Good times not hard to find on a weekend in Wolves
Peter Thomas is pleasantly surprised by what he finds on offer
First published on Sunday, January 24, 2010
Little more than a week ago, 26 people were killed in a 24-hour period in Juarez, Mexico as a consequence of the ongoing battle between rival drug cartels and the country's forces of law and order.
It was a record score for a single day in a city that mustered a total of 2,635 murders in 2009, and yet Juarez rated not a single mention in any discussion of the Lonely Planet guide's list of worst cities in the world. Perhaps the big killing spree came too late for it to be considered by the judges, or the murder capital of the state of Chihuahua would surely have edged Wolverhampton out of the top five.
Wolverhampton's figures are, frankly, pitiful by comparison, but it still edged into the upper reaches of the list, presumably by virtue of having just one hotel and one restaurant in the Michelin Guide, to serve a population of a little under 240,000.
The unavailability of a decent bowl of snail porridge is clearly deemed to be a more reliable indicator of metropolitan social degeneration than rivers of blood in a city's streets, which seems a little unfair on our central American friends, but surely there must have been more to Wolverhampton's rapid ascent of the rubbish ratings than just the dearth of passable accommodation and above-average grub.
To find out just what it was that made this historic part of the West Midlands such a dump in the eyes of Lonely Planet, I went there, to talk to Wulfrunians (as they are known, in honour of Lady Wulfruna, founder of their home town in 985), to share their pain and to drink their ale.
The following is what I discovered ... I negotiated the city's much maligned ring road to find it nowhere near as bad as I'd been warned. Therefore, I arrived on schedule at my base for the weekend, the Holiday Inn, Garden Court, which seems to be nowhere near a garden or court of any note and is better known as the hotel at Dunstall Park, which isn't really a park, rather the site of Wolverhampton racecourse, recently voted by the Racecourse Association as the 60th best-attended racecourse in Britain last year in a field of 61, ahead of only Great Leighs, which has closed down.
I've long nurtured a morbid dread of chain hotels. I have a theory that they are like the baddies in Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, in that they wait until you're asleep before stealing your soul and rendering you a characterless husk with just a trouser press and a copy of the Gideon bible.
There's nothing you can actually put your finger on – they have comfortable beds, handy cartons of UHT milk and toilet rolls that are folded to a lovely point at the end – but I believe them to be evil incarnate. Still, a little bit of mould on the grouting around the bath is hardly call to commit an entire city to damnation, so I'll dismiss my fears as a paranoid reaction to lumbering, worldwide, corporate invasion of our very beings and move on.
The racecourse, of course, is not known for its similarity to any of Britain's prestige venues, and at a little after 4pm, with the city's employed still at work and the unemployed (all 7.9 per cent of them, representing the second-highest rate in the country, a short head behind Hull) seemingly disinclined to leave their sofas, the place is sparsely populated.
The bookies are indoors, out of the weather, which is cold and dreary, so the outdoors looks even more bleak and bereft than usual. There's a bunch of half a dozen oiks who, fair play to them, seem to have managed to become tiresomely drunk a full 20 minutes before the start of the first race. But, hey, that's a nationwide complaint, and while Wolverhampton may not be one of the world's great racecourses, at least Wolverhampton has a racecourse.
I've been joined on my travels by a young man, known as the Grasshopper, who has expressed honourable intentions towards my step-daughter and who, in spite of an Oxford education and an IQ as big as my overdraft, has become infatuated with racing and betting.
But although the gainfully employed are gradually trickling in to the track, we're haemorrhaging money, he's feeling the cold and the lack of atmosphere and wants to find out where all the other Wulfrunians are, so we head off in search of the bright lights.
I've done my research, and I know to expect more low-voltage than bright. My hotel copy of Black Country What's On magazine tells me I can choose this month between The Krankies and Napalm Death, but I've missed grizzled local rocker Steve Gibbons by a fortnight, Alvin Stardust isn't due until April and there's no sign at all of Roy Wood or Slade.
But I'm being disingenuously unfair. It's not just tribute acts, panto and grown women dressing up as schoolboys (although, God knows, there's nothing wrong with that).
There's a lot of modern dance, contemporary drama and classical music, which simply involves a short bus ride into town – and then a train journey to Birmingham. Closer to home, there's lots of comedy from other parts of Britain, with scally John Bishop and Jethro up from Cornwall, and spoken word stuff from the scary American Henry Rollins, but none of it seems to be on tonight and, anyway, tonight is beer and curry night.
I've got a few regional ambitions this weekend. I want to have a good Ruby, a pint of Banks's bitter, a bag of pork scratchings and some black pudding. I take it as a good sign when we walk past the Banks's brewery on the way to the Combermere Arms, even though we're navigating by the Grasshopper's iPhone and are probably lost.
Now, the Wolverhampton dialect is a disarmingly humourful one, as hard to pin down as the exact boundaries of the Black Country, but, broadly speaking, midway between the singsong timbre of Welsh and the fully-fledged lugubriousness of full blown Brummie. Our man, sadly, has a voice that, were it incorporated into a sat-nav, might tempt you to drive headlong into the Dudley No. 1 canal.
He's like a relentless combination of the Good Beer Guide, the tourist information office and a Mogadon overdose, but I manage to glean from him that everywhere in Wolverhampton can be located by reference to the mysterious "man on the horse", and that the one word we should remember is "Batham's", more of which later.
