Wednesday 19 August 2020

To Helensburgh and Back

Given that our summer holidays are put on the back burner - assuming they are even on the cooker - I decided some time ago to go and see my family and friends in Scotland.  Now my sister, who lives in my home town, Dumbarton, is immune system compromised, so I turned down her invitation to stay and instead, last week, with the lovely E, booked into the Travelodge in nearby Helensburgh. This is a town where a much younger me spent quite a lot of time, mostly on a Sunday night, drinking beer in the Cairndhu Hotel which we reckoned then had a better class of young ladies to (unsuccessfully for the most part) chase after. It was also not so popular with the Royal Navy lads from round the corner in Faslane, or indeed, then, the US Navy whose sailors swarmed over from Dunoon and helped make the town a tad lively.

Alas, the Cairndhu Hotel, while still standing, is no longer licensed premises - or indeed a hotel - and while Helensburgh is a delightful little town, options for staying overnight are somewhat limited.  The Travelodge is in the upper parts of what was the Commodore Hotel, the lower part being, now, the Commodore Inn, though you can actually enter both from either. The Commodore Inn has an excellent aspect on the Clyde River front and our room provided us with a basic, but comfortable enough abode. It is fair to say though, that it is in need of some updating.

Now how would Scotland's much stricter rules on the pandemic manifest themselves? Well, firstly, at check-in, the desk is sealed behind plastic. We were informed we'd have to make our own beds and bring towels for changing down  to reception. Not a big deal really. Face masks were compulsory inside the hotel and this was complied with by and large, though sometimes we and others forgot, as we went directly down the stairs to the outside without going elsewhere.

After a long drive, a pint was in order. We went through their extensive  beer garden to the Commodore Inn. At the door we were greeted and a note taken of our names and phone numbers. Hand sanitisers were everywhere. We were given a table outside in the no smoking area and drinks were brought to our table. It was quick, cheerful and easy. Refills were by flagging down a server. Tabs were offered, or you could pay as you went. Now of course, as details were being handed over, I scanned the bar. Cask offerings, perhaps oddly, were London Pride and Doom Bar. No Scottish cask beer was a disappointment, but hey ho. The Pride, served in a Williams Bros Glass, was at most a 2.5 in CAMRA NBSS parlance, but the second scraped into a 3. Just needed drinking I think.

That night we dined at the Sugar Boat, a lovely little restaurant on the main Colquhoun Square. Again we were accosted at the door and even though we'd booked, names were taken and we sat outside in the sunshine with others, all socially distant, as was the case inside.  So far so compliant.

The next day, we had breakfast at another old haunt, but from more recent years, the Henry Bell.  Would JDW let the side down? Not a bit of it. We were stopped at the door, forms were filled in, we were asked to sanitise our hands and the modus operandi inside explained. Clean cups for coffee refills, one socially distant queue for all service and tables were sanitised. We returned again that night to meet my pal and of course, it was much busier, but the same high standards were maintained. It remained so, until the Royal Navy arrived and things got a tad more boisterous, but the system did work, though the young sailors, finally let loose after a long submarine patrol, were perhaps a bit louder that you'd want, but who could blame them?

In Helensburgh itself, mask wearing in shops was compulsory and obeyed to the letter, as far as I could see, even in the large Co-op. Queues outside the butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers - it's that sort of town - distanced happily.

We didn't go to any more different pubs, but our remaining restaurant trip saw our names taken and hands sanitised.  On the way back, we waited in line to get into the supermarket where everyone was masked up.

Scotland is, it seems, in the small part of it I was in, at least complying. Compulsion obviously has an effect and it didn't seem to slow things up.

We did go to several small shops and for ice cream and again all was neat and orderly. It seemed a small price to pay for the added confidence it gave.  Helensburgh is lovely when it is sunny. In fact it was too hot at times. Never thought I'd say that.

In JDW, the Navy lads were stopped from moving the furniture about. A small number of staff did well. We also encountered many sailors wandering about looking for a late night drink. Good luck with that one, but my pal did tell me some pubs have not yet re-opened and the large John Logie Baird was closed and boarded.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Parking Tanks on Wetherspoon's Lawn

Pubs are thought in many quarters to be pretty much unmitigated doom and gloom at the moment and although there are some chinks of light, with Covid-19 still on the go -  and around for the foreseeable future - you don't expect to see many major pub openings, but there are still some.

