For the last year or so the pubs in Aberdare have been struggling to make a living, as I mentioned in ‘Something For the Weekend‘. The smoking ban has obviously had a huge impact on pub-goers, but that isn’t the sole cause. Supermarkets are selling drink at sub-bargain prices, and independent village pubs are having a hard time competing with the likes of Wetherspoons, which sell beer at less than the pubs have to pay for it.
It’s a pattern which is being repeated throughout the country. In the first half of 2009, Britain lost an average of fifty-two pubs every week. The majority of them are managed houses now, owned by companies like Pubmaster, who only exist to make money and who don’t care a jot for the important function the pub serves at the heart of the community.
Last year, Doctor Who Magazine ran an interview with Tom Baker, in which he fulminated against the decline of the great British pub. It seemed like a valiant but doomed rearguard action in the face of overwhelming odds.
Anyway, on Saturday Shanara and I met for lunch in the Cambrian, and then went for a browse around the market. I bought a fantastic book for 50p in a second-hand stall – the CAMRA pub guide to South Wales, dating from about 1989. When we were walking around Aberdare afterwards, she remarked on the number of empty shops in town, and also on the number of places that seemed to have closed early on what should have been the busiest day of the week.
I asked her if she’d ever been to Mountain Ash on a Saturday afternoon. I went there a couple of years ago, taking a few photos while Network Rail were working on the station. It struck me that every single shop at the bottom of Oxford Street, with the exception of the newsagent’s, was closed. And not just closed, but secured with those steel shutters that make everywhere look they’re trying out for locations in The Bill.
I told her that when I was a kid, going to see Mams every couple of weekends, Hirwaun used to be the same. The only place open would be the café in the high street. At 4.00 the newsagent opened for the Echo and Football Echo deliveries. The greengrocer’s, the butcher’s, the Post Office, the chemist’s, and the little convenience shop at the entrance to Manchester Place would be closed for the afternoon.
Trecynon was like that too – Bob Mock’s shop would open for the evening papers, but otherwise every business on the square would take the half-day off on Saturdays (see ‘Not Open All Hours (Part 1)‘).
We stopped off in the Glosters, mainly because Shanara was curious to see its interior. It’s one of the few old-style pubs still open in Aberdare. Most of the rest have been completely remodelled inside, but the Glosters is still a pub of two halves. Once over the threshold you face a choice of two doors, one leading to the saloon bar, and one to the lounge. The bar is in the centre, so that whoever’s working can attend to both sets of customers without having to move very far.
The little Bangladeshi heat-seeking missile naturally opted for the lounge, and we sat in the corner by the radiator. She was amazed by the way it’s still cosy and homely inside. I told her that back when I started drinking in Aberdare, virtually all the pubs were laid out in a similar style.
The Cambrian was almost a mirror image of the Glosters, with the lounge on the left as you walked in, but otherwise it was pretty similar. The Black Lion, the Bush, the Conway, the Waynes and the Whitcombe also had two distinct ‘rooms’ frequented by different groups of regulars. The Glandover, the Beehive and the White Lion, a little way out of town, still have the straight-through bar and the bar/lounge set-up.
In the back streets at the top end of town, until fairly recently, the Bird in Hand and the Morning Star were also old-style pubs. The Bird in Hand closed a few years ago. It was converted into flats, but when I passed it last week there was no sign of life in there. The Morning Star served its last customer during the Wimbledon tournament last year. I popped in for old time’s sake on the last night. As far as I can see it’s still on the market.
Not being a drinker, Shanara hadn’t even noticed these older places on her regular visits to her aunt’s house in Monk Street. Now it’s too late to take her into either of them.
Of the list of pubs in the CAMRA guide, a substantial number have been transformed internally, or converted into houses, or just pulled down. And thereby hangs a tale …
By one of those odd coincidences that haunt my life, I received a text from Doz on Saturday afternoon. He was spreading the sad news that our old local in Trecynon, the Mount Pleasant, was closing its doors for good on Sunday night. He was trying to get all the gang there on Sunday night to send Joy the landlady off with a bang. Actually, as my phone’s been up to its old tricks again, I don’t know when he sent the text – he might have actually meant Saturday night.
Either way I wasn’t really surprised. I called in there to watch Wales v France a couple of years ago. There were about a dozen people in there, if that – mostly youngsters, with a couple of older locals at the bar. Five years before, you’d have been lucky to even get into a pub on international day, never mind get a seat to watch the game in its entirety, and get served without having to queue three deep at the bar. Soon after that Joy stopped opening in the afternoon sessions altogether, and it was hit or miss whether she’d open in the evenings a lot of the time.
