Northern Star: The Caledonia is two
In celebration of The Caledonia's second birthday we talk to landlady Laura King on beer, music and running one of Liverpool's best pubs.
One the corner of two streets in Liverpool’s sometimes-bohemian, sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-rough-around-the-edges Georgian Quarter is one of the best pubs in Liverpool.
It was not always like this. Go back a decade and it had washing machines stacked at the back of it. Novel, but not a place you’d venture into unless you had to. Around the same time it found a sort of fame for staging some of Chibuku’s early pre- or after-parties. We forget which.
Now, with very little difference to the naked eye, The Caledonia is a very different pub altogether. It serves excellent real ales, offers wonderful food for a fiver and has become famous for Sunday night music events, with the Loose Moose String Band (amongst other bands and outfits) taking up residency and making this small corner of the city-centre outskirts a busy hub of friendship and fun.
Today is The Caledonia’s second birthday so we secured a few minutes of the very busy Laura King’s time – she’s the formidable landlady – and chewed the fat over the Cali, beer, music and the pub business.
We like the Caledonia and we think you will too, so pop in for a pint some time and support a Liverpool success story.
SevenStreets: How did you come to be running a pub in Liverpool?
Laura King: I got into running pubs by accident really. As I teenager, I always found the idea of working in a pub to be quite romantic. My first jobs as a teenager were all in bar/restaurant/hotel environments, when I moved to Liverpool I got a job in Thomas Rigby’s; I stayed there after Uni and ended up running a pub for the company that owned it. I got itchy feet, wanted to learn more and have the ability to do everything exactly the way I wanted. And ended up with The Caledonia!
SS: Why The Cali specifically?
LK: It was either the first or the second – it’s a toss up between here and The Cambridge – pub I walked into in Liverpool. Fast forward a few years and I was disengaged, disconnected and looking for a new job to get me going again. I very tentatively (I didn’t have a penny) started to look at pubs for sale and to let. I was scrolling down the list one day and saw The Caledonia, muttered an expletive and the rest is history! This very romantic story makes me feel a little bit as though it was fate.
The Caledonia was in a state, had been for years and my gut made me feel like it shouldn’t be, my heart said it didn’t deserve to be. It has been standing for almost 200 years and to me that’s owed reverence and respect. It’s been two years of extremely hard work, probably at least another two but it’s a massive reward to know that what I’ve done means that this pub should be here for decades to come.
SS: You’ve delved into the history the pub, what did you find?
LK: The pub is named after one of the first three ships to be commissioned by Cunard, they were launched in 1837 and were Post Ships with accommodation sailing between Liverpool, New York and Boston. Charles Dickens once described the passenger cabins as ‘floating coffins’ – The Caledonia was sold and sank off Cuba in the 1850s!
The pub layout used to be entirely different and was ripped out in the 80′s in favour of vertical drinking, when the place was renamed Nightingales. The interior features in Ken Loach’s 1968 film The Golden Vision.
It’s currently furnished with tables and chairs I bought second had from a closed down pub at the bottom of a 60′s tower block in Wigan. Underneath me is the biggest cellar I have encountered in any pub I have ever worked in. I initiate new staff by locking them in there overnight.
SS: What’s upstairs in your pub?
LK: There is a lot upstairs in my pub, it’s a huge old Georgian Building! On the floor above the main bar is our kitchen, my office and a function room which is, among other things, home to Liverpool’s Atticus Chess club, who are famous in chess circles. When I’m rich I’m going to get my sewing machine out and knock up some red velvet curtains for it.
SS: You’ve been proactive in inviting musicians and bands to set up camp in the Cali.
LK: Friday and Sunday we have live music in the evenings, we host Liverpool’s first and only jazz night with a new band called The Blind Monk Trio. We have a lot of live music, it forms an integral part of the pubs identity, however I have been careful to ensure that it doesn’t overpower it.
The music we host is carefully selected to fit in with the identity the pub has developed, it centres around jazz and American genres and also reflects the interests of our regular customers. Whilst music is a big part of our identity it is also possible to come to here and be oblivious to it. I don’t have a jukebox but background music is something I think is really important in a pub. It can enhance one person’s visit, completely bypass another but should never offend.
SS: Who drinks in the Caledonia?
LK: The only way to describe our clientèle is mixed, people come here to experience the pub environment. Every pub has it’s own USP – as I’ve said before ours is definitely music. I also think we have a strong social community. All our customers have in common is the fact that they are welcome here.
