Friday 27 October 2023

Led astray in Leeds

I haven’t done any travelogues on here for a while, but I thought I’d make an exception for my trip to Leeds on Tuesday of this week. Apart from a brief foray for the press launch of Tetley’s No.3 Pale Ale (and whatever happened to that?) I hadn’t visited the city since December 2016, so I thought it was time for another exploration.

I sat down on my train from Manchester Piccadilly, only for a message to come over the PA that it had been cancelled due the lack of a driver. The next train was one that look the longer route via Manchester Victoria, and would probably be very busy due to the transferring passengers, so I took the opportunity to get on a stopping train which arrived at Huddersfield just before the express. Indeed there were plenty of seats available on this. For some reason the regular stopping service on the Standedge route, previously operated by Northern Rail, has been discontinued, and replaced with a rather intermittent service operated by Trans-Pennine Express calling at the intermediate stations. But it does give a higher standard of rolling stock.

It was a morning of heavy rain and thick, lowering clouds, so as we travelled along the steep-sided valleys of the Tame and Colne, stopping at Mossley, Greenfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite (correctly pronounced by the conductor) it was rather like a train journey into the depths of Mordor. The connection at Huddersfield was duly made, and there were a few seats still available on the express, which arrived in Leeds on time. I duly submitted my claim for compensation to the train operator and am pleased to report I was promptly refunded a quarter of the fare.

My plan had been to have some lunch in the Wetherspoon’s on the concourse of Leeds station, but this must be one of their smallest branches, and was completely full, so instead I decided to go to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is about ten minutes’ walk away on the north side of the city centre. It was pouring with rain, so I just took a quick glance at Google Maps on my phone to establish its general whereabouts. I was walking up a street and saw a large red-brick building on my left, with the Wetherspoon’s name displayed on the wall, so I dived in out of the rain, found a seat and placed my order via the app.

Twenty minutes later, nothing had arrived, so I mentioned this to a passing member of staff and was assured in a rather offhand way that the kitchen would still be making it. Another twenty minutes passed, so I went up to the bar to complain. “We’ve got no record of any order being placed from that table,” I was told. So I showed them the confirmation e-mail on my phone, only to be told that, while I had indeed placed my order at the Cuthbert Brodrick, the pub I was in was actually the Hedley Verity.

Feeling a touch embarrassed, I duly decamped to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is in fact only about two hundred yards away. I explained the situation to the staff there, and in fact the drink I had ordered was still on the bar. I found a table and my food was served fairly quickly, so kudos to them for sorting matters out. Possibly they had noticed the table was empty when delivering the drink, and then not actually cooked the food, as it didn’t seem as though I’d been given something that had been warmed up again. I suspect I’m not the first person to make this mistake when two branches are so close together.

Named after the local Victorian architect, the Cuthbert Brodrick is a modern Wetherspoon’s with an unusual corner tower, built on the site of former public baths and overlooking the city’s Millennium Square. While wide, it’s fairly shallow, with the ground floor mainly occupied by posing tables, but more comfortable seating upstairs. Not the most memorable of Spoons, but it had served its purpose in the end. Last time in Leeds we had eaten at Friends of Ham, which I thought was very good, but I don’t think their formula works so well for a solo diner. And, as I said on Twitter: So far, I had felt rather like Unlucky Alf from the Fast Show, but things were to get a lot better. Walking past the impressive classical façade of Leeds Town Hall, designed by the said Cuthbert Brodrick, brought me to the Town Hall Tavern. This is a Timothy Taylor’s tied house with a fairly functional one-room interior, offering the full range of their regular beers – Dark Mild, Golden Best, Boltmaker, Knowle Spring, Landlord and Landlord Dark. I went for the Landlord Dark (£4.50), as I’d never had it before on cask, and it was pretty good. In mid-afternoon, it wasn’t busy, but there were a group of lawyers talking shop. Perhaps not the most scintillating of conversations to eavesdrop on, but it’s good to see the tradition of professional people discussing business over a pint still being maintained.

There followed a long walk up The Headrow, the wide main street running through the middle of the city centre, although the rain was now easing off. The next pub was the Templar, which I had heard many good things about, and which didn’t disappoint. It’s a long, shallow corner pub with an elaborate tiled façade. Inside, while it has been opened out somewhat, it retains plenty of historical character, with wood panelling, seating booths and a cosy snug right at the far end. It was very busy, with the clientele leaning towards the older male end of the spectrum, although with both sexes and a variety of age groups represented, but I managed to find myself a seat with a good vantage point.

Although owned by Greene King, this isn’t at all obvious, and indeed I don’t think any of the eight cask ales on offer were their products. Apparently it regularly stocks Tetley Bitter, but I overhead a customer asking about it and being told it wouldn’t be available for a couple of days. I plumped for Acorn Barnsley Bitter, a bargain at £3.36, which was very good indeed. Apparently it’s one of the pubs that still uses Autovac dispense. A splendid pub with a great atmosphere, that’s certainly the best new pub I’ve visited this year and immediately shoots into my all-time Top 20.

