Sunday, 20 February 2011

Pubs in Walkley, town side of Hillsborough, Commonside Crookes and Brook Hill.

Hello drinkers and pub lovers,

                 as promised here are the details of my Hillsborough and Walkley pub crawl.

I started in Crookes actually, mainly so that as we picked our way down the snow and slush covered roads I could see if the Princess Royal was open, which it was – I knew then there was a point in visiting later.

Me and Mr P got to the Blake about 14.30 and found one person in – Big Ron, a former colleague of ours, propping up the bar and discussing the only thing worth discussing – pubs – with the barman.

Beer wise there was a good range, I had two pints of the Okells smoked porter which was about 4.8% and Mr P started with the IPA – who’s IPA I never thought to record, even though I also had a pint, but it was very nice, almost as good as the porter. Mr P also tried halves of Springhead Robin Hood and a lower gravity bitter from Pictish.

It’s a good time to go to the Blake during the day because it gives you the opportunity to walk around and admire the layout and the old beer posters and get a feel for the overall ambiance, which can’t really be done when its busy.

We headed from here to the Hillsborough Hotel, past the closed and metal shuttered Bath on Burgoyne Road, where we both had pints of Crown Hillsborough Pale Ale, despite the various strong offerings available. This was mainly because I knew I had a few more pubs to come so wanted to try and remain vaguely sober – achieved in part with the delicious pork pie I had at the Blake.

We parted company here and I headed up Infirmary road, noticing that the Cuthbert Bank was now only a building, with the pub signage having been removed, and the Burgoyne looking forlorn and closed. Further along is a pub I have never been to, the Masons, an ex Wards pub retaining separate rooms in a timeworn if slightly kitsch in places interior. The sign outside says real ales but there was none to be found, the landlord did explain that there was no call for it so he hadn’t kept them on, but surprisingly I noticed he had handpulled old rosie cider – not wanting to jeopardise my crawl I declined to try but may pop back to give it a go some time.

Similar ale free outcomes were achieved at the Queens Ground, which is a shame because it too has an interesting traditional interior, and the Firwood Cottage. I did visit this pub a couple of times when I lived on Tennyson road, they only had Tetley on but it was at least real ale, this is another pub that over the years seems to have changed landlord and manager with alarming regularity, a destabilising influence that prevents a pub from developing. The present incumbent was friendly and offered me a half of Magnet keg instead, which had I not been on a crawl I might have tried, especially with its demise as a cask ale.

Along towards the Florist next I headed up Palm Street and finally got to visit the Palm. Breathless from the steep slippy snow covered hill I was relieved to spot a handpump, and had a very quaffable pint of Black Sheep whilst sat to the left of the bar trying not to hear the football results. The Palm retains a traditional layout with a tiny snug on the right and a games room at the back.

I struggled up to South Road from here, stopping off to buy some food to soak up the ale, and tried the Rose House whilst I was in the area. Given its previous dire fortunes it was good to see it busy but alas it was selling no real ale so I moved on. The Freedom House further along had the door open but no lights on so decided it must be shut, before I headed up the incredibly steep hill up to the bottom part of Crookes, and then onto Heavygate road and the Heavygate.

We are in young wee beefy territory now since I used to drink in this area between 17 ( yes, I know, naughty of me) and 22 – all you need to know is that it was the 1990’s. On entering I headed as I had always done to the right hand side room which now has a pool table in, and two handpumps with the clips turned round.

Up the steps on the left is the more (but now less) traditional lounge where the bar had another couple of handpumps with clips turned round. Upon enquiring, landlord/manager/licensee Ian informed me that it would be a week or two before he got real ales, which suggests he is a new incumbent. He made it clear it would be Greedy King IPA and Abbot but that he wanted to sell some guests so maybe I ‘ll go back in a few weeks to see how its going.

Next to the Princess Royal, which I went in about 16 years ago. If anything, to me, it now looks even more traditional, still retaining a layout of separate rooms and drinking areas , and dark wood panelling. The real change for me was the beer range – I may only have been in about three times ever but recall Tetley was the only beer sold. It still is sold here, but now there are two guests and Black Sheep (and another that I didn’t record). I had a couple of pints of the Sheffield Brewing Co Five Rivers, and a pint of Kelham Easy Rider, and met up briefly with Wee Keefy for a chat. The atmosphere is friendly and the pub warm and cosy – I can see any revisit to any of the pubs will have to include the Prinny.

From here I headed for Commonside, including popping into the Dram Shop to buy a couple of strong beers, and first to the Springvale. I never really took to the Springvale, but it did always have real ale, and still does. Its squarely aimed at the younger end of the market but I think not exclusively students – its too wannabe nightclub for the wide range of drinking tastes that you find within the university community.

I stayed only briefly in the empty part on the left of the bar drinking some very average Black Sheep, before heading to the Hallamshire House, where I bumped into my third Ian of the night, this being the one that works at Archer Road Beer Stop. I had a half of Sharps Doom Bar, unfortunately there was no Sheffield brewing Co beers this time, and I was concerned to see the spectre of a Greedy king pump clip on the bar, hopefully this will not spell the end of the good range of real ales that the pub has served over the last 12 years.