As a result many friendships have been born at The Caledonia. This is lovely to watch as, for me, it’s the essence of being a pub. I’m looking forward to doing a Cilla and dusting off my hat for our very first wedding, it’s only a matter of time!
Our most famous celebrity customer must have been Stewart Lee, he drank real ale from local brewer Peerless and complimented my choice of background music.
As far as horrendous customers go, when I first took over the pub, I barred about 99% of the existing clientèle. That was horrendous, you have to have a very certain plan, absolute conviction and a very strong will to do that kind of thing. Despite the state this pub was in I’ve only been subjected to actual physical violence once in the last two years.
Particular favourites include the man that started telling everyone my dad worked for Scotland Yard, this later morphed into me being an undercover police officer.
SS: Do students really drink real ale?
LK: Yes, students do definitely go to real ale pubs. I find that younger customers land here for one or both of two reasons, those being live music and real ale. I think real ale is experiencing a growth period amongst younger, more discerning drinkers. They have consciously made the choice to divert away from their peers and go to places where they will have to pay a little more for the privilege of a better and genuine atmosphere.
SS: Real ale is cool. Discuss.
Real ale is certainly a lot cooler than it used to be. I think this is initially down to the establishments and the manner in which they, individually, have marketed real ale to their customers. In some pubs the choice of ales and the manner in which they are served is stuffy and old, in some it’s completely the other way.
I don’t subscribe to kitsch gimicks such as the old glass tankards that some pubs are using, I don’t charge ridiculous prices for the privilege and I will not be selling 1/3 of a pint tasting trays!
Real ale doesn’t need an advert. It’s a genuine product, made by genuine people, often locally, and is the perfect marriage with a pub operation authentic values. The young people that choose to come to the pub are here because they are looking for exactly that.
SS: What range of beer do you sell?
LK: We always have at least one local beer available. There’s an abundance of amazing breweries in Liverpool now, they all produce popular great brews and I enjoy having them on. I always try to have a mixture of different style beers available. We also regularly have a vegan real ale available on hand pull.
SS: What are your current favourite beers?
LK: I like having beers from Peerless & Tatton brewery in the pub. They both produce nice ranges of solid, good quality, reliable as well as interesting, beers. I stock Northern Brewery beers because I love the fact that the lads come down from where they are in Cheshire every other Sunday to have a pint in the pubs in Liverpool that sell their ales. I’ve also had some great beers from a new small brewery Liverpool Craft. Their IPA and a New Zealand-hopped beer Tane Mahuta have been favourites.
SS: And your favourite other pubs in Liverpool?
LK: I love The Grapes on Knight Street, Peter Kavanagh’s on Egerton Street, Ye Cracke on Rice Street. All of these pubs are run in individual ways by real people, they have personality and that shines through. Great real ale, great music, great service, good safe atmospheres. It’s also very interesting for me to realise that they are all operated by women!
SS: You must be doing something right – the local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) group gave you an award!
LK: I am very grateful to CAMRA for recognising my efforts with respect to real ale and live music, it’s always nice to win an award. The support of CAMRA is appreciated, but it’s not everything.
They’re a decent bunch of people who operate locally to help promote pubs and ale but they also have their own distinct politics which publicans, certainly the ones I know, don’t always see eye to eye on.
Real ale accounts for 50% of my entire sales make up. If surveyed my real ale drinking customers I doubt any more than five per cent of them would be CAMRA members with less than one per cent of them being active.
SS: Is it a good time to be a publican? There seem to be so many depressing stories about the trade.
LK: I think how good a time it is for pubs right now depends on how hard your willing to work. As far as I can tell it’s the smaller, more flexible, businesses that are having the better experience with respect to the climate. That said I will repeat that you have to work hard. People want value for money and there is always space in the market for a business with good values. Real pubs have this in their fabric.
SS: What do small, independent pubs need?
LK: Small business need all the breaks they can get. What kills little pubs like mine is tax. It’s everywhere on everything. [Industry mag] The Publican Morning Advertiser is running a campaign to support a 5% VAT rate for the service industries.
At the moment the only scheme the government offers is rates relief for small business premises; personally I found this to be a great help but it’s not enough. I went for it with The Caledonia, I had nothing. Now I have a selection of credit cards. If anyone knows where I can find funding, give me a shout!
Top picture by Paula Parker