Garden Gate pub is Hunslet’s hidden gem

Ed Carlisle has been in touch to tell us about interesting developments at one of South Leeds’ hidden gems: the Garden Gate pub in Hunslet.

Photo by Jeremy Morton

Tucked away on a back street in south Leeds – overlooked, and until recently unloved – lies an architectural gem from a bygone era. The building also serves as a company flagship. And it’s slowly gathering a faithful following, from its neighbourhood and much further afield. Welcome to the legendary Garden Gate pub.

The Garden Gate – on the Whitfield estate, down the side of the Penny Hill Shopping Centre – has been a landmark Leeds pub for more than a century. Whilst records show a public house on the site since 1833, the extraordinary current building (built in 1902-3) was built in the distinctively ornate ‘gin palace’ style of the late Victorian and Edwardian era.

These establishments were a marvel of their time – but most were demolished years ago. The Garden Gate came perilously close to a similar fate in 1972, but was saved by a local campaign – apparently led by Mark Knopfler, just a few years before he formed Dire Straits – and was given Grade II building listing, in recognition of its architectural value. Described by English Heritage as ‘very rare’, it’s recently been upgraded to a Grade II* listing – one of just a handful of pubs in the whole country with this status.

Yet for all this, the UK pub industry is struggling. 15 pubs are closing in the UK every week (and that’s down from a peak of 50+ four years ago) – undercut by the supermarkets’ cheap booze, and symptomatic of an age of increasingly fragmented communities. Against this backdrop, the Garden Gate – having changed hands repeatedly over the years, including a stint within the Tetley’s empire – found itself on the brink of closure in 2010…

Until the Leeds Brewery stepped in. The fresh-faced Holbeck-based brewery (only themselves established in 2007) took on the challenge of rescuing and reviving this classic pub, and re-opened it as one of five flagship pubs. (The Leeds Brewery’s an interesting story in itself, embodying the resurrection of real ale and locally-owned breweries in the UK. But that’s another story, for another edition…)

Richard, landlord since the Leeds Brewery takeover, had previously been running a pub down in London. But the Garden Gate was:

“An amazing opportunity, such a historical pub. A chance to put it back on the map, rather than let it rot.”

Photo by Jeremy Morton

And it is indeed both historic and amazing. The pub’s made up of cosy glass-paneled rooms, with  original features including mahogany fittings, glazed tiling, mosaic floors, and real fires. Being a Leeds Brewery pub, the feature drinks are real ale (produced just down the road in Holbeck). And – it’s worth adding – other punters actually spoke to me, a stranger. All very unusual: the kind of place you might find in a posh touristy village, but not the norm in south Leeds.

So how is this unusual experiment fairing? Richard is frank in his answer:

“Business isn’t easy: we do struggle. But it’s slowly getting busier here. We face stiff competition from the big pub chains, but we – here at the Garden Gate, and all across the Leeds Brewery pubs – believe we’re offering a quality environment and quality ale.’

“In fact, small breweries like ours are picking up a lot – despite the economic downturn. We’re picking up a lot of business from the big breweries, who frankly make really boring beers – and whose pubs are often pretty lifeless. Ale-drinking almost disappeared in the UK, but it’s making a huge comeback. People want something unusual, something they haven’t had before – and they don’t mind paying a little bit more for that.”

Sure enough, statistics suggest a major shift in the UK’s beer-drinking habits. The last decade’s seen the number of UK breweries double, from 500 to 1000+; and virtually all the new breweries are smaller, real-ale outfits. Likewise, the last five years have seen a 50% upsurge in real ale drinkers, with more than 8 million of us choosing real ale at least occasionally.

But what of the national decline in pubs? People can get bottled ale at the supermarket: what do pubs, and the Garden Gate in particular, have to offer that’s unique? Richard argues that:

“People can gain a sense of community at a pub, in a generation when it’s lacking elsewhere. And the Garden Gate’s an especially friendly place – once you’ve been here a few times, everyone knows you, and talks to you if you want. People come from all over: the local neighbourhood here in Hunslet, all across south Leeds, and increasingly the whole city.

“And we’re now listed as one of the top heritage pubs nationally, by CAMRA – so we’re getting visitors from across the region and even further afield. People swoon over the tiles and architecture. We do great drinks (especially ale of course) and food. And people come to be part of a community too: everyone gets on here, wherever they’re from. Encourage people to come and become part of it.”

So what does the future hold? Can pubs like the Garden Gate recapture our imagination? Historically, pubs have not always been the most enriching nor positive places. But they do hold unique possibility as places for communities to gather. Especially at a time when government and charities are struggling to sustain conventional ‘community centres’, might pubs like the Garden Gate regain their role as such?

The Garden Gate is open: 12-3pm and 5-11pm Monday-Thursday; 12-11pm Friday and Saturday; and 12-9pm Sunday. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.