What a joy.
It’s so nice to be able to write about something so positive. So much pub campaigning has and is, sadly but inevitably, about fighting against negative things. The Great British Pubco Scam, unscrupulous developers and supermarkets, absurd business rates, organisations and politicians who refuse to face (or deliberately ignore) the reality of pub closures or do nothing about them (whilst pretending to support pubs). So to get to write about something so hugely positive and indeed very special is indeed a joy. Okay so some of this tale involves (of course) the all too typically corrosive effects of the appalling tied leased pubco model and the effects of that scam on some of Britain’s finest pubs, but this story has a happy ending and it is the happy ending this pub story is all about.
I was lucky enough to have been asked to have a preview of the newly reopened Cardigan Arms, in Kirkstall, west Leeds. This historic district is of course best known for the 12th Cistercian Abbey, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirkstall_Abbey) whose striking ruins are extraordinarily in a suburb of one of the biggest cities of the UK, but Kirkstall is also an area that has long been associated with brewing and beer and therefore pubs to drink it in.
The jewel in the crown for so many years, both for this part of Leeds but also one of the jewels of the former vast Tetley’s estate, the Cardigan Arms was a destination pub as well as a local pub for decades. The pub is Victorian, built I believe in 1895 the year the rugby league was born just to the west in another licensed premises, the George in Huddersfield (now alas closed and with an uncertain future, though it is a large hotel, not a pub).
For those who haven’t been (and if you haven’t, and love pubs, you must) the Cardy as it is known by many boasts an amazingly preserved classic multi roomed Victorian interior and is Grade II listed. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1375062. It was a Joshua Tetley Heritage Inn when, despite any unhealthy and almost unchallenged market dominance in Leeds (of beer and pubs), Tetley’s really cared about their great Victorian pubs and preserved such gems from the kind of short-sighted ‘refurbishments’ that did for so many other pubs up and down the country. When you walk into the Cardigan it’s a reminder of why pubs were so fabulous and a reminder of the destruction reaped by so many wrong-headed breweries who ripped out the insides, the character, the heart and soul of so many fine pubs that were left as characterless open plan shells in decades gone by. Many never truly recovered and many of course have gone, partly as a result.
The Cardigan Arms is named after Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, an officer in the British Army who commanded the Light Brigade during the Crimean War and led the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava. Large areas of LS6, especially in Hyde Park and Headingley, as well as Kirkstall and Burley, reference this famous man and family. I myself lived for a few years in Brudenell Street, one of the many streets bearing that name. Appropriately enough the incongruous modern American style leisure park opposite the Cardy is named Cardigan Fields, though there are no fields amidst it’s modern soulless functional buildings housing a cinema, other leisure facilities, diners and of course a ‘drive-thru’ McDonalds. Thank goodness the Cardy is opposite and offers not just a real pub but a superb one rather than the manufactured offerings of the premises there.
Apparently the current building dates from when the pub was rebuilt after the previous pub became so run-down that the local magistrates contemplated refusing its licence…this could have been the same fate as the current Victorian building the way things were going.
The Cardy is the last remaining of the great Victorian triumvirate of this part of Leeds: the Cardigan Arms, the Rising Sun just down Kirkstall road and The Queen just up the hill and along, on Burley Road. The Queens has suffered the fate of so many pubs, it is now a Tesco Express, the insides ripped out as part of the cultural destruction that has been reaped up and down the land; the Rising Sun, alas, it seems clear – to quote my song, Last Of England “will never rise again” after a fire destroyed much of its similarly fine Victorian interior. (http://www.summercross.uk/about.html). It remains boarded up and alas with the money it presumably would now take to restore, its time as a pub seems gone. So had we lost the Cardy, we would have lost the Last of England in this part of Leeds.
It easily could so have happened too. In the 1980s and ‘90s pub was busy, well run and very popular but as a result of the Beer Orders, Tetley’s (who of course were also bought by Carlsberg) offloaded it. Due to the deliberate and cynical loophole in the Beer Orders (lobbied hard for by the beerage of the time) the giant pubcos were created and the Cardigan Arms was a Punch Taverns pub. In recent years, the Cardy had become a depressing, grubby and unwelcoming place. Its sad and unkempt feel an all too common sign of the lack of pubco investment of the absurd and abusive fully repairing and insuring pubco long leased model; and no, the last thing it wanted was an identikit pubco refurb install various non matching chairs in the colours of whatever the ‘in’ colour of the time and phoney basement style lighting (aren’t you sick of that too?). That would have destroyed the pub over time; luckily with the pub being listed it probably wasn’t an option. What the Cardigan needed was basic investment and love and attention and a good clean to make it glorious again.
To describe just what the Cardy had sadly become, up until quite recently, I can’t put it better (indeed as well) as top Leeds beer writer Simon Jenkins did in the Yorkshire Evening Post in March.
“From the days when this was a proud jewel in the Tetley’s crown, a prized blue plaque marking its heritage status, the Cardigan slipped by successive increments to become a rough-house of raucous drinkers, cheap lager and big screen football. It was almost tragic to see this stately, late Victorian drinking palace so sorely abused”. (http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/pub-review-cardigan-arms-kirkstall-leeds-1-8535865).
The only word I would question was the use of almost! (In pub terms, of course!) but a real pub tragedy could have happened had the pub continued on the same path. After the disastrous period of the ownership of Punch Taverns, the pub had become a Greene King pub (I suspect as part of an acquisition deal?) but whilst things didn’t seem as grim as they were under Punch, the new owners didn’t seem to know what to do with it, so they decided to sell it. That could have been bad news, but it was clear that there were people who could and would take the pub on and as a going concern. There were rightly fears about conversions, part conversions and the usual issues when large companies get involved with trading community assets (thankfully the listing would have stopped the likes of New River Retail turning it into another supermarket like the Queens), but then in stepped Steve Kelly and Steve Holt from Kirkstall Brewery who bought the pub and then got to work restoring it both physically and reputationally.
