Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Kirkby Lonsdale's got a tap room!

Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has a tap room. Did you know that? I didn't. I go to Kirkby Lonsdale pretty often - maybe twice or three times a year, maybe more if it's a good summer and we want to look at the bikes - and I had no idea.

Kirkby Lonsdale is a place I love. A small town, tiny really, it sits on a meandering curve of the River Lune next to the borders of North Yorkshire and Cumbria, and was in fact part of the ancient county of Westmorland once upon a time. This means it's in the best place in the world - my homeland. The Lune valley is consistently beautiful and whether you're looking into the peat-tannin water rushing under Devil's Bridge or walking alongside the Crook and Bull Beck in the full force of a rare 28 degree August day, it's the type of place that feels like it's doing you good, somehow, right down into your bones.

Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

Grey day, still lovely.
I decided to take a new friend on a walk beside the river to Kirkby Lonsdale to show her my childhood stomping grounds. From Tennessee, I'm fairly certain the rivers and forests she knows are far more exciting and astoundingly beautiful that the sleepy Lancashire ones I know, but Ruskin's View is pretty nice and worth the short haul up the hilariously-named Radical Steps. She agreed, you'll be happy to know.

After the usual mooch around town (and to the Army surplus shop, obviously) we tried to think of a place to eat cake, and that's when we came across the sign for The Royal Barn.

Inside an imposing door with an upbeat handwritten sign stuck to it, the place is a beautifully restored barn, once part of the large coaching inn behind. Oiled wood beams sit mellow and cosy over raw limestone walls and artfully-placed "found" items - a cartwheel, a huge old pub sign, milk crates used as ingenious little shelves. I really liked it.

What really welcomes you in is the smell. Over in a far corner sit three gleaming tanks, including one glorious copper-topped mash tun, doing their job quietly and diligently, pumping out vigorous malty smells. Occasional plumes of steam gave a pleasantly industrial feeling about the place, as though you weren't skiving off but actually part of a very important day's work.

The bar itself is pretty. Two rows of cask pulls offering the full range of Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery ales and two cask ciders sit in front of an impressive range of bottled beers - including several Schlenkerla Rauchbier - and then on top of that, a row of keg taps for an ever-changing flow of craft choices. Oh, and there's a bunch of gins they bring out on ticketed gin nights and a good coffee machine. I particularly liked the keg taps because they had objects on them rather than badges - a camera, a bike pedal, a cog. Again, winning me over with industrial appropriation. According to the friendly barlady, the tap room has been open for about a year, but took around four years in the making. Chalk signs around the bar top talked me into a pork pie with piccalilli.

Sat with a pint of Ruskin's Best Bitter my friend laughed at me because I apparently was smiling like an idiot. What I enjoyed was that, clearly, even a small place like Kirkby Lonsdale has an appetite for a tap room. Even Kirkby Lonsdale has the space for interesting tastes and even a small maker like Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has the bravery to say "fuck it" and do it with new artwork, high ceilings and reclaimed furniture instead of tartan armchairs and brass stag heads. We know we live in the countryside. Please, no more brass stag heads. It's made me excited for the future of bars and beer in rural communities up here in the North, where places like this aren't welcomed as you'd expect they might be. Especially, it has re-ignited a not-so-secret dream of my own. Time to dig out that old business plan.

I am bad at taking photographs but I promise I'm going to practice and get better.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Unlikely Pubs I have Known and Loved: The Sunset Lounge, Blackpool

The Irish Sea spreads out into a vanishing horizon, no ships, no land, no pointed fins breaking the surface in an exciting moment of man-meets-beast. Just endless waves rolling quietly to a stop against the flat sand and sloping concrete of Blackpool's promenade. On a clear day, ridges of wind turbines line the glistening grey of the distant sea but today, there's just the mottled, overcast water of an average Lancashire Saturday. It's the emptiest place in town, the one place in this overcrowded, garish, unrepentant tat market that offers an almost 180 degree view of nothing.

The view from North Pier
If it wasn't for the piers, particularly North Pier, Blackpool wouldn't keep drawing me back. Sat stoically but lost in age and welcoming bored strollers in all weathers, it's a place in-between places. A non-place. Behind the arcade machines and under the polystyrene chip dishes are relics from a time when live entertainment over the sea was as exciting as going to the moon. Despite the tattiness, an air of dignity clings to North Pier like its patina of salt spray grime. It used to be a grand place to take tea and dance to organ music and if you ignore the wind whipping against your cheeks for long enough, the curled wraught-iron lamps could tell you as much.

© Copyright Gerald England
Maybe it's because I'm from a decrepit seaside town myself that I have such wilfully rosy observations about Blackpool. I just can't help feeling that as cheap and nasty and dirty and noisy as it can be, it's still, essentially, a destination for fun. At one time, mill workers would come to paddle in the sea, escaping their responsibilities for a week each year . Now account executives and nurses and retail managers fill those same gaps, spending hen dos and birthday weekends and Big Nights Out and family Saturdays away from the grind in bars and on the Big One. It's not Valletta, standing proud and mysterious on golden city walls above a shining azure ocean, but nobody said it was. This is Blackpool. Shut up and drink your Carlsberg.

What I like most about North Pier is the pub on the end of it. Walk all the way down to the bottom of the pier, ignoring the gaps in the boards, and you'll reach The Sunset Lounge. Protected from the sea winds and year-round bad weather by perspex and gloss paint, it's a huge expanse of a pub, and is nearly always mostly empty inside where the darts boards and maroon carpets are. Despite clearly being big enough to host two wedding receptions simultaneously, there are three toilets in the ladies' bathroom and the last time I was there, none had locks, toilet paper or a cushion for screaming into. I have never seen a single adult in the "pub" part of The Sunset Lounge. This area is for kids with red sugar dummies and Slush Puppy-stained t-shirts to hide under tables in.

Outside, past the bar, is the same expanse again but with a polished dancefloor that's always occupied. On a good day, you might be lucky enough to witness the true madness of the organ player, using a thousand pedals and a thousand keyboards to play the same song a thousand times, injecting a bit more speed and terror into each rendition. Insane organ music 50ft above the sea bed helps to ease you into the feeling that you've completely lost your mind, so several jagermeisters are usually recommended to help get the brain lubricated. Today though, a crooner with a Korg is serenading pairs of pensioners ballroom dancing on the parquet, CDs for sale, £7. Find him on Facebook.

The organist. Didn't believe me, did you?
The best place to sit is on a picnic bench on the fringes of the lounge. Near enough to the bar (which is always well-staffed by friendly young people who know exactly what this place is) and far away from the busy arcade. On a sunny day - yes, they happen - the Irish Sea becomes the Mediterranean and bottles of Birra Moretti come out. It's a glorious place to sit and drink. You could begin to think it was beautiful.

You sit on the benches with people who make you happy and you soak in the surreal atmosphere of mis-matched patrons letting their hair down on a tiny wonky island far away from Monday morning and you laugh until you cry. And when the bar runs out of bottles of the beer you like (they're doing better with craft but there's still not much) and you're sick of shooting Archers out of highball glasses, the sun has set and you've taken a thousand bad orange photographs, it's time to head to the Edwardian carousel next door. They let adults on if you're polite. You can scream as much as you want once you're sat on your winning horse, switching and play-fighting while you spin like you're the star in a chintzy Western.

This is a place you visit on a whim. This is a place for Buckfast in your pocket. This is a place where you will always feel 17, rebellious, out of credit and finally living your own life. This is place that knows how bad the world is, and refuses to take part. I wholeheartedly respect that.

Photo by Tom Strawn