Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Lamb and Packet, Friargate, Preston

They say university is a chance to reinvent yourself.
For some going to away to study represents a long-awaited chance to break free from old routines, habits and friends, to start afresh.
For others it is an opportunity to do something different, a hair cut perhaps or a whole new wardrobe.
But others take more drastic measures in the days and weeks before they leave to begin their degrees, overhauling all of the above and much more, creating an entirely new persona to parade in front of strangers who don’t know any different.
Of the people I have known take a ‘personality reboot’ the success rate has been mixed.
Some, you can immediately tell look really good and feel happy, while others are clunking around in heavy leather boots with nose piercings which have gone septic.
So when the Lamb and Packet reopened after a summer overhaul I was keen to see which route it had taken.
I am seldom shocked walking into a pub because there is generally, very little to be shocked about, but shocked I was.
The entire interior has been completely stripped out, leaving not a single shred of the old place.
Instead it has been painted a kind of beige colour with bright lighting, high stools, sweeping corner seats and a stylishly tiled floor which all combines to create a clean, airy modern bar.
In terms of a personality reboot, the Lamb and Packet’s has been monumental.
From being a stalwart Friargate drinkers’ pub, unchanged and seemingly unchangeable, it has become the ultra sharp, chic bar of a post-smoking ban era.
For a while I lamented the sweeping away of a traditional pub’s character.
But as I worked my way through my pint of Thwaites Wainwright, I came round to thinking there could not be too many people who will miss the old place, otherwise it would not have had to change.
There was one major drawback however, which jarred horribly with me – the music.
I didn’t notice it so much when I first went in, so taken aback I was with the pub’s new look, but with disco beats and happy/scratty/ yappie pop tunes blaring out, it was hard to ignore for long.
I went back a second time, praying I had caught it at a bad moment, but instead found myself tearing my hair out a second time.
For me, when it is late afternoon something a little quieter would be better and if they feel the need to roll out the disco beats, at least wait until Saturday night when people are in the mood.
With this ultra fresh facelift and an enticingly cheap food menu, the Lamb and Packet seems to be reaching out for the students who are about to converge on the city with freshly replenished loans and their latest new looks to flaunt.
It was a brave move taking such an extreme shift in image and despite the music, I am sure this is one personality reboot which is here to stay.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Running Pump, Catforth Road, Catforth

Anyone who drinks regularly in a busy city centre pub will become accustomed to an unwritten, unspoken, maybe even subconscious code of practice, which should steer them away from bother, towards a good night out.
This ‘code’ for which I cannot think of an amusing name, contains rudimentary guidance such as ‘Do not go and sit at someone’s table you don’t know unless they invite you’, ‘Do not insist you want your beer in a jug with a handle on it’ or ‘Do not tie your dog up outside because it will either be clamped or stolen’.
There are, of course, variations and some codes are inevitably more effective than others.
Before I had even got the bar at the Running Pump I was faced with a dilemma which went against the grain, jarring horribly with my code that has served me so well.
Coat hooks. A line of them. All out away from view of the bar and the seating areas. 
‘If you leave anything out of your sight in a pub then don’t start sobbing when it disappears’, is one of the rules I live by.
But there were already a couple of coats which had been left there hanging, vulnerable and unguarded. So I thought ‘When in Catforth….
The 300-year-old pub was packed and we had to wait to get a seat but it was great to see a rural pub busy, with so many of them dropping off the map, including the Bay Horse just down the road.
Eventually, the perfect seat became free right next to the bar and close to a well-established open fire, I was made up.
In the two main bar areas there seems to have been a real effort to preserve much of its original character, rather than replacing features with modern, rustic-looking decoration, while a side room which holds a pool table, is a little more modern.
After enthusiastically seeing off a pint of Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, I stood up to get in a pint of Unicorn, when I noticed a plaque on the wall above the seat which read ‘Old Farts Corner’.
A premonition perhaps but why fight it?
I had such a good night I forgot I had been away from my sweaty old coat all evening but it was, of course, still there.


