Pub visits this week 10
Locations Sheffield, Cleethorpes, Grimsby
This week in pubs begins on, ooh, Tuesday or Wednesday – I can barely remember now – with a brief jaunt down the road to the Blake Hotel here in Sheffield. But it’s all about the weekend this time. What’s the plan? It’s a weekend by the seaside in my hometown of Cleethorpes (oh, alright, and Grimsby, if you must) with my son and two close friends.
Arriving in town on Friday afternoon with an increasingly adventurous two-year-old in his buggy, two big sacks of clothes and nappies and a small library’s worth of picture books (hey, I need something in case it rains), there’s an hour or so until we meet Marianthi to catch the train to the east coast. Rather than lumber around town with all that baggage, we make for the Sheffield Tap (featured here).
So we sit with a half-pint of a 3.8% golden pale ale and a mango smoothie, and we read a bit of Winnie-the-Pooh, muck about with my sunglasses, have the odd cuddle – general dadding type stuff. A couple walk past us on their way out. Just before they leave, one of them turns round and says: “You two are so sweet together. It’s been lovely sitting here watching you!”
That evening it’s the Kings Royal on Cleethorpes seafront. The choice of proper beer isn’t great – there’s Theakston XB plus one guest – but it’s a lively pub with a bit of character which I keep coming back to. Tonight’s guest beer is from the marvellous Titanic brewery of Stoke-on-Trent, which would help a lot if I could actually drink some of it, but the staff’s valiant attempts to pull me a pint bring only a tsunami of brown foam. The clip is turned round, it’s back to the worthy but dull XB for the evening, and I don’t seem to have been refunded any difference in the price of the two beers.
Still, the atmosphere here is great. With the Easter holidays beginning and the weather having warmed up beautifully today, the sense of good times returning is palpable. Winter is banished more vigorously from a seaside resort than anywhere else on Earth.
If only the same sense of optimism could be found at the Rutland Arms in Grimsby (featured here; pictured above). On Saturday lunchtime I am at least served by someone I’ve seen serving here once before – which marks an improvement over recent visits. But we’re here, as always, as a prelude to watching Grimsby Town play football. This is hardly ever likely to make for the sort of cheerfulness we found at the Kings Royal last night, and today is no exception. Nice to see a Kidderminster Harriers fan in, though – the further we fall down the leagues, the fewer supporters the other teams seem to have. And the fewer we become ourselves, of course: hence the funereal vibe in the Rutland today.
It’s a similar story after the match when Marianthi and I duck into the Imperial (featured here) while we wait for a bus. Back when the football club was any good, this pub would be heaving with gruff Grimbarian humanity either side of a game. Today only quiet knots of drinkers punctuate the spaces. There’s the desperate state of the economy, the devastating hikes in beer tax, and our increasingly atomised and anti-social culture, but on north-east Lincolnshire the biggest threat to pubs is the ineptitude of the people running the local football club.
In the Imperial’s case, though, potential punters with a preference for cask beer might also be put off. Not only do the two hand pumps on the bar lack any sort of clip – they’ve also got charity collection boxes standing in front to hide them, and they even seem to have chains attached. If you support a certain east London football club, furthermore, you might not feel terribly welcome in the Imperial. The member of staff serving us this afternoon has a tattoo on her arm which reads WEST HAM WANKERS.
Saturday evening is spent on a nostalgia trip. Like me, our friend Emma grew up in the indie and ‘alternative’ community in Grimsby in the early 1990s, and tonight we’re revisiting some of our old haunts (a ghostly word chosen advisedly, given the predominance of goths back in those days). We begin at Swigs, which local people of taste have always appreciated for attracting a good variety of drinkers. I’ve always appreciated it for doing a very cheap pint of Willy’s original bitter, brewed just along the road in Cleethorpes. Tonight it’s still only about £1.80 and it tastes better than ever.
It’s at the Barge, though (featured here; pictured below by Marianthi), that the revisiting of our youth begins in earnest. Much has changed since Emma and I used to come here in our late teens, and not just because our hair and clothes are no longer uniformly raven-black. The Barge is an actual barge, moored in a town centre waterway, and the portholes have been opened, so it’s now possible to look out and clearly see the movement of the boat up and down in the water, instead of feeling the thing shift slightly and wondering if you’re just tipsier than you thought. Most remarkably of all, it is now possible to drink some quite nice beer here.
Another change is in the music. Back in the day, the jukebox would accommodate goth, punk, metal, indie and all sorts. Tonight it’s only what the young people used to call nu-metal. Song after song, hour after hour. I leave my pint of Bombardier for a minute to join Emma at the jukebox: we stick a quid in and choose something a bit poppier, as befits our brighter, happier personalities these days (or at least we hope so). But they’ve seen us coming a mile off. A large man behind the bar probably presses a hidden button to send our shallow, well-adjusted choices of music spinning off into the ether. We stay for a couple of hours but our money is wasted: the rock drones relentlessly on and on – until, hilariously, it’s interrupted by Phil Collins singing ‘Land of Confusion’. Out of the frying pan…
It seems to me that the Barge, and indeed the world, would be made a much happier place if a jukebox could be invented that shows how many songs are queued up ahead of you, and how long it would take before your selections are played. But the people here all seem as nice as ever and that’s the main thing. The Barge continues to provide a space where the alternative types around here can gather without harassment, and for that it must always be cherished.
Marianthi, Emma and I follow the steps of misspent youth up the stairs of Gulliver’s, the tiny nightclub just over the way from the Barge, because that’s what you do when you’ve been to the Barge. Or at least that’s what you did in 1991. Back then it cost three quid to get in, and we worry about what 20 years of compound inflation will have done to the admission charge tonight. It’s all we can do not to laugh when we reach the counter where you pay and they say it costs £2.50.
This charge still isn’t small enough to have attracted much of a crowd tonight. Or at least not for the hour and a half we’re here before we grow utterly bored of the young people’s noisy rock music and sneak our bottles of Newcastle Brown out to Emma’s hotel room. Use it or lose it, Grimsby. Better music would be nice, mind you. We were looking for fun and we didn’t find it at Gullies. What a sad end to it all.
On Sunday we take the Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway to the Signal Box Inn, planning to sink a pint in what is officially the world’s smallest pub. It’s shut though, so we end up back at the Number 2 on the Cleethorpes mainline station, having a half in what is probably the world’s second smallest pub. As you’d expect from a multiple local Camra award winner, there are some great beers on. For me, though, it’s more than a little spoiled by the irredeemably grotty little outdoor area at the front. Sat amid a grim confetti of butt ends and a dog bowl, I can only sip gingerly. It’s just a great thing the Titanic stuff is back on when my mum and I round off the week later on back at the Kings Royal.