When we first moved here, there were many good things to be said about the area where I live – five minutes’ walk would get you to a laundrette, a post office, a bakery, a butcher’s, two newsagents (one each way), an ironmonger, a pet shop, an Indian takeaway and two chippies.
What you couldn’t really say was that we were in easy reach of a good place to drink. There was a pub within five minutes’ walk: just the one; a classic Big Four multi-room suburban pub, the size and shape of a very large detached house. If you didn’t like it, you could walk for another five minutes (in either direction) and find another one very like it. The South Manchester Reporter‘s pub column once ran a series of local pub round-ups; for our area, the writer said that a pub crawl would only be possible with the aid of “an obliging friend or a stout pony”.
(For those who know Manchester, I’m talking about Chorlton, or rather the bit between Chorlton and Old Trafford (“Chorlton borders” if you’re an estate agent). For those who know Chorlton, I’m talking about the Seymour, with the further-flung alternatives being the Royal Oak or the Throstle’s Nest.)
Times change; of all the shops I listed in the first para, the only ones still trading are the post office, the ironmonger, the chippies, the Indian takeaway and one of the newsagents – and the Indian’s the only one that’s still under the same ownership. And the pub – the Seymour – closed down long ago, having gone to seed in quite a big way. (While it was still open, the South Manchester Reporter‘s columnist noted that the wasteground behind the pub was littered with old boards and said that some of the regular female clients found they came in handy. Nice.) It reopened for a while as “the Grove”, before being closed for good and demolished. I don’t think anybody really took to the new name; the Seymour, or “where the Seymour used to be”, is a local landmark to this day.
Times change, and while you’d have a good long walk to the nearest butcher or baker (or a drive to the nearest branch of Pets ‘Я’ Us), we’ve got places to drink coming out of our ears. First, and furthest away (a good ten minutes on foot) was the Marble Beerhouse: small, dark, bar-like but working that superficially unwelcoming “this is a pub, you middle-class whippersnapper!” vibe that a lot of GBG pubs have. Around the same time, JDW’s converted the local snooker hall into the Sedge Lynn, an establishment with a distinctly different appeal to the Marble (but some good beer to go with it). Iguana also opened around this time – a conversion from a restaurant, the owner’s previous venture on the same site – but they didn’t serve real ale, so I’ll pass over. Then there was the Hillary Step – light-ish and bright-coloured, stocked with expensive nibbles, smoke-free before the smoking ban and generally out and proud about being middle-class. (You won’t go long without hearing a local accent in the Marble. You could go weeks in the Hillary Step.) After the Hillary came Pi; then Jam Street, and then the Nip and Tipple. There’s a definite progression there. My father was a middle-ranking civil servant and a lay reader at the local church (which was in Surrey); I went to a fee-paying school and then Cambridge. I’ve been in the N&T once and felt genuinely uncomfortable: it was so middle-class – so comfortably middle-class – it set my teeth on edge.
This may of course just be me.
But that’s not the end of the story by any means. The Marble had, well, Marble, plus Pictish, Abbeydale, Phoenix and whatever else passed the pale’n’oppy test; the Hillary had Thwaites plus guests; Jam Street had Outstanding, the N&T had Hornbeam and Pi, after an early dalliance with Bank Top, had Tatton, Acorn and Red Willow. (Mmm, Red Willow.) I was settling in as a regular at Pi when De Nada opened, on the site of what was briefly a vodka-and-classical-music bar called Chopin. (Perhaps that particular concept was a bit too middle-class.) Initially De Nada had regular Lancaster beers; subsequently they’ve specialised in Brightside, Worth, XT and Red Willow (mmm, Red Willow). (And comfy chairs.) Then there was the Beagle – a big, unpubby, dining-oriented sort of place, offering all the craft keg you can eat, plus Quantum, Magic Rock, SWB… And now Font: the bar formerly known as Iguana, formerly formerly known as Paschal’s Greek restaurant, is now the Chorlton arm of the expanding Font empire.
