Tuesday 29 March 2022

High Standards. Still Paying Off

When asked about how a pub can make the most of itself, I usually paraphrase Bill Clinton, who when campaigning for President, when asked the most important thing about governing America answered "It's the economy, Stupid".  My paraphrase is, "It's the offer". I don't add "Stupid" though. Well, not generally.  

You would think it obvious that when running a pub, the main consideration would be how best to present the pub to attract the maximum number of customers of the desired type wouldn't you, but amazingly, to this writer at least, that often doesn't happen.  That isn't wholly  the point of this particular piece, though, but it does show the value of getting it right.

The Swan with Two Necks in Pendleton was the CAMRA National Pub of the Year in 2014.  It is a neat little place near Clitheroe in the village of Pendleton. Slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the small detour, if like me, you are on a coach that is going to Clitheroe anyway.  I was with my fellow imbibers from our CAMRA Branch and in the time-honoured fashion we were due at the Swan, by arrangement, shortly after opening time.  There were, I think, about forty of us on the coach and our social guru had arranged in advance, for those requiring it, a lunch of sandwiches and chips.  We'd opted out, as such an early lunch was not needed, but after the warmest of greetings and pints being selected -  we were shown to a marquee in the garden where (for a fiver a head) a veritable feast had been laid out.  This was quality and worth every penny, judging by the oohs and aahs of the participants.

The bar staff, in what soon became a very busy pub (apart from us) were fantastic. They dealt with the thirsty influx with cheerful calmness and control and somehow, we were all served very quickly. The beer range - see photo - was an absolute delight and was immaculately presented, while the landlord and landlady oversaw it all with smiling efficiency.  I recognised the boss, Steve Dilworth, as shortly after the award in 2014, I'd visited the Swan and interviewed him on behalf of the On Trade Preview magazine, for whom I'd been commissioned to write an article on what made an award-winning pub.  I wrote then, "Steve runs a pub that works for him and his customers. He exudes the warmth and welcoming attitude that you hope for in a pub, but don’t find often enough.  If you had to sum up his offer, it is a balanced one that has evolved rather than been devised. At the Swan you get a genuine welcome, good beer, good food (in generous portions) and a pub which is the centre of the community. It goes without saying that the beer is above reproach in its quality and condition." 

It was good to see that almost eight years later that same warm welcome and high standards were still there for all to see. I think it's fair to say that many of us, despite the attractions of Clitheroe, would have stayed there all day. And you can't really have a much higher compliment than that.  We all left with a degree of reluctance, with Steve thanking us and coming out to wave us off.  

The line-up of beers was particularly well-chosen.  But what a dilemma. White Rat, Harvey's Best and Fyne Ales Jarl. How on earth do you pick the bones out of that when you only have limited time?

 I won't do a pub crawl report of Clitheroe, but it is well worth a visit, with a few decent micropubs, the massive Bowland Beer Hall and to me, the pick of the bunch, the New Inn - a proper old-fashioned pub with a great range of beer in top condition.


Wednesday 9 March 2022

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

There is quite a lot of unseen business in campaigning for real ale.  I know many view the organisation as  merely a glorified drinking club, which, of course, to an extent it is, but there is much valuable work done behind the scenes in the vital area of information gathering.

It is a priority of our Branch to update all the information for the large number of pubs we have in our area. That will mean that the drinking public that use WhatPub - CAMRA's national database of pubs  - will have the most up-to-date information possible. While we try to keep everything as recent as we can, we do tend, naturally, to concentrate on the real ale pubs and clubs in our area. As a matter of interest, we look after approximately 350 pubs and clubs selling real ale across the boroughs of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury, with funnily enough the three areas all have a third or so each. Despite our 2100 members, as you can imagine the task of updating, falls to a few dedicated souls.