Retracing my steps, I passed the Three Legs, which has an impressive façade and a reputation for being distinctly “lively”, although as it is reported to have no cask beer I gave it a miss. By this time the rain had fortunately stopped. Briggate, which runs North to South, was Leeds’ original high street, and still retains several Victorian shopping arcades together with four pubs on the west side situated in courtyards accessed via narrow alleyways. I had previously visited Whitelock’s and the Angel, so today decided to try the other two.

First was the Ship, which is the smallest of the four. This is reached by a very narrow passage, and is made up of a room containing the bar, and a further seating area at a slightly higher level. A good scattering of customers, and a decent drop of Black Sheep Bitter at £4.30. I walked straight past the entrance to the Pack Horse before realising I’d reached Whitelock’s and turning back. A Craft Union pub, this is rather more spacious, with the bar against the back right-hand wall. Again it was ticking over nicely, although not heaving, and offering Landlord at the bargain price of £2.90.

Neither of these are going to win prizes for historic interiors, but it’s good to see a couple of unassuming pubs hidden away down passageways thriving in such a central location. The gem of the four is of course the well-known Whitelock’s, which may well merit a visit next time. It might be nice if Timothy Taylor’s could acquire either the Ship or the Pack Horse to give them a better Leeds flagship than the rather ordinary Town Hall Tavern.

Continuing to the south, I crossed the bridge over the River Aire, somewhat swollen by the recent rains, to reach the Adelphi, an impressive Victorian pub with a curved façade, the neon sign on the roof of the former Tetley’s brewery clearly visible in the distance. This is the only pub that I also visited on my previous trip, but it features a stunning unspoilt interior that qualifies it for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with four separate rooms ranged around the central part, and an abundance of frosted glass and wood panelling.

It wasn’t anywhere near as busy as the previous time, although that was later in the year in the run-up to Christmas, and I had no problem finding a comfortable seat. I had a pint of Leeds Pale and then, looking at the times of the return trains, slotted in another of Titanic Plum Porter. These were respectively £4.85 and £5.25, and this was the first time I have ever paid over £5 for sub-5% beer, although I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve seen the point made before that, while the Adelphi has stunning architecture inside and out, the actual pub experience doesn’t quite live up to it.

From here it was just a short walk along Swinegate, passing under the eastern throat of the station, to catch my train home, which fortunately was dead on time. After an inauspicious start it had turned out into an excellent day out. While comparisons are invidious, I always feel that Leeds has a more coherently laid out city centre than Manchester, which is somewhat disjoined, and has demonstrated more respect for its architectural heritage, as shown by the arcades and pubs off Briggate. It certainly has nothing on a par with the eyesore of Manchester’s Arndale Centre. It will certainly merit a return trip some time in the future.

Friday 20 October 2023

A very Peculier beer launch

North Yorkshire brewery Theakston have announced that they are launching a new IPA as a brand extension of the celebrated Old Peculier. The description goes:
Made with all-British ingredients, it comes in at 5.1% ABV. English-grown Harlequin, Jester, and Olicana hops deliver a zesty fruitiness with a full-bodied malty undertone. It finishes with a pronounced hop-forward flourish.
It sounds very appetising, and I’d certainly give it a try. But it’s very different from the standard Old Peculier, which is a dark, sweet, rich, warming ale. And I can’t help thinking that this has the potential to dilute the image of the original beer. You have to wonder why it couldn’t simply be branded as “Theakston IPA”.

However, it seems to be an increasing trend to extend the brand name of a popular beer to others in the hope that they will benefit from a kind of halo effect. Something similar happened to Hobgoblin, where the original beer, another dark, sweetish brew, was joined by an IPA and a Gold. Wainwright, originally a pale gold beer, has now had an Amber version added, which looks suspiciously like an ordinary bitter. Several beers have had Gold spin-offs, including Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Brains SA and Reverend James, while Timothy Taylors renamed their Ram Tam as Landlord Dark.

Going back forty years, most beers were simply identified by the name of the brewer and the type of beer, such as “Bloggs’ Best Bitter”. But, increasingly, they came to be given distinctive names, which helped with recognition when there were more different beers on the bar, and the free trade grew in importance over tied houses. Thus Robinson’s Best Bitter became Unicorn and Taylor’s Best Better Boltmaker. The actual name of the brewer tends to be downplayed in favour of the brand.

Some of these have become so recognisable that the breweries felt it would be advantageous for other beers to piggyback on their reputation. But if you add the name to something very different, you run the risk of undermining the reputation of the original beer. Old Peculier was very well known as a distinctive rich, dark beer, but if the name is now also given to a pale, hoppy IPA it blurs that image.

