STEPPING into the Victoria rather has the feel of entering the reception of some sumptuous old hotel, with its swing doors and etched glass.
This is no accident. For many years the Victoria was a splendid hotel with 27 rooms, and a hidden tunnel beneath the road to allow judges from the Assizes held in the Town Hall opposite to get between the courtroom and their bed without running the gauntlet of those they were sitting in judgment upon.
And while walking into most pubs brings you straight into the bar, here you arrive in a elegant lobby, with the various different rooms – lounge bar, Albert’s Bar, Bridget’s Bar – opening off from the main corridor. Only the first of these has an actual bar, a long polished counter topped with a rank of real ale handpumps.
“The cleaner polishes it all, every day,” manager Carol Coleman tells me. It’s quite a task. There are seemingly acres of wood and brass, copper and mirrors which are always gleaming.
The bar itself is a beautiful period piece, with its carved back bar of dark oak and engraved mirrors crowned by distinctive back-lit arches of stained glass. Sturdy spiral pillars stretch from the bar top to the ceiling, where moulded golden rosettes contrast with the terracotta paintwork. Thirties light fittings hang overhead, their lamps reflecting off every polished surface.
It’s hard to believe now, but in the 1970s, the pub almost faced demolition at the hands of some demonic planners. Like at the Garden Gate in Hunslet, a public campaign saved the building from the axe, and in 1989 the Victoria was given special recognition by Leeds Civic Trust for its “splendid Victorian features and contribution to city life”.
But for some determined individuals two of Leeds’s finest old pubs could have been wiped off the map forever.
I take my pint of the hoppy and citric Village Idiot to one of the Victoria’s lovely wood and leather booths. The beer is from the White Horse brewery and one of the many guest ales lined up along the bar.
Only the Tetley’s and the Leeds Best are ever-presents. On this visit there are Schiehallion and Midnight Bell, Gunpowder Mild and Old Vic Butcombe Porter, but the selection changes all the time. “When I came here we had five handpumps, now we have nine,” says Carol. “It keeps the customers interested.”
The booths are perhaps the very best feature of this pub. Each can comfortably hold six people, eight at a push. In each, grand mirrors are surrounded by art deco ceramic floral tiles of green, brown and yellow.
Carol has been here for seven years as manager for Nicholson’s, part of the giant Mitchells’ and Butler’s chain. The Scarbrough and The Palace are stablemates. She’s something of a veteran of the pub trade, having had stints at the long-demolished Pack Horse in Gelderd Road, the Bank – the city’s first big wine bar, now the Bierkeller – the Conservatory, Bar 36 on Wellington Street and then the Horse and Trumpet on the Headrow.
Remarkably she has managed to keep staff with her on this long and winding road around the city’s bars and pubs – assistant manager Lou Lemos for nine years, chef Karen Morris for 19.
So how does she command such loyalty among her colleagues?
“It’s about treating people in the way that you would hope to be treated. Customers love that stability too, to come in and see a face that they recognise.
“We do have a surprising amount of regulars, even though it’s a city pub. It’s their local.”
And is there any chance of those 27 rooms ever opening for business?
“None at all,” says Carol. “When I came in here I was very keen to do it, but they wouldn’t pass the modern health and safety regulations, and we would need to put in a lift. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”
Carol turns 60 in the summer and is planning a big party for Saturday June 18 – everyone welcome.
But she says the pub is at its best when it’s cold outside.
“It’s really a winter pub. We haven’t got a garden or an outside seating area. The warmth of the wood brings people in. They feel that warmth and the friendliness.”
Name: Victoria Hotel
Host: Carol Coleman
Type: Alehouse set in period piece hotel Opening Times: 11am-11pm Mon-Thur; 11am-midnight Fri-Sat; noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Tetley Bitter (£2.35), Leeds Best (£3), great changing choice of real ales (average £3), Carling (£2.75), Kronenbourg (£3.15), Foster’s (£2.85), Peroni (£3.85), Stella Artois Black (£3.65), Guinness (£3.15), Strongbow (£3.15).
Wine: Good selection
Food: Good choice of quality pub meals available from opening until 10pm daily
Children: Welcomed. No special facilities
Disabled: Reasonably good access
Entertainment: Games machine, TV
Events: Different areas of the pub available for hire for private parties Beer Garden: None
Parking: On-street pay-and-display areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 245 1386
Beer of the Week
With its saintly name, and a label redolent of a modern stained glass window, it’s clear that this beer is making much of its ecclesiastical connnections.
It’s brewed by Greene King, whose brewery is in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, a town named in memory of the ninth century King of East Anglia, who was captured by the Danes in battle, and killed after refusing to renounce his strong Christian faith. The town’s spectacular cathedral honours this ancient martyr, once held also to be Patron Saint of England, before being supplanted by the dragon-slaying George.
With such a wealth of history behind it, you might expect the beer which carries his name to be a rich, fulsome ale, perhaps like something which the Abbotts of old would prepare to keep out the winter chill. But St Edmunds is a light and golden easy-drinking session beer.
It is only moderately hoppy, with a soft fruity aroma and a taste that balances gentle malt with some nice biting bitterness in a beer which is brewed to a very moderate 4.2 per cent ABV.
Greene King suggest this should be served a little cooler than most ales – so perhaps it’s a good one to try if you’re thinking of renouncing lager.