The Black Bull, Garstang Road, Preston

If a pub was to be judged on floor space alone, this pub would win hands down.
It is an enormous hulk of a place. You could set up a department store in it and still have plenty space left over.
But if you go into the pub on a Friday night you will immediately realise every metre of this ‘super-size me pub’ is needed.
It is often packed solid with jolly drinkers, many of whom I am told make a weekly Friday pilgrimage from Garstang. I always thought there one or two decent pubs in and around Garstang but, the Black Bull it seems, is serving the pint of choice.
Maybe it is because it is the only pub which can hold so many of them, I don’t know.
Inside, the pub is thoroughly modern, light and bright without slipping into the trap of slabs of offensive chrome and mirrors everywhere. Given the choice I would always pick a traditional pub but here is a place which is clean, modern and thoroughly welcoming.
Part of its draw is an almost aggressive array of discount meal menus which helps put hundreds of bottoms on seats.
I was speaking to an old chap whose grandchildren took him into the pub for a meal during the winter. He got a table next to one of the ultra trendy but genuine open coal fires and ‘had the best tea I’ve ad in’t ages.’
 In fairness he doesn’t get out very much but the pub which is slap in the middle of Fulwood and perfect for a stop-off.
Outside the pub has a reasonably sized beer garden which includes large umbrellas, heaters and a smoking shed.
On one of the main roads between Preston and the motorway it won’t be the most peaceful pint you ever swig but there always seems to be plenty of people there when I go past on a sunny day.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Guild, Fylde, Preston

My intrepid weekly jaunts have so far taken me out to sup pints in a wide range of venues, from wonky-windowed old country pubs, to bargain-priced sports bars and, ahem, ‘suburban gastro’ pubs.
But, there is one very important element right at the heart of our city’s nightlife, which I have so far neglected to include - the student pub.
It cannot be overstated how much Preston relies on the ever-increasing flow of students pouring into the city laden with student loans, which are very quickly exchanged for drinks and big old night outs.
In the vicinity of the University of Central Lancashire there are a glut of pubs which cater for just these people.
Your archetypal student pub is not hard to spot, it is usually painted a funny colour on the outside and packed with funky furniture on the inside.
If in any doubt as to the intended audience, look out for big kids’ toys like a punch machine or arcades.
I decided to head for The Guild because I knew they would be serving at least two real ales and the ‘entertainment’ machines had been removed.
It is a big  imposing pub with lots of seating areas, including leather seats ideal for sinking back to force someone else to get in a round.
There are also screens dotted around the pub showing live sports including Premier League football.
But when a match is on, the seats particularly the lazy leather numbers, are taken quickly.
For me the best feature of the pub is a television screen which is set above a double doors facing through a window outside.
It means that on a fine day you can sit under the covered terraced area or on one of the benches behind and enjoy a match without missing a rare day of sunshine.
The ‘outdoor screen’ is limited in that you have to be square on to get a good view, so you will need to get there early to get a good seat.
But then again you will be sitting out in the sun so it doesn’t really matter.
In fact as far as outdoor drinking goes, the pub has much more space and many more benches than any of its neighbouring venues.
So if you want to take inside outside, this might be the place to go.

Ribble Pilot, Mariners Way, Preston

A group of friends and I once decided to pop into the Ribble Pilot for a quick pint before seeing a film at the Odeon.
It was one of those bad decisions which don’t have any bearing on your life whatsoever, but you rue them as if they had sent you into a spiral of decline.
Firstly the pub was awful. Tired, dreary, run-down and outdated, the bar maid chuntered her way through a quiz to a handful of disinterested drinkers, interspersed with lengthy breaks for great bails of tumble weed to roll on through.
My second regret was needing the toilet throughout the film.
But several months ago the Ribble Pilot, which is part of the ‘Two For One’ chain, closed for a long overdue refurbishment.
I expected a lick of paint and perhaps a new carpet but they really went all out with a major overhaul and extension.
Inside, the pub is now brighter and cleaner as you would expect, but the overriding first impression was how much bigger it seemed. A seemingly small extension onto the side has made a huge difference.
But I was more pleased with what the pub had done with the land surrounding it.
When I first moved to Preston I was really surprised more had not been made of the waterfront bar potential of Preston Dock.
It seemed to be crying out for a line of pubs, bars and restaurants charging over the odds for the same thing you can get in the city centre, except without the view – like Cardiff Bay.
Now at least the Ribble Pilot has cottoned on to this with extensive grassed seating areas around the pub, including a pergola and kids’ play area.
It may be hemmed into the corner of a retail park but it is a start.
Miss Chardonnay sidekick and I decided since we were popping in, early evening on a Friday, we would stay for tea.
So, with our beer garden waterside view secured (though thankfully not too close because the water is a bit green at the moment) we had a meal to welcome in the weekend.
Scanning the customers, I was surprised how many groups of young people were doing the same thing.
 Clearly dressed up for a night out, they were starting in the Ribble Pilot for a cheap dinner before heading out for a night on the tiles.
This certainly would not have happened a year ago.
The pub was also very busy which offers hope for The Waterfront pub which is currently closed but undergoing a major refurbishment.
It was recently damaged by fire but if they do a good job on the re-fit, it seems there is the customer-base to make it work.