Also, he says the Cuban bar has lap dancing upstairs (which may be true), Alchemy is sophisticated (which it isn't) and the Yates's wine lodge put up its prices to keep out the riff-raff but is now full of riff-raff who don't drink quite as much as they used to (which seems likely).
The man on the horse turns out to be the statue of Prince Albert in Queen Square, unveiled by Queen Victoria in 1866, near to the art gallery, the Grand Theatre and the red sandstone monolith of St Peter's Collegiate Church.
It's certainly not true that Wolverhampton is an architectural wasteland; more true that it has a proud Victorian heritage from the days of the industrial revolution, with a shopping precinct hung around its neck to give the local vermin somewhere to vent their bodily functions at night without fear of being interrupted.
Thus, you have the mighty Chubb building (now an arts centre) and the Royal London building (where Norman Wisdom used to have his suits made, apparently), nestling cheek by jowl with irredeemable chunks of characterless concrete wasteland, which makes Wolverhampton, in a nutshell, pretty much like a thousand other towns in Britain. The problem is, having been made a city a few years back, it has greater expectations weighing it down.
Still, the Posada proves a fine spot for a city centre pint, in a Grade 2 Listed, tile-fronted, stained glass kind of way, and the curry at the Bilash is definitely the best I've ever had, marred only by a minor spat with the waiter over a wine list that's been doctored clumsily with a ballpoint pen to make all the bottles £10 dearer.
The following morning, we're back in town, with our souls intact. We've just looked in an estate agent's window and found a five-bedroomed house for £155,000, and now we're on the hunt for a decent greasy spoon to soak up the previous night's booze.
Despite the best efforts of former local MP Enoch Powell, we're approached by a friendly, youngish Asian bloke in a big trenchcoat, who sees us looking vacant and points us in the direction of Il Cappuccino, where I have scrambled egg and black pudding, followed by home-made rice pudding with a choice of jam or syrup. Jam, if you really want to know.
Feeling full of grub and the milk of human kindness, we're ready for the part of the weekend I've been wanting to do for about 40 years, since the days when I used to collect football cards from bubble gum packets and became fascinated by the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers. I know Derek Dougan's gone now, and I'm not sure of the whereabouts of Derek Parkin, Jim McCalliog, Alun Evans, Mike Bailey and the others, but a trip to Molineux is long overdue.
First, though, it's time for the obligatory pre-match pint, and a less prepossessing place I couldn't have picked for it – past the station, under the dodgy subway, down a little alleyway that's also the route of choice for a lone rat, and finally to the door of the Great Western, which I can confidently name as the best football pub I've ever been in and an immediate entry into my all-time top five.
It's done out like a station waiting room, although not so much as to be full of trainspotters, who may already have been ejected firmly but fairly by the hundreds of Wolves fans getting stuck in to Bostin' Cracklin' pork scratchings, excellent hot pork baps and so much Batham's bitter that the barrel doesn't last the session.
Behind the bar, the five-strong team are working flat out but in well-oiled synchronicity, like a shiny steam engine at full tilt, taking one order while pulling another, maintaining a happy and orderly queue, so that nobody has to wait more than 30 seconds, and the motley crew in their replica shirts and woolly scarves look like the most contented bunch on earth.
They've got every right to feel contented, when a pint of Holden's bitter and a pint of their mild, supped in the warmth of two real fires in the front bar alone, weigh in at a princely four quid for the pair, but then they have to put up with watching Wolves every week, so they deserve all the cheap beer they can get their hands on.
They've got Sylvan Ebanks-Blake firing blanks up front, a defence like Swiss cheese and a numpty who gets himself needlessly sent off before half-time, thereby consigning them to nearcertain defeat.
Their keeper saves the ensuing penalty, just before half-time, but Wigan - themselves hardly a class act – score their first goal shortly after the break and there's a steady stream of home fans heading for the exits long before the second goes in.
It's not a glamour tie, but it's a good-natured crowd and at last I can say I've been to the big, yellow fortress of Molineux (in the Billy Wright Stand, no less), and to the Great Western, which is where we top up after the game and before a jaunt in the persisting rain to Monmore dogs, a short bus ride away from the city centre.
But the crowd is buzzing in the upstairs and downstairs bars, with a party of 45 in from Wallsall, according to the man with the microphone, and another 61 from somewhere else, so although only one side of the track is occupied, there's at least a bit of life here.
Through the slanting rain, I admire the multiple facial piercings of the official starter and begin to warm to the action. Still no luck on the punting front, however.
We throw our last fivers at a doomed reverse forecast and head for the exit and a walk back to town necessitated by the lack of bus fare. There, we find a precinct deserted by all but those people who have just been thrown out of wherever they've been drinking: lurching young men in designer casuals and tottering young women in skirts that would make your average Scouse girl look like Julie Andrews.
I reckon if we steer a course in the opposite direction, we could find another half a dozen decent pubs, but promising-looking restaurants are thin on the ground and we end up surveying takeaway menus back at the Holiday Inn, thanks to the lack of late-night vittals on site. Thank the lord we had a tasty, hot pork bap at the Great Western.
I think I've had enough of Wolverhampton by now. It's not really a city, no matter what the signs say, and it could do with more than a lick of paint to cure its problems, but I've already proved it's possible to spend 36 hours there without losing the will to live. Nice people always help in that respect, and we met plenty.
And, let's face it, any place that has horseracing, Premier League football, dog racing, speedway, a top-five pub, several other top pubs, Batham's and Banks's, the world's best curry and a mean bag of pork scratchings, well, it can't be all bad.
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