“I DON’T like the word empire,” says Simon Colgan over a pint in the Grove, the most recent addition to his expanding, er, chain of pubs.
Though he baulks at the idea of playing Napoleon, he’s happy to describe himself as “protector and gamekeeper” of a group of pubs each quite distinct, yet united by a platform of quality food, real ale and live music.
Home is the World’s End, beside the river in Knaresborough, where there is room enough for Simon, wife Sharon, and their children. But they have also been in charge at Harrogate’s lively Blues Bar for 15 years and Leeds music venue the Duck and Drake for seven.
Since long-serving manager Rachel Skordos left a couple of years ago, the Grove has had its share of ups and downs – and for a year, owners Enterprise had been trying to persuade Simon to add it to his fold. With its musical heritage and long-standing commitment to real ale, the beautiful old Grove is a perfect fit. There has been a pub here since the 1830s, and the polished wood, tiling, stained glass and comfortable, utilitarian fittings speak of a bygone age.
Outside, everything has changed. Where once were factories, foundries and warehouses are now the media age businesses of Holbeck. The modest whitewashed brick of the Grove stands so close to the concrete sole of Bridgewater Place, it seems remarkable it hasn’t simply been stamped out of existence.
Its remarkable musical heritage was key to its survival. Leeds Folk Club has met here since the sixties; Mark Knopfler founded the Notting Hill Billies over a few drinks in the back room; a French traditional music group rehearses here; Corinne Bailey-Rae occasionally performs unannounced on jam night. There’s blues and bluegrass – and on “Open Mind Night” anything goes.
“People think you have to go to Dublin for this sort of thing,” says Simon. “But it happens right here.”
Even so, finding the right person to run it was crucial to the couple’s decision to take it on. Step forward an old friend, the extravagantly-bearded Dave Knowlson, a veteran of the Leeds pub and music scene, who just happened to be between jobs. “I told him that if didn’t come on board, we would walk away,” says Simon.
“It was a wonderful compliment,” says Dave, now installed as ‘hairier manager’. “We were all in the right place at the right time.”
Some changes are under way. “We’re undecorating,” says Simon – meaning removing the characterless greys which had been slapped everywhere, and return to the traditional alehouse colours, rich browns, creams and nicotine yellows. An artist is applying the group’s signature period murals to one wall in each of the rooms joined by the pub’s central corridor. “It was just a bit tired and unloved,” says Dave.
“People had begun to question why they should keep on supporting the pub,” says Simon. “I think we’re now giving back to them, for supporting it for so long.”
The change of ownership has also seen a renewed commitment to real ale. Long-serving cellarman and CAMRA stalwart John Rowe may no longer be here, but the choice of quality hand-pulled beers which he long nurtured remains. Daleside Blonde from Harrogate is the only regular on the bar, with the other seven handpulls devoted to an ever-changing roster of ales of varied strengths and styles. Blackboards beside the bar guide drinkers along this endless rollercoaster of choice.
“I want to give people what the Grove should give people,” says Simon. “It’s a wonderful pub, and we’re lucky to get our hands on it. This sort of place should be ringfenced for ever.”
Address: Back Row, Holbeck
Host: Dave Knowlson
Type: Traditional real ale and music venue
Opening Hours: 11am-midnight daily
Beers: Changing choice of real ales. Daleside Blonde (£3.50) is the only regular, with seven other handpumps. Also: Fosters (£3.70), Amstel (£4.10), Heineken (£4.50), Moretti (£4.60), Guinness (£4), Symond’s Cider (£3.70), Old Rosie (£4)
Wine: Decent selection
Food: Good value pub meals served noon-3pm Mon-Fri, with special Sunday roast menu also served noon-3pm
Entertainment: Jam night Tues, “Open Mind” Weds, blues and bluegrass Thurs, folk Fri, live acts Sat and Sun. Festival of beer and bands planned July 30-31.
Disabled: Reasonable access, slightly cramped inside
Children: Welcomed, but no special facilities
Beer garden: Some outdoor tables to the side
Parking: On-street parking available nearby
Telephone: 0113 243 9254