IT takes something for a pub in York to survive being messed around with. So all praise to the Blue Bell in Fossgate, probably the least modified pub in the city.
That ‘probably’ is there for a reason or out of sheer cowardice. You have to be careful about these things in York as passions can run high.
Whatever the case, the Blue Bell features in a new book called Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs. The tiny but cherished pub is listed in CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, alongside three other pubs in the city: the Golden Ball in Bishophill, the Swan in Bishopgate Street and the Wellington in Alma Terrace. From that list I have yet to tick off the Swan, a lapse which must be rectified.
The Blue Bell has been a favourite since I discovered the place on moving to York in 1988. We popped in for a pint on Sunday lunchtime as part of one of those lively mini-festivals when Fossgate is closed and filled with stalls and the like.
There have been a few of these happy street shut-downs now, but a flick through the dusty files – or the website of my old newspaper – shows that such events were not encouraged in the past.
In July 1998, the Press reported that plans for York’s smallest pub to celebrate its 200th birthday had been stymied when the council refused to allow the street to be closed.
This was a problem as the tiny pub couldn’t contain the expected number of guests.
Peter Evely, head of highway regulation at the council at the time, gave a rather mealy-mouthed statement, congratulating the Blue Bell on reaching its 200th birthday, but adding: “The significant inconvenience that this would have caused to pedestrians and other road users could not be justified for this purpose.”
In the event the council relented after pressure from the public, and the party went ahead in the street, going on longer than had been officially intended.
A few days later, the pub had to close due to blocked drains. During the work to rectify that problem an infestation of wordworm was discovered. A report in the Press said: “It now seems likely that the bar and shelving of The Blue Bell, Fossgate, a listed Edwardian interior, may have to be totally ripped out.”
It is unclear what was removed in the event, as the pub’s Edwardian interior survives virtually intact to this day. To those who have not visited the pub, it is basically two small rooms divided by a bar, with a corridor along the side. The front room is cosy and open to the central bar, while the small back room is walled off and drinks are served through a low hatch.
Dark-stained wood panels line the walls of a pub that essentially hasn’t changed since 1904. Its interior is Grade II listed and past-proofed against the prettifying sins of interior designers. If you want to know what it felt like to go for a drink in Edwardian York, pop in for a pint. The beer is always good, featuring the likes of Landlord and Rooster’s Yankee, and beers from the new Brew York brewery down the street.
One happy change since the 1980s is that this minuscule pub is no longer filled with smoke. I guess the tarry haze made it even more genuinely Edwardian, but some authenticity you can do without.
The pub survived a fire in 1974 and short-lived expansion plans 20 years later. There have been surprisingly few landlords at the Blue Bell, and the licence has changed hands only half a dozen times since 1903.
The following account comes from Guzzling Gav on the Press: “George Robinson, founding director of York City FC, took over that year. When he died in 1948, the licence passed to his wife Annie. When she passed away in 1963, their daughter Edith Pinder took over, and she remained in post until retiring in 1991. John and Pauline West then ran the pub for three years, followed by Tim and Eileen Worrall for six, before Jim [Hardie] took over in 2000.”
The latest landlord is the ever-cheery John Pybus, who happens to be a friend of our son’s. He also happens to be just about the friendliest landlord to be found anywhere, having clearly missed miserable bugger training school.
I recall old stories about a landlady of the Blue Bell who refused to accept decimalisation and continued to price a pint in ‘old money’. From the timescale, that must have been Edith Pinder, described in certain accounts as frail but formidable, and a York pubbing legend.
It is interesting that the council was reluctant to close the street in the 1990s, citing “significant inconvenience”. Nowadays such car-free parties are common and York is all the better for being inconvenienced. Sometimes change is good. And sometimes it isn’t, as shown by the immutable interior of the Blue Bell.