About three years ago, a friend of mine started a monthly folksong singaround. This proved popular and went fortnightly. It also spawned an instrumental session, which started out monthly but has recently also gone fortnightly.
So once a week, mid-week, I go to local 2 – the Beech. I described the Marble Beerhouse as small; the Beech is just as small if not slightly smaller. In terms of actual floorspace it’s probably larger than the Marble, but it has an old-school floorplan which means that not all the space is available. Specifically, what you get at the Beech is a big square back room, brightly lit and essentially a public bar or vault; a rather formless area without much seating, between the front bar and the door, which would be great for after-work bar-propping but takes a lot of filling at night; and a snug. Yea, verily, a snug (is this the last one in Manchester?). It’s the snug where the assembled folkies meet, and we almost always fill it – which takes 20-25 people, give or take (any more than 25 and it really would be snug in there). I suppose the total capacity of the pub would be around 50-60 sitting down – or 40-50 sitting down and breathing out – plus as many standing up as you could squeeze in.
Until recently the question of maximum capacity has been strictly theoretical. I would say that the Beech has had its ups and downs, but until recently there haven’t been that many ups. When the folk events started I hadn’t been in the pub for a few years, and I was shocked at how it had gone downhill. The decor was tatty, and we took to bringing candles with us after the lighting cut out on us one evening, but those problems would have been trivial – or even added to the charm of the place – if the pub had been doing well. It wasn’t. There might have been 25 people in the snug, but in the other two rooms you’d only see a handful of people throughout an evening. The few regular clients the pub did have tended to be lively, to put it politely; we were insulated from it all in the snug, but on a couple of occasions we could hear a row escalating and turning into a fight. (We just kept playing.) The state of the beer – and the ever-shrinking ratio of functioning to dead handpumps – became a standing joke, although it went a bit sour (literally) the night we turned up and all the cask beers were off.
I think there’s a level of regular custom below which a pub can’t function – a kind of event horizon; get below that point and the beer starts going stale, the management starts turning a blind eye to troublemakers (they’re putting money over the bar, after all), and staff start leaving and being replaced by demotivated part-timers. I’ve seen the Beech slip into this kind of vicious circle, which can only end in closure, not once but twice – one new licensee came and went within a year. Happily the new new licensees seem to be keeping the pub in orbit, as it were. Tonight there were no fewer than four bitters on; the two I tried (Black Sheep and Copper Dragon Golden Pippin) were in fine condition and reasonably priced. Not only that, but there were at least as many outside the snug as there were in it – all in all, between the snug (which was still packed), the other two rooms and the smoking area out the front, I should think there were at least 50 people in the pub when I left at 10.30. This is not bad for a weeknight, especially for a pub with three competitors within a couple of minutes’ walk.
Verdict: I think perhaps this time it’s going to be all right. The new licensees deserve a great deal of credit for this hopeful state of affairs. Where the Marble had years to establish itself and build a regular clientele, the Beech has had to start from scratch and build quickly: the pub is an Enterprise Inns house, and Enterprise are notoriously exacting when it comes to shifting units. (If it fails again (perish the thought), the fault will surely be with Enterprise rather than with anything the licensees have done.) The licensees have been particularly assiduous in setting up regular events – it’s actually partly down to them that our folk sessions have gone weekly – and I assume that the core clientele which the pub is now building up is being built partly on the back of the audience for different events. Good plan: not so much “build it and they will come” as “get them in the door, then sell them decent beer and then they will come (back)”. Works for me.
(No TV, no piped music (which is a change from the previous management), no food (which isn’t). The Beech is a pub to drink beer in – another respect in which it now seems vaguely old-fashioned.)