It’s entirely fitting that, above the bar in the freshly-appointed dining room of The Old Peacock, you’re watched over by the framed, faux-aged visages of Billy Bremner, Paul Reaney, Eddie Gray, and other luminaries of a Leeds United team that shone like no other. Although the hand of that team has at times weighed heavily on the shoulders of subsequent players lucky enough to don the white shirt at Elland Road, The Old Peacock honours them; celebrating them and their memory with taste and style.
The Peacock’s gone through the mill in its years in the shadow of Elland Road’s south stand. It hadn’t avoided the old clichés of ‘football ground/local support’ clubs; serviced and run by fans for the fans; it fell short of attracting any trade other than those who chose to go in it. That’s not all bad; a “boozer” it was and a “boozer” it remained – but it lived and died on matchday takings. Changes of ownership, abrupt closures and a general malaise about the business itself didn’t help. On matchdays it was the place to meet if you wanted to sit in a pub (or, more acutely stand in the car park), but other than that…well, even if you were a home supporter, there where times where it felt like an exclusive place to drink.
So when news filtered through that Ossett Brewery had joined forces with the current owner Greene King and were going to take the place over, things had to be good, right? Ossett aren’t short of expertise in this area – they’ve won awards for their pub estate, with The Hop chain in particular proving that live music and real ale are natural bedfellows. But what exactly did I expect? Well, I expected decent beer – and not much else. A lick of Paint. New staff. We’ll get onto that later…
It’s difficult to talk about The Old Peacock (which is the new, yet old, name) without pointing out that the place is now somewhere that you’d want to drink in more often than matchdays. A simple concept – in fact, the only concept that will make pubs like this trade well – but so many get it wrong.
Jon Howe, author of All White; Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players, agrees. “The problem is that, in the other 340 days a year when Leeds United aren’t at home, the pub becomes just another establishment struggling to drum up trade in a low-income area where many people would prefer to drink at home. What Ossett Brewery have done is recognise The Old Peacock’s unique heritage and put a bit of thought into how they can exploit that 365 days a year. There aren’t many good pubs in Beeston. There aren’t many good pubs next to football grounds, anywhere in the country. The Old Peacock is now a vibrant pub that doesn’t just treat fans as a commodity to be exploited, much like the club’s previous owner did, in fact.”
“The Old Peacock adds a sense of refinement to an area that previously lacked it…” continues Jon, “…And the pub provides a welcoming atmosphere with great music that people might want to come back to, maybe even on a non-match day.”
The refurbishment is stunning, frankly. The way that Leeds United has been weaved into the fabric of the pub is brilliant; overt in the wallpaper on the far wall (a sepia collage of newspaper cuttings, trading cards and Leeds United ephemera) and the gorgeously florid Peacock mosaic on the floor ( which took over two weeks to complete by local artist Leyla Murr, using some 8000 pieces of glass), subtle in the yellow and white floor tiles and the clever dropping of the despised red from Ossett’s logo that adorns the windows. The dining room adds pictures of the brewers of Ossett and a gallery of old pump clips made into wallpaper that ties the whole feel together. It’s beer, beer and food, beer and football.
The overall effect is that – if you’re a Leeds United fan – you instantly smile; you spend first five minutes of your first visit pointing things out, wandering around, having a look what;s on the menu, and such. And if you don’t particularly care for football, it’s not in your face – you’re just drinking in a very smart new pub.
Jamie Lawson, the driving force at Ossett Brewery and this venture, couldn’t agree more. ‘The Old Peacock had been on my radar for a while – after all, it’s no secret that I’ve always been a big Leeds United fan. It had definitely seen better days prior to our refurbishment, but the whole team at Ossett Brewery were determined to return it to its former glory. We wanted to make it a place where everyone from locals and football fans to families and business people could come for a nice pint of real ale and some quality food, which I think we have achieved.”
I spend a little time chatting to Thanos Dimou, the softly spoken, enthusiastic bar manager who is more than happy to regale us with the story of the roller-coaster ride that the last few weeks have been. Despite being with the company for a while, it’s the first pub he’s actually run.
Thanos’s pride in the place is clear as he talks. He was here during the building, and saw the place become what it is now. I wonder aloud if there was any thought to strip the football ‘theme’ out of the place entirely, I ask. “No, not at all. As you know, Jamie is a Leeds United supporter, so all the little things you see (at which point he gestures around us) was all part of the plan from the beginning. We’ve kept the heritage of the pub… but want to make it a 7-days-a-week pub” Thanos re-confirms.
“It’s refreshing to see how the locals have actually taken to the place.” he smiles. “I’ll tell you something – one thing happened recently that was really touching. When we opened, these two guys came in, got a pint, clinked glasses and looked around with huge smiles on their faces. One of them then turned to other and said, ‘I’m home.” Those two guys are now regulars – one of them was actually walking out of the bar as we walked in. One wonders how often they drank in here on non-matchdays before. ‘The people of Beeston have been so respectful; they’ve embraced the change.’
It’s not only locals who are dropping in and planting their stakes in the ground. Thanos tells us of the recent visit of a gang of marauding Norwegian supporters (Leeds have a voracious Scandinavian following) who overran the place before a game recently, erecting flags in the car park and buying Peacock shirts to take back home with them. “They were fantastic. They had banners, flags, everything…they were here all day. They loved the place – it’s wonderful (as a bar manager) to see that.”
Beer – wise you’ve got the Ossett range that you know and love : Blonde, Silver King, Excelsior and 1919, a ruby-hued, sweetly malt-led house beer, brewed for the pub itself and commemorating the year of the club’s birth. Wine, lager (still the best-seller on matchdays) and ciders adorn the fridges and keg-tops. Make no mistake, this is Ossett’s show – the only concession to Greene King is the presence of Golden and Speckled Hen on the bar.
The food offering is excellent, too. On our visit we ate tasty, fresh Fish and Chips in gargantuan portions, and they cosy up alongside the likes of burgers, hot & cold sandwiches, and separate Pie and Grill menus, all at decent prices for the portion you get. The kitchen is now open – plan and faces what used to be known as the ‘members area’ (then a smoky room that you couldn’t go in), now a large dining room fronted by an impressive brick arch. You can eat anywhere, but the two spaces flow nicely; too many pubs with dining rooms seem to create invisible barriers – but not here. The staff, Ossett Brewery-shirted and busy, bustle about pulling pints and balancing plates of food as they go. Thursday is steak night, and Sunday roasts are gaining in popularity.
‘Although the physical refurbishment is complete our food menu will change regularly and we’ll continue to welcome new guest ales’ says Jamie. ‘…Plus, we’ll plan more events that will keep our existing customers coming back for more – we’ve already welcomed legends such as Eddie Gray through our doors.’
There’s been a pub on this site since the mid-1800’s, and the current one has been standing since 1963. Since then, the pub has undergone many, many changes. Let’s hope that this one is the last; Ossett have done wonders with it. But don’t take my word for it – go see for yourself.
You can buy Jon Howe’s ‘All White: Leeds United’s Greatest 100 Players’ via Amazon, and his webpage is here. You can see more (and buy) of Leyla Murr’s artwork on her site, where you can also keep up to date with her exhibitions. Since this article was published, Ossett have also opened The Hop in York, and Leyla has created another mosaic for the Rat & Ratchet pub.
It’s with great shame that I admit I’d never heard of The Watermill until coming across it in Adrian Tierney-Jones’ wonderful book, Great British Pubs. What’s this? I stuttered. An Inn that brews its own beer? And it’s massively dog-friendly? And a mere two miles from Stavely, home of Hawkshead Brewery?
It couldn’t have been more tailor-made for me unless it was in Stavely itself. So, bookings were made, Wilson’s overnight bag arranged (kibble, waterbowl, retractable lead, copy of Modern Dog magazine, that sort of thing) and off we went, meandering up through Ilkley, Skipton Kirkby Lonsdale and finally arriving in Ings, home of The Watermill.
More on that later. first up, Hawkshead Brewery. A visit that I’d been hankering after reading Nick’s excellent dispatches and, more recently, Phil’s experience of their summer festival. Despite just being after 12 when we arrived, hungry wife and panting Border Terrier in tow and salivating at the thought of super-fresh Windermere Pale, the place was filling up nicely with a good mix of people; two elderly ladies sharing a pork pie platter and glasses of stout, the obligatory coach visit of CAMRA types (the brewery t-shirts and relaxed attitude to ponytails giving the game away) and a couple of families. The tap itself is large, airy and light, and the staff are certainly attentive.
It took me a while to formulate the beer order though; there was just so much. Windermere Pale, Drystone Stout, USPA, NZPA, Red, Gold, Lakeland Lager…in the end it was a toss-up between Windy Pale (one of those beers I just can’t pass up – ever) and Drystone Stout for me; the Drystone being particularly impressive this time. Smooth, sweet, and heavy on the woody, bramble-fruit notes, it disappeared in about four gulps and proved the perfect foil to our cheeseboard and Scotch Egg lunch (thanks Nick, you were right about the eggs).
It’s only when standing in front of Hawkshead’s range that you realise that they’ve absolutely nailed the ‘Brewery for all seasons‘ angle. Whether it’s the comforting maltiness of Best or Red that you’re craving, or the hop-hits of USPA, NZPA that’s driving you, there’s something for everyone. Lakeland Lager and Gold couldn’t be more refreshing in the close heat, but if it’s colder then the autumnal, rich Brodie’s Prime is your man. It’s a modern tap, alright – wood and chrome and leather-backed chairs – but it’s one that you’d be daft to miss out on visiting if close by.
Our lodgings, The Watermill Inn, also has a decent reputation in doing things just right with a minimum of fuss. Our room was huge, frankly, and the place maintained a busy buzz in the deceptively large bar area most of the day. Of course, the main attraction is the brewery (see the website for the story behind the kit) and the incredibly dog-friendly attitude of the Inn; all the beers – which sees up to 6 or 7 on the bars at any time – are dog-themed, and well-brewed. Over the course of the evening I sampled a fair few of them, with the Blonde being my personal favourite; a light, airy pint with a super-dry finish doused with Lemon and Lime. The dark mild, Blackbeard, was another highlight later in the evening.
As the night drew in, the pub filled with walkers, guests and drinkers, 80% of them with a four-legged friend in tow. Our food was good and hearty – my Fish and Chips was amongst the best I’ve had in a pub; a huge, succulent fish, thick, crispy beer batter, sitting on a bed of mushy peas and home-made chips. The menu is simple but tasty and reasonable in price, and there is a bar for non-dog lovers.
Those that know me know that I’m not one for striking up conversations with random people – even in bars – unless pushed, but the thing about owning a dog is that you automatically find common ground; especially so if both parties are holding frothing pints of beer brewed all of 15 feet away. Still being warm, we moved to the tables outside, nestled next to a meandering stream, chatted to every punter that passed, met dog after dog after dog, and generally had a great time. Faith in the human race was restored, and we’re already planning our next visit.
We retired to bed happy and full. What more can you ask? A great British Pub, indeed.