The Oakwood and Me
“He awakens from this dream unable to remember exactly what it was, or much at all beyond the simple fact that he has dreamed about being a child again. …He thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be a grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…I will write all of this down one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.
Or so Bill Denbrough sometimes thinks on those early mornings after dreaming, when he almost remembers his childhood, and the friends with whom he shared it.”
Stephen King, IT, 1985
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…. they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970
As in most summer childhood memories of the early 1990’s, it’s hot. Really, really hot. Hard, powder-blue sky, short shorts and sweaty polyester replica football shirts. Ice pops dribbling neon sugar-water down your wrist. Leeds United are playing – or have played, actually – and have won. I know this even though we’re playing in the car park of The Oakwood pub with a rapidly-deflating ball. We’ve all been assigned the requisite personas: Speed, Strachan, Chapman, Dorigo et al. Everybody wants to be Gary Speed or Lee Chapman, of course. It’s less of a football game, more a Battle Royale with a 99p football. The radio’s on in the bar and the odd explosive cheer emanates from inside when the double doors to the beer garden swing open, kicked by a guy doing trying to port three pints of Skol to his mates outside. The terrace adjacent to the car park is full, and pints upon pints of gold-hued lager are being necked with almost as much ferocity as the mid-day sun beating down on this corner of Leeds. Cars rolling up and down Easterly Road are beeping their horns and through the tree-line to the dual carriageway beyond I can see the odd flash of a white, yellow and blue bar scarf draped down the side of a nearly-closed car window. We play. The sound from the pub and the terrace is just chatter: low, grown-up talk humming under the cranked commentary, sailing on that ashen crown of cigarette smoke that pubs had in those days.
Thomas Dutton and Co at The Salford Brewery was founded in 1799 and thrived as one of Lancashire’s early major brewers. In 1897 they changed their name to Duttons Blackburn Brewery and in 1928 they began to acquire neighbouring breweries and their pub estates, which fuelled Dutton’s growth in the following years. Around 1936, they built The Oakwood Hotel in Oakwood, Leeds.
Blackburn Brewery Company, Volunteer Brewery in Bolton, Penrith Brewery, Leeds’ Kirkstall Brewery and Adlington’s Mercer’s (of the famous Mercer’s Meat Stout, brewed with meat extract) all ended up in the arms of Dutton’s. At one point they owned well over 600 pubs and off-licences, radiating outward from Blackburn and across Lancashire and Yorkshire.
This carried on until 1964 when Duttons – and their estate – was purchased by London brewer Whitbread. Dutton’s name was obliterated a couple of years later, becoming simply Whitbread West Pennines.
Since the close of the second world war, Whitbread had also been expanding their operations by acquiring smaller, less financially stable regional breweries. By purchasing Dutton’s, Whitbread added another 764 pubs to their already growing estate. By 1971, Whitbread had bought another 26 of these breweries, including the likes of Rhymney, Liverpool’s Threlfall Brewery, and Brickwood, who were housed on the south coast.
The new playground was amazing. When the weekends came, we couldn’t wait to get up there; turn the corner and be faced with a brand-new, multi-level slide and swing set, all standing proudly atop fresh, still-damp wood chippings. I still catch the smell of those chippings in garden centres to this day; deeply earthy, sweet forest floor. When I do, I’m transported straight back to that playground.
The slide; shaped like a fort with two levels that begged to be transformed through the alchemy of an adolescent mind into a rocket, castle or den. Something to be defended. Somewhere to hide.
…And the swings – oh, the swings! The never-ending tournament to see who could go ‘All the way round’ – or, jump off at the highest peak, sail through the air like Eddie the Eagle and land on two feet – began in earnest that afternoon, I’m sure. Ringed by the bushes, which ran the edges of the beer garden and concealed within a labyrinth of dens and hiding places, you had a first-rate world to play in. The pub – boxy, white, stern – lingered in the background like a playground monitor. That was where your parents were. Or – even worse – other adults. A source of pocket money, yes, but this was not their world. This was ours.
The years that followed were prosperous, and Whitbread became a gargantuan operator. Despite buying off-licences and starting a considerable spirits and soft drinks division, when the ‘70’s rolled around, there was another market that Whitbread had their eye on: casual dining. Founded in 1955 by Frank and Aldo Berni, Berni Inns had had proved immensely popular. Their mock-Tudor restaurants catered in ‘quality’ steaks, indulgent desserts and – perhaps most famously – prawn cocktails – at prices keen enough to keep families coming to dine there once a week.
