The Cockleshell, Saltash: a big, old-fashioned, quite new micropub

In our six years living in Cornwall we never made it to Saltash but the opening of a micropub prompted us to change that last weekend.

It’s an interesting place – a picturesque town on the shore of the estuary, loomed over by two colossal bridges into Devon, over the Tamar.

As is often the case with border towns, it is more pointedly Cornish than many places further into Cornwall, as if its job is to defend national identity against creeping Englishness.

It has quite a few traditional pubs. A friend who knows it well recommended The Two Bridges as the best of the bunch so we stopped there first, while we waited for the micropub to open.

The Two Bridges pub with the two bridges in the background.

It sits next to the railway station with a view of both the Victorian rail bridge by Brunel and the brutalist road bridge from the 1960s.

If you’ve been drinking in Newcastle, you’ll be familiar with how this kind of landscape feels. It’s probably not an exaggeration to call it ‘awe inspiring’.

The pub itself is a decent, ordinary local, without a whiff of pretence about it.

We sat in a corner drinking and listened to the chat around the bar. “He wore a mankini,” said one woman, in hysterics, “and he was walking up and down with one ball hanging out!”

Tall Trees, a seasonal special from St Austell, was a pleasingly spicy, piney red ale in excellent condition. The Tribute looked good, too, but we only stopped for one.

The etched window of The Cockleshell.

Up the hill to The Cockleshell

The main event was The Cockleshell, a micropub that opened in Saltash in the summer of 2020. Now, there’s brave.

Oddly, we’d heard quite a bit about it before it opened because its founder did his research in The Drapers Arms in Bristol, our old local.

As we remember it, one evening, he turned up with a copy of our book Brew Britannia he’d bought in a bargain bookshop, and we got chatting to him about his plans.

Later on, we found him working shifts behind the bar at The Drapers, learning about the nuts and bolts of the business.

So, does The Cockleshell feel like a clone of The Drapers Arms? Not at all, although it’s clear that lessons were learned.

There’s plenty of greebling, for example, with every surface covered with nick-nacks, oddments and vintage decor.

A selection of bric-a-brac including a stuffed cockerel.

It’s not any old tat, either, but a serious collection of pub and brewery memorabilia, apparently collected over the course of years.

We particularly liked a perspex advertising sign for the defunct Plymouth Breweries.

The chairs and tables are well-worn and mismatched. Old wooden furniture – hat racks and dressers – has been repurposed to suggest Victorian cosiness in what is, after all, a former convenience store.

When you’re inside, there’s little clue it hasn’t been a pub for a century or more.

The main thing is that, for a micropub, it’s pretty big. You could fit The Drapers in at least twice.

Another oddity is that it operates on the basis of table service only.

That’s not uncommon in the micro-est micropubs, where no seat is more than a few steps from the bar, but quite unusual in a Cornish boozer.

Still, it worked well, and we never waited more than a few seconds before being asked if we wanted another round.

The beer selection skewed local with cask ales from Atlantic (St Columb), Castle (Restormel), Treen (Ponsanooth) and others. The exotic foreign keg beers were from TQ Beerworks (Torbay, Devon) and New Bristol Brewery in, uh, Bristol.

Despite its size, it filled up in the hour after opening, until there was a pleasant buzz.

One customer somewhat belligerently queried the rules written on a blackboard: “It says here not to discuss divisive topics. What about football? Does that count as divisive?”

“It means, basically,” said the landlord, firmly, “don’t be an arsehole.”

The Cockleshell is at 73 Fore St, Saltash PL12 6AF and is open every evening except Monday.

london pubs

The Dodo realises the potential of the micropub model

We only managed one round at The Dodo but it was enough to get a sense of its powerful personality.

The Dodo is a micropub in Hanwell, West London – a suburb beyond Ealing where various of our university contemporaries have ended up living.

People have been telling us to go to the Dodo for ages, every time we pass through West London. The time has never been right, though: either it was closed, or we had somewhere else to be.

On this occasion, we approached the Dodo at the end of a long walk, ready for a pint, just as the light was dying. Its fogged windows glowed an inviting yellow.

We entered and found ourselves at once in a crowd of weary well-to-do parents, their children carpeting the floor.

Squeezing our way to the bar, we had a moment to take in the décor. Pastel colours, bright light, handwritten signs, party balloons. (The Dodo has just turned six.)

Our first instinct was that it felt like a café rather than a pub.

One of the signs warned that children had to be gone by 7pm. Another, we noticed, told us to sit down and await “informal table service”.

Making our way to the back, we found a table reserved from 6pm. Grumbling quietly about the idea of reservations in a micropub, we took a seat.

Lucy Do, the proprietor, appeared moments later. Having followed her on social media for years, it felt like meeting a celebrity.

We watched with admiration as she whizzed up and down the length of the pub, from bar (front) to cellar (back), dodging precocious Archies and Annabelles, while carrying multiple pints, and taking orders for cans and glasses of wine on the way.

Yes, it is like a café, in the French or Belgian sense.

