The Public House That Roared

Photo by John Hillier-Smyth

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a sweet little missive for the Evening Standard about his favourite pub, the Moon Under Water. He speaks warmly of the Victorian style decor, the friendly barmaids, the food, the cheap beers and the absence of any intrusive piped music. The twist comes at the end of the short piece when he admits that there is no such place as the Moon Under Water, but that if anyone finds anywhere like it, would they please let him know.


According to the company’s website, a journalist once remarked to Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin that his chain pubs were exactly like the perfect pub as described by Orwell. And Orwell’s Moon Under Water sounds lovely until you realise that yes, he might be describing a Spoons. Now, my local branch, the Ferry Boat , is very nice. They took over the old Kwik Save store and made a cheap pub with acceptable food and a nod to local history with the name (Runcorn had a famous ferry which crossed the Mersey estuary and is immortalised in the poem ‘Tuppence Per Person Per Trip’.) I’ve been to the Ferry Boat a number of times and it’s perfectly pleasant and a community minded place. But show me the person who says that any branch of Wetherspoons, Yates or All Bar One is their ‘favourite pub’, or ‘the best pub in the world’. (Incidentally, there are many pubs called the Moon Under Water, and if George Orwell was resurrected today and had the misfortune of seeing one I’m sure he’d comment ‘This is a Me-an nightmare!’)


The phrase ‘the best pub in the world’ is so subjective as to be ridiculous. For this reason I don’t like those lists which tout ‘twenty pubs you must drink in before you die’ – all of the pubs mentioned are always what I call Racist Grandad Pubs- they’re white, old, and full of anachronistic ideas.


Once I was asked to travel to London to go to a meeting which ran from 9.30 to 1pm. However my train back wasn’t booked until five, so I had the whole afternoon to kill. I went to Camden and sat in the Hawley Arms, probably best known for being the regular haunt of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. (I mean the very nature of their personalities meant they had more than one ‘regular haunt’, but you catch my drift.) I had been around the market and purchased a scary looking puppet of a woman, vaguely Indian in dress, for the princely sum of one pound. I was just admiring this nightmare of a thing, which I inexplicably still own, when someone loudly commented. “I’ve got that puppet!” As opening lines go, it was a winner, and I ended up chatting to this bloke for a while. After our second pint he asked did I want to go to a better pub, and possibly seeing the Woman Alone In Big City panic in my eyes, assured me of my safety by flashing his police badge. This didn’t really fill me with confidence but he did promise this was ‘the best pub in London’ and I know how coppers like to drink. So off I went.


We walked up Castlehaven Road, where we ducked through a housing estate and ended up at this decidedly ordinary boozer. I can’t remember the name of the pub, or exactly where it was. I have looked on maps to try and find it, but to no avail, perhaps it has closed since, this was about 2011. It was a standard Victorian pub, virtually empty, with a landlord that the copper addressed warmly by name. The landlord gave the non-commital upwards jerk of the head which we all recognise as a sign he doesn’t know who the fuck you are, but the happy copper wasn’t bothered.   We spent two hours in there, and I could not for the life of me understand what made this the best pub even on the street, never mind the whole of one of the most vibrant cities on earth. This though, is a perfect example of the subjectivity of the ‘best pub’ accolade. No sooner have you declared somewhere to be so, than some jumped up oik like me questions why this pub is any better than the last one. It’s probably an intangible quality which forces us to make these declarations. I’ve been known to utter the phrase ‘best pub in the world’ whilst discussing places I would never recommend that anyone actually went to. (The Picture House in Liverpool would be one example).


There are some pubs in the UK with an historic reputation which tends to propel them into the ubiquitous ‘best pub’ lists. The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead Heath is one of them.The pub was an old coaching inn where Charles Dickens was apparently a regular, it even gets a mention in ‘The Pickwick Papers’. As I was going to London for my birthday I looked it up with the intention of booking in for Sunday dinner and found that to my dismay it was next door to the house of a very famous pop sensation with whom I might have a slight obsession. (I won’t disclose his name because he is apparently quite litigious concerning his privacy, and also because he is my life, my love, my sweet leonine prince.) 


