In my formative drinking years, Birmingham was a place best avoided. Unless you were a massive fan of Ansells Bitter or M&B Brew XI, there just wasn’t anything to attract the discerning beer drinker. When a real ale free house did occasionally appear on the radar – usually fleetingly – it was an occasion of much rejoicing, but we had cause to rejoice very little. A few miles further west, in the ‘Black Country’, it was a different kettle of fish. Holdens, Bathams, Simpkiss, Ma Pardoes, good old Banks’s – fill yer boots! But Brum…err, no.
As such I very rarely ventured the 50 miles or so to England’s ‘second city’, and if I ever did, it was usually to watch some footy at Villa Park, where Forest invariably turned the home team over (whenever I went, anyway).
But times change. And although the city might still lag behind it’s Midlands rivals like Nottingham and Derby in terms of choice, a few outposts are springing up. Take the Wellington for instance, just off the New Street pedestrianised area. Operated by a Black Country company, it set a new standard for ‘ticking’ a few years back when its beer board went ‘live’ on the internet, not only detailing the current range, but indicating the colour of the beer too, invaluable for a golden-phobe like me. Just as well, for on many a visit I found the nation’s love affair with ‘light, hoppy bitters’ – or as I call them, Lager-and-Lime substitutes – to be enshrined in a beer list where often two-thirds or more of the range were of that ilk.
But I don’t hold it against the Wellington. It’s my first call today, and having checked the online list, I am happy to part with my cash for a very nice pint of Wood Farm 1823 Mild, brewed near Rugby. It’s only 3.5%abv but tastes a lot fuller than you would expect. I DO like the ambience of this pub, with its penchant for beery conversation and lack of background musical interference. You can even settle down over a good book. A couple of hundred yards away is the Old Contemptibles, a rather grand Nicholson’s house which is Good Beer Guide listed, but empty when I arrive around midday. The beer range is nothing like as extensive as at the Wellington, but I espy a pumpclip proclaiming Purity UBU which is as good a traditional premium bitter as you can find. It’s 4.5%abv, full-bodied, and everything a British bitter should be (ie not golden!).
From here I head back towards New Street and the Post Office Vaults. When I was last in here I thought it a little pretentious, although if you asked me why, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was the way the chap behind the bar seemed to be holding court like some real ale guru, despite the fact he probably wasn’t born when CAMRA first saw the light of day. Or perhaps he was simply trying to be helpful. Today there’s a fair few people in, folk are still enquiring about the different styles and types of beer that the pub sells, and I just order up my pint of Beowulf Dragon Smoke Stout (4.6%abv) and let them get on with it, my head buried back in the book.
My trip to Highgate United, of the Midland Football Alliance, requires that I leave Birmingham from the Moor Street station, a hub I am not familiar with. My first impressions of this beautifully restored Victorian station are highly favourable. A classic blend of the old and new, it serves the Chiltern ‘Shakespeare’ line which goes down to Stratford. There’s even a redundant steam loco parked up on Platform 4, just to remind you of this piece of history. My train is only going as far as Whitlocks End, but that’s OK by me as the Tythe Barn Lane ground of Highgate is just a couple of hundred yards from that station, although – would you believe – there are at least three more grounds between them, including that of Midland Combination side Shirley Town, who are also at home today.
The clubhouse complex at Highgate, which also houses the changing rooms, is a fair distance from the actual enclosed pitch, and would doubtless prove to be an issue if United were ever to seek promotion to a higher division. Although spacious and comfortable, the clubhouse itself is of a certain vintage, and doesn’t stock any decent beer. In fact, there is no ‘bitter’ to be had at all today, only lager. There is, however, a nicely stocked tray of crusty cobs, and I select a tasty-looking cheese & onion variant which I wash down with a J20.
The ground itself has cover on just one side, but it does run the full length of the pitch, with one half featuring two rows of plastic seating, and the other section proving an effective standing barrier to the chill breeze which springs up later in the afternoon. Today’s game is against high-flying Loughborough University, but with United only having lost once at home this season, a tight games looks on the cards. And that’s how it proves to be, with what few chances that are created going begging. The home keeper proves a major obstacle when the Students do manage to penetrate – mainly down the right – in the first half, but after the break it’s United who make more of the running, without ever looking like settling the matter.
0-0 it finishes, the first time I have witnessed a goal-less game all season, and also a rarity on my trips to Birmingham, where in 8 games at Villa Park and St Andrews I’ve seen the ball hit the back of the net 24 times. Ah, but did I ever get a decent pint there before the game though? Probably not. Well you win some, you lose some….
Programme: £1 on the gate. I can’t speak highly enough of the Highgate United programme. A professional job in terms of both design and content, advertising is minimal but the content phenomenal. Puts most Step 3 & 4 clubs to shame and wouldn’t look out of place at Step 2. If it’s never won an award it’s a travesty.
Floodlight pylons: 6
Parakeets: Three strange-looking birds, the size of magpies with long tails but all black, sitting on a pylon overlooking Whitlocks End station. Couldn’t find anything like on an internet list of British birds!
Toilets: The clubhouse or the hedge!
Club shop: No
Music the players run out to: None
Kop choir: No
Away supporters: A handful.
What’s in a name? Nothing inspiring