When Joy first took the place over, it became the favoured haunt of the borderline teenage drinkers (no ID, no questions asked) who didn’t fit in with the chavvy kids who go to Chequers in town. It was the twenty-first century equivalent of the Carpenters in many ways. There was a pool table, a half-decent jukebox, and a big room upstairs where bands could play. I went to quite a number of gigs there, usually feeling a bit out of place amongst the youngsters, but I made some friends there too.
I think a lot of the more ‘alternative’ youngsters in Aberdare (and uni, if I’m honest) see me as a sort of eccentric uncle to whom they can turn if they want advice or just a friendly non-family ear to talk to. The fact that a lot of them were children of friends I used to drink with in the Carpenters was somewhat unnerving. You suddenly realise how old you’ve become when that happens. But we always had a good time.
Unfortunately, the numbers quickly increased until the place would be stuffed to the gunwales with ever-younger kids. Some of them were lads who’d drink one bottle of lager and try to fight the world, or else silly girls who’d end up quarrelling with their friends and crying on the green outside.
Naturally, the neighbours didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing going on, so the gigs had to stop and the kids moved onto the Glandover, about half a mile away. (Incidentally, their licence is currently up for review in connection with under age drinking.)
On Sunday night, Matt H. and I went down for a last drink in the Mount. Imogen and a couple of her pals were there, playing pool. There were three regulars at the bar, and the two of us in the corner.
Joy told us that she’d decided to quit because the company who owns the pub was ripping her off. They were charging her £350 a week rent, and weren’t happy with the fact that she’d had the outside decorated by a third party, instead of using the company’s approved decorating firm, and invoiced them for the cost.
Meanwhile, the same company were trying to lure a new tenant to the Full Moon, less than half a mile away, by offering them six months rent-free. She told them she wanted out and gave in her notice. It’s no wonder she decided to cut her losses.
While Matt watched the football highlights on TV, I put some songs on the jukebox and thought about the old days.
When we were growing up, the Mount Pleasant was Dad’s local. Bill Edwards kept it when we were young. I don’t remember him at all. I have vague memories of being sent up the road now and again (usually at weekends) to buy a bottle of pop and some crisps. It was a huge building opposite our school, with high ceilings and dark wood panelling inside. You walked through the front door and into a long corridor, leading to a door at the end.
On your left, a door led into the bar. A door opposite led into the lounge, which opened sporadically, for parties and meals mostly. There was another door leading into the space behind the bar. It was like a stable door, with a hatchway to which Bill would come for ‘off-sales’ such as our crisps and pop.
The place stank of wood polish and tobacco smoke, yeast and hops, aftershave and Brylcreem – it was a man’s world, all right. Ladies (never women, in those pre-feminist days!) went into the lounge. Thinking about it now, it must have been like Gene Hunt’s local in Life on Mars at about that time, but I was too young to go into the bar at that stage.
I didn’t start going there regularly until I was in my very late teens. By then, Bill had long since retired and a new landlord was running the place – Ron Roach. He’d previously run the Waynes Arms halfway down Gadlys Hill, before taking over the Mount in 1976.
Ron was a legend – a lean, tallish, highly-strung guy with glasses, thinning hair, and a permanently harassed expression. His weekend party trick was to ask Dad to ‘keep an eye for the bar for a minute’ and then disappear to play pool for an hour. Ron’s wife was more of a myth than a legend – a never-seen figure who inhabited the pub in much the same way as Captain Mainwaring’s wife haunted his domestic life.
Ron frequently complained that the rest of the family weren’t pulling their weight. In typical Wenglish fashion, he used to stand behind the bar, telling everyone about the half-a-dozen unfinished jobs he had on the go.
‘I do get no ‘elp around here,’ he’d say. ‘I do do everything myself!’
This repeated ‘do do’ gave rise to a great nickname: ‘Do do Ron Ron.’ I don’t know who came up with it, but it stuck – at least behind his back.
They had five children, three boys and two girls. Gareth and Angela were grown up and we didn’t see much of them. The middle son, Ian, was in my class in school, and the youngest, Neil, was a pal of my brother’s. They were both tearaways when they were younger, and together with the rest of the local idiots they gave my family and I a lot of grief before they sorted themselves out. Still, it’s all forgotten now and I was pleased when Neil, his sister Amanda, and I got back in touch via Facebook a while ago.
