A stronger community

David Jesudason shares his experience of how craft beer has reflected a more profound social and cultural shift in the Greater Manchester town of Marple

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“It was sitting in front of my fire with a mulled cider that swung their move to Marple,” says Billy Booth, landlord of the Samuel Oldknow, recalling how one couple decided to live in the Greater Manchester town after they had visited all the surrounding areas. Like many people new to the area, they were surprised by the array of interesting drinking options and how welcoming they were. But it was one visit to Billy’s town centre micropub that really made their minds up.

“We have a diverse bunch of people,” Billy says. “We get writers in here. We get makeup artists from the BBC. We get gardeners, labourers and nurses. We get them all. They just love the ambience.

“That big table over there is known by locals as the table of world opinion. On that table it can get a bit feisty, but at the end of day they all shake hands and go home.”  

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve been visiting from South London for about 13 years as my partner Clare’s parents live in a large country house which, as they were quick to point out, is in Marple Bridge, not Marple. The town is split into two by an old stone bridge with the River Goyt often rushing violently underneath. 

Marple Bridge is now the most sought after part of the town and is completely surrounded by hilly Peak District countryside; think stone-clad walls, and paths that suddenly rise to cloud level. Although the views were calming, the conversations when I first arrived were deeply problematic and even more divisive than the difference between Marple and Marple Bridge. 

PHOTO: The Samuel Oldknow

Clare’s mother, when I first met her, asked me where I was “from'” in an episode which makes me deeply empathise with Black domestic abuse campaigner Ngozi Fulani, who had to endure a similar questioning when she was at Buckingham palace.  

My brownness – I’m of Malay and Indian heritage – was made to feel like an inconvenience, especially as all their friends were conservative church goers who viewed me with amusement and I felt I had to work hard to ‘fit in’.

It was even worse in the town's pubs, where I received a slew of racial microaggressions, including being ignored and having to listen to racist conversations, including one about how monkey noises aimed at footballers was harmless fun. The worst incident was where a bartender refused to look at me when she passed my change and ignored my protestations as to how impractical this made the transaction. In the end I just left. 

I expected the town to be as welcoming as multicultural Manchester, but it felt like a decaying Peak District rural community that was resistant to change and to outsiders who weren’t ‘local’.

You can see why I viewed any visits to Marple as a dark cloud that lurked in my diary and it wasn’t until we had children six years ago that I started to realise that the demographic was slowly changing, as more and more young families appeared. I also met Abdi Ali, a beer lover who was “from” North London, with a family of Somalian roots, in person after chatting to him online. Both Clare and I were stunned not only that he chose Marple as his home, but was thriving with a large friendship group and was respected by all the pub landlords he encountered.

PHOTO: The Star Inn

A few months ago, when I told Abdi about the racism and general whiteness of Marple over a pint at the community-owned Northumberland Arms, he gently explained that this wasn’t his experience. It was clear that the town had changed, becoming more of an extension of cosmopolitan Manchester than a rural backwater with an ageing population. 

In fact in 2016, when the Northumberland (affectionately known as the Thumb) started its original share campaign to become community owned, they discovered that 60% of residents were over 60. 

“The demographic in the pub seems to be changing,” says Rick Clarke, chairman of the Northumberland Arms Community Society, “people are moving away and people are moving in. It’s driven by being a fairly unknown suburb of Manchester, but one that’s got a lot going for it, with fantastic schools and being on the edge of open countryside.”

And pubs like the Northumberland have been a clincher when property hunters are weighing up their options.

“People have told me,” Rick adds, “they’ve been attracted to the area because of the community spirit and having a community-owned pub.” 

The community aspect is not just a key selling point, but  also a unique one, as in the Manchester area there’s really only one other pub – The Star Inn in Salford – owned entirely by the locals. It was a fight, though, as Rick and his friends had to protest to get its previous owners to hand over the keys when the landlords retired and the building was up for sale.   

PHOTO: The Northumberland Arms Community Pub

The Thumb was previously a Robinsons pub, and the Stockport brewery had a chokehold on the town owning nearly all of its establishments; there were very few freehouses. Some were good pubs with a family feel, but others had notorious lock-ins, irresponsible patrons and errant landlords. 

Robinsons usually ignores residents' plans to take over closed pubs, but made an exception for the Thumb because it realised that Rick and his potential shareholders were serious and committed. They even erected a billboard next to the building saying “think again developers!”.

This might have led to a violent schism from Robinsons, but the pub today has Robinsons’ Unicorn, a trad sessionable bitter, as a regular line after its inclusion was demanded by a shareholder who drank at the Thumb for over half a century.

“It’s one of our top four products,” admits Rick. 

PHOTO: Traders

On a previous visit in October, I was lucky to find a pint of Sonoma (Pale Ale) by Track Brewing, which was bursting with citrus, tart flavours, heavily hopped with Mosaic, Centennial and Citra, and sparkled with a head floating above the sunny-coloured beer. It reminded me of those clouds that move across the nearby peaks on a warm day. The light colours now reflected my optimistic mood to Marple.

I ask all the people I interview about whether they feel an identity associated to Manchester, nearby Stockport or even Derbyshire, which in the past was the regional authority. But Rick sums everyone’s feelings up well: “If you ask anyone where they’re from: they’ll say Manchester”.  

This is echoed by Matt Fairhurst at Marple’s craft bar Traders, who says the town now “feels more Manchester than Stockport” which is also a surprise, as the latter is changing but retaining its great traditional boozers. There’s nothing wrong with Stockport and it reminds me of my birth town Luton, both old hat-making centres trying to reinvent themselves in hard times.  

But in terms of Robinsons-owned pubs, Marple really has broken the stranglehold. 

PHOTO: Cassels

In the past few years, Marple Bridge lost the Travellers Call and The George, while Marple saw the demise of the Pineapple; other non-Robinsons pubs, The Lane Ends, Jolly Sailor, Bowling Green and the Romper also shuttered. It’s sad when pubs at the heart of the community have to call time permanently, but there’s a demand for something different to a pub tethered to a large brew co, as the Traders shows.

Matt says it’s more like a bar and it started at a micro scale when a small carpet shop in the town closed. It has since expanded to include the adjoining shop–a comic book store–and there’s hope it can take over a third. 

Here Cloudwater, Squawk and Marble Brewery are a comforting presence, as Matt wants to support local independent breweries, and the beer is heavily keg-based although there’s still three cask options. He’s not averse to going further afield for an interesting beer and has had Anspach & Hobday’s oaky, velvety London Black on, as well as sours and Imperial stouts.

I was supposed to travel to Manchester but the train service is poor - only two carriages an hour - and a local tells me not to bother as I won’t be able to board it. I sit among the friendly faces and ponder how Marple has changed.  

So much so that it has rejuvenated my partner’s family. The influx of young families has shown them it’s a place to be shared and, when my children started to get older, they were won over by their infectious innocence. They’re now more accepting of how Britain has changed and refuses–sometimes stubbornly–to be mono-cultured. And, most of all, it’s the pubs that have shown them that beer can change communities for the better.

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