What’s it like? Well, the “hip, hipper, hippest” progression continues – as in Marble/Hillary, Pi/De Nada, Beagle/Font – with Font a nose in front of the Beagle. On the opening night there were seven cask beers on (an eighth pump clip was turned round); the breweries were Dark Star, Thornbridge (Jaipur), Redemption, Bristol Beer Co, Harbour, Moor and Magic Rock. Plus eight real ciders/perries (which is to say, one or two perries and six or seven ciders), dispensed from taps on the wall – presumably by gravity; there was no signage in that part of the bar, just a blackboard. Plus sixteen(!) keg fonts – Aspall’s cider, Duvel and another couple of continentals, and the rest devoted to hipster keggery a-go-go (Magic Rock, Brodies, Kernel, Brodies, Lovibond). The Chorlton Tap est arrivé. In terms of comfort it’s nowhere: a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door. This strikes me on reflection as a model which works fine in Fallowfield, but looks a bit out of place in Chorlton. I imagine that as time goes on it’ll get a bit more homely (and/or pubby) – either that or it’ll fill up with parties & vertical drinkers, and I’ll stick to De Nada.
All in all, that’s an awful lot of places to drink. (And I didn’t even get as far as Chorlton itself.) An interesting development, too – possibly a bubble (and there surely isn’t room for many more bars, is there?). We shall see.
A quick summary, which can stand as one person’s record of the rise of the real ale/craft beer bar. (All measurements are taken from the standard reference point of My House.)
Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 1998: the Throstle’s Nest, the Seymour, the Royal Oak.
Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 2013: the Nip and Tipple, the Hillary Step, Jam Street, De Nada, the Font, Pi, the Marble, the Sedge Lynn, the Beagle. And the Royal Oak.
Update:I followed up this survey a few days later by counting the restaurants in the two-mile stretch of road between two defunct pub landmarks, the Seymour and the Feathers. I counted anywhere you could go for a sit-down meal: pubs serving food were included, but I arbitrarily excluded anywhere that was mainly a takeaway (from kebab shops to McDonald’s) and anywhere that only served cakes or breakfasts. I only included restaurants fronting on the main road itself – I didn’t wander off exploring Chorlton. One road, two miles, not counting takeaways. Fancy hazarding a guess? (My guess before I left home was 12.)
The answer is: 25. It looks as if the beer bubble is sitting on top of a general night-time economy bubble.
As for the Font, I went back the Saturday after opening & found it changed, both for better and worse. On the plus side, the management have sorted out the furniture situation, and the doorman seems to have stopped opening the door wide whenever anyone comes in or out: draughty barn no longer. On the minus side, still no blackboard for cask ales, making me think this is probably a deliberate feature (why?). Also, some of the more interesting beers had gone off and been replaced by equally hip but less interesting candidates (no Moor, no Magic Rock). I went for Bristol Beer Company‘s Double Acer. The barmaid warned me that it was £4 a pint; this was nice of her, although that price does seem excessive – even for a 6.3% beer (another minus). Fortunately I was able to claim a CAMRA discount, taking it down to a more reasonable £3 (a plus!). Unfortunately it wasn’t that great – although it’s a single-hop brew it wasn’t slap-in-the-face hoppy, and I’d never have known it was an IPA without being told. But the really big minus factor, which wasn’t present on the opening night, was the piped music. A key fixture of my Saturday night routine is ordering a takeaway over the phone (hey, rock’n’roll), and I usually try and do this on licensed premises. Not in the Font – that night I ordered in the street (on my way to the Beagle). The music was seriously loud; certainly too loud to hold a conversation without shouting. I wouldn’t have minded so much, frankly, if it had been better music (De Nada and Pi have excellent selections, as well as not having it up so high). As well as seriously loud, it was seriously bland: at one point I was genuinely disappointed when I realised that the track starting wasn’t Coldplay. I wouldn’t have thought there was much crossover between those people who like it cranked up really high and those who find Dido a bit edgy and left-field, but what do I know? (The Bugle did a bit better on the night: nowhere to sit – bah, gastro-pubs – but a prominently displayed blackboard and a pint of something proper ‘oppy from SWB for an only slightly excessive £3.60, with discreet background music.)