Monday 16 October 2023

An epidemic of loneliness

Last month, the Daily Telegraph published a very perceptive and poignant article by Melissa Twigg entitled The pub closures at the heart of Britain’s loneliness epidemic *, looking at how the decline of pubs was contributing to a worrying a rise in social isolation. This echoes many of the points I have made on this blog over the years.
Mikey Jones had been going to the Beehive pub in south London for a drink at least once a week since the 1960s. He usually ordered a pint of bitter, but on the night he met the woman who would become his wife, he had a gin and tonic to appear more sophisticated; on the afternoon his daughter was born, he had a stiff whisky.

The Beehive closed in 2018, as did another pub further up the road in South Norwood where Jones used to meet his friends. The latter is now a coffee shop serving flat whites and chai tea lattes and is crowded with young families and people with laptops – but for someone like Jones, who is 78, it doesn’t feel particularly welcoming. As a result, he mostly stays at home. “I’ve lived alone since my wife died,” he says. “My daughter does come to visit but other than that I am mostly by myself with the telly on.”

Jones is just one of the 3.83 million people in the UK who are chronically lonely – a figure that has increased by more than half a million since the pandemic hit, according to the Office for National Statistics. Technology is often treated at the bogeyman but around the country, the mass closure of pubs and community spaces is fuelling a health epidemic of epic proportions.

“Pubs are the archetype of third space – somewhere that isn’t home or work, but a place that brings people together beyond the immediate family or work,” says Thomas Thurnell-Read, an author and lecturer at the University of Loughborough researching the impact fewer pubs is having on British society. “Traditional pubs have faced very challenging trading conditions and the steady closure of them around the country rings a lot of alarm bells.”

The concept of the “third space” is a very important point. The pub provides somewhere you can get away from the constraints and responsibilities of the home and workplace, and to some extent allows you to let your hair down and lose your inhibitions. People often report that their best conversations occur in the pub. And, if you are retired or unable to work, it offers a “second space” where you can get out of the house and get and change of scene.

It isn’t necessary to have in-depth conversations, though. The simple act of going somewhere different and interacting with a member of staff to buy a drink provides some social contact. And in a pub it’s up to you to what extent you engage with others. I wrote about this back in 2016, when Red Nev made the comment that:

Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer.
However, the idea that people might want to go to the pub and simply chat, or just read the paper or sit in silent contemplation, is becoming increasingly unfashionable. People have to be doing something, whether eating a meal, watching TV sport, taking part in a quiz or listening to a band. I wrote a couple of years ago about how people less and less “just went out for a pint”.

Increasingly limited opening hours mean that pubs are often simply not open when lonely people want to visit them. Many older or vulnerable people prefer to drink during the daytime and are reluctant to venture out after dark. Yes, it’s a commercial decision, but it limits the social function of pubs. Another factor is the increasing reliance on electronic communications, whether app ordering or cashless payments, which reduces the level of human interaction in pubs.

Very often, the layout of pubs is remodelled to make them deliberately unappealing to casual social drinkers. Wetherspoon’s are often the last pub refuge available to people, but they typically have a regimented array of individual tables with loose chairs, rather than cosy alcoves of benches that encourage conversation. It’s not uncommon in Wetherspoon’s during the day to see whole rows of tables occupied by solo drinkers. If they were facing each other, they might be more likely to talk.

And one of the solutions suggested by Dr Thurnell-Read, while well-meaning, is likely to be anathema to many pubgoers just in search of a quiet drink:

…they include adapting them by day to create more of a café-like environment where women and babies and laptop workers are welcome, and by introducing innovations such as small lending libraries.
Of course pubs are commercial businesses and cannot be expected to operate at a loss to serve a social function. And the idea of a council-run mock pub would be enough to make many pubgoers run a mile. But it can’t be denied that widespread pub closures, and reductions in opening hours and changes in the offer of those that remain, have exacerbated the level of loneliness in society.

Unsurprisingly, though, there is no mention whatsoever of the smoking ban legendary elephant in the room, which has been one of the biggest factors in the closure of community pubs over the past sixteen years. The pub is hardly a welcoming refuge if you’re forced out into the cold.

* The Telegraph article is paywalled, but if you would like to e-mail me, I can send you a copy of the full taxt.

Friday 6 October 2023

Creeping prohibition

A problem with writing a blog of this kind is that it can become a little tedious having to go over the same arguments again and again. There are only so many times you can explain why minimum alcohol pricing is a seriously counter-productive policy, or why cask ale premiumisation really isn’t going to fly.

Something of the same applies to the issue of progressively raising the minimum purchase age for tobacco, something I wrote about back in 2021 in relation to New Zealand, and again earlier this year referring to the British Labour Party. Now, not entirely surprisingly, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that this is going to be applied in the UK.

