THE pub that never changes is about to change.

It won't be anything drastic, but it's a landmark moment nonetheless.

The Blue Bell, that cherished, timeless Edwardian gem in Fossgate in York, is about to change hands for the first time in 15 years and only the sixth time in 112.

Jim Hardie, licensee since autumn 2000, has moved on. On Monday, there will be a new name above the door: John Harry Pybus.

John has been managing the pub for a few weeks, following Jim's move to the Via Vecchia bakery in Shambles, but has had to wait for the legalities and paperwork to be completed before he can call himself the licensee.

Now though, the waiting is over and he can get to work.

York Press:

John Pybus prepares to change the nameplate at The Blue Bell

Changes will be gradual and relatively minor. John has had an overhaul of the cellar; there are now pork pies available every day; a hot beef and beer dish will be available on Saturdays, served with bread from Jim's bakery; and there's now more fridge space behind the bar to allow a wider choice of beer and wine.

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There are obviously new faces for regulars to get to know - not just John but also his brother Joe, who is among the staff. A couple of beer festivals are planned next year, as part of the monthly Fossgate Car-Free Sundays. And regular political debates will be held in the pub and broadcast on local radio.

York Press:

The Blue Bell, and its beer board

And on top of all that? The much-debated "private party" signs, which led to the pub being kicked out of the Good Beer Guide a few years ago, have been consigned to the bin, and John has well and truly rebuilt bridges with the local Campaign for Real Ale group.

"So many people came and saw the 'private party' signs and were disappointed," says John. He says many local people knew they could ignore the signs, which were aimed at deterring large groups and looking after the regulars. But well-meaning tourists keen to see the place thought they had just been unlucky, and missed out, says John.

"We still have house rules - no swearing, no noisy groups and such like. It's a fine balancing act but we want to open the pub up to non-York residents."

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Beyond that, life will continue at The Blue Bell as it has for generations. There will still be five core house beers (Bradfield Farmers Blonde, Roosters special, Timothy Taylor's Landlord, Kelham Island Best and Rudgate Ruby Mild), and still two rotating guests, almost always from Yorkshire breweries, often including Abbeydale, Ilkley, Kirkstall, Hop Studio or Brass Castle. Cask ale accounts for 70 per cent of sales here, so John knows its importance.

He is conscious too of the broader responsibility his licence carries at such a treasured pub, which survived a fire in 1974 and short-lived expansion proposals in the 1990s, to remain fundamentally unaltered for over a century. It is now Grade II listed, rightly so.

York Press:

The back room at The Blue Bell

John joins a relatively small list of landlords at The Blue Bell. Since 1903, the licence has changed hands only half a dozen times. George Robinson, founding director of York City FC, took over that year. When he died in 1948, the licence passed to his wife Annie. When she passed away in 1963, their daughter Edith Pinder took over, and she remained in post until retiring in 1991.

York Press:

Edith Pinder, pictured in 1972, and The Blue Bell back room in 1986

John and Pauline West then ran the pub for three years, followed by Tim and Eileen Worrall for six, before Jim took over in 2000.

John has worked in pubs for 12 years, with nine of those as a manager, including stints nearby at the Blue Boar in Castlegate and the Red Lion in Merchantgate.

"For the past three or four years I have been champing at the bit, looking for a lease - but I have been quite fussy.

"I was a regular here, for a couple of hours every Saturday, and kept saying to Jim to let me know if he was ever looking to sell. One Saturday, he said he was so I put an offer in before it even went on sale, then it was signed and sealed.

York Press:

John Pybus with manager Joe Burly

"I am not only excited, but proud and honoured and privileged to be able to take over this pub," says John. "I do not see myself as the king of the building - I am a custodian really, looking after it until the next person comes along. It would be foolish to think otherwise."

Not that John expects to be handing over any time soon. Having got his hands on the pub, he's in no rush to let go. He sees himself being here for around 20 years, potentially taking on a second pub as well in a few years, and settling down in the flat above the pub.


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The Blue Bell has a fascinating long history, and was in the same family from 1903 to 1991.

In 1962, the then Yorkshire Evening Press spoke to landlady Annie Robinson on her 85th birthday, and published this article:

From the Yorkshire Evening Press, 5 December 1962

“Mine hostess” of York inn looks back on 60 years

A steady flow of bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates and other gifts have been arriving today at The Blue Bell Inn, Fossgate, York, where the licensee Mrs Annie Robinson – who next month celebrates her 60th years as ‘mine hostess’ – is today celebrating her 85th birthday.

Mrs Robinson, with her husband the late Mr George Edwin Robinson, came to The Blue Bell on January 8, 1903. Mr Robinson was a founder member of the York City Football Club and the club held its meetings in the public house. 

In those days, licensing hours were from 6am to 11pm, the chief patrons at the earlier time being the millworkers of Leetham’s flour mill. Their favourite early morning drink was “two-penn’orth of rum and coffee”. In times of strikes and other hardships, Mrs Robinson also supplied them – without charge – with soup.

War days in 1914-18 saw one room of the inn devoted to the packing of gift parcels for the York men serving on with the Forces. Later, Mr and Mrs Robinson “bought out” from the 5th Lancers Mr Billy Hornsall, who for years was barman at The Blue Bell, Mrs Robinson recalls the most notable day. “The one at the end of the 1939-45 war – we all went mad.”

A public house, she believes, is much what its patrons make it.

“There are happy days in public houses,” she says. “Some people think it’s a rough and tumble world, and of course there are some like that. But we are not. More fun goes on in here just among ourselves.”

The same inn, she finds, can have several different atmospheres simultaneously in its different bars. “One may be having quiet family conversations while in the other one there may be tremendous arguments going on with everyone determined to be always right.”

Of the new licensing hours, Mrs Robinson says: “It’s a long day. But long hours did not bother me when I was younger.” Mrs Robinson, whose husband died 14 years ago, is the mother of two daughters and has two grandsons and a granddaughter. Her birthday is being celebrated quietly.”