In praise of hipsters and homes

It’s easy for old miseries like me to slip into disparaging comments about hipsters i.e. younger people who are concerned about their appearance and willing to try new stuff. I suspect older folk had much the same attitude about the young metropolitan types who fuelled the growth of the Firkin pubs long ago. A trip to see the husband and Wife of Bath led me to question such attitudes.

First off, a stop at the Marlow Brewery Co to pick up some Rebellion Ales and reinforce drinking prejudices. They have truly made the brewing of ‘brown beer’ an art form. The ever reliable IPA provided the backdrop to the weekend and you can’t beat their lovely Roasted Nuts. For those craft brewers who belittle ‘brown beer’ I’d ask can you produce a beer to the standard of Harvey’s Best and Rebellion IPA?

A saunter along the Bath skyline and brought us to the Bath Brew House pub. Once a grotty pub in a modern block it’s had a craft beer bar makeover and as a result it’s packed to the rafters, mainly with younger folk. It offers hand pulled cask and craft keg including the products of its on-site brewery. I suspect it wouldn’t exist without the ‘hipsters’. And whilst pubs like the Bath Brew House might not be top of my list they are one of the few games in town for pub growth. They provide for a growing market in some locations and give me the chance of a decent pint in reasonable surroundings. For that I’m grateful – the Buxton Brewery’s keg Rednik Stout was as good as ever.

Thinking about my old trade of location analysis led me to consider how to select craft beer pub locations. Sufficient numbers of people with well trimmed beards, plaid shirts, clean work-style boots employed in graphic design, media and the trendier end of IT together with overheard references to BBC 6 Music might be a good start. Perhaps Joules should take note?

As myself and others have said these young folk would need to be forced into failing back street boozers and dead roadside pubs and so to preserve pubs at all costs is destined to failure. I’d argue that we need homes rather than failed pubs and so I’m happy that the vote to tighten planning regulations failed. Greg Mulholland’s assertion that outdated regulations protecting launderettes justify increased barriers to market-led development always seemed weak to me.

Recent articles in the Morning Advertiser report that, according to Christie & Co, average sale prices for pubs are on the rise (it’s not so good north of Milton Keynes) and Fleurets’ data suggests that the retention of freehold sales as pubs is at a five year high. Life for pubs is improving but slowing down the redevelopment of unsuitable locations would benefit no-one.

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All the gear and ready for a beer

It was pointed out to me recently that my blog was supposed to be about walking as well as beer and it was about time I removed myself from the bar. Loins girded we started off from our friends’ place at Clough Mill in Little Hayfield to go round Kinder Reservoir (and then Lantern Pike on the following day). I still have a touch of the puritan attitude and feel that a beer should be earned and a decent stroll obviously qualifies. (The pint of Landlord at The Lantern Pike on Thursday evening was weakly justified by a long drive northwards. As the pub where the first Corrie scripts were written by Tony Warren it had to be worth a visit.)

It’s impossible to describe Kinder Scout without heading into the word box for ‘brooding presence’. It just suits a day with a touch of mist, drizzle and a breeze to chill you down. Whilst I’m all for a sunny day in the hills (usually in thewickingman shirt and shorts) it felt good to be wrapped in multiple layers following in the footsteps of the mass trespass folk from Manchester way.

We started off through the grounds of Park Hall where we came across the sadly decayed elegance of the hall’s heated outdoor pool. Even in the 1960s it seems to have been in use by the locals – I’m sure it made an interesting alternative to the municipal baths.  Out of the hall grounds and we soon had Kinder looming above us as we joined the Snake Path. The white-painted shooting cabin on Leygatehead Moor always reminds me of a cricket pavilion for what I imagine would be a game involving ‘hit a grouse and it’s 6 and out’.

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Good on you, Benny Rothman

At the bottom of William Clough (named after the son of the Blades manager I wondered) we paused to let the pure damp air fill our nostrils. It was a good moment to think about my 250 miles of the Strathmore Stroll in 2015 as I knew I’d be walking down the said Clough in early September. Note to self – it’s time to plan the route in detail.

We headed round the eastern side of the reservoir and met the Kinder Road and sped up to reach the The Sportsman. It’s at such times that I think most walkers use sports’ visualisation techniques – imagine a full pint (straight or jug) and you’ll be in the pub at double quick time. The Sportsman was like most pubs we visited in our trip to the Peak – solid, reliable and short of customers.

I noticed in Monday’s Morning Advertiser alert that Roger Protz is telling us that, “The country deserves better than just leaving our dwindling pub stock to market forces.” I’m just not sure who is supposed to run ailing pubs at a loss. As alternatives should we frogmarch young folk to grubby back street boozers, arrest people who leave supermarkets with a bag of beer or operate a massive state subsidy. Perhaps not.

Anyway rant over and back to The Sportsman, a Thwaites’ pub – a fine pint of their Original Bitter and a very substantial sandwich & chips, but we were the only customers on a Friday lunchtime. They have bedrooms so it’s not a bad choice for a Kinder walking weekend. (I was amused recently to read in the London Standard that Thwaites’ Wainwrights was named after the Lake District walking books. AW would not have been amused.)