It is an appalling, grossly illiberal policy that reduces responsible adults to the status of naughty children. Christopher Snowdon has already set out the case against it very clearly.

It would, over time, turn the entire tobacco industry over to the black market, and deprive the government of the associated tax revenue. Smoking has already been banned in all indoor public spaces, so the opportunities for younger smokers to stand out and feel stigmatised are now very limited. It’s already difficult to go far in cities and large towns without encountering the smell of cannabis, and that’s illegal for all age groups. Tobacco will be just the same. As I understand it, there’s no intention to ban possession or consumption, merely the legal sale.

It’s already difficult enough for shopkeepers to enforce the minimum purchase age of 18 for alcohol and tobacco, and this will be multiplied if the tobacco age rises every year. People in their 30s and 40s are going to need identity cards to prove their age. And a 36-year-old isn’t going to have any qualms about buying tobacco for their 35-year-old friend.

Of course smoking carries significant health risks, but that applies to plenty of other things do for pleasure, most of which are tolerated or even celebrated. And there is a total failure to appreciate that many smokers actually enjoy the habit and have no desire to quit. The government are looking to prohibit a leisure activity that gives people pleasure and, providing it is done in private, harms nobody else.

Smokers now represent only about 10% of the adult population, and come disproportionately from the more marginalised in society. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a distinct whiff of “othering” in this policy, in finding minorities to persecute and ostracise. Most prejudices against minorities are now rightly frowned on, but this one goes from strength to strength.

Unsurprisingly, every lobby group wanting increased lifestyle restrictions is jumping on the bandwagon and saying that this sets a precedent for their particularly bansturbatory hobby-horse.

And if you think it will never be used as a precedent to justify greater alcohol regulation, then I have a bridge to sell you.

This has not yet become law, and is unlikely to do so before the impending General Election. During that time, many articulate voices will be raised against it. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss has already stated she would vote against it. This, from Ian Dunt, is an example of an opposing view from the political Left. Don’t expect Labour to do anything to challenge it, though – they will do their usual nodding dog act when confronted with any authoritarian measure.

And, if it does come to pass, I will be able to sit back and just watch the inevitable and widely predicted policy disaster unfold. They haven’t banned Schadenfreude. Yet...

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Cutting off your nose to spite your face?

I recently spent a few days in Exeter. Researching the pubs that might be worth visiting, one that stood out was the Turk’s Head right in the city centre close to the Guildhall. It’s a historic inn that was converted into a pizza restaurant but has now been restored to pub use, and won a CAMRA Pub Design Award for Conversion to Pub Use. It also operates its own brewery. So, it sounded like somewhere well worth a look, but I noticed on the door a sign saying that they only accepted card and phone payments.

Now, I strongly dislike this policy, and would normally give a swerve to any pubs applying it, but I took the view on this occasion that it would be interesting to see what it was like, and I didn’t really want to cut off my nose to spite my face. It’s a pub of some character, with a small historic façade on the High Street leading to a rambling interior on several different levels. They also brew their own beer, although the pint of £4.75 homebrew I sampled probably wouldn’t win any prizes. I’m also not going to be so dogmatic as to take the same view over, for example, must-visit tourist attractions.

I’m not aware of any pubs in my local area that I would routinely want to visit that won’t accept cash. But even if there were, there are plenty of others that I could give my business to, so I wouldn’t experience any hardship by avoiding them. Back in 2020, during the darkest depths of lockdown, I wrote about the importance of preserving the right to pay in cash.

Ultimately, the continued existence of cash represents a bulwark of freedom against both governments and corporations. Yes, many people may find contactless payments for everyday transactions convenient, but if we as a society allow cash to entirely disappear, we will have also said goodbye to a large measure of our liberties.
This is a theme amplified in this recent article entitled A true cashless society would be a dystopian nightmare.

If paying for everyday purchases by card is more convenient for you, that’s fair enough, although personally I find it makes life more difficult. But if you venture out of the house without any cash at all, then you leave yourself very exposed, as one participant on a pub crawl recently found when he encountered a cash-only (not Sam Smith’s) pub.

A few places say they have gone cashless after experiencing burglaries, but if there are other cash businesses nearby it doesn’t entirely ring true. For most venues, not accepting cash is exercising a form of social selection. You’re saying that you don’t want the business of the old, the poor or the non-conformist. Your target market is all the people who enthusiastically support the latest thing.

Incidentally, on two previous visits to Exeter, the best pub I encountered was the Great Western Hotel next to St David’s Station, but sadly this closed down earlier this year and it future looks uncertain. It’s an interesting and characterful city, but not really the best for pubs. I think people are spoiled by York! I also happened to visit during Freshers’ week, when many of the pubs and restaurants were thronged with students.