Pubs have traditionally been a part of British culture, chosen for their close proximity to work and home. Popping in for ‘a quick one’ at lunchtime or at the end of each day seems to be a pastime steadily on the decline, however.
It’s increasingly the food that draws customers in. Fast becoming destination venues in their own right, these pubs are notching up awards and accolades, and attracting visitors from further afield.
Over the past two months we have been seeking out the best food pubs our region has to offer, compiling our very own Good Grub Pub Guide for when you fancy heading out of town and trying somewhere new. Because sometimes a change is as good as a rest, or a pub as good as any restaurant.
This week we are in Cheshire. Styal is a leafy village on the River Bollin near Wilmslow, best known for two things: Quarry Bank Mill, and Her Majesty’s Styal Prison for women and young offenders. Let’s focus on the former.
One of Britain’s greatest heritage sites, the historic textile mill and most of the surrounding cottages built for its workers originate from the early 19th Century after a period of great expansion when the Industrial Revolution was at a peak.
Following both world wars and a subsequent decline in the country’s cotton trade, Quarry Bank was forced to close. The entire estate was donated to The National Trust at the end of WWII, and the building and surrounding gardens are still enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year (it has been closed for the installation of a passenger lift but is re-opening this summer 2018).
Our destination today dates back even further – over 350 years when the building was known as the ‘shippon’ and used to store manure for the local farm. The farmer began brewing beer, and the rest is history. The Ship Inn was born.
The building today retains much of its original interior structure. It’s a maze of different rooms, nooks and crannies to lose yourself in. There are a couple of bars, at least five different seating areas/ rooms that I found, with gardens to the front and rear. And the place is heaving with customers and life. And not a whiff of the stuff it used to store.
The menu is full of pub classics but with some quirky twists. There’s pickled cockles and clams, pints of whitebait, Fat Dick’s asparagus (me neither), sardines, and Cheshire cheese pie. Countless dishes on the daily menu to keep anyone and everyone happy. Free nibbles of Bombay mix and olives invite you to the bar, where you place your order and then go and find a seat. Despite being really busy, the food started arriving before my half hour make-eye-contact and where-is-my-food? concerned eye signal to the staff.
Cheshire cheese rarebit fondue, Marmite soldiers (v) £7.95
Marmite. You either love it or hate it. I’m a lover, but in moderation. Just the right amount was spread thinly on my ciabatta/ sourdough soldiers. Enjoyable dipped in the melted Monterey Jack and Cheshire cheese fondue blend. Good fun. Paired nicely with my half of Weetwood Cheshire Cat.
Cod cheek ‘scampi in a basket style’, Tartare sauce £7.95
My little companion (my daughter is accompanying me today) loved this starter after moaning about the few second wait to take my pics. I like the way the menu makes these little tweaks and gets kids trying new things. Had it said fried breaded cod cheeks, there is no way she would have given them a go. But the association with the scampi and something she has tried before a great way to break that barrier.
Ribs and wings, BBQ back ribs, chicken wings, house coleslaw, skinny fries £13.95
I moaned about said daughter ordering this dish. I wanted to taste something more exciting and worth writing about. But it actually perfectly displays what this place does. It caters to all. The ribs were actually very lip-smackingly tasty. I especially liked the coleslaw – big and chunky with some added coriander. A massive portion. The downside was the fries went cold too quickly and would have benefited from a tall container to retain their heat.
Blackened cod, mango salsa, tabbouleh £14.95
I was most excited about this dish when I ordered but disappointed when it arrived. The cod was overcooked by a long way – sacrilege in my books. Mango salsa was decent, tabbouleh a little mushy, and with coriander in both a slight overkill.
Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce, vanilla ice cream £5.95
This does what it says on the tin. A lovely classic pudding with the most fudge-tasting sauce I’ve ever come across. Imagine taking some sweet and buttery cubes of vanilla fudge and melting them down. That is this sauce. The portions are so big we didn’t order another dessert as we couldn’t eat another thing.
The staff are so friendly and helpful, they even offered to wrap up the pudding for us to take home. Alas, it was not needed as little one has a separate dessert tummy.
Sometimes you don’t need or want fine dining. Sometimes you just want everyday. Somewhere for all the family, accessible, affordable, relaxed and fun. And that is what The Ship Inn delivers. It’s a fantastic family-friendly pub.
But well-behaved youngsters only please or they’ll be heading down the road at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
Altrincham Road, Styal, Cheshire, SK9 4JE