I was heading for the University Arms next so stopped in the pubs along the way – or rather I would have, had they been pubs instead of bars forced incongruously into pub buildings. The Hadfield on Barber Road was always a busy student venue in the 90’s but always sold real ale, probably but not exclusively Tetley – now it is like a city centre bar but without the trend for interesting beers – no real ale on and no sign of continental beers to fill the void.

Down the road towards Brook Hill the Star and Garter used to be a decent real ale pub, in fact it may even have been in the good beer guide in the last 10 years, and was certainly selling real ale as recently as 2007 when some friends from work were going for regular poker nights there. Now alas, its lager and Karaoke, which smacks slightly of desperation.

I headed round the corner to the University Arms and grabbed a half of Sheffield Brewing Co mild, whilst taking the opportunity to sit in the tiny bar snug to the right of the bar. Nothing seems to have changed since Mr Pigeon left and the ale range is still good so hopefully this will continue to be a good pub.

My final stop was the Bath Hotel, crammed as you would expect on a Saturday night, and offering amongst others, a delicious Hornbeam mild. I decided I’d initially only have a half of it, but ended up having three as I got chatting to other drinkers and a Canadian bloke who’s group was heading to the Blake – they were put off by the long walk, which made me smile since I had walked from there in a giant loop via Hillsborough throughout the day. I got home for 23.00 ish to begin making an impractical meal of haggis – when you are starving hungry after some serious refreshment, meals that you wait 1 hour 20 minutes for are never a good idea.

In conclusion, the town side edges of Hillsborough contain a lot of traditional pubs but no real ale, and many closed ones, with only the Hillsborouigh Hotel and New Barrack Tavern offering a decent beer until you reach the Rawson Spring.Walkley is, in places, a dreadful real ale desert, but there are oasis, such as the Palm, the Blake, and if it reopens which I hope it will, the Walkley Cottage. The lower parts of Crookes are blessed with the Princess Royal and maybe the Heavygate, Commonside has one great pub, two if you can ignore the rudeness of the landlord at the Closed Shop, and Brook Hill and beyond is a stark reminder that for every good pub there are the dreadful many waiting in the wings.

It could be argued that too many pubs in one area is unsustainable, so conversely, a mix of well run, friendly, individual or traditional ale pubs and the unloved font festival venues run by transient career pub managers, should allow the best ones to thrive. However, this is how we lose traditional pubs. A step by step teeter towards closure follows the recipe below:

1. It starts with all too often ill conceived changes and novelty schemes.
2. Combine this with a lack of ambition, leadership and support (especially from greedy pub companies who see the operation of prime real estate as pubs to be a hindrance) which creates lack of interest from customers and gimmicks and cutting of corners for short term gain means people look elsewhere.
3. Falling profits leads to a merry-go-round of managers and landlords, the favoured solution of pubco's.
4. This means incoming hosts need to maintain the status quo whether it be good or bad, so often retain disinterested staff and rarely go back to real ale.
5. The constant unreliability and change puts off regulars and the pub relies on making short term gains from new passing trade, which is unsustainable.
6. In the end, instead of building up a nucleus of regulars which comprises drinkers from a wide spectrum of pubgoers the pub caters for a more and more narrow customer base and the ensuing downturn from this means the process begins again in the pursuit of often unachievable targets.
7. The pubco gets tired of waiting and closes the pub to make a killing selling it for development.

I won’t pretend I spent the best nights of my life in the Hadfield, Star and Garter, Royal (not visited since I think its been demolished, I think it was on Walkley Lane), Rose House and Freedom House, but all these pubs used to sell a decent pint and now are a shadow of what they used to be (literally for the Royal) and a millon miles form what the could be.

How strange that Walkley’s current best pubs are two that never in my drinking years used to sell real ale at all, whilst the ones that used to be reliable if unincredible stalwarts of tradition are either trying to stop being a pub at all, or are eschewing the sale of traditional beer in favour of identikit ranges which means they have to stand out on venue and atmosphere alone.

On the other hand, its very important to point out that pubs don’t have to sell real ale to be popular and successful or even to be good – look at some of the incredible examples on the National Inventory such as Duke of York at Leysters Herefordshire, The Comm at Lochgilphead, Argyle and the Lion Royal hotel in Rhayader – but they are good at what they do and thrive on that basis. So although the real ale free venues of Infirmary road are dwindling in number what with the George, Burgoyne and Cuthbert closed, and having probably not sold real ale in the last 20 years ( except the George briefly, and perhaps the Masons), those remaining are at least still traditional in outlook and maintain the ambiance and appearance of a traditional boozer. This is the flipside. I’d love them to be selling real ale, but they don’t. and against my nightmare scenario recipe above, the introduction of real ale would probably be a short term gimmick or unnecessary change, because not every pub can sell real ale – as the man at the Masons knows.

I’d be willing to bet that the Hadfield and Star and Garter will have changed hands before 2012 and possibly closed and reopened along the way. I hope it won’t but there’s a strong chance the Heavygate will change hands again, not because of poor staffing, but because Greedy King are not all of a sudden a good pub copmany just because they brew beer. I also reckon that one of the Florist or the Crown at Walkley will be lost. Through all this, consistent reliable pubs like the Prinny and Hallamshire House will stoically stick to what they know and still be popular viable prospects.

Positive pub news to come in he next couple of weeks – don’t be disheartened !

Wee Beefy

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