Beer Blog

The Willow Bank and sad times down Smithdown Road, Liverpool

Willow Bank

The Willowbank, Smithdown Road, Liverpool

Despite the old saying, ‘You should never go back’, in February I revisited Liverpool, where I spent three happy years as a student in the early 80’s. For two of those years I lived just off Smithdown Road, the boundary between Toxteth and Wavertree, residing in both L 8 and L 15 districts.

Some things don’t change and the driver cheerfully confirmed that the 86 bus to Garston still goes down Smithdown Road, which is amazing 35 years on. We got off near The Brookhouse. It looked like it was still going strong but we didn’t venture in, the only advertisement outside was for beef burgers and nothing said about good beer. If I’m honest, I never went in all those years ago. A bit too full of students for my liking, including one ex with conical appendages, long before Madonna ever cottoned on to the merits of the pointy bra, anyway it was too far down Smithdown in the wrong direction from where I lived.

Walking back up Smithdown from the bottom end, things looked pretty bright around the bit before Sefton Hospital. Only thing is when you get to the ‘ozzy it’s no longer there, having been replaced by a giant Asda.

Like I say, the further back into town we went the more depressing things started to feel, until we got to The Willowbank, which I remember being a really good pub. A favourite Saturday night haunt when the city centre was taken over by mainstream revellers. For the life in me I couldn’t remember what it was like inside though? Surprising really, particularly the saloon bar/snug which looks out through big windows at the front of the pub. There’s a monolithic wooden bar and a huge centre piece, mantel style clock on a pediment above. The rest of the pub sits behind the front bar and is comparatively darker. A broad nutty, woody expanse of a room, which felt familiar, apart from the TV’s showing Sky sports. As well as the awesome clock, there were a lot of other interesting features, including the original cigarette stubbers below the bar and the coat/handbag hooks. The toilets were clean and pleasant too.

There were banners outside proclaiming it to be a community pub. I concur with that. It had a nice atmosphere and there were some friendly locals having a lunch time pint. They do food and quiz nights, etc were advertised. I also liked the notion of no children outside food service times. A bit of online research revealed the pub has won CAMRA awards for it’s community bias. It said somewhere that it was one of the safer pubs in the area, which in some ways is a bit sad, although I’ve never felt threatened in any pub in Liverpool, neither previously or now. That said, there were an odd one or two that you steered clear of.

Willowbank bar

Willowbank  front bar

The Willowbank was a Tetley Walker house back in the day. I didn’t like their beer much then and I wouldn’t touch it now. Despite it being effectively the same company with the  ‘Huntsman’ logo, it was nothing like the creamy Leeds brew you got in West Yorkshire. I did see a Festival Ale House plaque on the wall, but it’s apparently now owned by a company called John Barras pub company. There’s a varied selection of real ales; Greene King IPA, Brains SA, Marston’s NWPA, Morland Original and Castle Rock Harvest Pale. Prices were around the £2.70 mark per pint. I tried the IPA and the Harvest Pale, both were decent, well kept ales. There was an obvious commitment to real ales and thankfully The Willowbank is still a good pub.

After a pleasant three quarters of an hour we walked a bit further up Smithdown, looking for the house where Mrs C (not Mrs C then) and I lived on Salisbury Road. Neither of us could remember the house number and we’ve no documentary evidence of it, eventually we both thought 103 looked and sounded about right, so I took a picture for future reference. Come to think of it, we never even knew the full details of the landlord, or where he lived. You just left the rent on the table once a week, and if anything went wrong, he could always be found in The Salisbury on Lawrence Road at tea time or you left word for him behind the bar. If anyone local remembers us, it would be because of the incessant noise created by one of our housemates, who looked suspiciously like the drummer out of Kajagoogoo, practicing on his 999 piece drum kit (seriously, I’ve never seen as many drums and cymbals in one place).

What I did remember was a beautiful totally original, late Victorian boozer on Smithdown Road just near the end of our street. Think gas lighting, etched glass, brass, wood and coloured tiles. I couldn’t remember the name of it, just that it was our local for a year, and it was a proper local. Never really busy, never quiet, just nice decent folk.


The, now defunct, Royal Hotel, Smithdown Road.

The Royal was actually fairly easy to find, an imposing building with it’s name embellished in large white letters on two sides. It didn’t look right though, something was definitely wrong. The lantern sign above the splayed front door, a leg on Smithdown and one on Langton Road, proclaimed it’s sad fate: Luxury Student Homes. Proper shame that, because the pub I used to frequent was worth saving.

Now when I lived in the area there had been a recent bit of turmoil and civil unrest, the evidence of which was clear to see. Despite that, there was quite a buzz and much local commerce in what was a real diverse area. It was a little dispiriting to see that many of the shops/small businesses had gone the same way as The Royal. A lot were semi derelict, many had been converted into residential and judging by the handy work (or lack of) the local Building Inspector is not aware of these ad hoc changes of use. You would have expected this part of Liverpool to have moved on from the early eighties and it’s inner city unrest? If anything it hasn’t and certainly the upper part of Smithdown Road felt more depressed than when I lived there, which is a shame.

Royal tiling

Beautiful tile detail on the outside of The Royal

Any way, moving back to the pubs, The Mulliner has gone, a brand new school cum academy establishment occupying it’s former position. The Newstead Abbey is still going though,  although it’s nothing like Byron’s ancestral home. I called in quite a lot when I lived on nearby Whittier Street. It was never anything special, just another down at heel boozer. I fancied popping for a quick one for old time’s sake, but Mrs C had given the scruffy, mucky actually, windows and frontage the once over and decreed that we weren’t going in there! And people wonder why pubs are closing down.

Newstead Abbey

The Newstead Abbey, Smithdown Road

I reckon there was another pub on the opposite side of the road to the Newstead before you come to The Boundary at the junction with Lodge Lane but I can’t remember what it was called. The Boundary is still there, it wasn’t one you really went into when I lived there, unless you were interested in the thriving trade in Waccy Baccy. Judging by the extremely diverse crowd stood smoking outside, it looks like the African Caribbean heritage clientele I remember have been somewhat displaced. Again, it could do with a bit of TLC on the exterior, even the sign had slipped down, God only knows what it’s like inside.

The only positive thing I noted was the demise of the dreadful Kwiksave with it’s legendary Mantuna tea bags (I don’t think there was actually any tea in them, just some brown colouring). I just wished the current continental style supermarket with it’s wonderful selection of fresh vegetables, spices and the like had been there when I lived there.

I guess folk are probably right when they say, ‘Never go back’.

2 replies »

  1. The pub you used to frequent (The Royal) had been derelict for 2 years when I saved it and spent £0.5m rectifying the many structural issues it had. Nobody else would touch the Grade II listed building. It would have ended up being demolished had I not changed its use (inclusive of getting all planning and building control consents……….) If it had been viable as a pub it would never have shut down and declined in to dereliction……….


    • Thanks for your comments Neil, it is appreciated, and good to hear the other side of the story. Although the politics, of both the Smithdown Rd area, planning issues, pub closures and the inherent role of financial enterprise in this, are numerous and too detailed to go into, I just think it is sad, even as a 20 something year old, I recognised the heritage in this fine public house. There are many pubs that, frankly, aren’t worth saving as pubs, The Royal (circa 1984) was. In terms of conversion, I was pleased to see that the faience tiling had been preserved, along with other features and that the building had been competently converted (unlike some of the properties along Smithdown). Again, thank you for your comment.


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