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The Castle Hotel: a perfect new pub?

Jonathan Schofield adores the recent renovation and mood of a city boozer

Written by . Published on October 26th 2010.

The Castle Hotel: a perfect new pub?

The Castle Hotel on Oldham Street is a remarkable re-invention of the classic city or town pub. If you love Britain's boozers go.

Pubs are about being comfortable and feeling somehow, in the dust motes that float through the air, the history of the place: a sixth sense of the lives that have been lived there, the humour, the tragedy, the raw vigour of time passing.

You enter the place straight in from the street under a lovely tiled Arts and Crafts facade, cross a mosaic floor featuring a turret, and bang, you’re right in the action. The long narrow property has the best snug in the city (along with the one in the Briton’s Protection), there’s a glorious function room and a backyard opened out at the rear for smokers.

The pub dates from the late 1770s beginning life as a townhouse on the fringe of a rapidly expanding town. By 1816 it was a pub. First it was the Crown and Sceptre, then the Crown and Anchor, then the Clockface before becoming the Castle in 1897, when it was taken over by Kay’s Atlas Brewery.

Two years ago it looked as though the place were doomed.

It had been neglected by Robinsons Brewery for years while Kath Smethurst and her son Damien had run the place. The brewery had clearly dismissed the Castle as a city pub in decline, as they concentrated on getting their suburban family pubs firing on all cylinders.

When Jonny Booth and Rupert Hill took over in 2009 the Castle was literally falling down, tea bags were less porous than the roof. It took a while to persuade the brewery to get fully involved but when they saw the pair’s commitment they started to get the finance in.

The result is remarkable.

This is a pub. It is not a bar. Or an old pub pretending to be a bar. It’s a pub which means a diverse age range of customers, various activities and functions, and the ability to laze and to chat.

In otherwords it's true to its origins.

“What everyone wants is a bit of honesty in the places they go to,” says Booth. “There’s nothing more off-putting than a crap bar or a pub that can’t be bothered. When that happens people get confused by what the place is supposed to be so they stop going, which means the business fails.”

Booth continues. “We wanted to preserve the character of the Castle, to strike a balance between the history and having a pub that people love to visit. We encourage a mix of ages, older regulars with the new people. I want us to be an alternative to the bars for the designer crew as well, pubs are for a proper chat and maybe some entertainment in the function room.”

Booth and Hill have produced here, along with Robinsons Brewery, a template of what a new urban boozer can be like - should be like. Pubs are dying out for a variety of reasons including terrible management systems from pub owning companies, but also from sheer lazy arse landlords and tenants who don’t seem to appreciate the fact that a pub should be a home from home, the third place free of work or family pressures.

And to do that in 2010, pubs have to be clean, innovative, clever and above all labours of love for landlords or managers. Let pubs slide, don't think about a good smoking space, put up hand written notices and let the bogs get destroyed and it’s not long before the windows will be boarded up. This should’t be the fate of the Castle anytime soon.

Pubs are about being comfortable and feeling somehow, in the dust motes that float through the air, the history of the place: a sixth sense of the lives that have been lived there, the humour, the tragedy, the raw vigour of time passing. You get this at the Castle, that's why it's working so well.

Key to this is the design. The Castle is filled with rich colours, it allows the heavy woods including that superb mahogany back bar, the tile and plasterwork to speak for themselves. Pubs can’t be minimalist Modernist abstractions but have to be as richly furnished, with oddments, books, shelves and knick-knacks as grandma's old semi.

On Monday I went to take pictures of the Castle. Having just had lunch with Jo Houlcroft, one of the three best PR people in town, and Pete Mitchell, music man, I dragged them along to show them the place. Outside we bumped into Robert Owen Brown and John Mooney of the Mark Addy. One pint of crisp Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde turned into three, the chat flowed, time flew by. Just as it should in a boozer. I'd still have been there if somebody hadn't reminded me that I had an appointment elsewhere and I was late.

Coupla of further points.

The refurbishment at the Castle found hidden behind a polystyrene ceiling in the backroom a beautiful timber roof that provides a perfect foil for the stage beneath, in a function room that is suddenly the sweetest in the city. The room was ruined sometime in the seventies when all the finer detailing was covered up. What were people thinking about?

