This Small Town Pub Fought the Odds to Become Yorkshire’s Coolest Music Venue

This Small Town Pub Fought the Odds to Become Yorkshire’s Coolest Music Venue

The Golden Lion in Todmorden has hosted British techno legend Andrew Weatherall and Justin Robertson. Mr. Scruff loved the place so much, he refused his fee after playing there.
March 12, 2018, 6:14pm

There’s a pub in Todmorden, West Yorkshire that serves Bangkok-style Thai food and has hosted performances from British techno legend Andrew Weatherall and Andy Votel of Four Tet. It runs UFO-spotting meetings and patrons sometimes stay overnight in the upstairs gig room, provided they have brought their own sleeping bags—and a dose of skepticism. It is apparently one of the small market town's most haunted buildings.

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This unique experience comes courtesy of The Golden Lion, which, until three years ago, stood empty following devastating floods in the region in 2012.

Taken over by business partners and couple, landlady Matthanee Nilavongse and local promoter Richard Walker, The Golden Lion is a statistical anomaly, a rare success story at a time when pubs close every week due to spiralling licence fees and declining customer bases. The Golden Lion is a shining example of small town ingenuity and community spirit.

The Golden Lion pub in Todmorden in West Yorkshire. All photos by the author.

“Because it’s at the end of Calderdale Council’s jurisdiction, the council don’t like investing in Todmorden and there’s a feeling of being unwanted,” says Walker. “So what we do is, we get on with it ourselves.”

After a stint in the navy aged 16, Walker was an active member of the free party scene, throwing raves in fields until the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and ensuing clampdowns forced him to find a different way of life. Initially only planning to stay in Todmorden for a few days on his way up to Scotland, Walker has now lived in the town for 22 years. Training as a nurse, he eventually found a long-term career working for social services, while running promotions company White Rabbit on the side.

“I’d already built up a bit of a rep putting on gigs at the Trades Club [in neighbouring Hebden Bridge],” he explains, when asked how The Golden Lion became so popular with musicians. “If we hadn’t had that, then I think we’d have struggled,” he adds.

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While Walker isn’t sure exactly when the pub was built nor how many staff it employs, his passion and attention to detail becomes evident when he takes me upstairs to see the 70-capacity gig room, where obscure psychedelic bands can make use of the pub’s personal backline, thus keeping ticket prices low. Walker has also constructed a floating DJ booth “so the needles don’t stick, built purely for Russ (Marland),” whose expectation-defying club night Out in the Sticks he credits with inspiring his own forays into promoting in West Yorkshire. The Golden Lion has also hosted Manchester icons Justin Robertson and Mr. Scruff, who was so impressed with the pub that he donated his fee to improve the venue’s tech spec.

Mr. Scruff was so impressed with the pub that he donated his fee to improve the venue’s tech spec.

Bangkok-hailing Nilavongse moved to the UK in 2004 to study for a Master’s in art, but crippling university fees meant she ended up working 90-hour weeks in Thai restaurants across the country, until settling in a managerial role in Hebden Bridge. Made redundant after the restaurant’s owners enlisted the help of their family in 2010, Nilavongse decided to start a Thai tapas joint at another Todmorden pub, the Three Wise Monkeys. Walker, who wasn’t romantically involved with Nilavongse at this point, had recently been employed as resident DJ there.

“I said to the guys, ‘She’s going to fuck this up for all of us because you’re going to have people eating and no one is going to want to listen to us.’ But she said, ‘It’ll work,’ and it did.”

The Golden Lion promoter Richard Walker and landlady Matthanee Nilavongse.

With only room for 30 covers and an average of 100 customers a night, Nilavongse soon outgrew the Three Wise Monkeys. Initially taking The Golden Lion on by herself, she was keen to give others the same opportunity she’d been afforded, handing over her kitchen to pop-ups such as local vegan food company Beets & Beans.

“In this valley, it’s so difficult when you’re about 30-years-old, you’ve got no job, and you want to start your own business,” Nilavongse says. “You haven’t got funding, you haven’t got anyone to support you. After the pop-ups have trialled their ideas here they know what they’re doing and can open their own place and move on.”

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As well as supporting fledgling businesses, Nilavongse is an active member of the community, helping to cook food for the homeless at the local Unitarian church and running a pay-what-you-like kitchen on Christmas Day.

“If you’re a mum with three kids, you can’t afford to go out all the time so sometimes people bring their own food and we grill and then share,” she says.

