Fourteen and a half quid for three days bus travel in Northumbria had to be the deal of the week. You can’t go go wrong at that price; point to point pub walks for me, no round trips, and a day in Alnwick. What could possibly go wrong? The renowned Barter Books didn’t disappoint, housed in the old station, they do exactly what it says on the tin, plus they have a quality tea room and a model railway running on top of the book shelves! A fair price was received for half a shelf of old tomes, which was rapidly transformed into some new (used) acquisitions.
Next on the list were the two Good Beer Guide 2017 listed pubs. Not bad, two listed pubs in a town of Alnwick’s size: The John Bull Inn and The Tanners Arms. Not a bad overall tally of pubs neither, for a town of 8,000 souls there’s nineteen pubs/bars shown in WhatPub, and only three without cask ale. I’m guessing the historical market town, Great North Road aspect accounts for this. Looks like I could be in for a good day?
Mmmm … Perhaps not? At 1pm, The Tanners Inn is closed. A quick skeg at the laminated sign in the window says it never opens before 5.00pm, any day of the week, apart from Saturday and Sunday, when they’re falling out of the doors no doubt?! I chastise myself for not doing my homework. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be? Alnwick’s quite a touristy place, loads of people with cameras, and kids in fancy dress, courtesy of Harry Potter, Alnwick Castle and gardens. After that, the highlights of Alnwick just sort of peter out into a sad Wednesday half day closing feeling, except it was Tuesday.
As I walked into the town centre I ticked off the closed pubs: Fleece, Blue Bell Inn, Alnwick Arms, Doc’s bar. The Odd Fellows Arms sported a ‘For Sale’ sign and looked closed for good. What’s going on, it’s gone one o’clock in the afternoon? It’s not like its a dead or alive sort of place neither. Okay, it’s got a pretty decent Georgian terrace, but not the gentrification one would expect in this sort of historical, semi fortified, market square, and a lot of interesting architecture type place. It’s just lacking something somehow. I thought hard about this whilst I stood and watched folk with carrier bags traipsing between Morrison’s, the Bus station and Poundland?
Stood outside Greggs eating my healthy lifestyle sandwich, I tried to find the other GBG listed pub. No need though, because WhatPub app told me The John Bull Inn is also closed, until 7.00pm, Mon – Fri? I’m getting the same feeling that Retired Martin frequently encounters; GBG pubs closed during the day? Looking at the, to me in any case, unappealing pubs I had passed, it was clear day time trade wasn’t buoyant in the little town.
I then wondered what would happen if Wetherspoons opened a branch, would it sink to the bottom of the river Aln, along with the nineteen other closed until teatime, or sparsely populated, boozers? Or would it instantly create it’s own niche and be full of locals and tourists alike because it gives them exactly what they want, at a price they can afford, and know almost exactly how much it will cost, at every location?
They recently opened a ‘Spoons in Garforth, Leeds, a small town who’s boozers are nowhere near as dead during the day time as Alnwick’s. I called in The Briggate, one weekday afternoon recently and it was very, very busy with people eating and drinking; people who wouldn’t have been in the other pubs at any price. This ‘Wetherspoons factor’ just reinforces my views that many traditional pubs just aren’t offering people what they want these days, or at least not offering people what they want all the time; like being open in a popular touristy place at lunch time. I’ll tell you something else for nothing, they wouldn’t have been closed at lunchtime when they were all tied houses!
Faced with little choice, I decided to walk to the Dirty Bottles. I’d passed it earlier and saw it open. I’d been in the traditional boozer before, a long, long time ago. I’ve always been fascinated with the story of the dirty bottles, stacked in the window, and the curse of removal. I phoned ahead, just to check the dog was allowed in; it was.
By this time I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t actually a pub when I walked in, and I was met by a ‘For for food please wait to be seated’ sign as I entered. Shockingly, behind the original ‘olde worlde’ facade, the pub has had it’s traditional heart ripped out since my last visit, and the main room is a sort of American style diner; targeted at families and those who fancy an alcoholic drink with their burger. Everything appeared reasonably well done, but as I looked round there was something not quite right, like beer tap fonts on the tables and a bar that was back to front, without a counter? I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Walking through the restaurant bit into to the bar at the rear, the first thing I noticed were the two hand pumps. The second thing I noticed, the pump clips were turned round. The pleasant and helpful young man told me he didn’t know when they would have any ale on, but kindly explained the self service beer wall in the front room of the premises. Basically, if you want to ‘serve yourself’, you get a card from the bar and charge it up with cash in advance and away you go, until your credit runs out. Was it popular? Well, apart from our own small group, there were only a couple of tables occupied in the restaurant and I didn’t see anyone using it.
An executive decision was quickly required, and made, with the assistance of Arriva buses X84 online timetable and a selection of mediocre, mainstream draught products. I sat drinking my Lager while I counted the many staff, I made it ten (a staff:customer ratio greater than 1), leading me to conclude the venture was obviously some sort of complex money laundering operation. Did Alnwick potentially have a decent pub trade, or had everyone been frightened off by organised crime gangs? Remember Get Carter! Wasn’t that loosely set in Northumbria? Anyway, the big hand nudged closer to the hour, so I drank up my pint of international Pilsner, got back on the bus and went to The Ship at Seahouses, which was nicely busy without being packed – heaven!
Verdict; If passing through Alnwick on the bus during the week, stay on the bus, unless it’s after 5pm, in which case you’re probably on one of the last bus services anyway, so just think carefully about it … Sorry, no need to think at all, just give this beautiful little town a miss if you want a nice weekday, daytime drink, because you’ll be wasting your time.