That is, an expression of an owner’s personality, calibrated over hundreds of hours of service to work for this particular crowd, and this particular guv’nor.

Warmly chaotic and sharply efficient at the same time.

This is what micropubs make possible: new ideas about what a pub can be, and which rules of the game it is obliged to follow.

Is the Dodo designed for us? Probably not. We increasingly lean toward trad trappings and dark corners.

But it doesn’t need us, because it’s already found the right people, who book out every table, and are known to each other by name.

And, anyway, the way you get more people to go to the pub is surely to have pubs for a broader range of people – not just pub bores.


Micropubs of Broadstairs

Yes, here we are again with the hottest takes on the latest developments in beer: not only are there craft beer bars in Hackney, but it turns out there also micropubs on the Isle of Thanet in Kent.

One of our own little rules for coping with the weirdness of the present situation has been NO PUB CRAWLS. In Broadstairs last weekend, though, we made an exception because we figured we could visit every micropub in town without going within a mile of anyone else, and sticking to outside seating for the most part.

We started off with a visit to The Magnet on a hot, golden Saturday evening with the smell of garlic on the air. Sitting in the alleyway outside on wobbly chairs, we could have been in Marseilles or Malaga.

The Magnet.

The game in 2020 is all about confidence and reassurance and there was plenty of that at The Magnet. There were enough staff on to intercept every guest and cheerfully direct them to the sanitiser and guestbook, along with table service that felt as if they were doing you a favour rather subjecting you to a restrictive regime. Personality goes a long way, doesn’t it?

When it got cold, we moved inside and, suddenly, it felt more like Belgium than the Mediterranean: brown wood, enamel signs, mirrors, warm light and conspiratorial conversation.

The cask ale selection reminded us of The Draper’s Arms, covering a range of tastes but tending towards the trad and with an emphasis on local. The standouts were a strong, vaguely Victorian IPA from Gadd’s which suggested strawberry jam and orange marmalade, and Bexley Brewery Bursted Bitter: “This is how Shepherd Neame wants its beers to taste.”

Or maybe it just feels like a… pub? Bar, hand-pumps, not especially micro. We liked it a lot and came back for another go on our final night in town.

‘It’s been manic,’ the landlady told us. ‘It usually goes quiet when the schools go back but not this year. All the hotel owners say they’re booked up for weeks. But who knows. You’ve got to keep putting money away in case there’s a second lockdown.’

Let’s hope that one upside of this strange year is a slow, steady trade for pubs in tourist areas right through the off-season.

Four Candles.

On a burning hot Sunday, we walked past The Four Candles on the way out of town and noticed three little tables in the shade across the road. On our way back, dusty and dry, we knew we’d have to stop for at least one Ice Cold in Alex.

It’s one of those barless micropubs, the pure Hillier model, with casks in the back room and regulars who look as if they never go home.

A perennial problem for micropub owners is that people confuse them with microbreweries. This micropub is, of course, a microbrewery. One of the beers we tried, a pale ale with Amarillo hops, was outstanding; another, with Centennial, was rough and hard to finish. We’ll let others who know the pub better than us chime in below to suggest which is more typical.

A table at The Pub.

Knowing that the other micropubs in town would be closed on Monday, this is when we decided we had to crawl, small C, and set off for The Pub. Slightly out of town, beyond the railway line, it would probably be classified as a craft beer bar in any other part of the world: vintage record player, smart graphic design and keg beer from breweries such as The Kernel.

Desperate for shade, we sat inside, looking out on a sun-blasted shopping street with ‘Fruits de Mer’ and a Free Church of England. A couple a little older than us sat on a bench outside smiling into the sky.

Mind the Gap

Finally, we nabbed a seat outside Mind the Gap, where we had a brief, intense emotional affair with Gadd’s hoppy pale ale (HPA).

We’ve known about Gadd’s for a long time, known it was a respected and well-liked brewery, but rarely had chance to drink the beer ourselves. When we have, we’ve been reasonably impressed but, of course, there’s something about consuming cask ale close to source. This beer could not have tasted better, or fresher, more subtle or more vivid.

The phrase ‘Another pint and a half of HPA, please!’ slips off the tongue easily, it turns out.

You can read more about the development of micropubs in our book 20th Century Pub and in this companion piece for Beer Advocate from 2018.

20th Century Pub pubs

Partial Pub Preservation: Hermit Micropubs?

Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?

We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.

In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.

Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.

At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.

So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.

The Greenford Hotel, west London.

Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.

Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.

Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.

But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!


A Cornish Micropub… Kind Of

We heard that a micropub had opened in St Ives back in the summer but hadn’t got round to visiting until last Friday when we popped across on the bus.

Contrary to rumour, it wasn’t hard to find — there’s a prominent gated entrance on the harbour-front, next door to Pizza Express. In true micropub fashion, however, its opening hours are limited and we found ourselves wandering about waiting for 4pm to roll around.

"Alehouse Yard" street sign.Signs on the gate: 'Micropub Open 4pm.'