Sunday, 3 January 2010

Free at last

Interesting developments in Stockport recently where both the Railway on Wellington Road North and Little Jack Horner’s on Wellington Street (pictured) have been bought from pub companies by their sitting tenants, and the Magnet just down the road from the Railway has been sold to new free trade owners who have turned it into a multi-beer alehouse. This is a very positive development and I wish all three pubs every success. They will be freed from the dead hand of pub company control and be able to source the beers their customers really want at more reasonable prices.

But “going free” is a double-edged sword. You have cut your ties from the brewery or pub company, but that means you no longer have anyone looking over your shoulder to keep you on the path and tell you when you’re going wrong, and you no longer have any outside marketing support. You are truly on your own. For a keen, competent licensee, that should be seen as a challenge, but for some it can lead to complacency and slipping standards.

It is probably fair to say that, over my drinking career, many of the very best pubs I have visited have been genuine free houses, but so have some of the very worst.

One particular bugbear of mine is that, freed from any higher oversight, free trade pubs can all too easily end up with a plethora of incongruous, home-made signs both inside and out, which puts across a sloppy, unprofessional image.

Also, unless you are consciously going down the “alehouse” route, it is important to have a permanent real ale of ordinary bitter strength that is what many of your regular customers drink.


  1. I agree entirely about the signs, particularly if they manage to pack a spelling mistake in every line and use lurid colours.

    Mind you, they can serve as a warning. I passed a pub in Bolton advertising a 'carribean' evening in December. I could so easily have gone in were it not for the sign.

  2. I too am with you on the signs Curmudgeon; there's nothing worse than a load of "tacky" badly-worded and poorly written homemade signs. They certainly send out the wrong message.

  3. Pubs in Stockport...??????
    Got to be some sort of piss take
    surely. Last time I went into a
    decent Stockport pub,Eve of Destruction was in the top ten.
    Even the trains pass over the dump at altitude

    The draught "Old Tom" was a bit of all right though.

    Saxon Malt Fan

  4. Anonymous,

    Maybe you would profit from a more prolonged acquaintance with Stockport - one of the best pub towns in the UK. And the draught Old Tom is still a bit of all right, especially at this time of year.

    The trains stop at Edgeley Station and plenty of good pubs can be reached roughly on the level from there.

  5. I think the big pub companies offer nothing in the way of outside marketing support or even professionally produced signs! I think both of these pubs are in safe hands - both have made a point of having a house bitter (Black Sheep at the LJH, Holts at the Railway) for their less adventurous customers - although Bryan at LJH says his regulars are drinking everything he puts on.

    Incidentally, the excellent Waters Green in Macc has also now been bought by its licensee.

  6. Martin, Cambridge4 January 2010 at 16:51

    I'm seeing a fair few Pubmaster pubs aquired as freeholds in Cambridge as well, by people or small brewers (Milton) with a quite ambitious cask ale portfolio.

    It will be interesting to see if these pubs can survive as specialist ale houses, quality food, or even just as a decent community facility.

    You make a good point about the role of the pub company in maintaining basic standards though.

  7. I agree-a regular session beer is an essential in my book, but it's suprising how many pubs overlook it.

  8. It annoys me when you come across pubs that are obviously making something of an effort with cask beer, but tend to have two or three "rotating guest beers" which are never below about 4.5% ABV, leaving nothing for someone who just wants a pint of ordinary bitter strength. And then they find the regulars drink John Smiths Extra Smooth!

  9. Have you been in the new Magnet yet Curmudg?
    Its fairly smart.

  10. My first impressions are that one of these pubs is a dole hole, another employs a female with an attitude best suited not to deal with the public, whereas the other is probably going to be back to selling John Smith's smooth within a matter of months.


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