So, with the opening of the Halfway House in Enfield in 1974, The Beefeater Inn was born. Whitbread had been testing the steakhouse concept in the north with Trophy Taverns and Dutton’s Grillhouses but had pulled them all under the Beefeater Steakhouse umbrella by 1979. There was a new gang in town, armed with as much steak, deep fried scampi and black forest gateaux as you could handle.
By 1984 there were 150 Beefeaters in Britain, with Scotland following and a fraught expansion into Germany. Beefeater was a success, and remained a bedrock of Whitbread’s retail division throughout the 1980’s. The Oakwood became one, and remained one right through the 80’s.
As for the pub itself, the memories are vague; really vague. As i sit and type this, at 38 years old, I’m wondering how much of my memory is construct, how much genuine. But, I’ve visited it enough in my mind-palace in talked about it with relatives to assert that regardless of how much truth lies within, I’m happy with it.
The Oakwood didn’t seem like a gloomy or dark pub. Windows ran most of the way around the bar and let plenty of that aforementioned glorious 90’s sunlight in. The carpet was standard-issue red floral, the mouldings faux-brass and the wood stained mahogany, as was the norm in those days. Entering the pub you were faced with a long, glass-backed bar along one wall, with raised seating areas straddling the back walls, behind you. The odd, multi-level design made the pub feel larger than it probably was. Cigarette machines abutted the doors, and probably did a brisk trade on the days the man with the bag full of ciggies didn’t come around, stopping at each table.
But the bit that made it interesting was where the kids ate. The Oakwood had a grotto.
The grotto is strange to comprehend, even for my young mind. Plastic walls molded to look like a cave, green and blue lighting, a bridge that you had to cross to get into it. Piped music; pixie lullabies, perhaps. I remember a booth – a small one, child-sized. Must have been hell for the adults to sit in it. I can hear water. I do remember, clearly, the food. A white, branded plate, laden with steak-cut chips, peas, and chicken nuggets. Burgers with splodges of ketchup dead-centre in the middle of the bun. Orange fish fingers. Ice-cream in little metal bowls. It’s all good. Actually, better than that – It was magical. We must have eaten here loads, but these are the only things I recall of the grotto at The Oakwood.
My Mother worked for a short time behind the bar at The Oakwood. Her recollection of the bar layout matches mine but offers a little more on the grotto: and village: ‘To the right of the bar, as you walked in, there was a step leading down to the grotto, which contained little houses with actual windows, doors, and tiled roofs. Each house contained a table and seats and, as you can imagine, the lighting was dim. Before you got to the houses there was a stream with a bridge and a tree. There was a water feature inside that trickled water into the stream. It was like a cave with lights.’
Katie Hargrave, who grew up nearby, has kindly passed on a few of her family’s’ pictures for use in this piece. Although not dated, you can see the tiled roofs of the little huts. In one, the railings of a well, which also contained running water. She recalls enjoying birthday parties with Mr Men cake. A munchkin village inside a pub, indeed.
Poster Valerie Clapham on the Leodis Photographic Archive is also on the birthday party trail: “I can remember when this pub was done out, they created a children’s room like no other I ever seen, at least in this country. They had a stream running through, there were trees and plants, it was brilliant. You could book the room for parties, both my two had their Birthday parties there. That would have been in the late 1970s”
Distinguished Leodensian beer writer Barrie Pepper- who also lives nearby – recalls: “ I visited it when it was a fish restaurant a couple of times. The food was ok but it was a bit pretentious! (Later) it had streams running through it with dinky little bridges…’
As Barry attests, the area where the grotto stood in those days was, for a long time, a fish restaurant – which may seem like an odd choice as a bolt-on to a suburban boozer but for the upwardly mobile residents of Oakwood it was popular enough.
I can’t find any other references to the ‘Grotto’ design being used elsewhere; the thought of the Leeds one being the only one is a comforting one, at least.
It’s Christmas Day. As usual, we’re at our grandparents. Despite my uncle’s slightly ruffled appearance due, no doubt, to Christmas eve excesses, it’s been suggested that the younger men of the house decamp to The Oakwood for a beer or two whilst dinner’s being prepared. My dad, brother, uncle and I trudge up Oakwood Lane to find a buzzy, slightly lairy Oakwood pub and spend a pint or so – forced, I’m sure, in my uncle’s case – catching up before walking back home and (hopefully) finding a fully-cooked Christmas dinner prepared and ready. I had received a Walkman that very morning and was besotted with it. Orange-foamed headphones, the lot. Gunmetal gray with yellow detailing, along with a double cassette of Now ‘91. (I didn’t remember the year or full tracklisting – I’ve just looked it up. Heh, memories). I was obsessed with The Scorpion’s biggest hit ‘Wind of Change’ – it’s haunting, whistled refrain and unabashed power-ballad chorus coupled with just the right amount of mystery peppering the lyrics really hit me where I lived in those days. I sat with my coke, drowning out the yuletide pre-lunch topers, spongy headphones on, lost in a world of German power ballads.
