Atmosphere in spades

PUBLISHED: 15:42 08 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

The Grape Vaults, Leominster

The Grape Vaults, Leominster

Real ale, plentiful food, live music, petanque, home-made ice cream, ghosts, gardens and karaoke: Leominster pubs have got it all, reports Derek Brown; but best of all is the company. Photographs by Shaun Thompson.

Real ale, plentiful food, live music, petanque, home-made ice cream, ghosts, gardens and karaoke: Leominster pubs have got it all, reports Derek Brown; but best of all is the company. Photographs by Shaun Thompson.

In his excellent 1970s history, The Town in the Marches, Norman Reeves notes that the 1851 census put the population of Leominster at 5,214 - less than half what it is now. Close by this dry detail is a town plan showing the locations of the 36 public houses known to be doing business in the town at that time, though as Reeves acknowledges, there could have been more.

Ye Gods! They must have been a thirsty lot, those mid-Victorians. As Reeves points out, Leominster as a market town was an important district hub, attracting traders, farmers and shoppers from outside the town who would have done deals, gossiped and refreshed themselves in those 36 hostelries. Still, one pub for every 149 men, women and children, is pretty mind-boggling.

We do things differently now, of course, and we can only do them in ten public houses. That's lifted the per-pub population to around 1100. Mind you, there are other places to take refreshment, like the Talbot Hotel and the Euphoria nightclub. But our form-guide focuses on the ten pubs in the town, with a few more in its immediate hinterland, for good measure.

Shamelessly, I start with my local and favourite, the Chequers in Etnam Street. It occupies a belting black and white building, said to date from 1480, which juts out over the street at improbable angles. It has been chopped and changed over the centuries, of course, and what we have now are two bar rooms, each with a splendid open fire, and a handsome heated awning outside for the smokers.

But that is just architecture: the real heart of the pub - any pub - is its atmosphere, and the Chequers has atmosphere in spades. It's a friendly, relaxed place where conversation is king. There are pub lunches during the day, and in the evening the classy Stables restaurant, just at the back of the pub, is Leominster's nicest dining venue.

Apart from ambience, no pub is truly worthy of the name unless it has beer. Real beer, that is; not freezing flavour-free fizz, and certainly not the vile creamflow stuff that is fit only to shave in. Once again, the Chequers triumphs. There are at least two new guest beers every week. There are milds and bitters, strong ales and session beers, and they come from far and near. Both bars are heavily crusted with pump-clips from all over the country. It's rather like being in a permanent beer festival, and it's no wonder that the Chequers was the 2007 Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) Herefordshire Pub of the Year.

Moving on reluctantly, we can take consolation barely 100 metres further up Etnam Street, at The Bell. Another Camra award winner, this is another comfortable, friendly real-ale pub, with a garden at the back for smokers. Inside, there is a modern central island bar with a choice of real ales. Food is plentiful and varied, and there is a pleasant rear garden. The speciality here is music, with live events every week.

At the other end of Etnam Street, near the railway station, is the White Lion, which at first glance may look like a pre-war roadhouse. But appearances are decidedly deceptive, for inside the pub turns out to be a timber-framed structure, perhaps dating back to the 16th century. It has been pleasantly remodelled to provide spacious accommodation for drinkers (at least one real beer is on offer) and for diners, who can choose from a wide-ranging menu. Outside, there is a covered area for smokers, a beer garden, and a children's play area.

Moving back towards the town centre and turning left, we have the Black Horse, an old coaching house in South Street. It has been taken over by a small pub company and brightly spruced up, with a homely public bar, an old fashioned snug, and a comfortable lounge area. Outside is a pleasant garden, a covered smokers' area, a playground and, rather exotically, a petanque terrain.

The international flavour is reinforced by the husband-and-wife licensees, Veronica de Oliveira from Brazil, and Laszlo Kovacs from Hungary. They met while working on cruise ships, and are both firmly committed to catering. Their very reasonably priced menus, plus specials, are based on local produce - and they make their own ice cream. The Hobson's beer is excellent.