Rochdale Town Centre is on the up. The River Roch, culverted and hidden for many years is now open again and providing a fine focal point for a revamped centre which includes a new shopping mall, complete with a cinema and eateries bang in the middle of town. OK, it leaves one, or maybe two, shopping centres rather exposed to chillier times, as footfall returns to the area around the river and the wonderful Victorian Town Hall and the tram stop.  This is a town that couldn't maintain a McDonald's in the centre and with it gone, tougher times have also seen the closure of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In the fine - grand even - building thus vacated, we now have a new pub. This hasn't appeared by some kind of surprise. Clearly this million pound plus conversion has been planned for quite some time, but equally, what exactly would appear remained a bit of an educated guess. We had heard it would be entirely wet-led. That is there would be no food, which could be considered a bit of a gambol in these times. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Either way, a substantial new public house certainly had many wondering if there is room for one more?

So what's the competition? The Greater Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year (and narrowly beaten in the National competition) is the Flying Horse.  This as you can imagine is a hard act to follow, with its traditional beer offering, combined with real ciders, craft beer and excellent food  is clearly the one to - if not beat, that will be hard - but at least emulate.  Former National Pub of the Year, the Baum, is now under new management, but still offers a great pub experience, excellent beers of both cask and craft variety, along with great food. In the former General Post Office building, we have the Medicine Tap, selling locally brewed beers and guests together with imaginative food in a very fine conversion of yet another grand building. Bombay Brew offers a well-chosen range of craft and traditional beer, as well as Indian food of the tapas variety. It is the Bundobust of Rochdale. With the Regal Moon run by an experienced real ale loving manager who frequently tops JDWs best seller of cask ale list,  there is certainly plenty to go at. In short, for the drinker and the hungry, Rochdale, with a pretty supportive council, already offers a lot.  What can the new pub add?

It opened yesterday and your intrepid reporter, for once, not also ran, went along with the lovely E to see what was what.  The building is impressive. The outside has been cleaned up by  Amber Taverns, who operate it as part of their Hogarth's chain. The building itself was used as a house by the Rawson family from 1819, who conducted their banking business from the small adjoining building.  It was rebuilt in 1879 and redesigned in 1913 to create the distinctive porticoed frontage it has today.

Inside, once you have navigated the Covid-19 formalities and hand sanitising, you first notice the long bar to your left. Ceilings are high and ornate and original features and covings have been retained. To your right is a seating area with windows looking out onto the Butts. Behind this area, the bank’s vaults have been turned into a separate seating area. To the rear, toilets - thankfully on the ground level - are modern and appealing, as is the large beer garden to the rear.  Carpets are thick and seating a mixture of low and high. All in all, rather handsome.

All well and good, but what of the beer I hear you ask? As you might expect from Amber Taverns, the usual suspects are all here. Fosters, Carling, Heineken, Kronenbourg, Morretti and John Smith's are to the fore. For the real ale lover we have Tetley Bitter and Hobgoblin. Gin menus are everywhere and a fiver will bag you a double of some rather decent gins, as well as the tonic to go with it. Beers are very keenly priced with Tetley at a mere £2.15 a pop and Carling at £2.60. Others a tad less.  The pub was, as I'd expected, quite busy with the curious. Service was good and cheerful, aided no doubt by the Covid queuing system precluding any stress from a baying thirsty mob.

So who is it aimed at? Prices, being of an ilk, clearly indicate its next door neighbour the Regal Moon is the target. I imagine it will attract a few others too, depending on how its clientele develops.  The real ale drinker though is likely to give it a fairly wide berth, but those in need of decent gin in rather more comfortable surrounding than Spoons, might well be tempted too.

Like all new pubs, this will be a work in progress, but it will find a niche and will take business from elsewhere. New customers for the Rochdale "offer" will very much depend on the success of the whole town centre redevelopment, but Rochdale is heading in the right direction.

The Tetley Bitter retains little of its previous flavour.  As someone who drank a lot of it in my time, it isn't the same at all. Condition was average, as nobody else seemed to be drinking it.  I can also confirm there is no food offering. I didn't see as much as a bag of crisps.

