IT IS always sad when a pub closes. Well, almost always – some are missed a good deal more than others.
But each pub that has been boarded up or bulldozed or born again to some incongruous purpose represents a failed business for someone, redundancy for someone else, the loss of a favoured boozer and bolthole for plenty more.
Only rarely do pubs depart the scene with a flourish – a drugs raid or a fire, or some awful act of architectural vandalism, the clatter of the wrecking ball accompanied by the wailing of protesters. The Florence Nightingale trumped all these with the spectacular gas explosion which wiped it clean off the map in 2008; the walking wounded made their own way to casualty at St James’s Hospital, which is handily just across the road.
Pubs outside hospitals have a ready-made clientele. The George and the Victoria serve Leeds General Infirmary, so the Florence Nightingale and the Fountain Head were favourite watering holes for doctors, nurses, visitors – and even the occasional absentee in-patient –for generations.
As close geographically as they were alphabetically, the Nightingale was always the more salubrious – bigger, more comfortable, more welcoming and raised at the height of Tetley’s hubris to the status of Festival Alehouse.
Even with its closest rival wiped off the map, the Fountain Head never quite seized the opportunity afforded it by the lack of competition and the extra car-parking space. Until now, when a four-week £250,000 refit by owners Punch Taverns has seen the place shift itself appreciably up-market.
As a statement of intent it could hardly be clearer – a new cellar, kitchen, floors, decor and furniture, and a renewed commitment to hand-pulled ale. Sepia prints around the walls show old city scenes – Roundhay Road, Boar Lane, Marsh Lane police station.
The Fountain Head isn’t quite so old, though – in common with several other old city alehouses – it still bears in its lovely stained glass the distinctive “bowing courtier” logo of the Melbourne Brewery, which was subsumed into Tetley’s in the 1960s.
Walk through the front door and you reach a traditional tiled-floor taproom with leather banquettes. The side door brings you into a plusher lounge with carpets and a restaurant area – though the food won’t start here for a week or two yet.
Deputy manager Sharon Brady’s a Beeston girl and has worked behind bars across the city, including stints at the Original Oak in Headingley and the Garden Gate in Hunslet.
She and manager Gail Harper were first shown the Fountain Head when the refit was under way. Their arrival is a clear part of Punch’s fresh determination to re-invent the Fountain Head as a benign and welcoming haven, both for the locals and for those brought to Burmantofts for medical reasons.
If an unsavoury past can sometimes leave a bad smell, then Punch have cleared the air, both literally and metaphorically: “We used to come here on a Friday night, but they started to get some really unpleasant people in and we drifted away,” customer Katherine Goodchild tells me. She and colleague Andrew Shearing are now back as regulars: “We heard it was being done up so we came back. I’m quite partial to the Golden Pippin, so we come in at least twice a week.”
She has good taste. This zesty, golden, refreshing beer from Copper Dragon Brewery at Skipton has become one of my firm favourites too. Here it shares the bar with Keighley’s finest, the lovely, unspoiled Timothy Taylor Landlord – one of Britain’s true ale classics.
Sharon clearly understands the key role she and her colleagues will play in putting this pub back on the map. “If I walk into a pub and I feel uncomfortable, I just walk straight out again. But this place is lovely; the people who come in are brilliant.”
Name: The Fountain Head
Host: Gail Harper
Type: Well-kept local
Opening Hours: Noon-midnight Mon-Sat, noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Timothy Taylor Landlord (£2.80), Copper Dragon Golden Pippin (£2.80), John Smith’s Smooth (£2.80), Carling (£3), Budweiser (£3.10), Stella Artois (£3.40), Guinness (£3.25), Strongbow (£3.10)
Wine: Small selection
Food: Lunches starting soon
Children: Welcomed until 7pm
Disabled: Easy access
Entertainment: TV, dart board, games machines
Beer Garden: None
Parking: Pay and display areas to side
Telephone: 0113 2930635
Beer of the Week
Old Foghorn is every bit as big and bold and assertive as its name suggests, its arrival on the palate as dramatic as was the departure of the Nightingale from Beckett Street. Once tasted, this beer cannot be ignored.
It comes from the renowned Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, a region notorious for its smog. And Old Foghorn delivers so distinctive a blast of molasses, red wine and black treacle that you’d know exactly what this was, even if you were drinking amidst a pea-souper so thick you couldn’t read the label.
Brewed to a dangerous 9.4 per cent ABV, this deep amber beer has some enticing whisky-ish aromas, and a hit almost as powerful, these lovely rich sweet flavours wrapped in a warming blanket of malt. Anchor is one of a handful of breweries which were in the vanguard of America’s craft beer revival. When Old Foghorn was created in 1975, it was the first barley wine to be brewed in the United States since prohibition. Find it at www.beerhawk.co.uk