Moving back towards the town centre, we have the Ducking Stool, dismissed in a 2005 Camra guide with the dread words: "No real ale or cider. Young person's pub." Happily, the first statement is out of date, following the introduction of Thwaites Original bitter, and a promise of more to follow. The Ducking Stool has been transformed into a stylish one-room bar, with a most attractive outdoor area. Live music features twice a week, with a Friday karaoke session for those with the stomach for it. There is food day and night too.

In Corn Square, at the heart of Leominster, the Three Horseshoes occupies one of the loveliest timber-framed buildings in the town, jettied out over the entrance to the charming School Lane. This is very much a working men's (and women's) pub, offering extremely good value food, constant television entertainment, and excellent Brain's beer from south Wales.

The Grape Vaults, on Broad Street close to the junction with High Street, is a little gem. Not many years ago it was a cider house. Now it offers a constantly changing choice of real beers, and cider too of course. The deceptively tiny bar room has an open fire when needed, and a surprisingly varied menu of freshly cooked food. The Grapes is a friendly and welcoming place which always seems to ring with laughter.

What's more, it has a ghost. Landlord Phil Saxon tells of mysterious footsteps on the stairs, of a child's footprint in talcum powder in the bathroom, and other spooky happenings. But it seems to be a friendly sort of spirit, in line with the pub's general atmosphere.

Not to be outdone, the Hop Pole on Bridge Street has two ghosts. The downstairs one regularly opens the front door wide, apparently from the outside. An hour or so later the door opens again when the bogle (Scots readers know what I mean) leaves. The upstairs ghost is a bit more mischievous, hiding objects and moving them about. Once, says landlord Chris Skinner, he came downstairs and unlocked and opened all the ground floor windows from the inside, at a time when the pub doors were firmly locked.

The Hop Pole, a genuine free house, used to be one of ten pubs on Bridge Street. It now does a brisk food trade and its Sunday carvery regularly fills the substantial dining room at the back. Alas, there is no real ale.

Back in the middle of town, the Black Swan on West Street is a popular venue for regulars and visitors alike. It offers accommodation, real beer, and a comfortable patio for smokers.

Slightly out of the town centre on Bargates is the Radnorshire Arms, an old-fashioned two-room local. Further out again, on the A44 near the Morrison's supermarket, is the Baron's Cross. Both of those offer real beer and a real welcome.

There is also the Talbot Hotel - not strictly a pub, but featuring a homely bar and an attractive menu. Until not long ago, there was also the Royal Oak Hotel, a lovely rambling Georgian building which could be a classic market-town hotel. Alas, it has been dark for many months, and in the current investment climate is hardly likely to get the makeover it richly deserves. Another question mark hangs over the old Post Office in Corn Square, which the pub company JD Wetherspoon has earmarked for development, but which stays stubbornly undeveloped.

The credit squeeze has undoubtedly hit the pub trade, as several landlords testify. So too, in some cases, has the ban on indoor smoking. But the main grievance, by far, is the torrent of cut-price booze on offer by the supermarket chains, which encourages drinkers to stay at home - where they can also smoke, of course. Nationally, pubs are closing at the rate of at least five a day. Praise be, we've not recently lost any in Leominster, where the grim economic times are countered by the hard graft and ingenuity of many landlords, and by their customers' realisation that the essence of a pub is not the drink, but the company.

Around and about Leominster, we are blessed with a wide variety of splendid country pubs. The Stockton Arms at Kimbolton is well worth a visit, as is the Balance in Luston and the Maidenhead in Orleton. In the lovely village of Eardisland there is the Cross Inn and the White Swan. At Kingsland there is a choice of lovely timber-framed pubs, the Angel and the Corners Inn, both tastefully modernised in recent years, and both offering excellent food. All the above, with the exception of the Stockton Arms, are easily accessible by public transport. And that, crucially, marks the difference between a one-pint and a two-pint lunch. Bottoms up!

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