Thus, it was I found myself checking up on a long-standing real pub that had been reported as reverting to keg only.  This is a pub that was first a beerhouse in 1860 and only became a fully fledged public house in May 1960.  I rather think that in all the time it has sold beer, it has been sold in either bottled form, or more likely,  as cask conditioned real ale.  Alas, no more.  A very amiable chat with the landlady revealed that she switched to keg on re-opening after Covid-19.  I expressed surprise and with a pained expression she explained, that put simply, over the years and exacerbated by Covid, most of the bitter drinkers had died off and not been replaced. This had resulted in her having to throw away rather a lot of beer. Over time, with no improvement, she realised that she simply couldn't afford this, hence the move to the smooth version.

Looking around me in this neat little street corner local, there were, perhaps, a half dozen people around the bar at 5.30 p.m.  All were drinking pints of lager.  I sympathised with her predicament, and she assured me it was a very reluctant step and maybe one day, things will change.  I replied that I hoped so and left. She was a smashing woman.

There used to be a pub like this on almost every corner, but things have changed so much, that this is no longer the case.  Bigger, brighter establishments have more chance of survival these days, and the corner street or mid-terrace local, where everyone once went, is struggling.  Are bitter drinkers getting older? Well, of course, everyone is, but are these pubs that many describe as boring old men's places going to survive in any great numbers? The older customers that they rely on won't be around forever, in this kind of pub, they just aren't being replaced. Cask beer relies on volume and turnover. If that isn't there, then its presence will always be in jeopardy.

When you see so many closed little corner street pubs that used to be thriving with locals, I for one, am glad that I lived through an era that, while perhaps not the highest point of pub going, was at least when they were, more or less, all seemingly doing well. These buzzy little boozers, alive with banter and familiarity, gave me a lot of pleasure and thinking on, they still do, and I'd miss them if they all went in favour of some of the souless places they call "pubs" today.

So will they survive? It is a difficult question to answer, but looking at the evidence objectively, though some undoubtedly will, for many,  it doesn't feel that way at all.

I'm not naming the pub. That would be unfair. A landlady that made a very good impression on me is doing her best for her business.  That's exactly what she should be doing.

Yes, I do feel sentimental when I think back and when you look at the problem I outline and the people who still drink in them, you can't be optimistic.  The title of this piece tells you that I think not only will many of these pubs be gone all too soon, but those that survey and write about them won't be, relatively speaking, that far behind. 

The photo is from a picture we have in our kitchen.  It seemed appropriate.

Thursday 3 March 2022

Goodbye to Dave Bailey

I'd never been to Millom before.  For those that don't know where it is Millom, according to Visit Cumbria, it is, "a town and civil parish on the north shore of the estuary of the River Duddon in southwest Cumbria, historically part of Cumberland, England. It is situated just outside the Lake District National Park, about six miles north of Barrow-in-Furness and 26 miles south of Whitehaven" Sadly, on immediate inspection, it isn't the most attractive of places, but last Friday, along with my pal Graham who is familiar with these parts, it was where we found ourselves. The reason? To pay our last respects to the great guy who was Dave Bailey, formerly of Hardknott Brewery who had sadly passed on after a very tenacious fight against cancer, detailed on Facebook.

Now, this isn't a eulogy about Dave. Knowing him, he wouldn't have wanted that, but it would be somewhat amiss if I don't mention a few things about him. Many may remember him as not only a fine brewer, but a well known blogger who was active in the British Guild of Beer writers. Before he was a publican and chef (it was there, at the Woolpack Inn at Hardknott Pass that I believe he set off on the brewing path.) Oh, and  he was an electronics engineer, mountaineer and probably a lot more I don't know about. A bit of an all-rounder really and, of course, a family man and a real genuine guy.

Some might say he was an opinionated bugger. Well he was, but he was more often right than wrong and prescient about the beer scene in many ways. His views about cask versus keg, the crowded market for breweries against a shrinking pub market - his ultimate reason for quitting brewing - his relative dislike of CAMRA and SIBA, his views on the beer tie, on beer duty, on sexism in beer are still great reads and relevant today. His blog is still up on t'interweb and I commend it to you. Dave and I didn't always see eye to eye, but we got on like a house on fire in our blogs and in real life. It was always a delight to see him.

