“YOU MUST have heard that I had come back,” says manager Martin Lockett, hotfoot from Morrison’s and joining us for a drink.
“Er no..” I say, but Martin remains convinced that him returning to the Abbey after a spell away from the business is the sole reason for me doing likewise.
The truth is more simple. I’m here because a friend lives just round the corner, and when I called in to see her last week, I was reminded that it had been ages since I’d visited the Abbey.
I’d heard dark rumours that this historic beer and music venue had gone downhill - and Martin admits that his recent beer festival saw off 43 casks of ale, roughly half what his drinkers managed in previous years. Its place in the Good Beer Guide has gone, its County Pub of the Year Title a fading memory.
Martin is determined to get the Abbey back on the map and restore his staff’s “sense of pride” in the place. “It has been a turbulent period,” he admits. “But now we have a team which people recognise; they talk to the customers, they say ‘goodbye’ when you leave. These little things are very important.”
They are, not least because this pub is at an absolute dead end, won’t get any passing trade – save for the occasional walker – and for the Abbey to thrive, Martin needs to persuade punters to make the awkward trek down Pollard Lane from Bramley Fall Park and back to this famous old inn.
Its history is probably unique. It began life as a farmhouse in the 18th century but by 1826 it was already an inn and soon owned by the dye plant next door, chiefly so they could regulate the drinking habits of the workforce.
For many years it doubled as a mortuary. The bodies - many of them suicide victims pulled from the canal and river nearby - were laid out in the room which is now occupied by the pool table. Few pubs combine the dead and dyeing quite so convincingly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ghosts abound: a grey lady, a Cavalier and a mysterious cloaked figure. There are reports of taps that won’t turn off and furniture flipping over by itself and mysterious breathing. Only recently a customer reported seeing a chap behind the bar who he knew had died a few weeks before. Occasionally ghost-hunters come to spend the night in the bar, in the hope of being spooked.
For those of us who prefer more mainstream entertainment, the Abbey remains a popular music venue. Around the walls are clarinets, guitars, a trombone and a mini drumkit. On one wall a bodhran has been decorated with an advertisement for Tuesday’s acoustic nights.
But the main attraction for me here will always be the sensible, sturdy, traditional pub food and the quality real ale. Perhaps it has slipped a little in CAMRA’s estimation, but the clearest evidence of Martin’s determination to revive the reputation of the Abbey can be found on the bar, where a host of guest ales jostle for attention against his two regulars, refreshing Leeds Pale and citric Mary Jane. I opt for the “mystery ale” at the end of the bar - a dark, slightly metallic mild-style ale being sold to raise money for Manmillan cancer nurses. Drinkers are invited to guess what beer it is, with the winner set to pick up a bottle of whisky. I guess Banks’ Mild from the Black Country, but it turns out I am at least 150 miles off target, geographically speaking. So there’s a clue.
Giving away the Scotch will be a wrench for Martin, as it’s something of a passion for him and one which he will be sharing with his customers at a St Andrew’s Day event on November 29, when seven different malt whiskies will be paired with the inevitable haggis, tatties and neeps. I’ve got my name down already.
There’s a clutch of beer festivals in the Heavy Woollen this weekend. The New Inn at Roberttown, which has its own micro-brewery, has themed its event ‘Barrel of the Sexes’ with beers by seven (male) brewers and seven (female) brewsters. The Navigation in Mirfield and Shepherds Boy in Dewsbury are also staging festivals of their own. Enjoy.
Opening hours: Noon-11pm daily
Beers: Leeds Pale (£3), Mary Jane (£3) plus five guest ales. Fosters (£3.20), Stella Artois 4 (£3.30), Staropramen (£3.90), Peroni (£4.20), Leffe (£5), Somersby cider (£3.15)
Wine: Small selection
Food: Traditional pub meals served noon-4pm daily plus 6-8pm Wed-Fri. Special Sunday menu.
Entertainment: Acoustic night Tues, music quiz Thurs, quiz Sun, pool table, plus occasional live acts.
Children: Welcomed, children’s meals available
Disabled: Slightly tricky ramp access from pub car park.
Beer Garden: Open air area to the front of the pub, partly covered.
Parking: Small area to the side
Telephone: 0113 2581248