The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston

Since starting this column I had repeatedly resisted the urge to review the Continental because it already receives lots of publicity in our newspaper and plenty more elsewhere.
But temptation, that most beguiling of mistresses, finally grasped a firm hold of me and whisked me to the bar, before I had a chance to protest.
When I first moved to Preston nearly four years ago I would regularly pass the pub on the way to a jog in the park and think what a great shame it was the place was shut.
With Avenham and Miller Parks on its doorstep and more importantly my house less than a mile away, it seemed to be in the perfect location.
It was though just a distant dream and I fully expected it to be converted into ‘stylish riverside apartments’.
So when the pub’s grand opening arrived I was rejoicing and calling for a city-wide Bank Holiday to be declared.
Inside the decoration has been kept clean, simple and airy, making it an inviting environment for a meal out with the family or a pint with friends.
The owners have also got it right in the beer garden, with a large grassed area and simple flower beds with lots of patio seating and covered areas with heating.
On a sunny day the conservatory and garden a real draw for everyone from park strollers, to runners, cyclists and of course many of my fellow real ale enthusiasts.
The pub goes all out on its ales and always has a wide selection on offer.
If I was to pick a fault here it would be a real struggle but I would say they stock too many golden ales, where I prefer a slightly darker beer.
But, with all that eulogising done I am only half way through the story, probably less.
Based at the pub is an independent company called They Eat Culture which uses a converted kids’ play room to put on everything from plays, to live music, writing classes and comedy.
From nothing, this organisation has become one of Lancashire’s leading lights for attracting and showcasing creative talent.

Ye Olde Blue Bell, Church Street, Preston

This week I have travelled back in time and fallen head over heels in love.
In case you were worrying I have not auditioned for a re-make of a shameful ‘comedy’ in which Nicholas Lyndhurst travels through a random time portal to the Second World War, and pretends he is a secret agent.
No, this is the real thing because I went and spent the evening in Ye Olde Blue Bell.
After just a matter of moments within, I was smitten; my heart was stolen.
And what could possibly capture the affection of such a, ahem, discerning drinker?
Well the price. A pint of real ale cost me just £1.60 and my friend’s lager weighed in at £1.91, meaning the round came to an astounding £3.51.
To think, for almost four years I have been traipsing the city’s pubs and never realised that within 20 minutes of my front door was a real portal to a decade ago or more which would, no doubt have the aforementioned time traveller trotting up north to give it a whirl.
Mr Lyndhurst (I’ll persist with the awkward analogy now) would no doubt be bowled over with the incredible time-travel themed prices which must be the lowest in Preston.
But he may also point out the white-washed exterior walls looked like they had last been painted when the average price of beer was £1.60.
I would tell him in no uncertain terms to stop being so rude point out its external appearance is a ploy to deter those who are not worthy of voyaging back to an era before every pint of beer was strangled with tax.
And if that didn’t work I’d tell him I’m not taking him in.
Aside from the bargain prices inside the Samuel Smiths pub, it is clean and tidy with lots of seating areas and snugs, which again seems to hang onto its original layout and character.
I can’t quite describe the colour of the walls and there are some interesting figurines dotted about the place but all things considered, from now on I will be jumping back into the Blue Bell time machine as often as possible.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Wellington, Glover's Court, Preston

