Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 1999

* Losing the Plot? *

A couple of months ago, "Opening Times" described Hydes' conversion of the Baker's Arms in Altrincham into "The Gallery" as "a disaster and a horrible place to drink". Exactly the same is true of the Unicorn in Halebarns, which has now become "Corbans Old Winery and Bar" (sic). The old Unicorn may have been looking a bit tired and falling short of its potential, but there was nothing that couldn't be put right by a sympathetic, well-judged refurbishment. Indeed, there's a fine example just over the road in the shape of Robinson's Bull's Head.

Instead, Hydes have butchered what was still a basically traditional pub to turn it into a characterless, comfortless café-bar type establishment. There's not even any consolation in the beer range, as there's no Mild, no Light, no seasonal beers, just a single apologetic handpull for Bitter amidst a forest of T-bar taps. There isn't much of "The Real Ale of Manchester" in Corbans. The trade might be up in the short term, but how long will it last before another cash injection is needed?

This is exactly the kind of crass, marketing-led vandalism for which CAMRA has over the years roundly condemned the major pub operators. It is particularly disappointing when Hydes have shown themselves capable of thoughtful, high-quality refurbishments such as the Horse & Farrier in Gatley and the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury, both prosperous areas which can't be too different in demographic profile from Halebarns. We expect better from one of our local independent family brewers - they should be following their own distinctive course rather than copying the mistakes of their bigger brethren. Hydes have built up a lot of goodwill from the way they have improved their beer range and introduced seasonal beers, but, if they persist in wrecking their pubs like this, they will rapidly fritter it away.

* Pubs the Way They Used To Be *

I recently passed a village pub that was advertising itself as being "the way pubs used to be". I can imagine it now - the shabby, weathered door opening onto a long, dimly-lit corridor, the quarry-tiled floor in the tap-room, the high-backed wooden settles, the nicotine-coloured, matchboarded walls, the only sounds the ticking of the grandfather clock, the click of dominoes and the murmur of voices, the two unmarked handpumps dispensing Mild and Bitter (and mostly Mild), no draught lager, the bottled beers at room temperature, the glass case at the end of the bar containing elderly pork pies and Scotch eggs, the threadbare, chintzy sofas in the back parlour, afternoon closing and time called at 10.30 from Monday to Thursday......

Somehow, I suspect it wouldn't be anything like that at all, so perhaps it's best not to spoil the illusion. More than likely, it would be just another bland, knocked-through dining emporium with a few bare brick pillars and a scattering of rustic bric-a-brac. A pub that really was "the way pubs used to be", warts and all, would be an interesting curiosity, but wouldn't attract many customers in 1999. On the other hand, there are a handful of pubs, both urban and rural, where the atmosphere is still strongly redolent of the 1950s, but they probably would not want to proclaim it in such a self-conscious way.

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