Published on July 7th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Something old, something new

Publicans continue to fight their corner and the ones with the enthusiasm, customer care and positive attitude will succeed. Alastair Gilmour visited a handful of ‘newcomers’ to see what they have brought to the sector

20bThe Fox & Hounds, Wylam

When shortly after taking over a new pub, a runaway caravan crashes into your bay window, it must make you think what you’ve taken on. But Karl Parkin and Jan Colman – having arrived at The Fox & Hounds in Wylam from the Wheatsheaf in Felling, Gateshead – took it in their stride. Luckily, no-one was hurt.

Like many pubs, the Fox & Hounds has had its ups and downs of late – quite inexplicably in this case as it’s a bonny place. Customers had undoubtedly voted with their feet, but at least Karl and Jan saw the potential.

“Wylam is such a nice village and this is a great pub,” says Jan. “There were two ale handpulls already on the bar but Karl pressed for a third because he wanted people to know we’re serious about our beer. We hope to have at least one local ale on all the time. We get so many visitors here from Germany, Australia and America – most of them walkers – and the first thing they ask for is a local beer.

“We started with no staff, no stock and no customers, but we’re turning it around with massive support from the village. It’s been brilliant – people have introduced themselves and offered help because they just wanted their pub back.

“It’s a real community pub with two cricket teams, a dominoes team, a leek club, amateur dramatics society and a football team – and we have the bellringers. We’re also introducing music nights – weekends have been brilliant.”

A new menu features burgers, jacket potatoes, and the likes of fish and chips and pie and mash. Fingers crossed for a runaway success.

The Fox & Hounds, Main Road, Wylam, Northumberland NE41 8DL. Tel: 01661 853246

20cThe Staith House, North Shields

A prime position in an upcoming area benefitting from a lot of investment – surely a recipe for success?

Not for the New Dolphin on North Shields’ Fish Quay. Over the past few years the pub had become frayed at the edges and laboured under a negative reputation. The Dolphin had dived. But just over a year ago, former Masterchef: The Professionals finalist John Calton and his wife Kimberley, along with business partner James Laffan, took the plunge, gutted the place and last November changed its name to The Staith House, its 1807 original. None of them had ever run a pub before but ambition and determination – with substantial personal investments – have conquered any lack of experience. Now they’re well into paying back big chunks of the £300,000 loan they secured from Heineken’s Stars & Bars division.

“The first day we came in still running it as The New Dolphin – which we did for five months – we took £20 behind the bar,” says John. “Some weeks we’d only do £250. Even our accountant, who had been very supportive, started to say ‘what are you people doing?’”

But what a transformation. The Staith House is bright and welcoming, uses its space well, and is complemented by considerate use of reclaimed timber and brick. Portholes, a ship’s bell and other fittings have come from a vessel called the Marigold. The new owners had a big say in the pub’s design with bags of lovely detail that looks absolutely right and not out of kilter like some pub refurbishments can.

Beers are chosen well from the Heineken stable – Deuchars IPA, Theakstons Lightfoot with guests, an impressive range of lagers and bottles plus a wine list to be proud of.

“We’ve got a big interest in real ale and to keep it in top condition,” says John. “We want to be the very best.”

But it’s the food that The Staith House is developing its reputation on – “meat from the farm and fish from the sea” is no idle boast but fresh-faced reality that changes almost daily with availability. From the bread baked twice a day (amazing) to Isle of Lewis mussels, game stew, Hampshire pig chop and grilled North Sea hake, this is Masterchef quality.

The Staith House, Low Lights, North Shields NE30 1HF. Tel: 0191 270 8441 www.thestaithhouse.co.uk

20dThe Queen’s Head, Great Whittington

Having spent the last six-plus years working in finance in Beijing, Alan Tran and Pat Shek came to realise that the worsening air pollution in a city of 20m people would eventually affect them and their baby daughter.