So back to Millom. We had an hour to kill before Dave's requiem and wake, so we went to the nearest pub.  The Bear on the Square was rather busy at around three on a Friday afternoon, but the odd thing was everyone apart from us two were women. Well, there might have been a couple of children who weren't, but you get the picture. The woman behind the bar greeted us in a very pleasant fashion and, discerning from our careful perusal of the pumps that we were cask ale types, offered us tasters of the two beers available. No great shakes, I'm afraid, and we settled for something from Cross Bay as the least bad option.  This was supped quickly amid a cacophony of wailing as one of the running about children collided with a hard surface. 

We still had time to walk the ten minutes or so to the Devonshire Arms, a pub which looked to have been decent once, but seemingly had been on the wrong end of a poor makeover. We drank an ordinary pint of Hobgoblin Gold as a local gleefully remarked that he had identified us a real ale types from a distance as we approached the pub.  We grinned back while secretly hoping he choked on his keg Tetley Mild.  In all probability, he was just keeping us talking while his mates were round the back building the wicker men for us.

Dodging that bullet, we headed back to the wake venue, the Millom Palladium, a neat little theatre near the station. People were gathering and after buying a couple of pints of something murky from Fell Brewery - not bad actually - we were warmly greeted by Ann, Dave's partner who was delighted to see us. Then followed a very touching event with readings from Dave's children and brother and a couple of appearances in film from the lad himself, playing the piano, the guitar and an astonishing singing performance in an amateur production. With the addition of photos of him through the years, including on the top of Mont Blanc and his swansong performance in the same theatre a couple of weeks ago, we were left in wonder at the sheer talent and enthusiasm of the man.

At about six, there was a break for food and chat. Our train was at seven, and we said our goodbyes to the people we knew and, of course, Ann. She advised us that we should help ourselves to some Hardknott bottles, which were in boxes under some tables. Tempting though this was, we confined ourselves to a bottle each and a Hardknott glass. For me, Colonial Mayhem and for Graham, Rhetoric.  Had we known about the journey ahead, though, we might well have taken more.

Now the plan was to nip into Tesco for train beers, hop on the 19.05 to Barrow and thence directly to Manchester. We had reckoned without Northern Rail though, who cancelled the Barrow train and, for good measure, the next one. Enquires at Barrow revealed a one-hour wait, a Northern train to Lancaster, catch an Avanti to Preston and then a Northern train to Manchester.  Fortunately there is a rather decent pub just outside Barrow Station, thus it was we found ourselves in the Lancaster Brewery's Duke of Edinburgh, which on a Friday night was busy, with Graham, who used to work in Barrow, inevitably meeting an old pal.  The beer and atmosphere was good, though, and the rest of the journey(s) passed in a pleasant haze of Jaipur and red wine. It was nearly midnight before the train got to a deserted Piccadilly, and a bit more until I got an Uber home.

For some, Dave was a bit of an awkward sod at times, but when involved in the industry, he thought a lot about the place of beer in society, the industry itself and how things fit together. I guess his engineer background prompted that approach. As mentioned above, I thoroughly recommend a read of some of his stuff. The issues analysed at length by Dave  haven't gone away and indeed, since the pandemic, have probably worsened.

I am so glad I went to Millom to pay my last respects, and respect him I did. We had many interactions over the years, and every one for me at least, was a pleasure. His epic fight against cancer, and his will to squeeze every ounce out of life, is a lesson to us all.  He is gone, but his beaming smile when we met will always be here in my mind.

Dave started blogging not long after me. Here's what he said on 24th November 2008. "Firstly, Hoppy Birthday Tandleman - It's not the blog authors birthday you understand, just his blogs first year. I have Tandleman to thank in part for helping me find my way in the blogging world by comments on my blog, and putting up with my comments in reply to his writings. Another blogger who has helped me is Jeff Pickthall, who regularly puts up worthy issues for discussion and provokes Tandleman into interesting counter comment."  I am glad to say Jeff was also present in Millom".

I couldn't resist nicking the photo above from Dave's blog.  I think he'd want to be remembered that way!