Local #3, and probably the one of the four I visit least often, is the Hillary Step.
Vital statistics: another small-ish house, like the Marble in consisting of a single through room with a mixture of large and small tables. I believe it’s formally a Thwaite’s house – certainly when it opened in 2004 they had not one but three Thwaite’s bitters, with red and green pump clips alongside the more familiar blue Bomber. (The red-clip bitter is now Original, although I vaguely remember it being labelled Best at the time. The green-clip bitter seems to have been discontinued, although since I can’t remember what it was called it’s hard to be certain. That was my favourite of the three, ironically.) These days one Thwaite’s beer (generally Wainwright’s) is joined by two guests, generally from the hoppier end of the northwestern scene (Phoenix, Pictish, Abbeydale). It’s like the other two in not having a kitchen for hot food; it’s unlike them both in serving food nevertheless, in the form of elaborate plates of nibbles and cheese platters. No TV, but there’s generally piped music, often quite loud and sometimes quite obscure; they also have live (amplified) acts fairly frequently.
I have quite mixed feelings about the Hillary. To look at it’s rather lovely; the whole length of one wall is painted in deep colours with a scumbled effect, and finished with some sort of hard glaze. (I remember hearing at the time it opened that this technique was fearsomely expensive.) It’s a light and airy pub in the summer months; the beers, although not cheap, aren’t ridiculously expensive, and they’re generally well kept.
And yet. Ever since the Hillary Step opened as a non-smoking pub, a few months ahead of the smoking ban, there’s been a sense that it’s not like those other pubs, or not like pubs in general. To put it another way, there’s something a bit unpublike about the place. It’s a bit too light and airy (and too well-lit in the evening); the piped music’s a bit too loud; the food’s a bit too expensive – and you can go for quite a long time without hearing a local accent in there. (Perhaps needless to say, I’ve never seen any trouble in there – although there was a drive-by shouting once ((c) Nigel Blackwell).) Sometimes it feels less like a pub, more like a wine-bar that happens to serve cask beer. From my point of view as a frequently-solitary drinker, it would be a great place to sit and take root and get quietly drunk, but it’s not so good for relaxing for half an hour over a pint or two.
Still, they seem to be doing pretty much OK; last Saturday at 6.00 there were about 25 in, which is respectable if not mad busy. They’re just acquired some competition: a thing called “Nip and Tipple” has opened next door, offering a full cooked menu, a TV tuned to X Factor of a Saturday evening and no cask beer. It’ll be interesting to see how the management respond – hopefully they’ll do the sensible thing and accentuate all the ways in which the Hillary is different from this rather unappealing offering.