After several years spent in and around the pubs of Preston I like to think I have got to grips with the nightlife here; where to get a good pint of ale or watch a match and which places to avoid at all costs.
To me walking down a high street and knowing where everything is, shops, pubs or the Post Office, is the mark of knowing a place.
But a recent conversation with an 87-year-old gentleman called Bob Lang, who has lived here all his life, made me realise my ‘local knowledge’ was barely a superficial scratch on the surface.
“I’m off to the Wellington”, I said.
“I used to drink in their on leave during the war.
“As you walked in there was a little bar on the right, it was only four-feet wide and the landlord would sit there and take the money from the customers while his wife was rushing around the place.
“It was a good place with a homely atmosphere, it was not a regular town pub in those days.
“There were houses all around and no flats, so there were lots of local people going in.”
Today, the pub Bob frequented while on leave from the Merchant Navy, cannot rely on bringing in local residents, partly because many of the streets which clustered nearby have gone.
Now discount drinks offers like pitchers of cocktails for £6.50 adorn the walls and an impressively sized juke box draws in the hordes for pre-club drinks, or a Saturday night stop-off.
But while the core of its clientele has changed, from the description Bob gave me, the pub’s layout may not be so different.
On many a night out I have found myself sitting in the small tap room at the front keeping out of the way of the crowd, warming myself in front of the open fire during the winter months.
In fact, viewed in this light the whole pub seems to hang pleasingly onto its traditional character.
You might not have had bonanza Tequila offers or such like during Bob’s day, but I imagine if he was to walk back in today, there would be enough of the old place to evoke a few happy memories of wartime comradeship and battles to beat the American GIs to the bar.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Sun Hotel, Friargate, Preston

At long last the football season is upon us, the waiting is over.
The concept of ‘summer’ with long, lazy, free weekends to stroll in parks or laze in the sun is all well and good but in Britain it just doesn’t work.
Perhaps you will get a scorching hot day or two during the week which may raise hopes for a weekend of spirit-lifting sun, only for it to turn grey, miserable and uninspiring by Friday.
There are only so many disappointments one can take before losing faith in the heady romantic ideal that is summer.
Before long we are counting down the weekends before the start of the football season so we can forget all about sandcastles and sun cream.
A week ago proceedings, finally, proceedings got underway.
After going up to Carlisle on the Saturday to see my team Notts County play, a few friends and I headed into Preston on the Sunday to watch the Community Shield and headed for Sun Hotel, on Friargate.
Strangely for a pub in Preston city centre, I could not recall ever having been into it before and despite teetering right in the centre of the student area, it was filled with a healthy amount of thirsty regulars.
Taking aside a closely fought Manchester derby on the big screen, there is, in my opinion, a good reason the pub was so busy; it has been maintained as a locals’ pub.
While some in the area have been ripped up, torn apart, revamped and re-styled with bright colours and silly gimics, Sun Hotel has remained a simple straight forward pub.
It is quite a small place compared with somewhere like O’Neill’s nearby but has plenty of seating, a big screen with Sky Sports, a pool and table and several real ales.
With scarves around the pool table it also pledges its allegiance to Glasgow Celtic FC while much of the rest of the wall space it given over to those ubiquitous old scenes of Preston.
The notable difference here with every other pub in Preston is the pictures are also accompanied by good pieces of local history which are certainly worth a pause for thought.
With the Premier League about to roll into its second weekend and the weather urging us to forget it is August, the one place you might just find some summer fun is by sitting back and relaxing in the Sun.

Merchants 1688, Castle Hill, Lancaster

In my experience the moment one steps from the platform edge onto a train, they effectively agree an unbinding, legally unenforceable contract which risks everything and promises little.
It says something like in return for the possibility of a seat, a nice view and a chance to read your book for half an hour, we (the rail network) are going to make you absolutely no guarantee you will get to your destination at any time resembling the appointed hour we offered to you just moments ago.
So when I boarded the train at Preston Station I was not surprised to hear it would be delayed leaving because another was delayed coming from Birmingham and its passengers needed to get on the Preston train.
So, when I came to change at Lancaster, my connection which was not half as important as one from Birmingham, had long since grunted out the station by the time I arrived.
With one hour to kill I started wandering towards the city centre when I hit upon the Merchants.
 ‘I need go no further’ I told myself with a smile and headed straight for the bar.
The interior is made up of a network of windowless cellars, into which are placed rows of tables and chairs with a pool table in end cellar.
It was inevitably dark and slightly gloomy but it captured the atmosphere of such an unusual building perfectly.
It could have been brightened up with more lighting but then what would you be left with? Strip lighting in a load of tunnels.
No, with the gloom and glimmer and darkened corners, it feels every bit the authentic pub of yesteryear.
But it was a lovely day, so after selecting one of the five real ales on offer, I headed out the front to find a spot in the sun.
With flowerbeds and shrubbery, the small front seating area is very pleasant but for me the magic of this pub is its unique interior.
I can just imagine it on a cold night in the depths of winter.
With a group of friends, a few pints and no windows to remind you of the driving rain outside, it must be a difficult place to leave.
 But leave I had to, to catch that train and as it goes I suppose I should thank those delayed passengers from Birmingham, for allowing this passing encounter with the Merchants of Lancaster.