I knew that if any of my friends found out that this pub was to be found in the one direction that this pop star lived, they would just assume I was stalking him and rip the piss firmly out of me. I actually considered not even going anywhere near this pub, ever in my life, but in the end I went, it was lovely, they ripped the piss out of me, and then we all went back a year later and they ripped the piss out of me again. The Spaniards charges too much for a pint, and makes you feel too unworthy of it to be ‘the best pub in world’, but it comes very close. They have nice beer, a massive beer garden, one of the best Sunday dinners I have ever eaten in a pub, and a lovely cozy interior which allows dogs. Two other problems – it’s a ball ache to get to, and it is usually so full that your only choice is the beer garden unless you have booked about a month in advance. Therefore, if I were to apply my own Orwellian standards to the Spaniards, it would fail on account of how busy it was. My perfect pub would only ever be just over half full. And any pub which appears on one of these Bucket List articles is always busy.


If I have to think about the perfect pub, the best pub in the world, I am always drawn to two places, both named after Lions. One is still with us, though currently closed due to Coronavirus. One died in my lifetime having been there since the reign of  Victoria. 


On Knutsford Road, Warrington is a gas showroom which was once one of my ‘locals’ although I never lived anywhere near it. I have tried to explain this concept to non-pub goers on many occasions without success, a pub’s designation as your ‘local’ is not necessarily anything to do with geography. It’s almost like when someone identifies that raving lunatic currently causing a scene in the pub as your mate, and you have to concede that, although you are not currently accompanying this person, don’t know where he lives, and would not be at all bothered if you never saw his face again, he is indeed, your mate for the purposes of being embarrassed in a pub and asked to have a word, because you worked with him for six months, or he bought a puppy off your uncle, or he’s your dad. 


So the Golden Lion in Warrington was one of my locals. It was a reasonably attractive double fronted Victorian pub with a grand architrave upon which perched a 2 foot tall golden figure of the eponymous King of the Jungle, sat proudly, daring the passer-by to pass him up and go to the Royal Oak Branch, which didn’t even have a mascot, not even a branch. During the 1998 World Cup the landlord adorned the lion with an England shirt, and didn’t remove it even after we’d been cruelly dispatched by Argentina in St Etienne. It stayed on through wind and weather, and when questioned about the attire of the lion the landlord, Barry, just replied that it would be Euro 2000 soon enough and he wasn’t going up the ladder again. At the 2002 World Cup the lion was still wearing the shirt, now little more than a dingy, greying rag, and by now there was a healthy running joke. “Eh up Barry, Alan Ball’s on the phone, he wants his world cup winner’s jersey back”. 


(After the pub closed and became a furniture shop the lion remained. It was stolen in 2013 but quickly returned after a public outcry and the shop owner threatening to ‘break the thief’s fingers’. It disappeared again a few years later.)


I started going to the Lion when my dad worked out that I might be some use on the pub quiz team. The pub quiz was run, in traditional style, by a portly gentleman with a monosyllabic name and a world weary air. The only glimmer of pleasure in his otherwise gloomy countenance was when he had a real stinker of a question that was way too clever for the punters of the Golden Lion. “Nobody got that one then? A few of them got it at the Friar’s on Thursday night…” he’d say, trying to stir up some local rivalry and make us feel inferior to pubs which had a food menu and clean toilets. 


The prize for winning the quiz was a bottle of house wine, though in the two plus years that the quiz ran only a lucky handful of winners ever got to actually own it. The quiz master would announce the winners in the same way every week. “And the winners, with 30 out of 40 are The Railway Men, who win a bottle of house wine.” He would then give a dramatic pause before finishing “…which is to be donated to the annual Old Folks Christmas Party.”


The Old Folks Christmas Party must have been a swinging one indeed because out of fifty-two weeks of quizzes the wine was claimed for it about fifty times. Every now and then, new people would come to the pub quiz, and they would be greeted and courted by the quiz master as though they were visiting foreign dignitaries. If these newcomers won the quiz, we all had to sit in bitter frustration as the mythical bottle of house wine was brought out, given a clean with a bar cloth, and handed over as it were a mere trifle and not the Holy Grail we had sought for so long. 


After our team had enjoyed a particularly good winning streak and still not edged any closer to an actual prize, the quiz master pulled my dad to one side and disclosed that he enjoyed eight free pints for doing the quiz, and that it was, in fact, the only way to come out on top of the game, at least as far as Barry was concerned. “I’ve been asked to do a paid Sunday night gig over in Appleton,” he whispered, “and if you want, I’ll recommend you to take this one over – eight free pints. Think about it.”


