WITH the announcement of the winners of CAMRA’s Tyneside and Northumberland Pub of the Year competition, there are four deserving winners ... and four different back-stories of hard work and dedication to the pub trade.
While the list is full of familiar names, the stories behind each are very different, though equally deserving. It’s a list of contrasts, too: for Tyneside winner the Free Trade Inn, in Byker, it is the first such award, though its fiercely loyal band of drinkers would argue it has deserved more.
Full of exciting, hard-to-find beers from both close to home and across the world, as well as a host of popular events, it has only been beaten by the sheer weight of the North East’s emerging beer scene.
It’s arguably unfair to class it as “emerging” as we now have brewers and pubs to rival anything else in the country, and so the competition for podium places in the pub of the year awards is fierce ... something landlord Mick Potts points out.
“We’re completely over the moon – it was quite a surprise to win. The beer scene and real ale in Newcastle has never been stronger; there are so many good pubs and bars to drink in these days and the quality is at a level it never has been, so to be nominated is special and to win is amazing.”
The Free Trade Inn has come second to the multi-award-winning Bacchus on High Bridge, which has dominated the Tyneside award in recent years with its plentiful and exciting keg and cask lines. But the Free Trade has previously won cider pub of the year, which gives an indication of its strength in depth and the amount of hard work.
Mick’s hard work is not going to let up any time soon. There are plans for events that will bring a new dimension to drinking. One will be beer and food matching events. Instead, Mick will get round this by holding collaborations, on a regular basis, with street food vendors who can make the most of the Free Trade’s excellent outdoor space.
From a first-time winner to some old hands. The Boathouse in Wylam might come as no surprise as the South West Northumberland winner, but this year is particularly poignant. Landlord Norman Weatherburn built the Boathouse into a bastion of good quality ales and great pub atmosphere, and won the South East title repeatedly down the years with no other pub coming close.
When he died, last summer, it left a huge hole in the North East’s beer community. His children, Mark, 36, and Lynsey, 32, took over, not only at the Boathouse but the family’s new project at the Kings Manor near Manors Metro station in Newcastle.
Faced with running it by themselves, it comes as a wonderful testament to their fortitude and abilities that they have continued their father’s success and won the South West Northumberland award again.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” says Lynsey, who gave up her job at the Freeman Hospital switchboard to take on the Boathouse full time. “Dad would have been over the moon. Everything we learned was from my dad.
“It means a lot to us, especially now my dad’s not here, to still be able to get the award. It was hard at first but it all came together. Even the regulars have helped to keep us right, and one of the guys at Hadrian and Border, Martin, is always there for us.
“We’re just going to carry on – if it works, don’t change it. That’s what he always said to me and my brother.”
Meanwhile, the Tap and Spile in Morpeth has taken the South East Northumberland award, a testament to how landlady Margo Boyle has managed to keep her tied house ahead of the game despite the difficult economic conditions.
The Tap and Spile inspires loyalty among its drinkers; there are regulars from 20 years ago who still turn up for events, and Margo makes sure they are all made to feel welcome.
She has won the title in 1994, ’99, 2000, 2007 and ’10, ’11 and 2012 ... a string of wins which highlight the incredible task she faced when she first took over 21 years ago.
Seven months after she and husband Allan took over the Tap and Spile, Allan died. Along with losing her husband it also left Margo with a decision to make.
“They asked if I wanted to stay,” says Margo. “I thought about it and had a week to decide. My daughter and son were away and I decided to stay as I’d have to make an effort. We’d been together since we were at school and it was a big hole in my life. But I had to keep doing things and think ahead and that keeps me going. Now I have three grandchildren ... I’m the pub grandma!”
Speaking of loyal drinkers, you don’t need to look further than the Ship Inn at Low Newton – the North Northumberland winner – to see how a well-run pub with lots of hard work behind it can get people returning time and time again.
Of course, anyone who has been to the Ship will know of its stunning location near the beach, but that alone cannot guarantee success.
Instead, mother and daughter team Christine and Hannah Forsyth have built on it, bringing in ultra- local crabs and lobster from Newton Bay, and running a microbrewery.
Their brewer, Michael, has a range of 23 beers despite only being able to brew three at a time, and the beer is only available from the pub itself.
The bottles have become so popular that they are outsourcing bottling to Cumbria this year to meet demand. Coupled with film nights and live music, the Ship gets people coming regularly from a wide catchment area.
“It’s very family friendly,” says Christine, who took over in 1999 and was joint winner last year with the Barrels Ale House, Berwick.
“We’re right on the coast so we get a lot of tourists. And we get a lot of regular customers from Alnwick and Morpeth. Quite often they will come on a Sunday, have a walk then come in for lunch or for a band in the evening, and the film nights too.
“We have lovely staff who’re very welcoming, which makes an amazing difference.”
Dad would have been over the moon. Everything we learned was from my dad. It means a lot to us