There is a good recent piece on the redevelopment of Rochdale Centre here.    This gives more detail which I recommend you having a look at.

The building you can just see in the top photo, is the Regal Moon.

Monday 3 August 2020

Don't Make It Hard for Customers

Pubs don't have it easy at all these days. Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on most, if not all pubs. Many have not yet opened again yet and some, sadly may never open again. Those that have opened have been successful or not in varying degrees.  Now that things have settled down I reckon it is time to chip in a few observations.

Now I haven't been going mad. Most of my pub visits have been to places I know well and where I know both the people who run them and, in varying degrees, particularly at the times we visit, I also know most of the customers. In that respect, some things don't change, whereby you have different sets of customers visiting the pub at different times of the day. If you are part of that picture, restrictions are a lot easier to deal with. So do I feel safe in the Tandle Hill Tavern, the Ring O' Bells and the Rose of Lancaster? Well, yes, as far as one can be in these awkward times, I do. Names are taken, sanitising and availability of sanitising stations are ample, social distancing applies and either table service or distanced queuing, as well as being safe,  makes life relatively normal. Everyone, with varying degrees of internal acceptance, goes along with it. Whatever they think and indeed say, they want to be there and don't want to muck it up.

Of course, it isn't that way everywhere I readily accept, though I haven't really encountered it. In the Tavern yesterday, it was little different despite local restrictions being applied. Tables are around a metre and half away from each other and despite the Government, who clearly know cock all about pubs, saying you can go with your family, but don't interact with other people, interaction did take place. Of course it did. We all know each other. No shouting was involved and while guidance - not law - may say no interacting, well, we did. It was done just as safely as it had been the week before. Social distancing was as good as it could be in a small pub and sunny weather meant many were outside, so all was well.

What though, when you don't know everyone? On Friday, with my mate Mike, I had my first trip into Manchester since March.  It was hot and outside areas beckoned.  Our first visit to the Abel Heywood was fine. We sat outside, had arrangements explained to us, as well as the one way system and fetched our own pints from the bar. Those inside we served at the table. We paid by card and it was all sensible, distanced and easy.  Not so at Common.  Outside drinking here, and we had to download an app which took ages. It didn't like iPhone at all and when I finally got it onto my Android phone, it suggested that as I was 22 metres away, did I really want to order? It didn't give any options to say yes or no! Our host was called and looked perplexed, then shrugged and served us anyway, the worst and most expensive drinks of the day in a plastic mug. Not a great experience at all and frankly 20 odd minutes wasted. Plus another 20 drinking the warmish IPAs.

Our next stop Mackie Mayor had similar issues. If you wanted to only have a drink, you had to sit outside - fine - and use the app - not so fine. This time it wouldn't download on Android, but it liked Mike's iPhone. Details required were of the intrusive nature. This took 20 minutes or so again and this time, after a ten-minute wait, decent pints of cask, in proper glasses, were brought. Overall though much more bearable. But not that great.

Our last port of call was Cask in Ancoats. Here we were greeted, details taken, the rules explained quickly and professionally and a seat allocated. Waiter service was prompt and payment contactless. It was just as good as you'd expect from manager, Warren, who really knows his stuff.  Beer was in glasses and the cask beer we had from Pictish and Roosters, in excellent nick.  This was more like it and here we stayed.

My conclusions? Apps are great in theory - and good ones are great, but can be both crap, lazy and frustrating when  in operation. Difficult even for the willing such as us - both former IT bods - so not resistant.  As always, pubs are only as good, in whatever situation, as those who run them. Simple is best and given that, drinking local is likely to be a better experience. But it can be done well in cities too as exemplified by the Abel Heywood and Cask. 

As a pub, you really need (after safety) to put your customers first, or they will sup elsewhere. Covid or not, customers always have other options. Best not forget that customers still pay the money and they still have a choice. 

Now I have little doubt that that all pubs think they are doing their best, but when technology is unreliable, wise not to rely on it.  The resultant waits were pretty well unacceptable.

I think I'll stay local in places I mention above and, say, the Flying Horse in Rochdale, where they really have it all done well.