evidence – Emma says there’s a tray of sweets in the ladies! – but one can only admire the Wellington’s scrupulous tidiness, cleanliness and checked floor tiles. If they had paper towels instead of hot air blowers, they’d be perfect.
It’s a snatched hour of contentment in a city I associate with clamour, frustration and crap beer. It’s good to know I won’t have to fall back on somewhere like the Trocadero or the Sunflower Lounge next time I’m around here, to know there’s a good pub in Birmingham city centre instead. I still can’t get my head round that order-by-numbers thing though. Maybe it’s a precaution against ordering a pint of Batemans XXXB and getting given a raspberry daiquiri. With the accent round here you can’t be too careful.