All things considered, I’d rather newspaper offices never closed down.
It may have been an ugly concrete bunker, but the demolition of the Yorkshire Evening Post headquarters in Wellington Street was mourned by many of the journalists who had toiled there.
I’m probably speaking for most of them when I say that if a newspaper office must close, then it probably should become a pub. Which is exactly what happened to the old Ilkley Gazette building on Wells Road, where Friends of Ham established its second outlet in the summer, bringing the same collision of craft alehouse and quality charcuterie that has so dazzled since it opened in Leeds four years ago.
After the Gazette switched its operation to Skipton, the ground floor and basement were transformed into an eating house and drinking den with a tasting room, deli and log burning stove.
Stepping up from the pavement you enter a lively bar offering choice which a decade ago most drinkers could only dream of. There are three cask ale handpulls – enough to offer a decent selection, but not so many that they don’t stay fresh. At least one of these is always from Ilkley Brewery, though the others rotate, as do eight of the 12 craft keg lines. Twelve. Amazing.
Easy-going Pacer Pale Ale, specially brewed by Holmfirth’s Summer Wine Brewery is a permanent fixture. Drinkers of a more adventurous nature might sample 8.5% Delirium Red, while those who wish to sample the range can order a flight of three beers for £5.50 or six for £10.
If you can pull yourself away from that beautiful wooden bar, with its ancient newspaper hoarding and glinting glasses you can take drinks through to a seating area, or head to a more intimate area downstairs.
“We get beer geeks who come in and bring their friends and that’s great because it introduces us to new customers,” explains owner Claire Kitching, who admits that the experience of opening in Ilkley has been different to that in Leeds: “You don’t realise how much harder it is to open in a small town.”
There’s plenty of competition. The beautiful Victorian Crescent Hotel stocks a great range of ales; Bar T’At provides the reliable experience of a Mreket Town Tavern. “Now they’ve put a big teepee up in the park and that’s selling beer too,” says Claire.
“In Ilkley people don’t necessarily just go out for a drink. Often they’re eating out, so we find ourselves competing with the restaurants too.” If that wasn’t tough enough, she’s also having to compete with the local rumour mill: “Someone said kids aren’t welcome here, but they are!”
An emphasis on the retail side of the business has seen the installation of a giant fridge, where up to 100 bottled beers are available for drinking on or off the premises. Equally the delicatessen offers high-end meats and cheeses for the delicate palates of the Ilkley locals, both to eat in or take away. Weighty legs of Serrano ham hang in the window and are selling well for Christmas, Claire tells me.
“Ilkley’s been tough, but it’s going to be a slow burner,” she says. Even so, she and partner Kitch are determined to expand the business. “Manchester is a possibility. We don’t want more than four and we don’t want them to be very far apart.”
Staying small and staying local means Claire can ensure that the quality fare continues to be matched by customer service. “A lot of it is about staff knowledge,” she says. “I want to get to the point where staff can ask a customer: ‘What do you like?’ and then recommend something. I don’t have the confidence that this always happens when I’m not there.
“As we get bigger, those core values remain.”
Friends of Ham
Address: Wells Road, Ilkley, LS29 9JD
Type: Real ale charcuterie
Host: Claire Kitching
Opening Hours: 10am-11pm Mon-Thurs, 10am-midnight Fri-Sat, 10am-10pm Sun
Beers: Three real ales from £3.20, plus great choice of keg and craft beers including Pacer Pale (£4.20), Veltins (£4.30) and Delirium Red (£4.50 half pint). 100 bottled beers
Wine: Excellent choice from £3.25-glass and £18-bottle
Food: Great choice of meet and cheese platters. sharing boards, breads and olives
Entertainment: Occasional special events, including live music event for New Year’s Eve
Disabled: Stepped access to front door
Parking: On-street parking and town centre car parks nearby
Telephone: 01943 604344