Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Old Vic, Fishergate, Preston

Some years ago, when I first started at the Evening Post, I was sent into town on a Saturday afternoon to get a poll of people’s opinions on a subject, known as a vox pop.
I can’t remember what the subject was, but I do very vividly remember it raining, being freezing cold and windy, which meant people were not in the mood for talking to the likes of me.
Try as I might to sound enthusiastic and engaging as the wind battered my face and chilled my soul, I could barely squeeze an opinion out of anybody.
Suddenly without me knowing, another part of my brain kicked in and took over proceedings.
Moments later people were spewing out opinions like they were going out of fashion – ‘And another thing…’
Within minutes I was approaching the required number of views when a stern voice cut me off mid-patter.
‘What do you think you are doing?’, the barman asked as I interrogated one of his customers.
‘I’m from the Evening Post I’m just having a chat with people to get a few views for Monday’s paper’.
He stood staring at me arms folded, clearly unimpressed.
‘Why do you mind?’ I asked.
‘Bit late now if I do ain’t it pal’ he barked back.
‘Fair enough well I’m done now anyway, see you later’ I replied, before skipping out of the The Old Vic, with a pledge to myself, I would not return.
People say I am a stubborn chap but I can categorically state this is absolutely not true.
But return I did not, for quite some years until when I was walking past one day I realised the barman had been well within his rights to be miffed and was simply doing his job properly by challenging odd folk like me stalking about the place.
So, after snacking on a big slice of humble pie and custard, I went back to see what I had been missing.
I immediately regretted having given the place a wide birth for so long.
Inside, the pub is adorned with wooden beams and features, which under many coats of paint, look authentic and unaltered.
It is much bigger inside than its frontage suggests but, with separate seating areas around the central bar, it feels nicely cosy.
There are also plenty of television screens dotted around the pub which show live sport including 3D football, the merits of which I am yet to be convinced.
Having already achieved most of my limited criteria, I was also pleased there was a good selection of real ales and I sat down with a pint from the Three B’s Brewery in Blackburn, delighted at having found a bit of a gem on my doorstep.
I just wish I’d swallowed my pride earlier.
Is that stubborn?   

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Saddle Inn, Sidgreaves Lane, Lea, Preston

Two years ago The Saddle Inn  was closed down, overgrown and looked every bit to have served its last pint like so many other rural pubs.
Now it has been officially named the Best Family Pub in Britain, in the Great British Pub Awards. 
A bigger turnaround you could not possibly hope to see.      
Since reopening Graham and Angela Rowson have been steadily rebuilding their customer base, while renovating its extensive interior and grounds.
Now, the inside looks tidy and understated with a dining area and separate pool table section, with flat-screen televisions dotted around the pub.
Outside, the huge garden and lawn has been completely transformed, with a wide range of children’s activities and facilities.
During countless afternoons spent in pub beer gardens as a child, while my parents snook a cheeky pint or two, the best I could have hoped for was a rusty climbing frame or swing.
But at The Saddle they have decked out the large lawn out with a range of play equipment, mini football pitches and a mini golf green.
He also has pens for various cuddly-looking creatures and a beginners petanque/bowling green.      
It is the first pub I have seen with a separate building providing baby changing facilities as well as quirky ‘parking spaces’ for horses.
There is an extensive car park at the front of the pub which enables Graham to host a range of events such as car club meets.
When I stopped in, a motorhome was parked and hooked up to the pub’s electricity supply, while the campers enjoyed a few pints of real ale and some dinner inside.

At that moment I stopped in my tracks and finally understood the lure of the campervan.
If I go away on holiday, it is invariably under the cover of canvas, and I have found myself quietly sneering at the mobile retirement homes.
But, with plenty of real ale, a night in the pub and a bed right outside the front door, it all began to make sense.
A nice pint of guest ale has to be raised to Graham and Angela for saving a pub from becoming a soleless housing estate, and turning it into a national champion.

Fox and Grapes, Fox Street, Preston

If you have never stopped into the Fox and Grapes, my advice is to go along on Tuesday December 6. The good old cliché goes, first impressions last and if ever there is a night for good impressions, it is then.
Why a blustery cold Tuesday in November?
Well because on the first Tuesday of every month the pub holds its cult ‘For Fox Sake’ comedy night.
The free night, which is hosted by long-time compere Alan Donegan, manages to attract high profile comedians more used to performing on big stages, television and radio, rather than in the corner of a small pub.
But come these wits do in their droves, to try out their new material before performing on much larger stages around the North West.
A compere who knows many of the regulars and doles out merciless one-liners to them in between performances from some really sharp comedians, makes for a great atmosphere and a brilliant night.
And best of all its free. Well the comedy is, you still have to pay for the drinks but on that front there are always a good couple of real ales to choose from.
Inside every inch of wall space is covered with a clutter of beer mats, flags, pictures, foreign banks notes and countless other random items.
The first time I went into the pub I thought ‘That’s a bit much’.
Then when I got home with an aching jaw from laughing so much, I looked at the wardrobe and realised I was in the process of building myself a similar assorted collection.  
The pub also has a juke box, table football and television at the back but retains a strong feeling of tradition.
Having eulogised so long about the monthly comedy night, you could be forgiven for thinking it is the only night it is worth your while visiting the place.
This is not the case but if ever there was chance to give a lasting first impression, it is the first Tuesday of the month.

Kuckoo, Fox Street, Preston

Anybody who follows my weekly ramblings will have guessed I am a man of simple pleasures.
Real ale, traditional pubs and a bit of atmosphere and/or big screen football just about covers my spectrum of taste.
Fortunately across Preston and Lancashire I have discovered many opportunities to indulge this passion.
“Old before your time” some say of me, while others chime in with unfounded accusations of a “belligerent refusal to try anything new”.
But on a Friday evenings, as I nestle down in a corner close to an open fire with a nice pint of real ale, I can’t help smiling at the naivety of these delusional fools.
But, of late, these moments of epiphany have been followed by an irritating nagging sensation, of there being something I should have done.
Something you have happily ignored but remains, loitering at the back of your mind, like an overdue visit to a distant relation you don’t really like.
So, with a heavy heart I abandoned hopes of real ale and tap rooms, and headed into Preston; destination somewhere ‘different’.
I headed along Church Street and quickly turned back, cursing myself for such folly.
I was ready to give it all up and head home, content at least that I had tried, when I remembered Kuckoo, on Fox Street.
I knew it was new, trendy and had no real ale. It sounded perfect so I gave it a go.
Inside, a virtue has been made of darkness or at least a premium put on lighting with sweeps of red seating, to create some sort of gothic boudoir fusion.
The bar predominantly serves cocktails and, looking at the menu, I tried not to work out how many pints I could have had in the Blue Bell (four) for the price of one cocktail.
But, watching the barman perform a ritual of twisting, turning, throwing and shaking as he prepared my drink, it was clear cocktails are serious business here.
I intended to stay for one drink before retreating back to one of my safety zones but I kept on hitting a stumbling block; the music.
Throughout the evening the bar consistently played great indie and rock tunes which cannot help but brighten up an evening.
Before I knew it, several more perfectly prepared cocktails had slipped down and the most of the evening had gone.
At its height the bar was packed solid, but unlike some places in the city centre, the atmosphere always remained relaxed and friendly.
I left after midnight happy at having enjoyed a really good night out but simultaneously grumpy as those chiming voices came flooding into my head.
“Told you so”,  they said.