Alan is originally from Manchester while Pat is a Newcastle girl – so an opportunity to do something different back home was too good to miss. And you can’t get much fresher than a Northumberland lungful.

They took over The Queens Head in Great Whittington in May of this year to combine running the traditional bar and lounge in the listed, stone-built building with a Chinese restaurant spiced with ambition and quality.

Alan says: “We’ve kept the bar just as the villagers recognise with a nice restaurant at the back. It’s all very tastefully done – we have deliberately stepped away from the ‘normal’ Chinese décor of lanterns, dragons and red wallpaper, which just wasn’t us. We wanted a contemporary atmosphere. Most of all though, we’re trying to keep the bar at the heart and soul of the village.

“We love the countryside and Great Whittington is an idyllic Tynedale village. The pub had been neglected for some time so we set about scrubbing it out. We would arrive at 8am and leave about 1am the next morning. The locals saw what we were doing and asked if they could help in any way. They just wanted their pub back and were excited about a Chinese restaurant opening. It was big news for Great Whittington.”

Alan and his staff make their own sauces from scratch – to recipes his father Ivan (a former chef in Manchester’s China Town) handed over. “We’re not just buying in cans and adding water,” he says.

It’s a real family affair – Pat’s aunt Susan helps front-of-house – with everyone happy to roll their sleeves up.

“My dad and my father-in-law have been helping in the kitchen and the chef has come from Artisam in Corbridge.”

Now Satay sauce (red chilli, peanut butter, coconut milk and tropical spices) meets Wylam Gold Tankard across the table (“our best selling ale”) along with High House Farm Nel’s Best and Sundancer.

“We’ll chop and change the beers with the seasons and the local breweries have been really supportive,” says Alan. “They’ve been brilliant with us being new publicans.”

The Queens Head, Great Whittington, Northumberland NE19 2HP. Tel: 01434 672 267

20eThe Harry Clasper, Whickham, Gateshead

The latest North East JD Wetherspoon pub opened in June in celebration of a 19th century sportsman reckoned to be the Alan Shearer of his day. The Harry Clasper in Whickham, Gateshead, occupies the former Gateshead Council offices in a village already well served by pubs, so the move has proved fairly controversial in some quarters – although a Wetherspoons opening does tend to ruffle existing feathers.
Do you want an empty eyesore gradually falling into disrepair and vandalism or do you want a thriving, positive business that could actually complement your own?

The dust will no doubt settle, but the pub’s varying sized lounges and bar are very well appointed – sumptuous even – with an eclectic range of beers and reasonably-priced food, so it’s job done.

Harry Clasper – eventually to become a world-champion oarsman – was born in nearby Dunston and in his early teens worked in the local coal mines before taking up an apprenticeship in Palmers Ship Yard in Jarrow, South Tyneside. It’s thought that is where he learned his skills in boat building and it wasn’t long before Harry and his four brothers were building rowing skiffs of their own and becoming a skilful, all-conquering crew.

Theirs was a world of professional rowing and in 1843 at the Tyne Regatta, Clasper and his brotherly crew, using the first keel-less boat won £525 in one race. Even divvied five ways, it amounted to an enormous sum of money. Then in 1845, the Clasper crew won the Championship of the World event at the Thames Regatta in London. On their return to Tyneside crowds flocked to see them, making roads impassable.

In June 1862, he was given a testimonial at Balmbra’s Wheatsheaf Music Hall, in Newcastle’s Bigg Market where he was presented with a pub bought with money collected from friends and the general public. When he died on July 12, 1870, his funeral was attended by more than 100,000 people. The cortege left the mouth of the Ouseburn the via the River Tyne to eventually reach St Mary’s churchyard in Whickham, only yards from the new pub named in his honour.

The Harry Clasper, Front Street, Whickham, Gateshead NE16 4HF. Tel: 0191 488 3418 www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk/home/pubs/the-harry-clasper

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Alastair Gilmour

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