My dad did indeed think about, and decided that he would sacrifice half those pints to not have to speak in public by himself, even to people he’d known for thirty years. To see the fear in his eyes at the thought of speaking on the microphone you’d have thought he’d been asked to lead Abide With Me at the cup final, not address the half empty lounge of a local pub. As I had a good two years of hospital radio under my belt I was basically the Dermot O’Leary of the Golden Lion, so I did the reading of the questions, and my dad did the technical bit, which involved forty two pence pieces and a bottle of Tippex. 


Now you might be frantically reading back over the chapter looking for clues as to the need for all this copper and correction fluid. Let’s just say that my dad wasn’t happy with simply taking over the reigns of the quiz, oh no. Like a young and bullish new football  manager taking over from a retiring stalwart, he wanted to ring the changes and add a bit of glamour and excitement to proceedings, so he invented the Bingo Quiz.


The Bingo Quiz was simple in design if not execution. Quizzers would select six numbers from a bag which would make up their bingo card. If they answered the corresponding questions correctly, they had a ‘bingo’  and won a prize, usually a box of chocolates but occasionally a toy car or some other ‘fun’ gift my dad had picked up from the pound shop. As he didn’t want to go to the additional expense of buying a set of bingo balls, dad just collected forty 2p pieces and tippexed the numbers on them. Despite the early hiccups, eg the punters’ bemusement and the fact that the numbers would flake off the coins with quite staggering regularity, dad persisted with the bingo quiz, and eventually people began to accept it as normal practice. Only the baffled countenances of newcomers threatened to shake confidence in the new style game, but screw them, they always got the wine. 


Charming half-arsedness tended to be the Lion’s trademark as a pub. Every Sunday afternoon they would do a bingo game where the prizes were the ingredients of a roast dinner. Bagging a line would get you a bunch of carrots, some spuds, or some gravy granules, and the full house would be a chicken. I always admired the participants as thrill-seeking adrenaline-junkies. Who would gamble their family’s chance of a Sunday dinner on the outcome of a pub bingo game? The likelihood of winning all the ingredients was low, so I can imagine some poor chap sitting at the dinner table waiting for his missus to come back, wondering if this week he would dine on sweet, sweet fowl flesh, or whether once again Hilda would return with only a sprig of sprouts and the whiff of brandy on her breath. 


The Golden Lion’s ‘head barman’ was called Silly Arse, and he might have walked straight out of a book of seventies sitcom cliches. His short ‘black’ hair was brylcreemed to within an inch of its life, plastered down, unmoving like Lego hair. He always wore a white shirt and black trousers with a black tie, and often a waistcoat. The one time I saw him in jeans and a tshirt it was like seeing a horse walk around on its hind legs. I believe his real name was Derek but he was always referred to as Silly Arse, and indeed often punctuated his sentences with his own nickname as if it were his catchphrase. Silly Arse had a gift for never being at the side of the bar where you were waiting. You could see him stood in the lounge side for hours, but as soon as you got to the bar he was gone. “Silly Arse!” you’d yell, and he’d call back “Alright, I’m serving!” only, over at the bar side you’d be sure you could hear someone yelling “Silly Arse! Where are you?” He was like Schrodinger’s barman.


Dominos and darts were both popular at the Lion, they had a good darts team who often won, and enjoyed write-ups in the Warrington Guardian every week, framing their victories over lesser pubs like the Mulberry Tree and the Bulls Head like they were reminiscing over the fall of Rome. Their sports writer would roll out paragraphs of stylised commentary which was notable for the number of times he had to use the word ‘darts’. Gary Sherlock ran out double and bull in two darts for a 14-darter only to see Les Davenport put the bull away first dart to make 2-2. Tony Roberts and Carl Cooper both wanted double after 12 darts but a two dart finish by Tony was too much for Carl.”


