THE 20th century was one of constant change – in society, in politics, in the home, in work, in life.
What pubs have always done is offer a refuge from the madness outside, providing a secure place of re-assuring constancy in an uncertain world.
And yet so many of the great pubs which served the ordinary man throughout this time of strife are now gone, erased from the map, or so facelifted in the name of progress that it feel impossible to leave the chaos of change behind on the threshold.
Yet very occasionally one can find precisely that kind of place, and among all the city centre’s pubs, the Fenton is one of just a small handful which have emerged largely unscathed, and would remain recognisable to any Leeds drinker who dropped through a 50-year wormhole back into the city which was once so familiar to them.
They would know the Templar of course and the Victoria, and this little trio of wonderful old public houses should now be protected and preserved as proud palaces of fine beer, and lauded for being every bit a part of our heritage as the churches and parks and great public buildings we fight so hard to save.
To step into the Fenton from busy Woodhouse Lane is to step back in time, a point underlined by the line of Tetley huntsmen in painted glass along one wall. Our time-travelling drinker would never believe that the city’s favourite beer was now being brewed in Wolverhampton.
There is now no Tetley’s on the Fenton’s central bar, though each of its frontages onto three separate drinking spaces boasts a proud line of real ale wickets. The first area, to the left of the front door, is a simple taproom of bare wood and chequerboard tiles. Sculpted green ceramic surrounds a fireplace; a low step takes you into the bigger, wooden-floored lounge where long banquettes and a cluster of well-worn stools maximise the drinking space.
Here, black tiles and curving carved wood frame a roaring fire topped by a giant mirror. An ornate chandelier hangs overhead. A detailed screen of frosted glass and care-worn polished oak separates this room from the central corridor, again tiled, and broad enough to be a sociable drinking space in its own right.
Drinkers lean on the bar as – behind them – balls are clattered around a pool table in the one room not directly served by the bar. I guess the gold-painted ceiling and brightly-lit juke box would surprise our thirsty time-traveller, yet if he looked beyond that, beyond the TV and the necessary fripperies of 21st century life, he would see plenty here to remind him of home.
For as long as anyone can remember, this has been a place of academic debate. In the fifties and sixties some of the great poets and writers held court here, in a time when the University of Leeds garnered a reputation for the alternative, the left-leaning and the avant garde.
It’s early on a Monday evening when I call in, and a slow stream of academics and students are trickling in from the labs and lecture halls just across the car park. Physics is the closest department to the Fenton’s back door, and a small group is discussing some abstruse point of magnetism – over a pint of course.
A place like this stands or falls by the quality of its beer, and I think there are few places in town which can match the Fenton, pound-for-pound on quality and value. Their standard ale is the Fenton Special, brewed specially for here by Marston’s yet with the refreshing, nutty, softly bitter qualities which would be instantly recognisable to the drinkers who spent their lives supping Tetley’s here. And at £2-a-pint it offers the kind of pricing which students really crave.
Marston’s more overtly bitter EPA offers an up-range alternative; rich dark Hobgoblin provides for those who prefer a premium ale – and acts as an alternative to Guinness, which isn’t served here any more.
“This is just a drinking pub, pure and simple,” manager Ryan McGhee tells me. “We try to appeal to everyone.
“In an ideal world we’d do food, but you don’t want to be sitting down to eat when you find the pub suddenly get invaded by a load of Otley Runners.”
He has a point. The Fenton is the penultimate stop on the city’s infamous pub crawl, which winds along Otley Road from Woodies in Far Headingley to the Dry Dock in the city centre. The last time I did it, I never made it so far as the Fenton; those that do are generally plastered – and in fancy dress. It’s not a pretty sight.
Name: The Fenton
Host: Ryan McGhee
Type: Unspoiled alehouse and music venue
Opening hours: Noon-11am Mon-Thur; noon-1am Fri-Sat; closed Sun
Beers: Fenton Special (£2), EPA (£2.60), Hobgoblin (£3), plus one guest ale. Carlsberg (£2), Carling (£2.80), San Miguel (£2.90)
Wine: Reasonable choice available by the bottle or glass
Entertainment: Live music upstairs, TVs, games machine, pool table and juke box. Room available for hire
Children: Not particularly suitable
Disabled: Easier access to the front
Beer Garden: Yard to the rear
Parking: On-street and city-centre car parking available nearby
Beer of the Week
Christmas cake fruitiness dominates this splendidly named ale from the Shepherd Neame brewery in Kent, Britain’s oldest.
An attractive bright copper colour, there are some interesting metallic tinges to an aroma which soon gives way to a big burst of fruity flavour when it hits the palate.
The name comes from an ancient wooden signpost which once pointed pilgrims towards Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas a Becket. First brewed in 1958, as the brewery celebrated its emergence from postwar austerity, the beer has now been rebranded, though its colours – gold, purple and black – reflect its ecclesiastical connection.
Brewed to a premium-strength 5.4% ABV, this is a great beer for that long after-dinner lull on Christmas day. It would go beautifully with some strong cheese, I reckon.