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Winter pub ramble

Sarah Roe escapes to the hills to warm herself by The Royal Arms' roaring fire

Published on December 11th 2008.

Winter pub ramble

It's the perfect start to a day dedicated to the search for traditional winter pubs with a fire. As the ancient but loyal Polo labours up above Bolton, snowflakes begin to pepper the grass verges and fence posts and urban sprawl falls away to open fields and heather moorland, blanketed in thin drifts of icy snow.

The focal point of our search is in an area known as Tockholes, which sounds like a hobbit-like idyll, but is in fact on the edge of a bleak moor which was once close to the site of a bloody battle during the civil war of 1643. According to legend, King Charles I once hid from Cromwell’s army in a nearby oak tree.

These days the location continues its tradition of shelter, and a cosy nineteenth-century pub known as The Royal Arms provides an important refuge for desperate escapees of slick city bars. The landlady is a big fan of fire, even keeping the coals stoked during the summer months. But before we snuggle up inside one of the pub’s inviting nooks we head out on to the moor, to build up an appetite.

The destination is Jubilee (or Darwen) Tower, a space-rocket like structure perched atop the moor, which was the location of one of the old beacons that were once lit up across the spine of Britain. In 1896, there was a mass trespass by local people who overcame police to march on these moors and protest against closure of access rights. Darwen Tower was built in 1898 to celebrate the victory of access to the moor and to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Happily, walkers from the twenty first century are still traversing the area to enjoy the excellent views from the tower. The walk starts at Roddlesworth Information Centre on Tockholes Road. There is a car park and café, where maps of the area can be bought for £1 and you can stoke up on hearty homemade cake and coffee.

A marked footpath takes you all the way to the tower, with the choice of a gentler, longer climb or a quicker scramble. Even today, when the glow of city civilisation is never far behind, this area maintains a wild, desolate quality particularly in winter. Stark strips of brown heather cut through the streaks of snow and ice. Rooks swoop low over the hills and a kestrel flutters urgently, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

Inside the tower a spiral staircase curves up to viewpoints on different levels, to reveal views which stretch out over rolling hills and woodland, and perfectly linear sets of terraced houses in Darwen. The fine northern landscapes of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria are mapped out in front of you and on a clear day the Isle of Man can be seen shimmering in the distance.

We return through well-trodden historic paths around the Sunnyhurst Hey Reservoir, via beech woodland, sodden-brown with fallen leaves, and paths lined with giant holly bushes.

Inside the Royal Arms two fires are blazing and hungry walkers are tucking into generous portions of winter-warming fare. Dogs of all shapes and sizes lounge around, warming cold paws and soaking up the attention. While the restaurant is a dog-free zone, it’s safe to say that our four-legged friends rule in this establishment, none more so than Eric – one of two dogs owned by landlady Isa Lennox-Moore. A scruffy black mutt of considerable character, he’s often to be seen basking next to the bar, probably snaffling a little of the fulsome local brew, known as 'Tockholes Treacle' ale on which the pub has built its reputation.

The Royal Arms is a real pub for pub-lovers, with low beams, wooden and stone floors, random objects and historic pictures. It serves good local beers and hearty home-made food, and there's not a whiff of pretension in evidence.

Isa does all the cooking herself, with traditional pub grub featuring large during the day, to appeal to walkers, and lighter restaurant food in the evening. The menu is limited and won’t satisfy those looking for a real gastronomic experience, but it’s wholesome and sustaining and the service is friendly, if a little chaotic.

We sample a tasty minestrone soup and can’t resist the ‘beer batter chips’, a knobbly home speciality which certainly pleases the carbs-cravers in the group. Venison in a cranberry and red wine sauce has a rich, fruity flavour, which complements the strong taste and tender texture of the meat. No hungry hiker could argue with the portion size of a traditional beer-battered fish with chips and mushy peas, which is cooked to perfection and light enough to leave some room for pudding. Beef cooked in Guinness and beef barm with fried onions are other tasty-looking choices available.

There is little in the way of vegetarian options, but the starters and breakfast menu prove adaptable, and the egg and chips are enough to satisfy our vegetarian. After a shared sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick, both drowned in deliciously thin, vanilla custard, the conversation falls to a lull with the combined effects of walk, fires and satisfying food.

It is with a Ready-Brek style glow that we roll back down the hill to the city, fuelled up for another week in the rat race.

Royal Arms
Tockholes Road,

Tel: 01254 705373

Walks start from Roddlesworth Information Centre, next to the pub. There are buses from Bolton and Darwen which stop outside the pub.

Traditional pub fire seekers may also enjoy:

The Highwayman, Macclesfield Road, Rainow
Tel 01625 573245

Manchester Confidential recently reviewed this fine gastro pub on the edge of Cheshire and the Peak District – read it here . Excellent home-made food, with two cosy rooms and fires.

Cross Keys, Runninghill Gate, Uppermill, Saddleworth
Tel: 01457 874626

There’s an open fire and a cooking range for food at this family-friendly pub set in the craggy Saddleworth hillside. Also regular folk nights.

Strawberry Duck, Overshores Road, Entwistle, near Bolton
Tel: 01204 852013

Wholesome food, a good choice of cask ales, beautiful walking country, and a real fire.

The Royal Oak, Broad Lane, The Heights, Delph, Saddleworth
Tel: 01457 874460

Lovely traditional pub with great views over the Manchester conurbation, good beer, wholesome food (only Fri-Sun eves), and real fires.

Pack Horse Inn, Watling Street, Affetside, near Tottington, Bury
Tel: 01204 883802

The kids have their own room in this historic pub with real fires.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

TonyDecember 11th 2008.

A pub well worth trying for good cheap food and drink is the New Grey Horse on Oldham Road in Failsworth. It's a proper pub with a warm welcome. The food is very good and cheap. The wesite is http://www.thenewgreyhorseinn.co.uk

Eviej_ukDecember 11th 2008.

The Peels Arms in Padfield (nr Glossop), Derbyshire is fab. Proper roaring fires and nice atmosphere, plus very nice pub grub. Great for winter days especially if you've been for a walk beforehand. Ha ha I must be getting old ;-)

HGDecember 11th 2008.

Thanks for the advice - always struggle to find pubs that take dogs. If anybody else is posting their views on other such pubs, let me know if you've seen dogs in there too (canine sort!!)

AnonymousDecember 11th 2008.

You should try the Sportsman, Kinder Road, Hayfield, High Peak, real fires, excellent food, situated just under Kinder Scout.

The Earl of DidsburyDecember 11th 2008.

This looks like a fab pub and a great walk , ive just used google earth to have a look, im going soon for a walk to the tower and for a pint of Tockholes Treacle ale!

Chris, Tottington, LancashireDecember 11th 2008.

The Royal at Tockholes, Darwen, is a gem of a pub - lovely old feel, great fire and best of all plenty of Lanky banter with the locals. The Tockholes Treacle is a special brewed by Moorhouses of Burnley, better known for Pendle Witches and Black Cat. Other beers on too.If you want a small pub crawl, there's the Victoria Arms further down the road in Tockholes Village and if you do down towards Darren, you'll find a lovely cosy Thwaites pub, The Golden Cup, which serves Bomber and a other Thwaites specials - this pub also becomes a haven for footy fans on match days!

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