Published on October 2, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour2
Fresh start made from teamwork
A newly-refurbished Northumberland pub has original thinking in its traditional beams, writes Alastair Gilmour
It’s common knowledge that if you walk into a pub anywhere, you’ll be greeted with an assemblage of characters, framed pictures, alcohol in all its forms, and a pig’s head. Actually, that’s not entirely true for every pub, but we did manage to come face to face with Porky at the Bird In Bush in Elsdon, Northumberland.
We’re not delving into strange practices here – this pub is a Thesaurus full of positive adjectives; brilliant, fantastic, excellent, wonderful. The pork is in the fridge, marinating in brine and ready to be converted into brawn. It’s a kitchen, it’s what happens behind those swinging doors.
The Bird In Bush is a Grade II-listed building that traces mid-1700s origins when Elsdon was the capital of Northumberland and drovers’ roads criss-crossed the rugged landscape lined with cattle en route to marts in Newcastle and Durham from The Borders and local hill farms.
It sits within the Northumberland National Park and has taken partners Katie Bland and Steve Shaw – plus a dedicated team of helpers – the thick end of three years to refurbish an ordinary pub into something special.
“We changed our plans all the time as the work evolved, working with the building,” says Steve Shaw. “Being a listed building we had to have approvals every step of the way. Windows had to be the original sash style, the flooring correct and proper hardwood doors.”
Behind a dressed stone exterior and Welsh tiled roof lies a two-roomed pub with three letting rooms (two doubles, a family) plus a bunkhouse for those cyclists and walkers who enjoy life’s bare necessities.
A huge fireplace dominates the lounge and one can only imagine how much heat was created for the room itself and those upstairs. Underfloor heating fuelled by a biomass boiler has taken over that task today.
Adjoining the fireplace are a couple of higgledy-piggledy cupboards which take their line from the sloping beamed ceiling, suggesting they were actually built like that, rather than square. An aperture at the back shows that beer would have been passed through to “undesirables” (and perhaps even women) who were not welcome inside. Presumably, payment made the reverse trip.
A public library will function in the lounge, complete with computers and aided by The Pub Is The Hub scheme which helps places like the Bird In Bush to operate at the centre of community life, providing essential services beyond the usual drinks, food and entertainment.
The pub will be open during the day to enable locals to engage in distance learning with sustainability very much in mind – alongside gallery space for artists to show their work. A fresh supply of library books will rotate every three months.
Katie Bland says: “We also received a grant from the Princes Countryside Fund which is earmarked for innovative projects to provide a lasting legacy for communities. I don’t think all of this would have been possible without it, so we’re very lucky.”
The majority of the pub’s beer comes from First & Last Brewery which occupies outbuildings at the rear – yet another example of local provenance. The best-selling Equinox Pale Ale (4.2% abv) and Reiver (4.2% abv) have sublime aromas and flavours. They are supported by Stell Stout (4.3% abv), Mad Jack Ha’ (3.8% abv), and a range of innovative beers using chillies and indigenous ingredients such as water avens, elderflower and ground ivy.
“It’s all going really, really well,” says Sam Kellie who runs the brewery with his wife Red – undoubtedly one of the North East’s most creative brewers.
“Northumberland likes its session beers – 3.5% abv to 4.5% abv – which possibly wouldn’t sell that well in Newcastle where more challenging beers around the 5.% abv mark are more the norm. We’ve just brought out Mad Jack which went really well at The Town Mouse in Newcastle when we had a tap takeover.
“We want to keep our beers interesting. Basically, beer is a science experiment you can drink.”
The pub’s large, superbly kitted kitchen – which looks as though it took up the vast majority of Katie and Steve’s budget – is the domain of French chef Guillaume “Will” Rideau, who had worked for 13 years at the Redesdale Arms at nearby Rochester.
Some serious food action is going on here with beer at the centre of it as an ingredient or as an accompaniment. All around are trays of the freshest vegetables, a collection of mushrooms, a salmon prepared for curing, and that head – from a Hungarian Mangalitza pig raised by the Kellies and fed on brewery grains – now wallowing in herbs.
“There is no menu,” says Will. “It’s all about what’s available on the day, so when it’s gone it’s gone. I don’t go to the butcher’s or the greengrocers for the same things every day – I ask for what’s new, what’s in season and what is in really fresh condition.”
The Bird In Bush and similarly named pubs such as Bird In Hand have been popular descriptors since the 17th Century, derived from the saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
As an addition to the region’s rich pub culture, this Bird In Bush is sure to fly high. Worth two of a lot of others, some might say.