HAPPY 30TH BIRTHDAY TO HARKERS
A somewhat nostalgic tribute to a splendid beer haven............
Some 25 per cent of British pubs have closed since 2001 and are still disappearing at a rate rocking towards 20 a week.
So it is with some real joy that I can report that The Old Harkers Arms in Chester celebrated its 30th birthday just the other day.
There are pubs with much longer heritage around in Cheshire. But few that have traded so distinctively and successfully throughout their life.
‘Harkers’, as it quickly became known, is something of an institution in the city. There was a low key celebration for regulars last weekend, but otherwise this landmark birthday seems to have passed largely unnoticed. But I was there in the beginning, so I thought it I should remark it here.
Created by the Jerry Brunning and Graham Price pub duo, it was the first northern outlet of the then fledgling B & P group, which later became hugely successful. What a godsend it was for Chester, which had long been under the relentlessly unforgiving grip of the ubiquitous Greenall Whitley pub estate. And good news for me and fellow PR execs who dwelt across the road in Russell Street, a long way from a decent town pub.
When Jerry and Graham tried to buy the property it was an abandoned canal boat chandler’s warehouse, located in a rundown and forgotten industrial area of the historic city next to a sludgy Shropshire Union canal. They needed $120,000, but local bankers refused to back it! Undaunted - well they are both stubborn blighters - they persisted, found backing and refurbished the premises with a 'style' they sort of invented using relclaimed materials, rugs, historic prints and photographs and a mish mash of old furniture all chucked in, apparently willy nilly. There were multiple real ale handpulls.
And there was a rather old school approach - believing that pubs were for drinking good beer and fine wine, for simple dining and, crucially, for socializing; no music, no game machines and certainly no mindlessly blaring TV - no, not even for rugby.
Harkers was an instant success. Packed every lunchtime (when office workers lunched big style) and evenings (pubs closed in the afternoon back then). No pretentious gastro pub this, on ‘no food’ Friday nights all the furniture – heavy wooden tables and chairs – were shifted to the back and heaped high. The crowd was a solid mass from the doors right to the bar. The decibel level was, well, a bit ear shattering. Happy days!
But you always got served with a cheerfully obliging bar staff. I know this because from my PR consultant desk it was hardly a two minute dash to the bar. How blinkin’ lucky was that? .
Ales and Pies
It’s not often quite that mad busy now, times have changed and they even serve food on Fridays. But let’s say many licensees would be happy with Harkers' midweek business on their Saturday night. The founders sold up several years ago to the Restaurant Group plc - think Frankie & Benny's. However, under the excellent stewardship of landlord Paul Jeffries for some years, and now surrounded by smart new apartment buildings, Harkers has thrived by keeping true to its original ethos.
It's received a barrel full of awards and been in the Good Beer Guide for 20 plus years. The
birthday week was marked by a range of creatively tasty pies alongside a selection of Great British Beer Festival Champion Beer of Britain winners down the years.
What a contrast with those early days when the cask beer choice was limited to the likes of Bombardier, Boddingtons and Flowers Original – all good cask ales back then and still a very welcome relief from the aforesaid amorphous Greenalls. Today there’s always a choice from a host of independent brewers.
Harkers is billed on their website as a ‘proper old city of London boozer but in Chester’; yet it’s better than that. Often when I return to Chester by train, wearied from a beer trip, I take the three minute stroll from the station. It’s like coming home and sliding into a comfy pair of battered slippers. Aaah! I have taken beer enthusiasts there from all over the world. They love it. So do I - you may have guessed.
All pubs can’t be the same, we need variety. But if only the big company chains could get their collective corporate heads around this near magical model we may see a halt to the creeping death of our unique pub heritage. Maybe their bosses should pop into Harkers sometime. Bankers do.