Visit Real Ale, Real Music

I spent an hour or two the other day in the town of Sowerby Bridge, set in the heart of the Calder Valley. Here's what I discovered as I returned to the town where I was brought up and checked out some of the local pubs....

It had been about a year, bar the odd pint, since I'd last been out in Sowerby Bridge. The town, which lies in the Calder Valley to the west of Halifax, stretches out along the valley bottom, with houses climbing up the often steep surrounding hillsides. It had originally been a bridging point at the confluence of the River Calder with its tributary the Ryburn, but it was a marshy, boggy no-man's land here with few inhabitants, with the valley's residents tending to live in small settlements dotted about the drier terrain of the higher slopes. However, when first the canal and then the railway came, mills and factories sprung up in the valley bottom, and the local woollen trade, hitherto consisting of individual weavers in cottages using wool from the sheep that wandered the Pennine hills, was transformed as the Industrial Revolution took hold in this particular part of the world, and Sowerby Bridge and other neighbouring towns developed along the valley. The textile trade flourished, along with the engineering trade, but nowadays much of the industry has gone, with several of the former mills now given over to apartments. The town holds a Rushbearing Festival each September which draws many visitors to the town, and the canals which once played a pivotal role in the growth of the town now provide an opportunity for leisure activities, with the junction of the Rochdale Canal and the Calder and Hebble Navigation in the town with the Tuel Lane Lock the deepest in the country. The town has featured in TV programmes over the years, with the popular BBC drama Happy Valley, written by Sally Wainwright who grew up in the town, probably the best known.

The town has in recent years has attracted plenty of visitors to its pubs and restaurants, and I had decided to come over and check out some of the former. I'd called to see my Dad first, and then set off walking down in to the town along streets that I'd first walked many years ago. At one point, instead of dropping down the hill into the town as I had tended to do in recent years, I carried straight on and realised that some flats that were being built when we were kids had been demolished. In those days we would get in and play on the site when no one was working there (Health and Safety was somewhat lax in those days!), and now it had returned to a somewhat scruffy natural state, which afforded me the opportunity to take the opening picture. I walked down a cobbled path beside which was once one of the schools that I attended, now long gone like the nearby terraced streets with their rows of drying washing flapping in the breeze. I crossed over by Lidl, and a few minutes later I was on Hollins Mill Lane, along which two of the pubs I had planned to visit were situated.

Furthermost first, but as I approached I could see no welcoming lights. However, shrouded in darkness other than from two small downstairs windows, it was soon clear that the Puzzle Hall was indeed open, and despite its somewhat understated appearance, it was reasonably busy. It is not a big pub, and I have wondered before if it were to open nowadays for the first time, whether it would be classified as a micro pub. This is a pub I have been going to on and off over the years, first visiting in my late teens. It once had its own brewery (the distinctive tower is still standing), but was owned by Wards of Sheffield when we first used to go, fairly unusual for an area then dominated by Websters and Tetleys. Back then it was run by a benign couple called Jack and Edith, who always made us feel welcome. The layout of the small pub, with a tiny lounge sharing space with the bar, and a separate room to the left as you walked wasn't that much different to now, although it has been opened out over the years. Back then the toilets were outside, at the bottom of a sloping yard, which doubled up as a car park, although it wasn't big enough to hold more than a couple at any one time!

Over the years, the Puzzle attracted an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life, and always had more than its fair share of characters who were drawn by its somewhat Bohemian atmosphere. It became a place for musicians and built up a reputation as one of the best venues for jazz in the country when Geoff Amos was landlord, often attracting big names on a night off when they were between gigs in Manchester or Leeds. A large stage was built in the former toilet block when they were relocated indoors, which enabled outdoor gigs and festivals, further enhancing its name as a venue for a wide variety of music. Beers from Wards had long gone, but the Puzzle, by now a free house, built up an enviable reputation for its beers.

The Puzzle Hall, Sowerby Bridge: open for business

Eventually though, it all came crashing down, and the Puzzle sadly closed in 2015, lay empty, and fell into disrepair, with no offers forthcoming at the price set by the pubco that owned the building. But the place held special memories for so many people, and a community pub group was formed which then
set up a crowdfunding website with the aim of raising £350,000 to buy the pub, supported by events and gigs in the town. And eventually, after lots of hard work, they achieved their target, and just before Christmas 2019, the Puzzle finally re-opened its doors. A few months later lockdown came along and threw everything into disarray, and like a lot of places, it took a while afterwards before the place seemed to get back into its stride. But here I was this evening, and the pub was quite busy with the hum of conversation in the air, and a choice of six beers on hand pump to choose from. I opted for a pint of the 4.2% Keep The Car Running from Big Trip, a hazy pale ale singled hopped with Amarillo. It was typical Big Trip beer, which I rated as a 3 on the NBSS scale. I was enjoying the vibe here, so I decided to go for another pint, opting this time for a pint of the 5.5% premium bitter from Salopian, Kashmir. Now Salopian have been big sellers in Calderdale for years, and this flagship beer always creates a lot of interest, and I was also interested because the price (£4.60) was cheaper than several places in the area where I had come across it in the past week or so. The beer was spot on (NBSS 3.5), and I would have happily had another but thinking of its ABV and the fact I had other places to visit, common sense prevailed, and I headed off into the night, having enjoyed my sojourn here.

