Four pubs close every day across Britain. If we keep going at this rate, the traditional locals will be gone, leaving only identical Scandi-style bars serving overpriced cocktails. Our beloved old boozers, with their reheated burgers, shabby carpets, and grouchy regulars will be a thing of the past.
But in Manchester, people are taking Britain's ailing pub scene into their own hands—quite literally. They're building a pub, from scratch and by hand. Everything from the bar tiles to the dart boards is being made by the community, with workshops in pump handle turning and bar panel design running since January.
Over 600 volunteers have signed up to these sessions so far and when The Pilcrow opens in Sadler's Yard (an event space in the centre of the city) later this year, they'll be able to point to the beer taps, the bar stools, or even the staff aprons, and know they helped make them.
Which is how I find myself in a warehouse on the outskirts of Manchester, peering into little bowls of multi-coloured powders: electric blue garlic, golden beetroot, pink scallop roe, and dried green seaweed. I've joined a workshop to develop the bar snacks that'll be on offer at the pub.
Wearing aprons that were handmade by other Pilcrow volunteers and using homemade spoons also destined for the pub, we're experimenting with different flavour combinations, shaking the powders with crisps and pork scratchings in pink paper bags. Remember those Salt 'n Shake crisps? It's kind of like that, except instead of salt, it's citric acid.
I make a few duds (yogurt powder, chili, and makrut lime doesn't quite conjure the Thai green curry I was hoping for) but one fellow volunteer coats pork scratchings in garlic salt, star anise, coriander, ginger, and Nepali timur pepper. They taste delicious—not unlike crispy pork belly. The clear winner of our experiment, however, is the chicken salt.
"I made it by slowly roasting chicken skin, then blitzing to create a paste," explains Samuel Buckley, the chef running the session. "Then we extract a little of the oil left by dehydration, then mix with sea salt until the desired consistency—I guess like sand. I created all these flavourings from scratch using different techniques like dehydration, infusion, or using starches to transform a flavour in liquid form to a powder."
The idea behind these flavour combos is that they can be put on anything: crisps, biltong, fish jerky—even a pickled egg.
"We decided for The Pilcrow that the bar snacks should be almost like a multiple choice sort of thing," Buckley tells me over a bag of chicken salt crisps. "You'll get to mix the flavours on whatever vessel you want. So you might have, say, a bag of potato crisps and take the chicken and blackcurrant flavouring. It's creating a new way of eating bar snacks."
Buckley is a Manchester-born chef who cut his teeth working with the Michelin-starred Paul Kitching and Simon Rogan, and is now opening his own restaurant in nearby Stockport. He likes the collaboration that's part of The Pilcrow.
"It's not just about opening the pub and then the journey begins," he says. "The process is part of the journey—that's really important to me. It means that as many people are involved in the creative element as possible."
Nicola Whyley, also taking part in today's workshop, was intrigued by the idea of building a pub.
"At first I thought it sounded a bit like a social experiment," she says. "The chance to put a stamp on it, help shape the way it would look, was really exciting."
The hope is that the pub will help redevelop a formerly neglected area of the city centre, acting as a community hub.
"Manchester is growing at a really fast rate, but unlike a city like London where everywhere is quite densely populated, [here] there are a lot of derelict areas," says Whyley. "Regeneration is great but at the same time, you can't just slap up a block of apartments and expect to build a community. So the whole concept is really great."
Designer and ceramicist Joe Hartley, who's managing The Pilcrow project, hopes people feel a real ownership over the pub.
"I think you do feel closer to something if you've understood how and why it was made. More and more, there's a big gap appearing between the things we use and possess, and where they're made," he says. "The idea is to narrow that gap a little and help people realise how accessible making things can actually be."
It may be built using modern methods but The Pilcrow will have the recognisable features of a traditional pub, like stained glass and wooden panels. The aim is to feel inclusive and welcoming.
"We don't want the space to be just somewhere to get a drink," says Hartley. "Traditionally pubs are almost like churches, in a way. A church wasn't just for people going to pray, they were almost like community centres. That's really what we're trying to do with the space."