Knaresborough has a massive circuit now. You can jump off the train and there are 23 pubs within walking distance.”
Adam O’Neill is new to the area. Previously at the Silver Birch in Cleckheaton, he arrived as landlord at the Castle Inn in November, after the pub underwent a fairly comprehensive refurbishment in the autumn.
He seems to be enjoying life in his new home: “Knaresborough is a lovely place to work, and the kids have settled into school, so that’s a big weight off my mind.”
The refit has changed the nature of the Castle: “It used to be quite cliquey,” says Adam. “It was just old men drinking John Smith’s. We’re now getting a much wider spread of people coming in – and I can put pretty much whatever I like on the bar.”
Anything that is, so long as it’s on the roster of beers which are offered by the pubco Enterprise, who own the building. Relations between these giant pub-owning companies and their tenants can be notoriously fraught, but here the lease is held by Bradford-based Titan Pub Solutions, who have installed Adam as tenant. “It gives me a sense of detachment,” he laughs, but admits that he has been enjoying “a honeymoon period” in the few months since taking over. Even so, he’s hoping a five-year lease can soon give him a more secure tenure.
It’s clear from my Saturday lunchtime visit with a group of friends that there is now a vibrant, inclusive atmosphere here. As visitors who had trodden the well-worn route from the railway station to the fleshpots of the town centre, we are made more than welcome, at least until one of our number “dobs me in” as that Taverner bloke from the Evening Post.
The refit has left the Castle as an attractive and interesting place to spend time. Painting the low ceilings black has added to a sense of intimacy; a line of fifties-style lanterns hangs over bar while spirit bottles have been re-purposed as features of interest, filled with strings of tiny bulbs to create a little extra light on each table. Old enamelled signs for Oxo and Vermouth are cheek-by-jowl with old railway posters enticing visitors to take the train to Knaresborough, just as we have.
And while Adam does still serve John Smiths, the move towards a more diverse, higher-quality offer is evident from the row of hand pulls along one end of the oak-panelled bar. Saltaire Blonde, comfortably the pub’s biggest seller, is the bar’s only permanent fixture, while the others rotate – and on this occasion the list includes choices from Ringwood and Marstons. There’s Theakston’s IPA on tap too.
I’m attracted to the heart-shaped pumpclip of the full-bodied licoricey stout Blackheart (4.8%) from the Yorkshire Heart Brewery at Nun Monkton near York. Once poured here it looks absolutely perfect – impenetrably jet black, with a firm ivory head that retains its shape as I drink and the level falls. There is some attractive dark chocolate to the aroma, and on the palate Blackheart provides a wisp of smokiness and a silky, luxurious layering of sweet vanilla and tobacco.
Food soon arrives – hearty home-made pizzas served on chunky wooden boards, slabs of cheese burgers, and red hot paninis served on slate beds. Each of these provides just the perfect ballast that we need as we head out to a few more of Knaresborough’s 23 watering holes.
Factfile - The Castle Inn, Castlegate, Knaresborough
Host: Adam O’Neill
Type: A real ale house reborn.
Opening hours: Noon-11pm Mon-Sat, noon-10pm Sun
Beers: Saltaire Blonde (£3.30) plus changing choice of other real ales. Also John Smith Smooth, Theakston IPA, Amstel, Moretti and Hop House 13 lagers
Wine: Good choice from £2.60-glass or £14.50-bottle
Food: Sturdy pub grub served noon-5pm Weds-Fri, noon-8pm Sat and noon-5pm Sun
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Entertainment: Pub quiz Sun, and occasional live music including Irish band on last Thursday of each month
Disabled: Easy access
Beer Garden: Outdoor tables to the side with smoking area
Parking: Town centre car parks
Telephone: 01423 860423