I was 17 when I first walked into the Duke of Wellington pub. Little did I know that the innocuous little boozer in Norton was to become my ‘local’ for the next decade – even though I lived in Sneyd Green.
There was nothing fancy about ‘The Duke’, as we referred to it. Yes, it was an old pub dating back to the 1840s but the interior was nothing to shout about.
It had one proper toilet for us blokes (which had seen better days) and a bunch of urinals.
The Duke was a good size though – boasting a lounge and a bar, a pool table, jukebox and a couple of fruit machines.
The clientele was genuinely mixed and on Friday and Saturday nights it would be rammed.
My friends and I came to know it as our second home – supping Lowenbrau at 89p per pint as the Eighties drew to a close and the indie music scene really kicked in.
My mates Rob, Richie and I were part of The Duke’s away pool team back then and I’m pleased to say I’ve still got my cue.
I have hazy, fond memories of New Year’s Eve parties, Christmas Eve celebrations and many a lock-in with the curtains closed.
It was a pub where young and old co-existed quite happily. A place where you could still have a conversation and hear yourself think – even if yours truly had stuck the Stone Roses or the Wonderstuff on again.
Sadly, unlike my pool cue, The Duke hasn’t survived. The last time I ventured into the place it was 1999 and quiet as the grave. It closed not long after.
Like so many pubs across the Potteries it fell victim to changing lifestyles and poor management and, although the building remains, it is now a private as opposed to a public house.
As historian and spokesman for the Potteries Pub Preservation Group, Mervyn Edwards explained, it is a familiar tale. He agreed that we have probably lost around a fifth of public houses in North Staffordshire over the last quarter of a century.
Mervyn said: “I thing that may even be a conservative estimate. We’ve seen many, many pubs close and many be demolished over the last 30 years or so.
“The reasons are multifarious but a key one is the loss of jobs in traditional industries. Take Longton, for example. Right up to the end of the 1980s and even later pubs were a key part of the infrastructure of the town.
“They existed to serve employers like the potbanks and even at lunchtimes you would see pottery workers from places like John Tams going to the pie shops and then in to their favourite haunts for a pint.
“When you lose industry like the Potteries has then it is impossible for many pubs to remain profitable. At the same time, people’s habits have changed. They can buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets, rent or buy videos and DVDs or use the internet and play computer games.
“People simply have far more options and have perhaps fallen out of love with simple pleasures like conversing with friends in a pub.
“Then there was the smoking ban of 2007 which really was a hammer-blow for pubs. I was one of the people who thought there might be people who would start going in to pubs as a result of them being smoke-free but it seems that just didn’t happen.
“Add to all of these things the high taxation on alcoholic beverages and the fact that a night out at the pub is actually quite expensive and you can understand why so many have closed or are struggling.”
Off the top of his head Mervyn lists a number of good pubs which we’ve lost in the last 25 years.
Most recent is The Cavalier at Bradwell – built as a one of a number of estate pubs in 1963.
Also mentioned in despatches are the once flagship Joules pub the King’s Arms, in Meir, the Oxford Arms in Maybank and pubs like The Great Eastern, The Staff of Life and the Ancient Briton in and around the Mother Town of Burslem.
I asked Mervyn what the biggest difference we would notice if we went back 30 years to a 1980s pub.
He said: “We would be acutely aware of the lack of what I call ‘creature comforts’. These days pubs have all sorts of gadgets and gizmos – from wall-to-wall satellite television and free Wifi to game consoles like the Wii to keep people amused.
“Thirty years ago you would have had the odd telly and perhaps a jukebox or a fruit machine but they weren’t intrusive. I think it’s very sad how things have changed, really.”
He added: “I think that the bigger pubs will survive. What really needs to improve, however, is the level of customer service. Very often it is poor. There are exceptions – such as The Holy Inadequate at Etruria and The Bluebell at Kidsgrove – but generally speaking many pubs could improve”.
Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia