Our task: to find good beer and reasons to be cheerful among London Road’s ailing public houses: a window into Liverpool past and glimpse into its future.
Opposite the Eastern Bloc brutality of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, the Old Fort was clearly, once upon a time, a knackered old pub full of old scousers coughing lungfuls of Capstan Full Strength and quaffing pints of mild.
Pubs near hospitals always have an extra edge of pathos. It’s easy to imagine the sick and the recovering seeking a medicinal pint, or blessed relief, from the Old Fort. Nowadays it’s had a makeover and gained a smokeless stove. There are rows of old-fashioned condiment shakers, but it seems like a half-hearted protest against the MDF and Sky Sports. Students will be nosing round next, and the crackheads, the crippled and the criminals will have to seek a different drinking establishment.
Looming over the road, and looking bleaker by the second as the light fades, is The Royal. It is, perhaps, the last building on Earth you would associate with the royal family, or health for that matter. The whole area feels infected by the hospital, all slab grey concrete and rusted steel. A sick building. We are, indeed, in the arena of the unwell.
For the first, but not the last time today, we realise how poor the choice of ales is. It’s Guinness all the way in from here. At least, that’s what we assume. Durty Nelly’s is selling a drink that is Guinness in name only. What a name to conjure with. There are plenty of Dirty, Durty (its more authentic-sounding cousin) and Scruffy prefixes adorning Irish pubs. This one is as Durty as they come.
A bloke is skinning up in the toilets. He’s about six foot five. He may have come from the Royal.
“Are you students?” he asks, in a not-unfriendly manner. No, we’re not students.
“I’ve been in a good student pub,” he says, clearly keen to keep the conversation going, and imparts the name of a pub we avoid due to poor customer service about 20 years previously. It seems unwise to disagree. It’s not the worst pub in the world, we reply. He thinks about this for a second.
“No,” he concurs. “This is the worst pub in the world.”
Looming over everything in the bar is an incredible, ornate ceiling and a large mural detailing the history of Durty Nelly herself. The room is dingy and lit by a sickly yellow light, so it’s largely illegible. It seems appropriate – Durty Nelly should be allowed to keep whatever secrets she may have tucked under her voluminous bloomers.
It’s a characterful place, if the character in question is half cut, missing a few teeth and has a shadow on the lung. One suspects that, no matter what, Durty Nellys will never get a makeover like the Old Fort – and quite rightly so. There’s nothing fun about this pub, and that makes me like it more. Pity about the beer. On the way out, we notice a large cock and balls graffiti’d onto the door. Perhaps this is, in a way, the worst pub in the world. But we like it.
If there’s one pub on the London Road pub crawl that is reckoned to pose the most trouble in terms of physical danger, it’s The Post Office, next on the list. But we’re a few pints down by now and not feeling especially trepidatious. The most amazing thing about The Post Office is a long, long narrow corridor that runs the length of the pub and leads to the kind of toilets you only see in the North of England.
In the back is a dark room full of men watching sports, while a short chap walks in and out of the pub with a small but powerful-looking dog. A few regulars at the bar look at our group askance, but we’re veterans of boozers like this. We buy bar snacks, and they relax slightly. The Post Office looks like it hasn’t changed in 25 years. Its decor and vibe speak of Saturday nights with Russ Abbott and The Grumbleweeds, daytimes of horse racing and midweek Sportsnights.
But the London Road area is changing, Perhaps the last bastion of real Liverpool scouseness in the city centre is slowly but surely being taken over by students and new-build flats. There are now cafes and bars and wi-fi. There’s a small group of vulnerable-looking, gauche international students. They don’t seem to be aware of it, but the pub rejects them, like opposing poles.
If more proof were needed of the change in the area, we get it 30 yards down the road. The Royal George has had some sort of ghastly aborted tart up, so that it now no longer resembles an old salty pub, nor a fresh new establishment. It looks as if an MDF-wielding team from the BBC arrived, half-heartedly put down some flooring, gave up, and left. There’s not much else to say.
The next stop confirms it. Things ain’t what they used to be. The Windsor is closed, permanently from the look of it. Cheap supermarket beer, smoking bans, competition – whatever the reason, another of the great Liverpool corner pubs is gone. Other pubs gone to the great brewery in the sky in this area, in recent years, include The Dart and Shamrock and The Swan.
Someone on Twitter suggests we detour to a bar near the coach station, but there’s no draught beer on, so we head to Paddy’s Bar – The Original Irish Paddy’s Bar And The Best” – more of a corridor than a pub, ever-so-Irish. A telly is strung from the wall, covered in grime and felt tip.
There seem to be some stag and hen parties in, and two scouse matriarchs are serving behind the bar. There are pages of incomprehensible scrawl on the wall, presumably relating to lottery, accumulators and assorted gambling. The toilets may be the most basic in the British Isles. In its own way, it’s charming and, despite the basic decor, it’s a friendly place. We watch some rugby and drink Guinness. Again, it seems appropriate.
Time is marching on, although we are starting to stagger a little. A few pints before commencing the London Road pub crawl have seen to that. Dutch courage. Now thoughts turn to the remaining pubs, but time is pressing. Have we got time for Ma Egertons? And is the Ship and Mitre really within our locus?
We move on to The Lord Warden (“Warm, Friendly Atmosphere”) instead, only to find that it has also suffered a makeover. It still has some characters though, and I get caught up in one of those ‘are-we-or-aren’t-we-having-a-laugh?’ banters with a group of middle-aged scousers, who look like they spend a lot of time standing near the toilets, talking about footy slightly too loudly.
They’ve pegged us for a gang of students, and ask me what I think about the boxing. But I know my boxing, clearly more than they do. This doesn’t go down that well. They ask me if I want to fight the largest of the group, who looks like he actually has the most sense.
I make a joke, careful not to to let the ‘are-we-or-aren’t-we-having-a-laugh?’ mask drop. In these conversations it’s vital never to let the banter stray from this grey area. The potential ramifications are two-fold. The first is to be taken for a soft lad and laughed at. The second is to risk a hiding. Somewhere down the middle lies the sweet spot of escaping with dignity and teeth intact.
The pub crawl was more enjoyable than I expected, but much more quiet and uneventful. I’d anticipated the odd hairy situation, but it never materialised. In fact, we dominated every pub we visited, they were so quiet. It’s sad to see some pubs that have fallen by the wayside even since I came to Liverpool, and some that are a shell of their former selves.
Perhaps updating the decor and theme of pubs like the Lord Warden and The Old Fort has robbed them of something vital. There’s now no point to ever go to them again, though locals may welcome something that offers a warm, clean, relatively safe place to eat and drink.
There’s a real danger, of which I’m constantly aware, that reminiscing about old pubs, and bemoaning their lost character, falls into a kind of anguished middle-class false memory about the way pubs used to be: all bar skittles and shove ha’penny and singalongs and stoppy backs.
I suspect that the updated pubs were faced with a choice: adapt or die. That’s why it’s important to drop in on your neglected local from time to time to have a real pint of bitter. We only miss these awful, dirty, dangerous, weird pubs when they’re gone. But really they’re not so awful, dirty, dangerous or weird. They’re a little link to the past, a little refuge from the neon and vulgarity and lager; a little slice of real Liverpool life. If we take them for granted we lose them, because times are hard for our pubs.
The great working class masses coming up from the docks, from their ledgers and from the factories have been replaced by white-shirted white-collar workers looking forward to a can of Carling and a Tesco curry in front of the TV. That pint on the way home has gone the way of the dock workers, the sugar factory and British Leyland.
But you can save your pub and experience a side of your city you rarely see. You may not want to see it that often, but you’ll be happier just knowing it’s there. A pint of bitter, a dog in a pub, pork scratchings, a chat with an old soak who has stories to tell. Stop yourself next time you’re walking past one, and make yourself open the door and pop inside. It’s as close to a door to a different world you’ll ever find.