Although darts was the ‘glamour’ game at the Lion, they did also have a pool table. The problem was that it was too big for the parlour room they stuck it in so it was necessary to unscrew the pool cue into its two halves and just use the pointy end. This made accurate potting unlikely, as you might expect. In fact, if you were unlucky enough to find the cue ball on the right flank of the table you had to crouch on a built-in banquette underneath a window to get any action on the cue, and hold said cue at a 180 degree angle. The sweet spot on the table was near the bottom left hand pocket where, due to the doorway being situated just behind it, you had the luxury of screwing the two halves back together and using the full power of the cue. However, the eye rolls which would accompany this long and drawn out procedure meant that most didn’t bother, and just used the half-cue with a bit of extra welly on it. 


On one occasion a bloke of about 75 called Sam, who usually kept himself to himself and never interfered in the complex operation of the world’s smallest pool hall, suggested that they have one cue always in half, and kept one screwed together, that way there would be less back and too during play. This cunning solution earned Sam a pat on the back from the players and he sat there sipping his pint of mild with a hugely satisfied smile. I later found out old Sam used to be an engineer. God knows what superhuman restraint allowed him to sit week in week out watching this charade and not sneak back into the pub in the dead of night to knock a few walls down. (If he had, he might have uncovered the large mural of a lion stalking a unicorn which was rendered in gold leaf and only discovered when the new landlord had the wallpaper stripped in 2000. At the time he commented that regulars had been going to the Lion for forty years and not seen it but then thanks to the tobacco stains they probably hadn’t seen the wallpaper either.)


The Lion was just outside the town centre and so could get away with having a lock in. In most Victorian pubs the entrance consists of a vestibule with two doors, one on the right leading to the saloon or lounge, and one on the left leading to the bar. In the late 1800s saloons became popular in newly built pubs as somewhere that you could have musical acts, turns, and sometimes table service. Invariably the drinks would be more expensive in the saloon or they would charge a small admission fee. In the early twentieth century the saloon became the lounge – carpets and upholstery on the furniture were  the order of the day to make people feel like they were actually at home, and for the newly established middle classes this was an attractive proposition. The bar, on the other hand, would have bare floorboards, tiles, or just a stone floor. Beer would be cheaper in there and they would sometimes throw sand or sawdust on the floor to soak up spilled ale. When more women started using pubs, the ladies toilets were usually placed in the lounge, with the men’s in the bar. 


When a lock in was called at the Golden Lion, the lounge was shut off because it had curtains instead of thick blackout blinds, and it would have been more obvious to passers by that there were people still in the pub. Also, confining punters to the bar would  keep the noise to a minimum and keep service in the one room. However, keeping the lounge closed meant that the ladies toilets were not accessible. When there was a lock in, the system was this – if a lady wanted to use the men’s facilities they would simply call ‘Lady in the gents!’ and cover their eyes as they went in. There was an unspoken rule that blokes would not enter the toilets when a lady was in there, which was flouted so regularly that it was quickly forgotten about. I was not present for this incident, but one night, the police happened across the pub during a lock in and demanded to enter. At this point all the punters were herded into the gents toilets to hide while the police were allowed in to run a check. And so about fifteen people, still holding their drinks, were stood in the men’s toilets with the lights out trying to be quiet despite being inebriated.  At the time a bloke was in there using the urinal and one of the ladies demanded he ‘hold it’ until the coppers had gone. Now it’s difficult enough to keep from giggling when you’re drunk without the added temptation of a tortured soul repeatedly whispering “I can’t hold it. It’s coming. I have to let a little bit out, cover your ears.”


There is so much more to say about The Golden Lion, like the fact that its beer garden was slowly sinking into the river Mersey, and the insistence of the landlord that the dodgy tasting beer was not down to him not flushing his pipes, but was actually the effect of ‘atmospheric pressure’ (you would often hear an impromptu chorus of ‘Stormy Weather’ from the patrons when it was particularly bad). After the pub was closed (the sinking foundations being the primary reason) the punters all moved to first the Adelphi Vaults, and then the old rival, the Royal Oak Branch. Silly Arse however, went to work at a pub on Mersey Street. One night he was leaving work after having had a few jars and tripped off the pavement into the road, was hit by a car, and died of his injuries days later. 


It can be quite depressing to look at the Golden Lion now and see that the exterior is hardly recognisable. The windows have been replaced, the vestibule has gone, and the old King of the Jungle, Goldie the football shirt wearing Lion is no more. Walking down Knutsford Road you’d never know that there was a pub there at all. 


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