Ron also had a couple of dogs who used to live in the yard and eye the customers warily when they went to the gents’, which were still outside in those days. Karl was a Doberman and Bow a bulldog. We used to take them to the park every so often in the school holidays and watch Bow lolloping around by the Gorsedd Circle. One day he decided to make a break for it, and the ensuing scene must have looked like some weird rugby game, with a gang of us trying to tackle that bloody dog to the ground before he made it as far as the Three Trees.
Back when we hit about 17 or 18, I’d started going to the Black Lion with some of the guys from school. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there was a pub just up the road I could have gone to instead. Then again, I don’t suppose too many teenage boys wanted to go to an ‘old man’s pub,’ which was how we saw the Mount. It was one of those chance happenings that made me into a regular.
I was at home on a Sunday night when Dad rang from the pub. One of the boys from the quiz team had had to scratch for that evening’s game. Dad wondered if I was doing anything. I went along and joined the team as a last-minute substitution (in those days the newly-formed Cynon Valley Quiz League didn’t worry about registering players at the start of the season.)
I already knew one of the team, as it turned out. Brian Hopkins was a teacher, with a son Phil’s age. Although he hadn’t taught me, we knew each other to say hello to. Glan Toms’ daughter Joanna had been in my class in junior school. His son Lawrence used to knock about with Neil, so I kind of knew him too. Derek Pigeon was a mature student, still living with his mother and training to be a social worker. Paul David was a special needs teacher and quiz enthusiast par excellence. Jeff Francis worked in a high-tech factory somewhere, but I can’t remember what his line of work was. And I had a great time. I had the quiz bug, which still gives me gyp most Wednesdays and occasionally at weekends (see ‘Is That Your Final Answer?‘).
I started going to the Mount regularly between abandoning the Black Lion and discovering the Carpenters. Like all local pubs, it had its unique collection of regular characters, of whom a few stand out. There was Brian T., a former plumber who lived in Robertstown, an easy stagger for most people but a marathon crawl for a chronic alcoholic. He would go to the pub every afternoon and evening session, day in and day out, and drink eighteen halves of cider during each visit before getting a taxi home.
Terry M. was another plumber, whose son Kevin I’d been in school with, and whom I still see now and again. Father and son were football mad (Kevin still is) and used to hold forth about the sport to lengths that Jimmy Hill and Des Lynam could only dream of.
Tom J. the postmaster was over retirement age and still going strong. On one occasion a well-known local villain tried to rob the post office at knifepoint, and Tom fought him off before the police arrived. The local paper ran a headline with his photo, Tom, 68, is Have-a-go Hero or some such. Peter the Pool, who worked in the council reprographics unit, altered the cutting to read Tom, 98 … and it hung on the wall in the bar for ages. Alongside it was a handwritten notice that said:
FOR SALE – COMPLETE SET OF ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. NEVER USED. FUCKING WIFE KNOWS EVERYTHING. SEE LANDLORD FOR DETAILS.
Dai ‘Narrow’ used to contrive to miss the bus home every hour until the last one, giving him an excuse to have another pint or two. Meredith Morgan, the hellfire-and-damnation minister of the Baptist church along the street, apparently saw Dai rolling past one Sunday lunchtime.
‘Drunk again, Mr Edwards?’ he thundered.
‘Aye, Mr Morgan – so am I!’ Dai replied.
Along with these guys, Charlie, Dai Brush, ‘Bow’ Jinkins [sic] and loads of others whose names I’ve long since forgotten, Dad was a regular at the Mount. He mostly went up on Saturday evenings, and Sundays when the quiz season was on, but for a lot of the boys it was their second home.
This was the time of the Miners’ Strike, of course. A bemused Ron found himself besieged by a couple of hundred punks on 11 July 1984. That evening Crass played their last-ever gig, at the Coliseum theatre less than a minute’s stagger away (see ‘The Armchair Anarchist‘).
As soon as the strike ended, everyone turned their energies and new-found networking skills to organising charity events for the Ethiopian famine. Paul David was very active in fund-raising for Oxfam, and had set up a pile of pennies in the pub. What seemed to be a fairly rudimentary attempt at gathering loose change quickly spiralled out of control.
Paul was (and still is) a giant of a man by Aberdare standards, and he’d spend his evenings carefully rebuilding the tower of coins on the end of the bar. He and Ron organised a gala night during which the whole edifice would come crashing down. They got hold of Howard Winstone, the former champion boxer, Peter Locke the darts champion, and Simon Weston, the Falklands War veteran and campaigner, to perform the demolition ceremony. I went along and took some photos.