Todmorden's canal flooded in December, causing damage to The Golden Lion.

Nilavongse’s kindness was reciprocated when The Golden Lion flooded again on Boxing Day, less than a year after re-opening. Community members helped to clean the pub in time for a New Year’s Eve party.

But with such an onus on philanthropic endeavours and no insurance against further floods due to the pub's canal-side location, how do Walker and Nilavongse ensure that the place stays financially viable?

“Every area makes money,” Walker explains as he begins to show me around the spacious building, its previously chintzy décor given a makeover with blue-grey paintwork, exposed stone floors, and tastefully mismatched furniture. “This area makes money because we serve food here, the area down there makes money because we have slot machines, the pool table makes money, the upstairs room for gigs makes money.”

As Walker points out an impressive sound system built by Kev Original of Dub Smugglers, we walk through to what transpires to be a pub within a pub. Run by local promoter Jake Blanchard, Tor Beers serves craft ales Wednesday through Sunday at The Golden Lion, with his rent providing Nilavongse and Walker with another source of steady revenue.

Tom Jued noodle soup with tofu.

“Jake had planned on opening a craft ale shop in Todmorden with a friend but then at the last minute, this friend pulled out," Walker explains. "At the same time, our customers were saying that our beer selection wasn’t as broad as it should be. I don’t like craft beer, none of our staff have an interest in craft beer, so that’s the reason why we don’t do it. Jake had invested his mind and his time in this opening so I just said to him, ‘If you wanna do that here, go for it.’”

“It’s a one-stop-shop,” asserts Golden Lion regular Jane, who’s lived in Todmorden for 23 years. “It’s child-friendly so I can come with my kids at tea time and then I can have a really good night on the night. I used to spend my down time out of the town, in Hebden or more often in Manchester. But whereas at 52, I’d feel like a freak going into a club in Manchester, here there’s people my age who still remember them DJs and wanna dance to them. I think it’s completely changed the town.”

Tempura vegetables.

Providing older ravers with somewhere to go is on Nilavongse’s mind too, who says, “all my friends are like 50- or 60-years-old now and all the care homes are so boring in England. If we can turn this into a care home with everyone living together, hire two nurses, and facilitate activities—readings, DJs, music, and good food—getting old won’t be boring and we’ll still be drinking beers.”

But with 80 percent of punters at The Golden Lion’s gigs out-of-towners from places as far afield as London, Ireland, Spain, and even America, the pub is far more than a retreat for local old hippies.

"We’re not a brand, we run a space for people who have a dream and want to do things."

Evidence that Nilavongse and Walker are firmly rooted in plans for the immediate future comes courtesy of its soon-to-be-launched new menu, which Nilavongse explains is a result of dishes changing in accordance with incoming chefs.

“We had a talk and decided that if you’re going to do Thai here, then it has to be your original, your own style,” she says. “So this new menu is a little bit different from what I did as I’m from Bangkok but my chefs are from North East.”

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The broth of my Tom Jued noodle soup is subtle but sweet and comes with crispy tofu. I also order a crispy papaya salad, and Nilavongse brings me a banana fritter and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. I share the generous portion with Jane, whose six-month-old daughter gives the silky custard a satisfied smile.

The wall of The Golden Lion reads "Ceci n'est pas une pub"—"This is not a pub."

The Golden Lion’s unconventional approach hasn’t come without criticism. When Nilavongse and Walker painted the side of the pub Nilavongse’s favourite colour yellow, some locals reported them and the council ordered the couple to revert it to its original hue. They agreed, but not without a two finger salute to the establishment. Handing out paintbrushes one Sunday morning, they let regulars graffiti its walls with whatever they liked, before whitewashing everything and leaving a much more conservative imprint: a hand-painted sign that reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pub”—French for “This is not a pub.” If The Golden Lion isn’t a pub, I ask Nilavongse, then what is it?

“People say to us, ‘You’re a brand now,’ but I say, ‘We’re not a brand, we run a space for people who have a dream and want to do things.’”

With Andrew Weatherall returning this May for a third gig (this time with Ivan Smagghe), it’s safe to say that The Golden Lion has achieved Nilavongse and Walker’s own personal ambition of “putting Todmorden on the map.”

Although by the couple’s own admission, it’s difficult to predict what The Golden Lion's future holds, but I leave with the impression that there’s a lot more to come before it turns into a ravers’ retirement home.