The Victoria, Durham
86 Hallgarth Street
On a cold or damp day (not uncommon in Durham), walking in from the main entrance of The Victoria will throw you straight into the heart of the action and the warmth of the room rushes to bid you welcome.
The Victoria hosts cheerful, very chatty locals who will seize any opportunity to engage in a bit of banter, ask you how you’re doing and what you’re up to, and altogether give the sense that they never really leave the pub, other than on some onerous errand or other. It’s a down-to-earth community greeting that may take aback those used to more a reserved, private experience. There is no forced jollity however, don’t worry about that. On a weekday evening or Saturday afternoon especially don’t be surprised to encounter a bar area thronged with people.
The longstanding publican Michael Webster will give you a straightforward and honest North East greeting and absolutely has your interests at heart. On a busy day you may be offered a seat in the back – unusually this can be accessed via the bar hatch, but also via a couple of sets of doors at the back of the bar.
Pubs of this sort were conceived with an understanding of the concept of genius loci, a harmonious use of space to create a genial special atmosphere. The local architect Joseph Oswald who designed the hotel prior to its construction in 1899 appears to have fundamentally grasped what layout would produce a special venue. Since then, what changes there have been to its appearance have been kept to a minimum. This is now protected by Grade II listed status.
The layout, fixtures and fittings have been well preserved, including some genuine curios such as their vintage coin till, and the service bells fixed in the frames of the bench seats. Some of you may have seen in traditional pubs and know they are nearly always found to be out of action. Well, they have rigged up a new call bell and it’ll be nae botha (within reason) if you use it to attract the attention of the bar staff. Victoriana at its finest, as WhatPub splendidly describes.
However distinctive the venue may be, a pub its nothing without the atmosphere created by its patrons. While the décor in the Victoria is rightly prized for its distinctive and well-preserved quality – almost a museum in fact – the customers, along with the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff (an impression which is imparted by everything they do) give the place a vibrancy that others pubs don’t match, for all the wax and varnish they may apply. In my opinion these folks are as integral a part of the pub’s character as the marble fireplace, quirky side rooms or any eccentric array of chintzy royal memorabilia.
So what’s to drink?
For many years The Victoria has offered as its permanent ale ‘Big Lamp Bitter’, a full-flavoured and now rather old fashioned brown bitter of a sort which fits in with the experience of visiting The Victoria very well. You will find other local ales on rotation, for prices which are a little higher than most in the area, not that this deters the locals.
On the Saturday we visited, their kitchen had put on a spread of what can only be described as Durham tapas, traditional North Eastern grub mixed in with the kind of tuck you’d expect to fill the Famous Five’s hampers. You’ll be warmly invited to help yourself and get stuck in. They don’t much stand on ceremony around this area, and all the better for it in my view. Outside of tapas days, food may limited to toasties. Factoring in the hospitality here, their prices become far fairer.
The venue still operates as a hotel and you may see visitors hustled through the back with their suitcases and up the stairs to the guest rooms. In the morning they will enjoy a full English breakfast rustled up by local legend Maureen, reportedly well worth a try.
We spent most of our time in the small lounge at the back of the bar, a beautiful and cosy room with dark red detailed wallpaper, coal fires and hosting domino games. In the warmth and intimacy, you can kiss goodbye to the dreak and the damp of the outside and settle in for the evening. It’s the kind of comfort and enjoyment that’s been regrettably overlooked when attempts to modernise pubs have been made.
One of the great aspects of Victoriana (if we put aside some of the horrendous inequalities and hardships for working people) was the real concept of craft. That mass production was not incompatible with creating something special. That a venue ordinary people could visit could be lavish and a treat to visit rather than looking cookie-cutter and off-the-shelf, and on a human level, as Dr Johnson famously put it:
“As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants. The more good things you call for, the more welcome you are. Alcohol exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love : I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight. There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a capital tavern or inn.”
This is borne out by the fact so many of these historic venues have endured any number of fashion trends, changes of property ownership and economic disasters. Not nearly enough of them, to be sure, but there is something intrinsically appealling that keeps people coming back. And these people, as in all good pubs, belong to different walks of life.
A lot of pub owners and managers could learn a lot by spending a day seated and observant in a place like this.