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Old Pubs of Preston – Black Horse and The Academy

Posted on - 4th November, 2010 - 9:30am | Author - | Posted in - Business, Food & Drink, History, Nightlife, Nostalgia, Opinion, Photos, Pubs, Recreation, Restaurants, Reviews, Things To Do

Some months ago a pledge to examine various pubs in Preston was made here. This article follows up an introductory post which sums up the rich heritage behind Preston’s drinking establishments. Despite this history ongoing changes we witness in modernity see the country’s pub numbers fall in the face of plummeting sales. Preston is no exception to this nationwide trend.

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Many factors are at play here and you can read a summary at this article on Beer Expert. The upshot is that even when the present economic strife lifts the situation will probably not improve. Despite this grim outlook, it’s all too important to acknowledge the social importance of the traditional pub and hope the coverage will not end up looking like a forerunner to eulogy.

Blog Preston - Black Horse Pub Interior & ExteriorI spent an afternoon early in October walking around Preston’s town centre. With the help of the tourist bureau and a few locals I encountered two deeply contrasting pubs. We’ll first examine the well-known Black Horse which is located on Friargate: a popular shopping street close to the St. George shopping centre and the Harris museum.

The entire property is Grade II listed in part due to its history which dates to Victorian times. The protected nature of the pub means it will retain a homely old-fashioned look for at least the foreseeable future. As the interior photo partly showcases there’s a wide range of ales on tap together with a respectable range of spirits.

The pub itself is one of the most unique I’ve seen – a bar with expressive curvature, mosaic floors and a side corridor which leads to more seating and a staircase that leads to another bar open on weekends. The clientele and staff are friendly and the pub successfully and modestly melds modern features (such as an unobtrusive TV above the front door) with the old school character it expertly retains.

A downside is the expensiveness of the drinks – I paid £3.20 for a pint of strong lager. However the Black Horse is the only pub in Preston to feature in the excellent albeit rigid Good Pub Guide. Despite the cost the place is well-worth frequenting to enjoy the great atmosphere, quirky layout, affable people and unique decorative styles.

Pubs once functioned as informal working men’s clubs. Alcohol was taxed less so people could afford to visit on most evenings and weekends to socialize. A visit to the pub is now – despite increases in affluence over the past half century – less a constant fixture and more an occasional jaunt to many within contemporary Britain. The community spirit once so rich in both urban and rural locales has long been in decline, to the point where my generation can’t fathom the social conditions of the time.

Blog Preston - The Academy Pub Interior and ExteriorOur second pub used to go by the name ‘Varsity’. Located on Church Street, it was renamed to The Academy some years ago and despite being housed in a building whose frontage at first glance would befit an old pub as I discovered the place has significantly departed the ‘heritage’ moniker which both the tourist bureau and a Preston pubs postcard appended.

Despite appearances the interior is that of a modern chain pub/restaurant. The floor space is vast; the unassuming building could easily belong to a small café yet actually houses enough space to accomodate hundreds.

The propriators (The Barracuda Group) emphasize a ‘heritage-focused fit’ – yet the place with its disco ball and modern industrial decor contains about as much heritage as an XBox. The gaudy fonted signs promoting offers, the peach paintwork, metallic pillars, well-buffed floors and a colourful, modern bar left me puzzled as to why the place is alluded to as historic at all. Yet in the context of this article the contrast is useful.

The interior photograph I took was from the entrance; to the left is an alcove of tables and leather suites. Throughout the place there are at least three big screen TVs. According to the owner’s website this pub is, of the five ‘styles’ they model their drinking shops on this is a ‘Smith & Jones’.

I gave management my e-mail address in order to glean some historic insight; after three weeks they’ve failed to get in touch. This is unfortunate since contrary to the Black Horse there is little information around.

Despite the apparent misnomer this modern venue certainly saw good trade on the afternoon I entered. Prices are lower and meal offers abound. The afforable offers obviously entice people: even at that hour it took a couple of minutes to get served. Staff were friendly, but the homely atmosphere of the Black Horse was absent in the Academy’s noise and modernity. I concluded that it’s more a nightclub with pub facade for the sake of daytime custom.

As an indicator of where the market is headed the Academy is a representative example. I acquired some CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) literature a few years ago whilst enjoying an aimless meander through Hull’s theatre district pubs: I learned many establishments only turn a profit because of food. The chain model sees marketing determined by a central office by businesspeople and marketers distant from the drinker. Mass buyouts, as CAMRA and others note, are partly to blame for the erasure of heritage.

Things like diversity of ales, layout, furnishings and appearance, a charismatic landlord and staff, even a unique sign or name – all these tend to be lost when an entire place follows a predefined tailored-to-fit model of clockwork efficiency with employees in uniform.

Pubs are not Disneyland; they’ve each a soul that big business practices cannot by definition accomodate or replicate. Hopefully in future others alongside myself will learn about and extol the virtues of old pubs and evade the corporately designed pseudo-pubs now peppering Preston and Britain entire with monotonous frequency.

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