The latest Birmingham PLC press release — painstakingly recreated as news by the local paper — makes many proud boasts about the planned redevelopment of the Christopher Wray lighting factory. It includes the usual lauding of new shiny buildings and a shameless brag about how much the land has gone up in value since the owner bought up the previously undesirable site for cheap and banked it until HS2 was a dead cert.
But the thing that stood out for us was the claim that they’re going to make Brum’s first “ruin pub” — they’ve been ruining pubs all around town for years now, so how can this be a first?
There are actual ruins like the Fox & Grapes, just a few hundred yards from Christopher Wray, which is surely only one more stray match away from joining Island House in becoming a car park for new builds of Snow Hill. And then there are the more prosaically ruined pubs, like The Dog on Hagley Road which had its rabbit warren of snugs hollowed out to make a generic cavern to house an Ember Inn — the sort of pub ruin that is happening somewhere near you right now, no doubt.
And then there are the trendy pubs, of course, they’re the real ruins. But what should a real pub be like? We asked Andre De Orwell to describe his perfect watering hole..
My favourite public-house, the Ruin Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, has ample fixie parking, but it is on a side-street, so drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights. I usually grab an Uber home (they can find it OK because their app uses my GPS location).
Its clientele, fairly largely bearded, consists mostly of ‘hipsters’ who occupy the same reclaimed chair every evening — straining to talk to those at other heights round the table — and go there for conversation as much as for the micro-brewed craft beer.
If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the craft beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Ruin Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.
To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Edwardian, apart from the WWII style posters, and 60s G-plan knock off furniture. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by Farrow and Ball, the papier mache bull’s head over the mantelpiece — everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century, with more austerity-era desktop publishing.
There is a front bar, a back bar, and a little outdoor shop for those who want to take home a few special bottles.
8 -bit console games are only played in the back bar once a month on the second Tuesday, so that in the other bars you can walk about without hearing chiptune.
In the Ruin Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk — via social media if needed, because of the noise from the chap-hop DJ. The house possesses a jukebox and a piano but neither work, they are ornamental, so even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of an ironic ukulele-backed kind.
The bar staff are slightly cooler than you but take a personal interest in everyone who makes a purchase based on their recommendations. They are all around nineteen—two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call you by a variety of names throughout the evening — chief, boss, dear, darling, muck, bae, matey, Tonto — irrespective of your age and gender, and never the same name twice. One has a sleeve tattoo featuring Jar Jar Binks.
Unlike most pubs, the Ruin Under Water sells vaping equipment and the manager knows a guy who runs a private humidor.
You cannot get dinner at the Ruin Under Water, but for snacks there are scotch eggs, slightly greasy crisps with too many adjectives in their flavours like “sea salt and balsamic vinegar” or “hungarian smoked paprika”. And once a month there is a pop up restaurant featuring some of the best street food chefs in B-town.
The special pleasure of the scotch egg is that you can have Russian Imperial Stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of Birmingham pubs serve Russian Imperial Stout on draught, but the Ruin Under Water is one of them. It is a harshly alcoholic sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.
They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Ruin Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.
Many as are the virtues of the Ruin Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.
The Ruin Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be—at any rate, in the Birmingham area. (The qualities one expects of a Black Country pub are slightly different.)
But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Ruin Under Water.
That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities. I hope soon a mixed use development will incorporate this pub into its design — or if not that we can develop a Kickstarter campaign to buy the British Oak in Stirchley and make this dream come true ourselves. I’d have to give up my work in marketing, but I think there might be a short documentary series in it. I’ll ask my friend at Maverick.
I know pubs where the craft beer is good but you can’t get organic snacks, others where you can get street food but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally mainstream. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three Birmingham pubs that possess them, and they are not-usually retro enough.
But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Ruin Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no Brooklyn Lager, and no weekly flea market.
If anyone knows of a pub that has draught russian imperial stout, open fires, posh bar snacks, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Cherry Reds or the Victoria.