Apparently, Buxton has 27 premises licensed to sell alcohol so attempting to visit them all in one session would be folly. We decided to break it up into three manageable strolls; starting with the town’s market place or as it is more commonly known, Higher Buxton. The concentration of characterful drinkeries dotted around the highest market in England offer a diverse sequence of national ales. We pinpointed 12 pubs / bars and opted (rather sensibly) to sample half-a-pint in each, mainly so we could remember enough to write about it! The good news is that the trail barely stretches 200m and you’ll be stumbling out of one establishment into another.
The other half of Buxton’s town centre around the Opera House is called Lower Buxton or “the posh end” and this has more opportunities to drink ale; most notably The Tap House, which serves beer from the town’s own brewery. The Lower Buxton Ale Trail shall be documented at a later date, along with a potential Peripheries of Buxton Ale Trail, which will require us to put in a few miles, preferably when the sun is shining.
Buxton having a posh end insinuates that the other end is rough and it is perhaps not unfair to say that it is a tad crinkly around the edges. However, you could argue that Higher Buxton facilitates a more authentic and unpredictable northern night out. Our trail was attempted on a Saturday evening and not only did we discover many agreeable tipples, but lots of colourful characters, no-nonsense bar staff and a selection of foot-stomping music. No less than five of of the twelve boozers we visited were hosting live acts and as a general experience, Higher Buxton was loud, lively and enjoyable, despite the January weather. Buxton folk are a hardy breed and enjoy themselves even in an adverse climate and you have to admire that.
On with the trail!
1. London Road Inn, 62-64 High Street
The London Road has not long reopened but has quickly established a reputation for music. This being our first port of call, it was early and the band were still setting up. There are two handpulls and we drank Wainwrights, brewed by Marstons. They were playing Joy Division; not your average pub soundtrack. Despite the agreeable brew, tunes and rustic atmos, we were on a mission and had to press on.
2. The Cheshire Cheese, 37-39 High Street
Just up the road is Titanic Brewery’s boy The Cheshire Cheese. This is a cosy and comfortable pub that could keep an ale lover happy all by itself. Five handpulls from the brewery line up alongside five guest beers. Our eclectic round included Griffin Ale, Tiger Ale and Titanic’s own Iceberg. Tiger is smooth and highly drinkable. Blackboard menus recommend mixing the beer with platters of nosh (which I’ve heard is good). We resisted the temptation and swaggered heroically back out into the cold.
3. The Swan, 40 High Street
Over the road is the legend that is The Swan which delivers an ultimate late night destination for some, hence the local phrase “The Swan till One”. Pete the friendly landlord is a moustachioed icon in his own right. We ordered Doombar, Tetleys and Silk of Amnesia brewed by Storm Brewing Co. Not a bad mix at all. If David Lynch ever visits Buxton, he would probably choose to shoot a scene for one of his eccentric films in The Swan’s Tartan Room; an essential experience for anyone new to town.
4. The Old Sun Inn, 33 High Street
Back over the road and into The Sun, where food seems to be more of a priority. There’s still six handpulls to contend with, including Martson’s Pedigree and Empire. I opted for the more potent brew of Owd Rodger. The Sun is made up of lots of little booths and compartments, giving it an intimate vibe, which may or may not be your thing, depending on how peaceful you like your nights out. The staff were trying politely to eject an overly-merry patron when we arrived. We wondered if he was on the Rodger.
5. The Queen’s Head Hotel, High Street
The Queens towers regally in the centre of the high street. This big boozer is the eventual destination for many of the town’s Saturday night revellers, probably because there’s a band on and it’s spacious enough to accommodate a mob. The choice of sauce is intriguing; the sour delights of Jaipur rubbing shoulders with Monk’s Gold and Old Speckled Hen. Aside from the beer, the carpet is one of the seven wonders of Buxton and should be beheld. There was a party not long ago to mark the departure of the old carpet. So saturated with spilt pints was the previous incarnation that if you stood still for too long, you became glued to the spot.
6. The Ale Stop, 3 Chapel Street
This is probably the ale trail’s major celebrity, having established a CAMRA award and a place in its Good Beer Guide. It’s a tiny place with a big heart with three changing beers and two ciders, sourced nationally. However, a traditional pub this is not; it has a continental feel and the staff combine pulling pints with laying down some vinyl and putting a bonk on it. There’s even the occasional live act, despite its diminutive capacity. You may want to keep an eye on your watch for this one though; it closes at 10pm (9pm on a Sunday).
7. Gilbert’s, 5-5a High Street (Now The Pickled Frog)
The Bohemian ambiance was maintained at nearby Gilbert’s where young Goths draped themselves over Chesterfield sofas within spitting distance of a raucous rock band. We ploughed through the gig into a cordon of local hard nuts who looked like they were preventing the bar from taking off with their tattooed forearms. We just about managed to communicate with the bar staff utilising an improvised system of semaphore and ordered Stancill Resolution. The ruffians eyed our half pints with suspicion. It was so gloriously bonkers in here, we wanted to stay longer, but we had a job to do.
8. South 16, 9 Market Street
Set back from the market place slightly is hipster palace South 16. It was less manic in here and we took a comfy seat to complete the four pint mark. South 16 had two nice guest beers from Shipyard and Flowers so well worth a stop. They were playing Sonic Youth, which is a massive bonus in my books, regardless of the ale. The bar staff have got beards and tattoos and don’t wear socks so if you’re visiting from London, you’ll feel right at home.
9. The New Inn, 2-3 Market Place
If you expect a northern pub to look like the one from An American Werewolf in London rather than something from Shoreditch, you’ll be less disappointed here. There’s no pentagram on the wall, but a grinning green man. They’ve four handpulls, two of which are dedicated to Trooper and Robinson’s Double Hop. The northernism was accentuated by a meat raffle and a tearful woman on the karaoke.
10. Eagle Hotel, 10 Eagle Parade
Another live band was in full swing at the Eagle, playing to a busy dance floor. This pub used to have a bad rep, due partly to the fact someone got shot dead outside in the 1970s, but it’s actually really friendly and relaxed. The four half pints of Hydes we consumed also constituted the cheapest round of the night. Well done, Eagle; you bore our wallets aloft on your mighty wings.
11. Kings Head, Market Place
The headless monarch on the other side of the market place rubs shoulders with the town hall, as if huddling together to stave off the biting wind. We dived inside to find the only choice was Marstons which is never a bad thing but it felt a bit dreary compared to the variety of neckwash we had enjoyed so far. It was a lively pub, nonetheless, teeming with every walk of life.
12. 53 Degrees North, 8a Hall Bank
By now, we had developed what is known locally as “wobbly boots” and quibbled whether the last port of call was in Higher or Lower Buxton, it being partway down the hill. We decided to have a drink anyway, past caring. The last few boozers had loud music so it was a bit of a shock to walk into one that was almost silent. I can’t remember what we drank. I did write it down but my handwriting had devolved into indecipherable scribble; the inevitable pitfall of writing about an ale trail first-hand. Probably just as well it had come to an end (unofficially, it ended in the kebab shop).
Written by the Buxton Ale Trailers.