Visited: Wednesday 4 February 2009
For the last year or two I spent living in the midlands, I had a local: the New Talbot. It was a fair stroll from my house, at the other end of Bearwood entirely, and not a soul alive would have called it a great pub, but it was my local because I could go there every Sunday afternoon and be sure of seeing someone I knew to watch the football on the telly with. And the bar staff knew my drink. That’s the only time in my life I’ve had that much of a local.
Then I moved to Sheffield. In general the pubs are a million times better, but I haven’t really made one my local yet. Over in Meersbrook, three or four miles south of here, none were quite close enough, and walks to even the nearest ones suffered from Sheffield’s severe topography, so that a ten-minute stroll downhill on the way out could become a breathless 20-minute slog at the end of the night, back up a steep slope after several pints.
Here in Walkley it’s equally hilly but there’s a pub just at the top of the street. From the outside it doesn’t look as nice as somewhere like the Hallamshire House, but I want to have a proper Talbot-style local again by the time I hit middle age, and the house I’ve just moved to is the house I want to grow old in. There’s a lot riding, then, on tonight’s trip to the Old Heavygate Inn.
The pub is almost set in to the side of the steep hill, like a suburban Old Trip to Jerusalem. Compacted snow crunches underfoot through the freezing car park. We enter, through a huddle of half a dozen doorway smokers, into a low-ceilinged lounge with three or four tables, and three real ale pumps all with the same clip: Greene King IPA. “We’ve tried having a few ales on,” says the landlady, who is immediately chatty and nice. “But there’s not the demand for ’em. They just end up going off.” Well, there’s demand out there, but there’s competition as well. I guess if you like your ale and you live at the south end of Walkley, you’re going to go to the Closed Shop. Or the Hallamshire House. Or down to the sublime Hillsborough Hotel on Langsett Road. There are a lot of pubs around here and not all of them will survive this economic hoo-hah.
Indeed, the managers, a couple in their mid-40s, are leaving in two days’ time. Like so many other pubs around Sheffield and elsewhere just now, the Heavygate has a TO LET sign on the outside imploring potential licensees to try and keep the place alive. “It’s not actually losing money,” the landlady tells us. “But it’s not making any.” Not losing money is a huge achievement in itself at the moment. They’re staying in the trade; area managers, I think it was. In a nice touch, a thankyou card sits on our table, addressed to the entire clientele from the two of them. This suggests a decent sense of community around the pub: a good sign for a potential local.
We look around the room and there’s a slight air of the 1970s about it; not heavily, not depressingly; not like the pub in Birmingham near the big Royal Mail sorting office in Digbeth whose name I can’t remember. Or there’s something working-men’s-club about the no-nonsense decor. So it’s surprising to see two of the tables packed around with groups of either students (proper students, who look like students used to look like before they all became a middle-class version of Blind Date contestants) or young bohemian types. Some of them are watching Everton against Liverpool on a normal-sized TV standing on a table (the TV, not the people). Some are playing casino games using plastic tokens in lieu of cash. On the way back from the bar one of them calls another one a wanker; I can’t tell whether it’s in anger or jest. Cara knows one of them and starts nattering. Small place, this city of half a million people.
Cara is a founder member of the group I’m with tonight: Sean Club. Sean Club began in autumn 2007 when our friend Sean came up from London to work in Sheffield for a few weeks and we started a regular midweek pub night so he’d not be stuck in his hotel room the whole time. We had such a blast trying out new pubs and breaking up the week that we decided to keep it going after he left. Tonight there are just four of us but at other times there might be double that. It’s not a weekly thing any more, but an informal pub club, we’ve found, can be a good way to make sure you get out when there aren’t any gigs on, or whatever it is that gets you out. Get to the pub.com recommends!
All of us stay on Greene King’s IPA all night. It’s nominally still a real ale, I think, but these days there seems little to distinguish it on the palate from the blandness of Stones and Tetley bitter. Still, it’s better than nothing, and in most Birmingham pubs there was nothing. Maybe if you lived next door to a pub with a dozen spectacular ales on tap you’d just get bored of them and end up supping Australian lager.
So will the Heavygate make for a good local in the years and decades ahead? One strange clue comes towards the end of the night, when I go for a wee and a half-cut bloke starts talking to me about some stuff that’s being moved in a van. He thinks I know what he’s on about but I haven’t got a clue. I wonder if it’s something to do with the management moving out this weekend. He’s friendly enough, in a roughly drunken sort of way, and I guess if people assume that everyone else knows everything that’s going on then, like the thankyou card, it reflects quite nicely on the pub, in the sense of it being a little community. All I need now is to find out what actually is going on, and then maybe I can join it.