Visited: Saturday 12 December 2009
It’s tempting sometimes to be a little blasé about the mass closure of pubs that Britain is suffering. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but when I see the boards go up at the windows here in Sheffield and shake my head in dismay as another licensed premises bites the dust, that dismay, I have to confess, is sometimes tempered by a selfish sense of relief that the demised pub was not one I would have spent a lot of time in anyway. A few months back, when the Red Deer closed its doors, there was a sudden sense of shock that it could happen to one of ‘our’ pubs: a popular real ale house in the city centre with a wide mix of drinkers. Turned out there was just a change of management. The doors opened again and back we slipped into complacency, those of us who never get round to joining CAMRA.
But sometimes the closures can hit pubs like this, and I’m visiting the Coachmakers Arms as a potential case in point.
I’m in Stoke-on-Trent to do some work on the album my band is (slowly) recording and mixing at my friend Pete’s home studio. It’s already a late start: first thing Saturday morning was the only time we could get a rehearsal in before a gig next week, which made it half 11 before I could get the train over, and it’s 1pm when I arrive. Pete drives us to Hanley to buy guitar strings and mentions that there’s a very good real ale pub just round the corner from the music shop, which we could pop into for a quick pint.
Wanting to crack on with the music, I waver towards the negative. “It’s won loads of awards,” Pete says. “Potteries pub of the year. And it’s getting demolished by the council.”
I know this sounds daft, but the latter persuades me that I somehow owe it to the Coachmakers to visit while I still can.
It sits in the middle of a short terrace of shops, with nothing very much either side of it or behind it. The council wants to knock them all down to build a road or a car park or something. For pity’s sake! If money could buy the sort of character that the Coachmakers oozes, JD Wetherspoon and his friends would be bidding millions. Pete and I edge into a tiny side room to the left of the front door; the landlady (I assume) rises to her feet and helps me choose a pint of Sheepshaggers from the Cairngorm Brewery – a scrumptious pale beer which is palpably stored with love and served with care.
Protesters against the closure of the Coachmakers Arms, February 2009. Photo: Mike Rawlins
There’s only one table in this room and it’s taken, so we stand at the bar for a bit and chat about the music. After this pint I have a look round the pub. You have to love pubs with lots of little rooms and nooks and crannies, don’t you? (The White Lion on Chesterfield Road back in Sheffield is like this, and nothing short of a wonder; with any luck this blog will pay a visit.) There’s another room further back and a third at the front, on the other side, where we settle for another half and ponder all the historical pictures and things on the walls. Little knots of people start to sidle in. At the centre of one is an ageing man in a military blazer, all splendid with medals. Where will he sit when this site is reduced to tarmac? Where will the council rehouse his memories of this marvellous pub? And everyone’s?
When disaffected teenagers inflict damage on local facilities and undermine residents’ quality of life, it’s called vandalism. When councillors do it, it’s called a strategic development plan. Britain’s pubs have enough of a struggle as it is without the authorities deciding to destroy the best ones. Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a sizeable share of troubles; people need their consolations, and a car park, one suspects, is unlikely to contribute more to the total of human happiness than the Coachmakers Arms. Stoke-on-Trent City Council, what are you thinking? Culture isn’t something that people like you apportion in strategic development plans: it’s what happens out there in real people’s lives and forms the numberless tiny miracles that add up to a city, even (or especially) one as weather-beaten as yours. With local authorities like these, who needs a recession?
Before we leave I make sure to sign the petition against the Coachmakers’ destruction. If you can’t make it there in person, you can sign the petition online. If you can make it there in person, do it now, while you still can.