Visited: Saturday 20 March 2010
It’s quarter past five on a rainy Saturday. For the first time in half a year, I’ve just seen my football team win a match. For the first time since 2004 I’m having a drink in the Imperial. And I am really quite enjoying it.
Before the football, as regular readers of Get to the pub.com will be aware, I like to wet my whistle at the Rutland Arms. The Imperial is the Rutland’s bigger, brawnier, rowdier tearaway cousin. Perched at the shoulder of the football ground, it operates an explicit ban on away supporters for their own safety. One August day, as we came past on the approach to kick-off, a pint glass was hurled from the car park at a group of visiting fans. It hit an old man, who was taken to hospital. Not that this goes on all the time, but the potential’s there, bristling under the surface, in a way the more sedate Rutland never really sees.
And after the football it’s a race back to the car and the road home to Sheffield (not that we ever, I would like to emphasise, leave before the final whistle). So the Imp doesn’t get a look-in. But today is different. I’m staying in Cleethorpes for the whole weekend, and the only post-match travelling is a walk back to my mum’s house. Euphoric from the Mariners’ rare victory, with celebration top of the agenda, with my friend and sometime bandmate Rob in attendance (a Brighton fan who finds himself bizarrely holed up in northern Lincolnshire for work), I duck out of the rain into the Imp.
The Imp is a very big pub. There are no two ways about it. There’s one large room on one side, and two more on the other. As a former (I think) hotel, it’s three or four storeys high as well. Adjacent to the one large room, there’s a sort of porch. Then, as perhaps befits a very big pub, there’s an even bigger car park. There are some benches in it with enormous parasols to keep the sun off, when there’s some sun, and a handful of scrubby bushes along the steel fence that separates the car park from the road, but not a blade of grass to be seen (the Google Street View shows all of this up pretty well). At the back of the car park there’s a sort of prefabricated hut with a sign saying CLEETHORPES IMPERIAL FLYING CLUB.
It took me a few years before I realised this was probably something to do with pigeons. But in fairness, I started early. It must have been the late 1970s when my mum and dad used to take me and my brother here, and we’d sit outside, excited about our lemonade and playing in the bushes (which were a lot more extensive in those days, or perhaps just seemed it in that strange way that everything feels more immense and intense when you’re little). I think this might make the Imperial the first pub I ever went to.
There is, unsurprisingly, no real ale, so it’s Guinness replacing that lemonade today. I sink a pint very quickly as Rob and I look around the room and watch the other scores coming in. There are 25 or so other people in here. There were just short of 4,500 at the match. There’s something of the exuberance of victory in this room. But something much less than I thought there’d be. Powered up with the Mariners’ late win and the drinks I took at a heady pace before the match, I’m enjoying the pub. There’s something strangely tame about it though. Maybe I’m more relaxed than I used to be when I was young, but it doesn’t quite seem like the Imperial without at least two or three huge men who growl like Rottweilers and look like they’d use my bones as toothpicks. Another pint it is, then.
Nipping for a piss, I squint into the rooms on the other side of the pub. They’re closed and locked. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for pubs like the Imperial. The product of a time when our habits of drinking and leisure were radically different to today, it’s doing well to hold on. A mile back down the A180, past the Rutland and towards Grimsby docks, the Humber has recently shut up shop for good. There are clearly people still wanting to drink here, in numbers that would sustain a smaller pub quite comfortably ‒ but, as the closed rooms attest, this is a pub business that will be hamstrung by the running costs of so large a building.
Without the money this pub takes on matchdays, it’d be in trouble as big as the relegation-haunted football club itself. Fortunately for the Imp, Grimsby Town Football Club are as hopeless off the pitch as on, and it’s now about two decades since they started arsing about fruitlessly over their proposed move to a new stadium in the middle of bloody nowhere.
But if the club ever does move, the Imp will close its doors forever. It might try and cling on for a bit, or it might go right away. Just behind it, the space where Blundell Park stood will be haunted forever. By every single one of the hundreds of thousands of Grimsby fans who have inhabited the ground since it opened in the reign of Queen Victoria, and by their lost, swirling mindmaps of grand matches past, from Town’s 1930s heyday in the first division and all the big cup games since. And that haunted space will resonate with the ghostly storehouse of memories left by the Imp, where fans gathered before and after these games to weigh up our chances and chew over the bones, just as they have today.