Born to be mild
Katie Taylor visits Blackburn, and finds a traditional pub scene at the heart of the community, with no need for a craft shot in the arm
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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With the sun in my eyes, I stride up Exchange Street in Blackburn past my favourite tree in town and take a deep breath of its eucalyptus scent. The smooth white bark reaching gracefully up to the sky is totally out of place against the municipal birches and dusty turf of the area behind the bus station, and I’m sure its ancestors didn’t look out over a car park wasteland back in their heyday, but I’m delirious with sunshine, and it feels good to see it. In front of me at the top of the street, a family are using this sliver of manicured green space to grab an impromptu picnic.
I always wonder about who chose to plant my tree there, and whether they were trying to make some sort of statement about civic pride. Perhaps they were. As I push on past the Chinese buffet (for sale) and cross the terrifying entrance and exit to The Mall’s multi-story car-park, The Drummer’s Arms hovers into view ahead of me, rippling in a mirage over sun-baked paving slabs. Plenty of pinkened customers are sat outside on stainless steel café chairs continental-style, enjoying their pints of bitter in 24-degree heat. Blackburn suits this bank holiday heatwave.
The Drummer’s Arms is one of Blackburn’s newer generation of community-centred pubs, all of which seem to huddle close to the huge, brutalist spectre of Thwaites Brewery, the tower of which still stands over us as a reminder of Blackburn’s formidable beer heritage. It’s behind me as I walk and, for the first time, I don’t turn around and hold up my phone to take a photograph. I have plenty.
Through the front door, The Drummer’s Arms is cool and dark compared to the sizzling world outside. A solid oak bar sits right at the back of the room, enabling me, casual-like, to have a good look for any available seats. Normally a nervy endeavour, in The Drummer’s locals do not stare at newcomers; everyone is too busy with more important things like chatting or crosswords.
At the bar, the five cask pulls offer local bitters and milds, three keg lines offer standard lagers and two taps are reserved for fruit ciders.
The ales on offer come from all over the county and barwoman Hilary Carr rattles off their credentials: Blackburn, Accrington, Preston, Chorley, “the valleys” (Rossendale/Rawtenstall) and Burnley. That’s what Blackburn drinkers are like, though. They’re fiercely loyal and support good local producers. Walk into a bar like The Drummer’s Arms anywhere else in the country and you’d expect to see fridges full of new releases from all over the world and blackboards offering third pint tasters. It definitely feels like it would be that sort of place. But it isn’t.
“If you asked anyone in here what craft beers they enjoyed, they’d probably think you were on about bottles,” said Hilary. “And they don’t drink those.”
I ask what a local drinker would call a beer brewed in a local microbrewery. She answers: “Real ale.”
So with all this love for good, local real ale, what’s stopping northern craft beer brewers from moving in? I ask Hilary to join me for a sit down and she brings her coffee mug – it says “Prog Forever” on it.
“It’s the price,” she says. “All our beers are £2.50 a pint. Nobody will pay more than that and to be honest, they don’t need to!”
Hilary is Blackburn pub royalty, by the way. The sort of no-nonsense barperson that gravitates towards an alternative type of pub; until recently she was director and manager at the nearby Sir Charles Napier, another uniquely Blackburn institution. A community-run rock pub and live music venue, customers turned up one day to find it closed. Not taking no for an answer, the Save The Napier community action group was formed, and the pub was officially re-opened by Rob Halford from Judas Priest in 2016. Now run by the same social enterprise company that saved it, The Napier remains loyal to Blackburn pub culture values: real ale, live music, dominoes, and in-depth chat, albeit with a heavier jukebox.
The reason people cared enough to reopen The Napier is that they needed it, to be social, to support young musicians and enjoy live music, to have somewhere to be to drink your beer. The community is crying out for these relaxed social spaces, as Hilary points out.
“So many pubs shut down in Blackburn since the early 80s that there are young people and even young people’s parents who’ve never experienced the social aspects of drinking outside of your home, in a pub where there’s community and people to speak to,” she says.
