Wednesday, January 05, 2011

An Alphabet of Yorkshire Pubs : B - The Black Bull, Birstall

5, Kirgate, Birstall, West Yorkshire Tel : 01274 873039

In alphabet terms, they don't come much better than the Black Bull in Birstall (that's three B's and should entitle me to at least a free pint of beer). And if you like your pubs old, characterful, stewed in history, and cozy, they don't come much better than the Black Bull either. Nobody quite knows how old it is : there are certainly 17th century features but other bits and pieces have been grafted onto it over the centuries. It is one of those long pubs, the type that look as though they started life as a normal pub and got stretched over the years, like a stick of seaside rock. It needed to stretch to meet the demands on its services because, although you would not think so when you see it now, this was once the focal point of a busy local community.

It owed its eighteenth and nineteenth century popularity to two factors : it is situated opposite St Peter's Parish Church and it stood alongside the important Elland to Leeds turnpike road. St. Peter's was originally the centre of a wide ranging parish and parishioners would need to travel to Birstall for important occasions and possibly need overnight accommodation. Thus the Black Bull was a kind of Travel Lodge of its day. The Elland to Leeds turnpike was one of the great turnpike roads built in West Yorkshire in the 1740s which, for the first time, provided relatively efficient road transport between the emerging industrial towns of West Yorkshire. Thus the Black Bull was a kind of motorway service station of its day.

During its heyday, the Black Bull was also a kind of community centre. The local Magistrate's Court met in a room - which is still preserved - upstairs. The Inn was used as an auction house and as a polling station for local elections. Village life revolved around the Black Bull and there can be few Birstall inhabitants or visitors who have not passed through the low-slung doors. No doubt this included Charlotte Bronte (is there a pub in West Yorkshire she didn't visit!) for she had strong connections with the village and her great friend Ellen Nussey is buried in St. Peter's churchyard.

In the twenty-first century, the Black Bull feels a little cut off. The main roads have by-passed it and Kirgate is now a quiet little back lane. The parish of St. Peter's was divided up in the nineteenth century and the Victorian church has a leafy and sleepy feel about it. But the Black Bull battles on in the way that so many pubs are forced to do in these most pub-unfriendly days. It serves real ale (I samples a rather pleasant pint of Ingleborough Ice from the Yorkshire Dales Brewing Co which went down a hell of a lot better than most of the ice we have suffered from recently). It normally serves food (it didn't on the day I called it so I was unable to try it out). It has function rooms, it has wi-fi and it has managed to get itself included in the latest CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

So good luck to the Black Bull, may it continue to thrive and continue to represent all that is best about the West Yorkshire village inn. It has survived over 400 years by adapting to the changing times and becoming a conglomerate of local history (there is a stone built into the end wall, the precise provenance of which is still unknown). May it survive the next 400 years by adopting the same strategy.

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  1. I do love this type if history of the people...You make me want to drink. In a good way. -J

  2. Now that's my kind of pub - history, atmosphere, and all the mod cons. Great review, Alan! You make me regret not living anywhere near it.

    And isn't it interesting that village pubs get used for things like municipal and coroner's courts. The White Horse Tavern in Newport, RI (the oldest establishment continuously used as a tavern in the US, since 1673), was used as the local seat of government. According to their website: "For the next one hundred years, before the Colony House was constructed, this large and comfortable tavern was the meeting place of the Colony’s General Assembly, Criminal Court and City Council." And here in Shippensburg the Widow Piper's Tavern, built in 1735, was used for Cumberland County court sessions from 1750 to 1751 until a regular courthouse was built in Carlisle.

    It seems that at one point in history the local pub was the center of all activity in a village!

  3. Roy : Thanks for the link to the American taverns. Is the White Horse Tavern far from the cruise ship terminal? If not I will try and visit it in June.

  4. Alan, The White Horse is almost literally just around the corner from Perrotti Park, where the cruise ship shuttles take you.

  5. Fascinating! Will you have a series in the paper for this? I'm sure it would go down a treat (just like the pints of local ale you'll be sampling along the way, no doubt).


  6. The Black Bull sounds like one more reason why I should be looking north, for a holiday break. Great stuff, Alan.

  7. oh i think i could easily get lost there...and love every minute of it...

  8. 1754: The year of Capt. Bligh's birth.

  9. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Alan, this is my kind of place... full of great history. My DNA is longing to touch base with The Black Bull.... how far are you from Sorbie Castle?

  10. Splendid!

    I wonder how many Black Bulls there are in Yorkshire.

    A favourite of my crowd in the mid 60s and 70s was the Black Bull Inn at Moulton. The then owner George Pagendam was a man larger than life who amongst other things, bought a carriage of the old Brighton Bell, 'shipped' it up to Moulton and turned it into a restaurant. The Fish Bar with its daily fresh fish was to die for.

    But at the time, like everything else, I took it in my stride as I was in the hotel industry and took the art of inn keeping which I learned from a master, for granted.

  11. Fascinating stuff Alan, love the history!


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