TUCKED away a few hundred yards from any decent tarmac, Old Leo’s faced something of a problem amid the recent wintry blast – they had no real ale, and there were no brewers willing to risk their delivery vans down to the remote end of winding, unmade, Crag Lane.
But in Ridgeside, Leeds has a brewery which is willing to go the extra mile to make sure the beer gets through, almost literally in this case. So brewer Simon Bolderson – who happens to live nearby and be an occasional drinker at the club – made a personal delivery of two casks direct from the trading estate in Meanwood Road which is home to his burgeoning business.
And by the time the thaw came and I called in at Old Leo’s, they were already onto the second barrel, this the pale golden and bitter Rushmore, whose name reflects the industrial quantities of American hops which Simon packs into this lovely refreshing brew. That the first barrel had been drunk indicates two things – the popularity of the Ridgeside beer, obviously, but also the fact that even in the worst weather, this out-of-the-way watering hole still attracts a decent footfall of customers.
Founded in the 1920s to allow the former pupils of Leeds Grammar School to continue their sporting pleasures; on leaving the school, one would automatically become a member. They bought the sports ground – three rugby pitches and one cricket pitch – in the 1950s, and established the clubhouse as a rather exclusive drinking den. On the walls, honours board bear in gilt letters the proud names of club captains and chairmen stretching back to the club’s earliest days.
An old school tie is no longer a requisite for membership. It opened its doors to all-comers in the 1970s, and now Old Leodiensians now attracts a much wider clientele, and while its prime market remains club members and those drawn here to play and watch sport, the bar is open to anyone. “If people just want to come here for a drink they are very welcome,” club steward Tony Firth tells me. “If they come more than once we might ask them to take up membership, but it’s only £15 a year.”
I know Tony from way back, when he ran the football team at the much-missed Cranmer Bank pub at Moor Allerton, and I was managing the motley crew of hangers-on and ne’er-do-wells who pulled on the white shirt of the YEP FC of a Sunday morning. Tony worked at the Cranmer at the time – I remember he made us get changed for the match in the pub’s cellars one time – but has been at Leo’s for 13 years now.
Though no longer playing football, he must be fitter than I am these days; he’s taking part in the club’s annual charity bike ride from Morecambe to Scarborough later this year.
The Cranmer’s closure, along with that of the nearby Lingfield, has taken away a couple of Tony’s major competitors. The Lord Darcy on Harrogate Road and Penny Fun on King Lane are now the closest pubs to here. Private parties and a growing band of loyal locals supplement the trade which comes with the rugby and cricket fixtures. “A lot of it is repeat business,” says Tony. “We’ll do the engagement party, then the wedding, and then the christening.” By doing a good job, he ensures that these customers comes back, while a special deal brokered by the RFU means that Leo’s gets Sky Sports on the cheap too.
And then there’s the real ale. It came as a real surprise to find a club like this showing such obvious commitment to hand-pulled beer. Tetley’s is the permanent beer while the guest ale changes, though no doubt Simon has earned his brewery a good number of Brownie Points here by making sure the Ridgeside was available on one of the worst nights of the year.
Tony’s knowledge of the subject was sharpened by years working for his father-in-law at the Cranmer, a Tetley estate pub where the regulars would certainly let you know if the city’s favourite pint wasn’t up to scratch. He’s brought the skills learned there a half mile north to a bar which is comfortable and well-kept, still smart from a refurbishment several years ago. One end is carpeted with tables and comfy seating, the other tiled for standing room and – on appropriate occasions – dancing too.
It’s a versatile space, catering for the needs of those playing and watching the sport, holding club meetings – as the running club was during my visit – and those who want to get down on the dance floor.
Old Leodiensians might well be quite unrecognisable to those well-off local gents who established the club in the roaring twenties, but their clubhouse serves a great pint and can still be relied on for a roaring good night out.
Name: Old Leodiensians
Host: Tony Firth
Type: Sports club, but open to all
Opening Hours: 6.30pm-midnight Mon, Tue, Thurs, Fri; 12.30pm-12.30am Sat; 12 noon-6pm Sun. Closed Wed.
Beers: Tetley Bitter (£2.75) plus one changing guest ale (£2.75), Carlsberg (£3), Tuborg (£3), Guinness (£3.25), Thatcher’s Gold Cider (£2.95)
Wine: Decent selection
Food: For functions only
Disabled: Easy access
Entertainment: Sky Sports TV, dart board, plus live sport on the pitches outside. Old Leos club has rugby, cricket and running club sections – new members welcome.
Functions: Club is available for private hire and special events. Occasional special events including beer festival in May
Beer Garden: Terrace area
Parking: Large area
Telephone: 0113 2673409
Beer of the Week
There is an unexpected blast of ginger ale when you prise the cap from a beautifully curvy bottle of St Stefanus.
This attractively golden blonde Abbey beer owes its origins to the Augustian monks of Ghent, and though now under the control of the multinational SAB Miller, it still retains all the character and idiosyncracy that you’d expect from 700 years of brewing tradition.
Brewed to a formidable 8 per cent ABV, St Stefanus contains live yeast, as would British cask ale or a bottle-conditioned beer, so it will continue to mature and develop for around 18 months after leaving the cellars. Each is marked with a release date; I’m drinking mine about a year into that home-maturing process.
Even so, there is a gentleness to its approach, a softness and warmth which is redolent of the safe and cloistered stillness of the Abbey, and a taste thick with spice and cloves and malt.