Sunday, 7 August 2022

Disarmed

The Armoury is a Robinson’s pub in Stockport, prominently situated on the roundabout at the junction of Greek Street and King Street West, which stands above the southern end of Stockport station. It was rebuilt in the 1920s by Bell’s Brewery and received a multi-roomed interior characteristic of its time. It also had a distinctive facade of pale blue tiling which unfortunately had to be replaced by render in the 1990s as water had got in behind the tiles.

Apart from this, its interior remained pretty much unchanged. In the early 2000s, it saw minor alterations that removed a former off-sales counter and incorporated a lobby area for a disused side entrance into the main vault room, but otherwise left the layout and fittings unchanged. It was an excellent example of a modest traditional pub interior and qualified as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory.

While mainly a regulars’ pub, it also served visitors to the Castle Street shopping centre and, being located on the main pedestrian route between the station and Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground, was always busy on match days. It was a classic street-corner local that also welcomed casual trade, and I would always name it as one of my favourite pubs in Stockport. For many years the planning meetings for the Stockport Beer Festival were held in the upstairs room. I wrote about it on my Campaign for Real Pubs blog.

However, over the past couple of months it has been subjected to a thoroughgoing refurbishment by Robinson’s that has pretty much erased its previous character. It has been knocked through into one room, the original bar counters have gone, warm wood tones have been replaced by pastel grey, and the carpet, frosted glass windows and cosy alcoves of bench seating have disappeared. I took a couple of photos of the interior in 2016 which provide a good comparison with how it is now.

How it was:

How it is now:

What we are left with now isn’t a bad pub as such, and it’s undoubtedly more congenial than any of the other five along Castle Street recently visited by Cooking Lager. There’s still some bench seating in what used to be the vault side, although the former lounge side features high stools and bizarre barrel-shaped fixtures that you can’t even get your legs under. There’s also a cosy snug-type room right at the back on the left with more bench seating. But it’s much the same as hundreds of other pubs, and it has lost what previously made it distinctive. Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that the previous unwelcoming grey colour wash on the exterior walls has been replaced with two shades of beige.

Some, such as the Twitter correspondent below, will argue that we need to accept change and move with the times, and that the past cannot be preserved in aspic.

Clearly it isn’t possible or desirable to preserve everything from the past as a museum piece. But, as a prosperous, civilised society, we understand the value of keeping the best buildings from previous eras, hence the existence of the listed buildings register and conservation areas. This provides a link to earlier generations and enhances the present-day environment. Stockport would certainly be the poorer without, say, Underbank Hall and the market hall.

We preserve and celebrate many stately homes that were built and furnished by the rich and powerful and were completely divorced from the lives of ordinary people. On a more modest scale, original pub interiors can be regarded as “the people’s stately homes” and undoubtedly have much more resonance for the general population. There are now well under a thousand pubs remaining in the UK with anything resembling their original layout and fittings, and surely they, where possible, deserve to be cherished in just the same way as Bramall Hall and Lyme Park.

Was there any evidence that the previous layout of the Armoury imposed significant extra costs or held back its trading performance? Very often, pub refurbishments seem to be embarked on simply out of a sense of wishing to smarten things up and move with the times rather than any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis. And, as I have remarked before, once the initial surge of interest has subsided, refurbishment often becomes like a drug where you have to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect. The current zeitgeist is very much against the old, quirky and well-worn, but hopefully one day we will return to a time where these qualities are once again seen as desirable in pubs.

Although they still own a number of unspoilt historic pubs, over the years Robinson’s track record on pub alterations has not been a good one. Fifty years ago, they were noted for their unsympathetic “Robinsonisations” including bottle-glass window panes, full-length small-paned glass doors, “Spanish arches” and white Artexed walls. They were responsible for removing high-quality original interiors at the Royal Oak in Stockport town centre and the Woodman in Hazel Grove, both of which have now closed entirely as pubs.

More recently, they severely compromised the interior of the Holly Bush in Bollington, which previously was ranked as being of national importance on the National Inventory. They have also spoilt traditional interiors of lesser rank at the Church House in Congleton and the Grapes in Hazel Grove.

In contrast to this, Robinson’s have recently received a CAMRA award for their conservation work at the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in South Cheshire, which I have yet to visit in its new form. But that seems to be an isolated example. In general, they really cannot be regarded as respectful custodians of their pub estate. And how long will it be before they decide that a pastel-shaded knock-through might help revive the trade of the Blossoms or the Alexandra?

