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Golden age again at the Ball
GAVIN AITCHISON visits a pub which is really on the ball.
IT’S Saturday morning, the sun is shining, and I’ve been up for only half an hour. And here I am, banging on the door of the local pub, pleading to be let in.
I’m not the only one. A cheery old woman from round the corner is here too, as is a young mum with a pram, both – like me – waiting impatiently.
To an unwitting onlooker, we must have looked tragic. But no. We weren’t hopeless dawn drinkers, craving the hair of the dog. We were here for the bread.
You see, you have to be quick off your mark in Bishophill these days if you want a good local loaf. You need to get to the Golden Ball sharpish. Every Saturday, the doors open at noon and every week the early-birds flock to the snug beside the bar, dismantling and devouring the mountain of loaves from the neighbourhood’s very own Bluebird Bakery.
Al Kippax, the baker, delivers the bread himself and is a familiar face in the Ball, but his is just one of several additional extras introduced since the punters took over the pub last November.
It is the first in York to be community owned, a cooperative of 189 members now deciding how it is run, and it has rapidly become much more than just a pub.
The room straight ahead as you enter now doubles as an art gallery, each wall boasting striking depictions by local artists of York scenes, a refreshing change from the dreary and bland pictures in so many pubs. The Yorkshire Terrier in Stonegate has supported photographers in a similar way for several years but nowhere in York has such breadth as this.
All of the works are for sale, but it would seem a shame to remove them from such communal, homely surroundings. Even before the community moved in, this pub was a charming one; York’s finest surviving example of inter-war pub design. And today, the place is positively buzzing. The timeless surroundings are being given new life by cooperative members who are enthusiastic, bordering on giddy, and their ‘can-do, will-do’ attitude is contagious.
Local groups that may once have been indifferent have made themselves at home, including a ‘UFO’ group for people with ‘un-finished objects’ that they want finally to complete. Last month, the place was packed for its first Blues Festival, made up overwhelmingly of talented regulars.
There is talk of re-opening the historic ‘jug and bottle’ door right on the corner of Cromwell Road and Victor Street, allowing the staff to supply off-sales as well as on-sales, a dream for those of us who pass the pub daily.
A pub choir is being launched and there are murmurings about a possible weekend farmers’ market in the beer garden, a morning toddlers’ group and the resurrection of various games and sports teams.
There is close cooperation, and no little overlap, with the volunteers who revolutionised the old churchyard opposite and who now maintain it as a community garden. When Selby Wildlife Rescue appealed for a new home for a hedgehog who had narrowly avoided death in November’s floods, the pub stepped in to give him a home in the garden, and one regular more skilled than most at carpentry has even built him his own hedgehog kennel.
“There is a lot of fun and there is a nice atmosphere,” says Pete Kilbane, secretary of the Golden Ball cooperative.
“It has been a steep learning curve but there is a lot of goodwill associated with it; a lot of good feeling. Pretty much anything that needs doing, there is somebody there who can do it.”
In an age when so many pubs are in crisis, the new Golden Ball shows a potential way ahead, built on a foundation of hands-on, devoted customers, all with an interest in the pub’s success.
York academic Ignazio Cabras, who is pioneering research into the community role of pubs, has compared them to Italian town squares, places for people to meet, laugh together, catch up and generally share life, and the Golden Ball is an exemplar.
In such surroundings and amid such heartfelt excitement, the beer on the bar almost feels like a triviality. An average pint here would, arguably, be as enjoyable as a great pint in some places – but there’s no need to make do with second best.
The back bar room, with its rudimentary card-tables, frosted windows and smattering of books and games, remains very much a drinkers’ room, and the die-hards are well catered for. The ales are varied and excellent, as good as you could hope for in a suburban local, and manager Karen Cranfield is doing a great job on the bar.
Durham Brewery’s beers have been among my own highlights, but it has been pleasing too to see Treboom and Hop Studio from the edge of York well represented, all offering fine golden ales in this glorious golden age for the increasingly-enchanting Golden Ball.