The work understandably took a few months (this foiled my plan to sneak off for a pint at the Cardy during my daughter’s 9th birthday party at Lazerzone!), but having seen what John and Steve did to the Bridge on Kirkstall Bridge, I was confident it would be worth the wait. Yet even then, when I walked back into the Cardigan at the preview night, my pub-lovers-heart leapt with joy. It was beautiful. So beautiful. Perfect in fact.
Carefully polished wood and brass, a wonderful chandelier in the ‘best room’, fine period furniture, candle on tables and mirrors, lots of big, fabulous pub and brewing mirrors (from Steve’s collection, I was told).
Of course all the original features were there, that make the Cardy famous, the semi circular bar, the separate rooms, the frosted glass including the fabulous ‘Ladies Only’ bar sign.
Steve’s face fell a little when I said it felt almost as if they hadn’t changed it at all, but in fact this was the greatest compliment. I didn’t meant change it from the scuzzy unkempt pub it had become; I mean from the feel I imagine it had the day it opened, when it was indeed modern, new and fresh but classic and the pride of Kirkstall. This was restoration at its best, so you didn’t quite know what had been done, but it just felt as it should. Which is surely the best thing you can ever say about a pub?
So what a joy, what a pub, what a lovely story. Now this tale gets even better when you realise that not only are we talking about the rescue and renovation of one of Leeds finest pubs (and one of the UK’s finest Victorian pub interiors) but that also John and Steve revived brewing in Kirkstall, a famous name and a proud brewing tradition. The old Kirkstall Brewery, long gone, is now student halls of residence closed by Whitbread, but the current Kirkstall brewing is brewing some of the best beer around. http://www.kirkstallbrewerycompany.com/about-us/
Indeed, if you ask me, the beer coming from the brewery is better than the beers that were served from the Leeds Brewery by Tetley’s, which may be heresy to some (older drinkers) in Leeds! Kirkstall Brewery brew fabulous beer, for those who haven’t tried it. Stunning cask ales to suit all moods and many styles, top class craft keg (including refreshingly a new one, Virtuous at 4.5% , showing that craft keg doesn’t need to be 5% + to have bags of wonderful flavour).
So what a story, what an ending – and what a new beginning. Years after first large brewers then large pubcos , this story surely shows pub ownership getting back to what it was years and years ago and should be, great local breweries being passionate about local pubs. Just along the road, the Rising Sun and the Queen represent all that has gone wrong with the disastrous destruction of British pubs by corporate freed of pubcos and supermarkets, yet now thanks to genuine entrepreneurialship of local businessmen and beer enthusiasts John and Steve, the mighty Cardigan is saved and stunning again.
There was also a very well run community ownership bid to buy and take on the Cardy. It was an excellent and extremely well organised bid, raising a hugely impressive £130,000 in a short space of time. The people involved (so of whom I know personally and think very highly of) were hugely professional and passionate and had there been no interest from Kirkstall (or another good local operator) then I think that they would have bought the pub and would have wanted them to do so.
My view is that community ownership is the right (and often the only model) for at risk pubs where there is no commercial operator, including local entrepreneurs or local breweries, willing and able to take on a pub. In the end, though, in a situation where there is a successful and superb local brewer who have already transformed one local pub into one of the best in Yorkshire (in other words, the country!) then Kirkstall taking on the Cardigan Arms surely must be the very best outcome.
So I truly hope that the excellent people – pub champions – who were involved in the community pub bid carry on and find another Leeds pub that needs them and their pub passion. How I would love that pub to be the Rising Sun along the road, which might be this other stunning Victorian pub’s only chance of restoration. It may be too far gone for this to happen without money but who knows, we can but dream (pub loving millionaire philanthropists please get in touch!). If it could happen then that quarter of a mile of Kirkstall Road, Leeds would be probably the most extraordinary one with two well run national heritage pubs serving greet beer! But wherever there is a pub that needs saving and community ownership is the right solution, I will certainly, as I did before, promote this group and their aims.
So the final important point to make is that the wonderfully happy ending to this story (and the start of new one) shows the hugely positive role that GOOD companies can play not only in making pubs successful, but also doing something that contributes to the very fabric of our society, strengthens our communities and reaffirms who we are as a nation. We need more great pub and brewing companies like Kirkstall showing that proper pubs can be a great success with great owners and great beer. It’s also time that the law was changed so that greedy anti-pub owners must sell community pubs to such companies rather than for development and to supermarket chains when the pub is wanted by the community and viable and when the company has the finance to buy the pub.
So the historic, yet fresh, stunning listed Cardigan Arms and the modern Kirkstall Brewery truly is a marriage made in heaven and a marriage made in Kirkstall. Even the spirits of the holy men of Kirkstall Abbey will surely agree and sing a song of praise to this union in the heavens This is no charge of a light brigade, this is a crack pub special forces unit reclaiming a great Leeds pub and making it great again.! And as a lovely final footnote to this blissful beer and pub marriage made in Kirkstall, those Kirkstall brewmeisters are bringing out a beer called Brudenell!
John and Steve (and team). You are true pub heroes; having now delivered two stunning pubs in Kirkstall, you are also Kirkstall community heroes – and Leeds heroes. Keep it up and Freedom of the City should be a given! Thank you!