Next morning it was a stride up Lantern Pike through pasture fields with millstone grit walls. Very much a traditional Dark Peak walk and none the worse for that. The Little Mill Inn  at Rowarth was a welcome sight – feeling very much in the middle of nowhere but only about 8 miles from Stockport as the crow flies. As a man for tradition (boring says son) I’m not keen on supposedly amusing names for beers – I prefer the beer to do the talking. However in a wild thirst induced moment I went for the Jennings World’s Biggest Liar – a 4.3% bitter that veered nicely into roasted malt territory, honest. Brewed to celebrate their hosting of the recent competition it’ll be a shame if it disappears. Another pub with good fresh-cooked food and well-kept beer but we were the only customers for a while.

A short walk to Hayfield in the evening and it looks like The Village TV drama has given Hayfield a lift. The Royal Hotel has had a polish but it’s kept its three-sided bar to deliver a pint of Thwaites and also a pint of Kinder Falldown, nothing special – must remember to stick to beers with sensible names. The Royal refurbishment seems to have done the job. It was a packed Saturday night and its function room was in full swing with an 80s fancy dress night. I imagine a summer walk over Kinder, a pint or two outside and the tail end of a cricket match on the adjacent ground would be a fine day.

We wandered over the road to The George for a final pint – a surprisingly decent Adnam’s Old Ale given its long journey from Southwold and the Marstons’ EPA was also doing well. As we headed back to our beds we passed The Packhorse – a sad scribbled notice reporting its last day on Sunday. Much as I love a pint in a Peak District pub I realise they can’t all survive just for my occasional pleasure. Some will thrive, some will struggle and some will be lost forever. It’s illuminating to note that a vacant freehold pub in the Peak now sells for less than the equivalent residential property. Please explain that one CAMRA.

The Perfect Pub: Mission Statement – coming soon

Who wants to be a millionaire – well you can’t, but how about taking on a pub as a step to untold riches? I’m always in awe of those good folk who are prepared to serve whilst the rest of us enjoy ourselves. They have to be a bit different to everywhere else, the beer and food can’t have an off day and the landlord needs to make a living without it seeming to be just a business (see final paragraph).

My recent experience is all on the customers’ side of the bar but as a child (see earlier post on my granddad’s pub) I saw the hard-knock life that a landlord’s world entailed. Always running the bar, doing the books after the evening session and then getting a nap after lunchtime closing. A very tough life on all fronts – physical, mental and metaphysical. Not surprising that my grandma could lift 8 one pint jugs in her hands. And in a world of cash and dodgy practices no one could be trusted to stand in. Their only night off I ever remember was the annual Licensed Victuallers ‘do’.

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Granddad’s cufflinks: Perfect for the Licensed Victuallers

Since those days technology has improved the landlord’s lot but pub going has declined as legislation and other consumer choices have kicked in. However there still seem to be enough people who see a pub as their lifelong working dream – perhaps in part due to the joy of sitting the other side of the bar. Sadly I still stumble across pubs where you know within minutes that the new ‘mine hosts’ are ill-suited to running a successful pub.

I can’t see the long-term benefit to an operator of taking on lessees who won’t be successful but I guess the pubco’s will be even more keen to encourage the ‘dreamers with money’ if market rent only becomes an option. The pubcos websites still try and sell the dream to potential lessees and the Morning Advertiser featured pubs seem like nirvana rather than a bottomless pit to pour money down. A recent ad listed a village pub in Derbyshire that had ‘good potential for commuter trade’. I suspect it’s never seen a commuter in its life. Now That’s What I Call Marketing No 666.

Of course it’s not all gloom and doom – there are still pubs where I can walk through the door and all is well with the world. Like many I find it ironic that Wetherspoons brand-grabbed George Orwell’s ‘Moon under Water’ but I still believe in the search for the perfect pub. Interesting that the attributes described by Orwell haven’t changed a great deal, for some of us, in nearly 70 years.

On a stroll around St Albans with my mate Greedy we pondered as to why one pub works and another one doesn’t quite cut the mustard. And why is it almost an instant feeling as you open the door? Last night’s winners were the Farriers Arms and The Six Bells.

Open the door of the Farriers and it feels good to be in from the cold. Welcoming humour from the landlord, acknowledgment by the regulars and a solid pint of Betty Stogs from Skinners isn’t a bad start. It has that essence of the community pub – comfortable but unfussy, nooks and crannies for local groups and even an outside lav. And gentle encouragement from the landlord to have another.

The Six Bells, busy even on a Monday night and offering a good range of beers including a richly malted porter from the local 3 Brewers . The porter was a bit like a liquorice whorl and treacle toffee on bonfire night. The Six Bells is warm, friendly and the lighting is just right. It has that feeling of being loved and well run. I’m sure everyone is running in the background but all feels calm on my side of the bar.

As I said the pub magic trick is to make it seem it’s not a business but sometimes they can’t help themselves. The Old Chequers at Gaddesden Row has new owners. Their shiny website has no mention of beer but it proudly announces that the Mission Statement is coming soon. How did you miss that one off your list George Orwell?