The George Hotel, Cullingworth – Hotel Review
By Paul Howard
When we moved to Pennine Yorkshire many years ago, one of the attractions should have been the local village pub. It wasn’t. Until now. As with all the best fairy tales this story now has a happy ending but only after hard times and transformation. Once upon a time…
The George Hotel in Cullingworth has a great position, being a fine Georgian building at the heart of the local village. It’s in a conservation area placed right next to the Church under the shadow of an old sycamore tree. It’s as bucolic a location in Brontë-land as you’ll get. The reality within was, until recently, in marked contrast, reflecting the decline of the institution that is The Great British Pub. These days this is well documented; articles regularly appear on the subject, some even make the tabloid press. Most of those fail to acknowledge that while pubs in the UK are now closing at a rate of around 25 every week, this trend stretches back nearly a century.
“Wafer thin margins”
I investigated the decline of pubs for a university dissertation long ago. In those days that topic was considered by stuffy dons to be an unsuitable area of intellectual study, yet it is quotidian. To take but one example, a small market town in Bedfordshire had two dozen pubs serving a population of around 3,000 souls just thirty years ago. Today that has declined to eight and all are struggling. Before the first world war, there were nearly fifty, the town even had a small brewery to keep them all topped up.
The reasons reflect wider social and economic changes. Fewer people now work locally or need to slake the thirst of a hard day’s agricultural labour. More recently, breweries expanded their estates of tied pubs to control distribution, at the same time creating branded pubs and beers without individuality or taste. The rise of lager at one stage threatened to wipe out craft beers and pubs were frequently male dominated and hostile to women. Drink driving is rightly unacceptable and the dominance of television in every home reduced the need for communal recreation. With an increase in eating out, pubs that did not sell food could not compete, while margins on beer became wafer thin with annual rises in taxation.
“Tip of the iceberg”
Now there are new pressures. The pub estates are often owned by venture capital interested only in leveraging profit from a property portfolio, a strategy that made enormous profits in boom times but has spectacularly backfired in this recession. In addition, the estates have forced their tenants to buy solely from them at a high cost and increased their rents, reducing the ability or the incentive for a landlord to make a living wage, invest or provide a quality service.
Meanwhile supermarkets are pernicious, selling alcohol as a cheap loss leader to fuel the desire for drinking in the comfort of your own home. Those pubs that introduced sports television largely destroyed any remaining communal atmosphere while many others narrowed their appeal to a shrinking 18-25 age group and are dependent on weekend binge drinking. The smoking ban is often blamed for the decline of our pubs but that is the tip of the iceberg.
The George was just another pub seemingly unable to resist this tide. Though no more than one hundred yards away from BD Mansions, I visited it no more than a handful of times during two decades, enough to witness its slow death spiral. The evidence was all around. Empty, save for a small clientele of hostile males drinking watered down plastic beer, there was an undercurrent of violence. Chronic underinvestment by the brewery meant an endless succession of landlords unable to turn a profit. There was no food available except for a packet of stale crisps eaten in increasingly shabby surroundings. Joyless. When it closed in 2010, another victim of the recession, no one mourned.
“Spick and span”
Who then in modern day Britain would run a pub? There are easier things to do. Around eighteen months ago there was a knock at the door. It was our longtime neighbour, Chris Thompson, who announced that he had bought the freehold and planned to reopen. At last there was a chance to unlock the potential of the building and location but it looked an enormous and risky challenge. To my knowledge, neither Chris nor his partner Jo had any direct experience running a pub. However, Chris had established the Old Spot microbrewery in 2005, which has proved to be very successful, the beers winning heaps of prizes and CAMRA awards. Jo meanwhile intended to put her customer services background to good use.
Sure enough, a couple of months later, The George Hotel reopened. All the original features were retained but now it was spick, span and freshly decorated. There was a new menu and wine list backed by a new kitchen and a Chef. There were wood burning stoves and sofas in the bars for cozy comfort. The old beer-sodden carpets were ripped up to reveal the original flooring. There’s softer lighting, the pool table was thrown out to give space for the dining room. The one-arm bandit was replaced by free wi-fi and there is no TV. Best of all, the Old Spot range of beers are all on tap – all are excellent, my personal favourite remaining their original brew, OSB.
“Inspiration on your doorstep”
The George Hotel has been a hit from day one and became CAMRA pub of the season in winter 2011 / 2012 after only seven months of trading. Curious locals aged from 18-80 came to see, stayed and returned for more. Now it always seem busy, the fires blaze, the menu continues to improve and become more adventurous. Best of all, the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. This is thanks to Jo and her team and that makes the biggest difference of all.
So I guess this is a story about how British pubs do have a future. If they are independently owned. If they have an authentic character. And if they have good beer and food, comfort and consistently good service. It sounds easy but this is no mean feat. In these recession hit times it’s easy to forget about the inspiration that is literally on your own doorstep. Finally I have a village pub to be proud of after waiting a very long time. Now it doesn’t look like we’ll be moving away anytime soon.
The George Hotel, Station Road, Cullingworth, West Yorkshire, BD13 5HN