Beer board at the Puzzle Hall

It is about 5 minutes walk back to the next place, the Hollins Mill, which was not a pub when I was growing up, but is always worth a visit. A large building, it is housed in a former joinery, and won a CAMRA award for its conversion when it became a pub around 20 years ago. It has a large room with exposed beams as you go in with the bar facing you, with a smaller, quieter room off to the side, whilst upstairs is a large function room with its own bar. The L-shaped bar has 10 handpumps which always feature a number of beers from Taylors and Phoenix, and regularly feature others from the likes of Vocation, Salopian, and Oakham. On this occasion I went for a pint of White Monk, from Phoenix, a well-balanced 4.5% hoppy pale ale with citrus notes, which was a very worthy 3.5. The pub, which was known at the Works when it first opened, was pretty busy, and I could only find a wooden bench opposite the side of the bar to sit at; it was quite warm, and then I realised that a radiator was immediately behind it. So if you go in on a cold winter's day, and there is no fire in the large fireplace, this is the place to sit to get warm! And while you are here, check out the former 6.5 tonne military tank that is stationed in the car park. The tank belongs to one of the guys who works at the pub, and is something of a local landmark. Tonight as I walked past its enclosure, the vehicle was bathed in a changing rainbow of coloured lights.

Hollins Mill, Sowerby Bridge: wooden beams and fireplace

I headed back out into the night and walked for about 10 minutes along Wharf Street, the main A58 thoroughfare through the town which can get choked with traffic at busy times. But on this early Saturday evening it wasn't too bad. A few diners were already taking their seats in a number of the restaurants that are situated along this road, whilst the dark waters of the canal looked cold and empty as I crossed over the bridge. Beside the former Roxy Cinema, which now houses a sports bar, I took a short cut through a car park to my next stopping point.

The Hogs Head Brew House & Bar is a busy pub on a side street just off the main road. It is housed in an 18th century former malthouse with the brewery, the only one in Sowerby Bridge, based in an adjacent building. The pub, which opened in 2015, has exposed stone walls, wooden beams, and other attractive features with some of the old brewing vessels on display, whilst there is another room upstairs The bar is situated to the left as you go in down a small flight of stairs, and offers a range of its own beers in both cask and keg along with guest ales from the likes of Goose Eye, Vocation, and Phoenix. I went for a pint of the cask Hoppy Valley, a 4.3% pale ale with Citra as the main hop, which was well-balanced and very refreshing (NBSS 3), and like all the in-house beers it was competitively priced at £3.50 a pint. It has always been busy when I have been in over the years, and is no doubt helped by its proximity to some of the town's most popular eateries where it provides an ideal spot for a pre- or post-meal drink.

Hogs Head, Sowerby Bridge

It was only a couple of minutes away to the final place I had planned to call on this early evening tour of the town. The William IV is a long-established pub which years ago was one of several Tetleys pubs in Sowerby Bridge, but by the late 80's it had become a freehouse. Situated on Wharf Street near the town's canal basin and as the road levels out at the bottom of Bolton Brow, it is bigger inside than it looks. There is a large room as you go in split into several seating areas with a further room beyond the bar, which is situated down one side as you go in. It is attractively furnished with subdued lighting helping to give the place a cosy feel, and as I walked in plenty of the tables were occupied. Over the years has been under different ownership and was known as Williams for a while, but it has recently been taken over by Will Parry, who I'd last seen when he was manager at the Puzzle Hall. I have known Will for several years as he used to work at the Buffet Bar in Stalybridge when I used to go there regularly, and as I walked in this evening he came over to greet me, and as we chatted he told me that they are looking to increase the number of cask ales on offer from the current 4 to 6.

I walked over to the bar and got chatting to a friend who sat there having a pint. I ordered one, a pint of Anarchy Blonde Star, which has been generally good when I have come across it of late, and this 4.1% pale ale with its refreshing citrus flavours was well above average (NBSS 3.5). Much as I would have liked to, I couldn't stay for another pint as I needed to be heading home. As I walked towards the door as I left to get the bus, I spotted a couple I knew having a drink, and went for a quick word with them. They said they had started to call here because not only was it not far from where they now live, but also because the beer was good and the place was welcoming. I have to say that based on this admittedly short visit to the William IV I couldn't disagree, and I wish Will and Debbie all the best in their new venture and I look forward to calling in again soon.

And then it was across the road to catch the bus back after a short but pleasant evening in Sowerby Bridge. Hopefully it will be less than 12 months before I get chance to make a return visit for a pint or two....

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