After the success of The Drummer’s, owners James and Katy Quayle acquired a second bar; The Lemon Tree, formerly a derelict heritage pub called The Jubilee. Supported by a grant from Blackburn and Darwen Council, The Lemon Tree is now part of Blackburn’s wider regeneration project, where it aims to establish a welcoming environment for students and young people to drink and socialise in. The availability of this grant is in itself encouraging, perhaps proving that local councils are beginning to understand how pubs can benefit and add social value to their communities.
Thanks to lower rates in the town centre, cocktail and gin bars have appeared all along the same street as The Drummer’s Arms, hinting towards a desire in local drinkers for the trends that so many other cities embraced long ago. Even so, nightlife at the top end of town is still struggling. I ask Hilary why she thinks most of her customers weren’t drinking later at night.
“30 years ago nightlife was thriving. We went out nearly every night - I used to feel bad if I stopped in on a Monday! Then it just stopped; the price of beer shot up, wages didn’t go as far and nobody had any disposable income. People aren’t as used to going out to the pub of an evening just to socialise, they can’t afford to and cans are cheaper. They only go out if they’re going ‘out’ out - that’s just the truth.”
Money is an unavoidable subject and years of economic decline have taken their toll. No matter which way you look at it, Blackburn is not a wealthy town. To the people of Blackburn, Thwaites brewery leaving its iconic headquarters to be demolished in the centre of town only to build a brand new one somewhere a little more in-keeping with its revamped, rural branding is a sore point. Many see it as a perfect summation of years of being forgotten, or viewed as second-rate; a feeling that might explain why there’s been such a rush of local charitable and community-run initiatives to boost social action activities in recent years. Like everybody’s grandpa used to say, if you want summat doing, best off doing it yerself.
Knocking me out of my Thwaites thoughts, Hilary brings a pint of “mix” in a barrel glass for me; half Three B’s Brewery Stalker’s Slake mild (A Blackburn microbrewery) and half Big Clock Brewery Pals bitter (based in Accrington).
“This is what I used to drink when I was younger,” she says, before getting back to the bar. “And I’ve been giving it to the younger ones that come in here. And they like it.”
Speaking to people is easy in The Drummer’s Arms. The CD jukebox is free and loaded with some surprising additions and the tables are close enough together to encourage conversation among strangers. I idly whistle along to a Talking Heads tune and a smartly-dressed older gent near the window joins in, making us friends for life. Introducing himself as Alan, he talked to me about The Beach Boys and David Byrne’s new album, before choosing The Strobes’ “Part of the Union” on the jukebox.
I also got talking with a large man in a red Harrington called Roland.
“You on your own?” he asks. “Wouldn’tve had that a couple of years back.”
He raises an important point and I ask him about how safe people feel in Blackburn. Plenty of bars and pubs in the area have gained themselves unfriendly reputations over the years and, as a result, the town is experiencing a second generation of drinkers uninterested in visiting their local pubs because of a perceived roughness that covers the whole city. It just seems like too much hassle to bother with. So they don’t.
“There are some rough places to drink, but you need to know which ones to avoid,” warns one local, a shaven-headed guy who introduces himself as Julian, a violinist, who I also notice is holding a smoker’s pipe. He’d shifted around in his seat to chat when I sit down with my third pint (a whole pint of Three B’s mild this time.) “There are some great places too. It’s the same everywhere you go. Have you been to Meemaws?”
I had to confess I hadn’t heard of it. Maybe next time.
Unlike nearby Darwen, with its unlikely but thriving craft beer scene, Blackburn’s bars seem behind. But where Darwen’s entrepreneurs have shaped their own nightlife based on trends from other parts of the country, all Blackburn’s drinkers want is a friendly pub that sells a good pint. Perhaps they don’t need the craft beer revolution right now, but as they enjoy the perks of its re-established mild-drinking culture, maybe it’ll come knocking anyway. By then, Blackburn might even let it in.
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