About a dozen regulars were standing by the bar holding a tarpaulin when the three special guests pushed the tower over. The aftermath was spectacular. What none of us had realised was that people had been putting silver, pound coins and notes into the cardboard tube that formed the backbone of the structure, as well as building concentric rings of coppers around it. They emptied the tarpaulin out onto the pool table, which was covered with a piece of board for the occasion.
Neil and I counted it until the small hours and carried on the next day, bagging the coins for Ron to pay into the bank. When we’d finished, we found that the regulars had raised well over £600 for Oxfam. About a week later Ron was clearing some stuff from under the bar and found another £20 worth of coppers that he’d somehow missed when he was paying it in.
At about the same time, Ron had a big teddy bear which he was raffling to raise extra money for Oxfam. It used to live behind the bar, watching the proceedings from its high shelf. One night, Dad was ‘keeping an eye on the bar for a minute’ when he and Paul decided to kidnap the bear. Paul sneaked it out under his coat at the end of the night, and Ron didn’t notice it had gone for a couple of days. I cut letters out of a newspaper and made a ransom note which we put through the letterbox when the pub was closed. He had to pay a ransom out of his own money to the charity before the bear mysteriously reappeared about a week or so later.
Dad was in his late fifties when the boys from the quiz team roped him to play cricket in the park. I can’t remember if it was another fund-raiser, or if it was just for a laugh. Facing his first ball, he gave it a tremendous whack, set off down the wicket, slipped on the damp grass and fell flat on his back. That gave rise to yet another story which passed into the folklore of the pub.
In 1987 Ron decided to move on, this time to Brynmawr, and a huge imposing pub in the centre of town called the Griffin. We had a going-away party for him in the Mount, of course. It was a great night. Ron’s daughter Angela took the place over, but by then I wasn’t living around the corner any more. I was living in Llwydcoed, and it was easier to go to the Corner House with Dad, or to the Bridgend with Phil and our mates – or else go straight to town – than to go to the Mount.
When Phil first started driving, we decided to take a tour of the eastern valleys, up from Newport and through Newbridge, heading vaguely for the Heads of the Valleys Road. We found ourselves in Brynmawr, and on an impulse decided to look Neil up. We went into the Griffin and saw Ron. He was amazed to see us, and told us that Neil was at home, in an isolated house on the top road to Blaenavon. We drove over and found him outside, playing with his dogs. We chatted for ages before heading for home.
The next time I saw Neil was in Dillons in Cardiff. I was working there, and he just appeared by the counter one day. He told me that Ron had moved on again, to the Racehorse near Abergavenny. He’d been quite ill, but was on the mend. I haven’t seen Neil since that day, and that brief stop in Brynmawr was the last time I saw Ron.
The Mount changed hands several times over the next two decades – usually a warning sign as pubs go. I did go to a private party there a couple of years ago – an engagement party for a couple of friends of mine – but the atmosphere wasn’t the same. The old gang had moved on or passed on, and the remaining drinkers seemed to be sport-obsessed and with no real conversation.
And I admit that on Sunday night I was close to tears, listening to the Beatles singing ‘The Long And Winding Road’ on the jukebox and remembering all the fun we’d had in the Mount over the years. The Full Moon in Harriet Street is boarded up, as is the Llwyncelyn on the main road near Shanara’s house. The Waynes was demolished some time in the early 1990s.
I passed the Mount at about 7.30 last night, and the owners had wasted no time in getting the steel shutters fitted over the doors and windows. That leaves three pubs in Trecynon, out of over half-a-dozen twenty years ago. The Mount is in a prime position for redevelopment as flats, but will anyone take the gamble in the present economic climate? Someone tried and failed with the Bird in Hand, right in the town centre. If it can’t work there, will it work elsewhere?
I doubt whether it’ll ever reopen as a pub in my lifetime. As far as the powers that be are concerned, it’ll just be a casualty of the economic downturn – only one of the two hundred pubs (at least) that closed their doors for the last time in January 2010.
And after all that, Doz didn’t even make it to the final session. I went home at about 12.30, leaving a sad trail of footprints in the snow that had fallen while we were inside. The gang from the White Lion had come up to say goodbye to Joy and it was getting a bit boisterous in there. Anyway, there was no draught lager (what would have been the point of stocking up?) and I don’t care much for it out of a can.
I can’t help wondering how many more pub closing parties I’ll go to before the year’s out.