The 90’s, however were a different matter. In his 2014 book, Brewers, Brands and Pubs in Their Hands, Tony Thornton writes “….With Whitbread’s propensity to experiment and introduce new restaurant concepts, observers wondered whether it (Beefeater) was being starved of investment.” The brand became a little dated and declined – hardly helped by the BSE crisis that hit the UK livestock trade in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. A site restructure meant that 50 sites, including The Oakwood Beefeater, was sold.
Word spreads like a summer heat-rash on the streets. The Oakwood is no more. It’s going to be ….a McDonalds.
We can’t believe it.
It’s like all of our christmases have come at once. McDonalds was the sole preserve of ‘town’; a pre- or post- cinema treat. Soon, those salty-delicious fries and squishy, saucy burgers are going to be on our doorstep. What a life.
Except, when it opens, we’re all a little too old to really care. We go, of course. A couple of our friends have actually gained employment there – tales of food allowance if you work a certain amount of numbers astound the gang. Free McDonalds!
Planning permission documents place the Oakwood Pub becoming a McDonalds in 1998. In 2006, a further 239 sites (mostly ones not attached to a Premier Inn) were sold to Mitchells & Butler, who still operate the brand today.
The Oakwood was a compass, a turnpike in our young world at the time. The green and yellow Yorkshire Rider buses which took us to ‘town’ (Leeds City Centre) stopped there, headed westward and – as is the way of a lot of pubs on roundabouts – the stop was referred to as ‘The Oakwood stop.’ To the north of the roundabout, Roundhay Park lay with it’s vast, green spaces, lakes, ice cream vans and concerts – perhaps the place that encapsulates my childhood the best. To the south lay our house and that of of our grandparents, as well as our schools. Friend’s houses dotted all around the vicinity. With the opposite parade of shops boasting a chinese takeaway (The New Dor Bo – still there) and Big Mama’s pizza, a launderette (Soap Opera – still there), my second-cousins Butcher’s shop (seriously; when i say the meat trade runs in the family I mean it) a real, reach-out-and-grab-the-produce grocer (Fruit Bowl), two newsagents (one which was, almost retro-futuristically called ‘Candylines’), a branch of Threshers (Also owned by Whitbread at one point – RIP) and, for a short time, an grimy, dark independent video rental shop which had a couple of tatty arcade machines – The Oakwood roundabout was pretty much the centre of the world. And presiding over it all was the art-deco grandeur of The Oakwood pub.
It’s only later – much later – that I realise that I never got to drink beer in The Oakwood. I never got to catch up with the gang as adults, buying a couple of rounds or lingering over a boozy lunch. Our kids won’t play in that playground, the source of so much happiness for me, my brothers and sister, and our pals. Yes, everybody drifts away – such is life – but the Oakwood looms large despite me never enjoying it on its own terms. Our timelines didn’t align, our stories just fell out of sync. I’d have loved my first underage pint to have been in there.
But it’s still there, in a way. I can visit McDonalds, and feel strange; like I’ve slipped into another dimension and there’s only me who knows it. I can order a burger, and mentally draw up where things used to be. The girl serving me wouldn’t have even been born when it was a pub. I can eat my burger, feeling odd, like a temporally-displaced character from a Philip K Dick story. I can drive past it, and point it out to my daughter and wife, then spend the next ten minutes recounting the stories I’ve just told you. At least there’s that. Despite the golden arches, it still looks like The Oakwood.
The Oakwood and me: we parted on good terms.
A memory: I’m working on Saturdays now, in my grandfather’s Butcher’s shop. I get home around five and am old enough to kind of do what I want. I have a friend – who lives over the road – whose mum lets him watch Horror movies. He’s a little older than the usual gang, and I’m a little older now, too. I go over to his house, knowing that Saturday night is film night. I knock on the door. He’s eating, and could I come back later? asks him mum, wearily. So I take myself up to the chinese takeaway and buy what, to me at the time, represented the absolute pinnacle of self-sufficient comfort food: New Dor Bo’s Fried Rice. I ask for a fork and with my steaming aluminium carton in tow, cross the dual carriageway to sit on The Oakwood’s wall. I gobble my food, knowing that when I’m finished I’ll wander back towards home. I’ll call for my mate and we’ll watch Halloween and The Thing in the dark, scaring ourselves witless. Easterly Road is busy, people getting home after work, readying themselves for the weekend. The sun’s setting. Behind me, kids play in the playground. Our playground. They look young.
I don’t know them.