I am currently half way through a two week holiday from work to concentrate on getting my book written. I have had this break planned for some time, but it has added impetus now that I have finally settled on a publisher.
Many people believe that research for my book on Gloucester pubs is nothing more than one long drinking binge, but this is not true – that’s just the best bits! In fact, I spend far more of my time closeted in the archives trying to decipher impressively old but barely legible documents or sat in my office staring at a computer screen hoping for inspiration. Nonetheless, it beats the hell out of going to work!
Wednesday was close to the sort of day that people expect me to have: I spent most of the day in pubs as I had arranged to meet with a couple of landlords. Obviously I had to sample their beer whilst I was there; it would be rude not to! The two landlords that I talked to were from two very different pubs with different approaches and challenges, even though they are only a few feet apart.
First I met with Martyn at the Pig Inn the City at the bottom of Westgate Street. He has a simple philosophy for his pub: everyone is welcome as long as they are friendly. He takes an innovative approach to developing a community around his pub and is left to get on with it by the pub’s owners.
The Pig is renowned for the quality and choice of its real ale, great food at a very reasonable price, and regular live music. In addition there are a range of other activities throughout the week including karaoke and quiz nights, pool teams and Games Workshop meetings. Since the recent closure of Crackers night club Martyn has started a Saturday night rock disco called Crackling in the upstairs function room. He is also starting a 14-17’s disco to engage with his next generation of customers.
In contrast, Keith at the Old Crown, just up the road on the corner of Upper Quay Street, is very constrained by the pub owners. The pub is a beautiful Victorian building fitted and decorated in a traditional style. Keith has been running the pub with his wife Gel since the end of 2008 and is trying to build up a strong clientele, but his efforts are hampered by restrictions from Samuel Smiths Brewery, who take central control over just about every aspect of how the pub is run.
All drink and food in the pub has to be provided by the brewery, but they will no longer deliver their real ale this far south. This prevents him from capitalising on the traditional charm of the place by selling real ale, a strategy that had some success in the pub’s early days earning it a place in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide in 1992-3 and 1995. On the other hand, they also forbid him from competing with other nearby hostelries by having live music or showing televised events.
No prizes for guessing which pub is the more successful. In my last blog I mentioned the findings of the Commons Business and Enterprise Committee which found that the behaviour of large pub companies was contributing to the sharp rise in pub closures. Much of this is, I suspect, down to greed in squeezing landlord’s profit margins, but trying to take central control over pubs is just as bad: surely individual landlords must be the best people to judge what their customers want and what is right for their pub.
Thankfully there are still plenty of pubs with the freedom to put on live music and they have made a great success of this year’s Gloucester Blues Festival, despite the City Council significantly reducing their sponsorship of the event. Much as it pains me to say it, I feel that Gloucester has a lot to learn from Cheltenham in putting on these events: the support that they give to the Jazz, Science and Literature festivals puts Gloucester to shame.
The success of the event is largely due to a small number of pubs: special mention must go to the aforementioned Pig Inn the City plus the Cross Keys and Café Rene and, new to the blues scene this year, Coots at the Docks. These pubs support live music throughout the year, not just during the festival, and I have made a resolution to support them more.