It’s about time. As a postal address, the Brackenwood estate suffers by comparison to its up-market neighbours, leafy Roundhay, trendy Chapel Allerton, old-money Moortown. This wedge of tower blocks and former council housing lacks both their cachet and their places to drink.
For many years the Highwood was a focus for the local community. Way back its cavernous concert room hosted a fabulous Sunday night quiz which was once a fixed point in my own social week. A bloke called Ernie used to run it, but his correct answers were always a little questionable, if you see what I mean. We sometimes won, but not often.
My father-in-law was something of a regular here and we’d come down for music nights and karaoke. The Highwood’s New Year’s Eve parties were the stuff of legend.
But, as sometimes happens, the Highwood slipped into a sad and slow decline. Its concert room was mothballed and its back bar became the kind of place you’d only come to score some drugs, some knock-off DVDs or a stolen stereo. The pub eventually closed and stood sad and neglected for two years as the dodgy deals went underground and the locals found some other place to drink.
But things have totally changed, and when I called in for a pint on Monday night, I found it virtually unrecognisable. The pub’s two main bar areas have been knocked into one long through-lounge, served by a single bar at right angles to where the old ones used to be.
There’s a pool table, Sky Sports TV and they’re serving real ale at £1.50 a pint. Suddenly, as if by magic, the Highwood is once again the quintessential community local; a sports bar and working men’s club rolled into one. It’s been a while, but welcome back.
The two doors on the Brackenwood Drive side of the pub are relics of when the lounge and taproom were separate, and – if memory serves – you actually had to trudge outside to get from one to the other. Now, whichever door you choose, you emerge right in front of the bar, lager fonts to the left, real ale handpulls to the right.
On this occasion, both ales are from the excellent Ossett Brewery and for a moment I wonder if I have happened by chance on the company’s first outpost in the city – especially when landlord Kevin Witter turns out to be wearing the company polo shirt.
He soon puts me right. “It’s privately owned by a family who bought it just as a one-off from a pub company.” They’ve spent a deal of money on the place – though Kevin won’t say how much: “It was a wreck. It had been closed for ages and there were squatters in the place. They had stripped out the lights and all the copper pipes. We managed to salvage some of the seating, but that’s about it.”
The refit includes some plush new leather-look upholstery, carpets, wooden flooring and a bright new look. It opened in the autumn, but some little bits of work still need to be done, with new toilets and a brand new kitchen next on the agenda.
After the opening, Kevin and his team had a more pressing priority – attracting the right sort of customers and keeping the undesirables out. “They came in, of course, and we just asked them to leave. The word has got round that we are not a soft touch any more.”
Instead, they are building a reputation for the Highwood as a proper community pub, with Tuesday bingo – “It used to be a local tradition,”
Kevin explained – live sport, live music in the concert room, discos, private parties and just about anything the people of Gledhow want.
When the kitchen’s installed, simple pub food like pies, curries and burgers will be added to the mix.
There is a slight air of the Phoenix Club about the place, particularly when Kevin talks of reviving the pub’s famous talent contest, but you certainly get the impression that the Highwood is better run, than Brian Potter’s famous TV joint.
The beer is certainly better, with the sharp and refreshing Ossett Pale as a regular, plus one changing guest, currently the richer and darker By George, also from Ossett, and presumably their St George’s Day special. And at £1.50 a pint for sheer value this knocks absolute spots off the competition in, near by Roundhay, Moortown and Chapel Allerton