16 comments:

  1. I’ll be curious if the renovation increases their trade. I much prefer the older look myself and would not revisit on a return trip to Stockport.

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  2. I've long had a problem with pubcos doing the corporate, bland makeover on a traditional pub; Greene King also had the habit- a Farrow & Ball-a-like green paint etc. The problem is that it looks up-to-date now but quickly ages and looks tired, where the more traditional look stays pretty timeless: I was in a pub in Bloxwich a few weeks ago (not the really well-known timewarp one, either), and if you'd taken down the jukebox and changed the pulls/taps, it could have been anything from 1920s onwards, and it felt nice for it, not dated.

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  3. Change for change's sake. I would've just updated the carpet.

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  4. I didn't unfollow because of that.You posted a link to a comparison of supermarket lager and said that it wasn't a fair comparison because Asda is 4.2%,which it isnt.I politely pointed out the error but you couldn't be bothered to acknowledge it.Petty,I accept.

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    1. Thanks for the refollow. I've removed the comment. Further investigation suggests the Asda Biere de Luxe is actually 4.0%, but it is brewed in France by St. Omer and is pitched somewhat up market from the other lagers it was being compared with, which is reflected in its price. I don't feel the need to debate everything to the death on Twitter, but if you feel you were being ignored then I apologise.

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    2. James seems to be a snowflake.

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    3. St Omer is still a cheap euro fizz factory. Asda sourcing their beer from them is just a way of adding some continental authenticity to their brand without any additional cost.

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  5. "Pubs are the people's stately homes" - I like that!

    What Robbies have done to The Armoury and others is vandalism. I was in Ulverston yesterday for the first time in about 20 years. There were three Robinsons pubs with the new, boring grey and copper frontage, which looked rather brash for Ulverston. At least one of these used to be a Hartley's house I'm sure; I remember their simple, clear white front walls and plain signage. On the positive side all three pubs were heaving at about 5pm, and the non-Robinsons pubs were quiet.

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  6. If you follow the 'logic' in the Twitter response about change, then there wouldn't be an historic or characterful pub in existence. Sympathetic change is key. This looks like Greene King have molested it. Robinsons would do well to remember that they should be distinguishing their pubs from the corporate clones, not hiding amongst them and playing the same tune.

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  7. You don't like it, I don't like it, but will it increase trade. That's the only test for Robinson's ( I bet it doesn't).

    It's 20 years ago this summer I did my first proper exploration of Stockport's pubs (Armoury, Spread Eagle, Tiviot, Red Bull, Crown and Olde Vic from memory). Startlingly different from Cambridge. Stocky still has good pubs, and great beer (possibly better than 2002), but it's lost some of difference.

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    1. I think it's more whether any increased trade will give an acceptable rate of return on their investment.

      There is also the question of wider reputational damage. It's now got to the stage that your heart sinks every time you hear that Robinson's are refurbishing a pub.

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    2. Is it possible some people actually like the new styling, however unlikely that is ?

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  8. In the history of the British pub, what is it about the Victorian and Edwardian era ascetic that cries for preservation? It was certainly an era of capital investment in infrastructure. Something lacking today and no doubt part of our current economic malaise. Much of that infrastructure remains but it is preserved for its utility not ascetic. We keep the bridges and water pipes of that era because they were built to last not because they look nice. The pub has a far longer history. The Victorians were as happy to destroy their past as they were to build their future. Hence the era preceding them is more preserved in art than infrastructure. There are no medieval pubs treasured for the authentic smell of horse manure and dirt and lack of toilet plumbing.

    And yet a commercial business based on hospitality and requiring the custom of the current generation is deemed ruined if designed with their tastes in mind. As if there is merit in a design that suited the tastes of the old and the long dead. Very odd indeed.

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    1. Yet there are people who find merit in travelling in steam hauled trains despite modern high speed electric traction being fast, more comfortable and cheaper.
      And people who find merit in driving sixty year old ICE carsdespite modern EVs being far better.

      And hospitality isn't just about meeting the tastes of the current generation, else cruise ships wouldn't be so lucrative a business. And SAGA travel would be out of business

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    2. Vanishingly few unspoilt pub interiors survive from before the Victorian era, so they're not there to be cherished in the first place.

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  9. "It has been knocked through into one room, the original bar counters have gone, warm wood tones have been replaced by pastel grey, and the carpet, frosted glass windows and cosy alcoves of bench seating have disappeared. I took a couple of photos of the interior in 2016 which provide a good comparison with how it is now."

    The tragedy continues.

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