Life’s great artefacts: The Three Stags’ Heads, Geoff Fuller and his pots

Master potter and master publican, the late Geoff Fuller (together with his wife, Pat) made a difference to more lives than he’ll have ever known.

I can’t remember how many years ago we first went to the Three Stags’ Heads at Wardlow Mires. As a family we always headed to the Peak District for our Easter holidays. In later years the now ‘young adults’ in the family were introduced to the pub.

It always seemed such a huge change from my working life in the big business world of that London Town. You went in the pub knowing no-one was better than anyone else and you judged people on their merits. It was a simple pub that stripped people to the basics of a pint and a chat. Listening delivered wisdom of many kinds. Geoff, Pat and the rural polymath, Robin, behind the bar, created an atmosphere second to none.

Theres no doubt that Geoff brought the ‘irascible old bugger’ qualities of landlords past to new heights. God forbid if anyone didn’t shut the outside door properly. I remember one time when he went outside with the coal bucket and didn’t shut the door. On his return he was upbraided by Mrs TWM for his failure. He enjoyed the moment.

Harsh signs about mobile phones and asking for keg lager (‘a smack in the gob often offends’) belied the innate friendliness of the place. Outside the front door, a pumpkin carved by another local publican cheerily exclaimed ‘fuck off’. Everything done with warmth, just don’t forget you were a guest in their home. And don’t sit in Geoff’s chair by the fire.

There was a simple generosity about the place. A regular visitor who wasn’t going home to Germany at Christmas joined them for dinner. Pat asked if anyone had any spare Brussels as Tesco had run out, locals turned up with game. Food to be shared was brought out from a regular’s birthday celebrations the day before. It was that sort of place. Regulars from far and wide hefted to the Stags.

One snowy Christmas Eve, a few family members trudged across the snowy fields lit by moonlight from nearby Litton. Like the Three Kings we followed the single bulb outside the pub. More in hope than expectation. A bit like Headingley in 1981, everyone in the family walked there.

We opened the door to find it packed to the gunnels. Getting to the bar and toilet was like being like a part in the plastic number puzzles of my childhood. Everyone had to slide across to enable movement. A happier, chattier throng I’ve never met. As we stood there with a pile of coats on the floor, Geoff battled through to stoke the fire. “I see the bloody tramp’s in again”, he said as he stumbled over the pile.

One winter weekend, I stayed with my two adult kids in the youth hostel over the hill. (Mrs TWM was sunning herself in some exotic clime but still feels she missed out on our bargain weekend.) Friday night, a dash up the M1 and decent food and a couple of pints of Wincle in the hostel. Saturday morning we strode out on a hike. We managed 11 miles in nearly 11 hours. A poor effort if it hadn’t involved a session on the Brimstone. As we left the Stags my daughter uttered the immortal words, “Dad, were we philosophising, or just talking bollocks in there”.

As the first Abbeydale customer, the Stags always offered the best of their beers including the wonderful cask Brimstone. Just be wary of Robin’s persuasive words on the Black Lurcher beer if you were going to cross the A623 back to Litton. However, it was the people and the pub that really mattered.

Eventually the thoughts gathered here led us to early retirement and an escape to the Peak District from commuter land. We are humbly grateful for the opportunity to have experienced the Three Stags’ Heads in its heyday. I raise a glass to Geoff, Pat and the other players in the story of the pub.


What do I know?

I’m out of touch with what the pub-going public wants. There, I’ve admitted it.

A few days in Shropshire explained that the road to success is probably not my idea of pub perfection.

First stop, Sunday lunchtime in Holden’s Golden Lion in Bridgnorth. A spotless pub with wonderful cask beers and friendly locals. Masses of free cheese and crisps on the bar to feed the punters. The mild went down very quickly, as would the other Holden’s beers if we didn’t have to leave after a pint and a beef and onion cob. Sad to report that on a Sunday lunchtime in a perfect pub there was only half a dozen customers.

We exit perfection and walk past the nearby Wetherspoons. Packed outside and signs of more inside. That’s what many pub-goers want. Tim Martin knows the market and tightening purse strings will help him further.

On to Ludlow for a few days. Monday lunchtime, we wander down the hill to a riverside cafe. Not a pub shocker. Excellent food, a glass of wine. All tables full inside and out and serious money being spent by all.

At 4pm the thirst kicks in and we wander down to the Ludlow Brewery Tap. Old railway building on the edge of town. Comfortable for a brewery tap and decent beers. Not quite a Kirkby Lonsdale Barn but not far off. Closing at 5pm, but packed to the gunnels.

After a pint we head off back into the town centre to the historic Rose and Crown that’s had a bit of a Joule’s makeover. A tasty pint of Slumbering Monk, but we got the feeling it wasn’t doing so well. With just a few locals perched at the bar it didn’t suggest the usual Joule’s pub.

Tuesday lunchtime found us in the Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle. A wonderful pub with a fine pub brewery history beloved by many. We were the only customers for most of our time there.

These are strange times and I get the feeling that some folk are still wary of the pub. And maybe they’ll never come back. For other people they’ll stick to their regular haunts and people they know.

Increasingly, I’m convinced that what I want from a pub isn’t what most of the market wants. It’s going to be tough going for my version of the perfect pub. Let’s hope enough people love them and more importantly spend money in them.