Booth wants more than just bands and their mates occupying this space. “We want to use it as a community art space. It doesn’t always have to be about bands, but also poetry, small theatre performances, screenings of local and independent films.”

On 11 November ‘Lend me your ears’ arrives, “a cross-discipline evening, with writers, poets and a band.” That should be permanent feature, with different formats every second Thursday of the month.

Food will arrive in due course. When it does we’ll be in like a shot to review the place. We might be late out though.

Rating: 17/20
Breakdown: 4/5 service
4/5 drinks
5/5 d├ęcor
4/5 ambience
Address: The Castle Hotel
66 Oldham St
Manchester M4 1LE
0161 237 9485

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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11 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Tyson ThebeerhoundOctober 26th 2010.

And don't forget the super new posh toilets. No drainpipe in the urinal these days!

DescartesOctober 26th 2010.

My only problem with the new toilets is they're miiiiiiiiiiiiiiles away from the front bar.

Worth the journey though if you're pinchin' a loaf.

AnonymousOctober 26th 2010.

More's the pity. I love the place but it's like meeting an old friend who has had some dubious cosmetic surgery. The new stuff doesn't quite fit with the original.

DeadheadingOctober 26th 2010.

Anonymous, are you a gasping lunatic. What original the one in 1816, or the damp, musky, mucky, hideously distorted recent version. Pubs have to get all sorts in, including women, who like things a bit more sanitary than bearded CAMRA fanatics. Honestly some people would whinge about the colour of the bag the money came in if given a million pounds.

AnonymousOctober 26th 2010.

Got me in one Deadheading. Well done.

TombertNovember 1st 2010.

Popped in with my flatmate off the back of this review and wasn't disappointed. The bartender sports a moustache in keeping with both his waistcoat and the surroundings, and was more than happy to let me try a bit of the Old Tom which at 8.5% needs to be enjoyed in moderation as my sore head on Friday morning attested to. The jukebox is suitably eclectic, and only needs a rifle above the bar and a Breville round the back to make it my number one destination when the zombie holocaust commences.

gasping lunaticNovember 8th 2010.

I'm in the Castle now. 11.45 Monday. where are the interesting people I used to meet in here? Its full of geeks and weirdos. This is what happens when you mess with a good pub. However, I forgot the real reason for running a bar: profit.

MNovember 17th 2010.

@Gasping Lunatic - The "interesting people" are now outnumbered by Northern Quarter trendies, sporting 'man bags' and shopping bags, as they talk about new phone app's whilst looking at 'crazy' photos they've taken on their iphones.

It took ten years for the NQ to actually happen. The 'kids' are fickle, and they usually move on.

The Castle's had a beatiful refurb, in keeping with its facade, and the beer's great. Enjoy it...as you rip the p*** out of the tourists.

Lunatic And DrinksJanuary 18th 2011.

I was there last Friday night. The service and the beer were great [as usual]. It's picking up nicely, and the backroom was busy too. With the little posters dotting the walls, it looks as though they're trying to get things going. I hope it works out well for them.

HopeyAugust 26th 2012.

Over the years I have seen it all, people being refused to be served for long hair, short hair, white socks, tatoos, jeans, piercings, short skirts, no bras, sexuality, trainers but I have never seen anyone being refused service for wearing a Lions rugby shirt. Why?
The pubs clientele have all the other reasons for refusal covered so, why pick on someone wearing a Lions Rugby shirt?
This must be a case of the lunatics running the asylum.
For the assistant managers information, The lions are not a football team, they do not play in the UK, it is a multinational rugby team from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and it is highly unlikely that wearing its shirt would cause any offence or argument with any opposing fans as they only play against International Rugby teams abroad to promte the game. Would the manageress have been as quick to refuse entry to someone wearing a GB Olympics Shirt?

AnonymousAugust 26th 2012.

As for "kids/trendies/geeks/weirdos/tourists."

There's nothing quite like judging judging whether someone should be somewhere based on their looks.

I hope that when I walk into somewhere, the way I look p*sses at least one person off. Makes my day a little brighter.

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