I was out with Wee Fatha and Wee keefy and Jambon last night for a trip to the redoubtable Royal Cottage, and another pub in the area. It was interesting to note that the Royal Cottage, probably one of the most traditional rural pubs in a 100 mile radius survives, in spite of its restricted opening hours and isolation. On the other hand though, other pubs in the area appear to be falling by the way side at an alarming rate. Is there a defining factor?
Last night was the trip to help find out, but we were a bit late picking Wee Keefy and Jambon up as the Friday night Wednesday Leeds game was generating lots of traffic. Despite telling W.F this, he stuck to his desired route - and got stuck in traffic, whilst commenting that football always used to only be played on a Saturday, without extrapolating how that meant it shouldn't be played on a Friday. Once heading off with our full quota, Wee Keefy advised a Manchester Road escape, which was also ignored, leading us to another mire of traffic on Ecclesall Road. Hmm...
Eventually reaching the Royal Cottage, the light was already on and the door unlocked, and when we got in, and Jessie the Rottweiler finally realised that she was supposed to scare us off, i.e try and lick us all to death (especially tastily named Jambon), it was clear that Cliff's mate wasn't in either. This seems like such an insignificant thing, but as a semi regular visitor I can assure you that, quite simply, nothing changes here. Not at all.
Bottled delights in hand we sat down facing the bar end with Cliff in his favoured chair for a long chat, including finding out that having said nothing changes, the pub had in fact previously been called the Moorcock Inn. I couldn't find out when the change happened since Cliff and W.F and the others were busy nailing the date of Bonnie Prince charlie's retreat from Derby, which was amusingly implied by Cliff as the time the name changed, whilst the Scots were camped on Bareleg Hill nearby. Alas no-one asked W.F if he remembered.
Another round of drinks followed, me and Jambon on original strength bottled Old Speckled Hen, Keefy on Newky and W.F on tomato juice. As a professor of reminiscence W.F, and Cliff could probably, given the chance, talk for a whole day about all things transport, 1950's and changing times. Despite an unfortunate emphasis on motoring issues, I was just happy to sit, albeit slowly cooking by the fire, watching the natural conversation ebb and flow in front of my eyes.
All too soon we had to be off, which as per last time coincided with the arrival of Sam who probably comes in every Friday night. Jessie seemed to know he was there before he came in and got up to welcome him before any of us heard the door. We bade our farewell safe in the knowledge that whilst ever the pub remains open this scene will repeat itself unsullied for years to come.
Heading back through Longnor next we thought we saw life in the Crewe and Harpur Arms, and the Horseshoes is now closed, but we were heading for the new hub of real ale that is the Packhorse at Crowdecote. Its ten tears or more since I last visited with Wee Keefy, the 1980's since W.F popped in and a frst visit for Jambon. Whilst nothing has changed in the layout which is a long thin pub with an offshoot at the side of the entrance, one major change here is the bar.
Now sporting 5 handpumps, one for real cider, and almost all selling local or nearby brewery ales, this was a welcome relief, but not exactly a surprise since hearing of its renaissance I had looked at their website and knew broadly what to expect. The sites emphasis on food was not the catalyst for marginalised drinking, even though it was late when we arrived there was plenty of space to sit and drink and the owner Mick encouraged us to sit wherever we wanted. None of this "oh, you can't sit here I'm afraid, this is a dining table" malarkey. Just sit down and sup your beer. I may have to test this theory at peak food times admittedly...
On the bar was a choice of Kelham Island Best Bitter, Church End Lock Stock and Barrel, Nook Brewhouse Red Ale and the excellent Wincle Brewery Life of Riley. Keefy had the Nook, me and W.F the Riley and Jambon the surprisingly hoppy Church End. All the real ales are £3.10 a pint which I don't think is a bad price and the Church End and Wincle ale was brilliantly well kept and fantastically tasty.
The Nook Red was a little less well rounded and seemed to give up being a nice beer half way through, so that was taken off, but reducing the range slightly hardly ruined the excellent choice, and by the time Jambon had moved onto Bunnahabhain whisky it was clear that this was going to be an enjoyable closing session.
It was here, and along with information gained frm the Internet earlier this week, that I learnt the fate of Longnor's pubs and some of the others in the Staffordshire Moorlands Area.
The Crewe and Harpur, a large once traditional Marstons pub, changed hands about 8 years ago and became a destination food pub with a range of real ales. At the time, though it was regrettable that it was deemed impossible to continue on a traditional course, the bright side was the range of real ales not usually available in Longnor. It has now closed, and is rented out as a holiday home (still with bar in situ it seems).
whats interesting is, this is an idea already made reality at the redoubtable Mermaid Inn, a listed building high on the Staffordshire Moorlands near the Royal Cottage. It had been a bit shakey in recent years and shortly before its closure, and on my last visit in 2008 it was a food pub doing one or two real ales. W.F suggested it had branched out into luxury accommodation and that too has now become a holiday home - sleeping 36. Necessary work appears to have been done and the interior looks stunning, and once again the bar is in situ but not in use. Its a sumptuous venue, but a crying shame its not still a pub.
Meanwhile down the road the Rock Inn at Upper Hulme forges a traditional path, still with a food emphasis but now stocking 3 real ales, one of which is local - Wincle Brewery's website states that they supply the beer, so that's a good sign. I haven't managed to get since the Wincle ale appeared so that would be my next plan when we are out that way.
Meanwhile, and finally, the Quiet Woman continues to attract customers by being unbendingly traditional, and in Longnor, the Horseshoes has finally closed, the Grapes has been shut for something near 5 years leaving only the very traditional previously never seemingly open Cheshire Cheese as the market village's only pub.
Its interesting to consider then that, the more traditional, almost exclusively real ale purveying country pubs are in fact doing well, whilst the ones that ditched that core traditional outlook have succumbed to conversion to other uses or simply closed down (not that either the Horseshoes or Grapes were particularly non-traditional).
Its heartening to see the traditional pubs hanging on and in the case of The Packhorse, thriving, but I wonder how many more large struggling isolated country pubs will be seen as tempting accommodation cash cows and suffer the same fate as the Mermaid? That two such pubs in close proximity (and apparently the owners are connected, if only by knowing each other) is almost a trend, and given the hard times in the pub industry I can see no reason why it won't continue to happen.
Thank God we can still visit the Royal Cottage and forget about post 1950's horrors, then nip to a quality real ale pub nearby to sate our drinking needs.