Th'Owd Tithe Barn, Church Street, Garstang

Looking at Th’Owd Tithe Barn two things are immediately clear; firstly it is a very old building and second it clearly was not built as a pub.
Then again, I suppose those more perceptive than myself may have guessed that from the name, before they even arrived at the pub.
I had in my head it may have been some sort of early prototype for a city centre regeneration project featuring flagship stores and cinemas.
But in fact it is an old barn dating back to 1710 which was used for the storage of corn and only converted into a pub in 1973.
When you enter its agricultural heritage is made abundantly clear with a huge range of old farming equipment clamped to the walls.
Firmly fixed though they all undoubtedly are, there are some angry looking saw-type blades placed high above our heads, which would make cracking props in some sort of earthquake action or horror film, as they come crashing to the ground decapitating unsuspecting regulars.
“Cracking pint of Lancaster Bomber this”, regular Chris would say to his wife Regular Abi, as she begins to lift her glass to her mouth.
Pausing for a moment she replies; “Well you know me Regular Chris, I’m more of a….” and splat, she is skewered straight down the middle before she had the chance to voice her approval for one of the pub’s other real ales.
Being a former barn the roof is extremely high, giving it an airy feel and while the designers have gone to town on the agricultural theme, it stops it appearing vacuous.
The windows are also very small which stops much natural light getting in but with candles on every table and large open fires, a virtue is made of the lack of light, to create a cosy atmosphere.
I am a huge fan of a good beer garden and / or a cracking view and on this front Th’Owd Tithe Barn, set right on the bank of the Lancaster Canal, is hard to beat.
At the front of the pub facing the canal are rows of benches on a patio which sits directly next to the water.
With canal boats steadily easing into and out of moorings while ducks wander carefree on the bank, as others which were not so lucky are brought out on plates to hungry diners, makes the perfect setting for a relaxing afternoon pint.
On this occasion, we decided to sit inside and have a Sunday lunch which was tasty and plentiful but as soon as the sun comes back, I will be back down for a tranquil waterside pint.

Wheatsheaf, Water Lane, Ashton, Preston

The decline of a local pub often follows a familiar, slippery descent with accentuated with clawing grabs at survival as they descend unstoppably into the abyss.
First there may a drop in trade, followed by a couple of quick changes in management.
With the new face behind the bar failing to tempt stay-away customers back in, a series of quick attractions are hastily thrown together to turn the place around. But the arcade machine remains redundant and there are better quizzes around.
With men already outside measuring up the anti-vandal window guards, a desperate publican may turn to discounting, heavy discounting. When you see boards outside pleading for you to come in and get hammered and still have change from a tenner, the death call may not be far away.
So, when I handed the barman at the Wheatsheaf a £2 coin and he returned with a pint of Pride of Pendle and a small clutch of change, an alarm bell immediately rang.
But the thought was but momentary.
Independent brewery Amber Taverns bought the pub, a former Last Orders, a couple of years ago and seems to have made the pub into a major success.
The pub is big, open and clean with huge screens all around the place, literally showing wall-to-wall live sport.
With a guarantee of being able to get a good view of a game, groups of football supporters head straight for the pub on match days, while many five-a-side football teams will also traipse in after their games.
But the pub is more than a hulking great sports bar. Set close to a dense housing population in Ashton, it stands as a really good community pub, while others close down.
Old chaps will sit in a quiet corner (the same seat they have always sat in) reminiscing  about how ‘These Premier League lot these days are a soft bunch rolling on the floor’.   
Couples, young and old, will stop in for a drink or do battle in an organised games night.
While many suburban community pubs drop off the map, the Wheatsheaf shows, there is hope yet.