Sun business editor Steve Hawkes weighed-in on behalf of Britain’s struggling pubs on Tuesday, calling on the unusual combination of the Institute for Public Policy Research and CAMRA to issue a ‘Plea for Dying Boozers’. The IPPR has claimed the “social value” of a good community pub is up to £120,000 a year to the local area. Not sure how they work these things out, but I reckon News International could let go one of the 300 editorial staff said to be on six figure salaries, and plug the hole in the community left by one of the 1,078 pubs to have closed in the last two years. I couldn’t reach Mr Hawkes on Twitter, so I’m guessing he was down his local.
The best place to be on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in West Cardiff is a pub, especially when there’s a wet bike ride to face when you’re done. Cue a half of Strongbow and a bowl of chips at the Canton Cross Vaults which is nestled on Leckwith Road just off the hubbub of Cowbridge Road East.
Landlord Brian McDonald is holding the fort as the only other customers are a ladies’ lunch club whom he keeps happy with food and banter. Brian, originally from Rhymney, used to run a pub in Gabalfa before he took over the Cross and he does a very good line in v-necks, as today’s lime-green number and a bright pink one in pictures on the pub’s Facebook page can attest. The Cross is owned by pubco Punch Taverns – one of the UK’s largest – which hasn’t had an easy ride in the past year, but Brian said he’s just happy to have a job given the current economic climate. Tied-in on alcohol as he is, Brian said the beer could be a bit cheaper but that’s the only complaint he has about the bosses.
The Cross is a lesson to other pubs in using Facebook to promote itself, with over 900 friends and frequent updates, pictures and comments on its page. There’s plenty to talk-up too with karaoke nights, quizzes, darts teams, poker tournaments and a Sunday league football outfit competing for attention. Printed in valleys green on a roof beam is the following: “To be born Welsh is a privilege, not born with a silver spoon in your mouth but with music in your heart and poetry in your soul.” Stirring words from a pub making a real go of a crowded Canton market. Oh, and the chips are great.
The Royal Oak in Roath, where I stopped for an enjoyable open-mic night in November, has unfortunately put an end to live band nights for the foreseeable future. There will be no more tunes on Friday evenings as a lack of support means the pub’s function room will no longer be a venue for local talent. Nights were cancelled in December and January before landlord Rhys and landlady Jen took the painful decision to postpone them indefinitely. Rhys has called the Oak a “music-lead pub” and the couple, who took it over around a year ago, said they tried to keep the nights going but couldn’t drum up the level of interest live music at the pub used to attract.
“Quite simply it was a financial decision,” Jen said. “On a typical band night we had five people in the room and it costs about £200 with staffing and equipment so we were losing money. If the room was full and there was support and there was demand there would not have been a question: we would never have dropped the bands.” The Oak enjoyed the support of customer and Radio Cardiff DJ Scott Travers, sponsoring his Big Scott show on Mondays and Tuesdays, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to get the punters in.
Though Jen said the reaction of most patrons has been supportive, the Oak has been a gig venue for decades and there has been understandable disappointment. Cardiff gig-goer Carl DeAbreu said on Facebook: “Been supporting live music @ The Oak for over 30 yrs and will be very sorry to see it stop. 20 odd yrs ago when the likes of The Superclarkes & Snatch It Back were playing you could barely get through the door it was so packed. There’s still quality music out there and pubs like the Oak selling good relatively cheap beer but the sad fact is people ain’t going out and socialising in this way any more. A sad sign of the times I’m afraid.”
Musician and Cardiff University student Marc Smith added: “It’s such a great shame….As the capital city of a “musical nation” Cardiff sadly lacks venues for small-ish live music events!!! And the loss of another one makes it ever more difficult for local musicians to have somewhere to play & be heard.” But Rhys and Jen are open to the suggestion, put forward by Marc, of groups playing for free. Said Jen: “We are certainly not against the idea. We would love there to be live music here again if bands are willing and they understand I just can’t afford to pay them what they had before.” The pub’s open-mic nights are also still very much on so one way or another, there will still be music at the Royal Oak.