The broadly-grinning gentleman clonks his empty pint glass down on the bar.
"- that was the best pint I have had in. My. Entire. Life."
I've been overheard identifying myself as a beer writer to the landlord of The Office, Morpeth's newest and (sadly) most controversial drinking establishment. I've been made.
The regular turns to me and launches into a ferocious endorsement of the beers served by The Office, effervescently espousing some claims about their invigorating and enlarging health benefits that, if true, would turn the field of urology on its head.
Simply put, he told me that drinking in The Office had made his cock fucking massive.
All journalistic cool evaporates in uproarious laughter and your correspondent has gone from being a lone beer writer to part of the furniture in a matter of seconds. The Office is funny like that, you can turn up there on your lonesome and immediately make friends. And not the "aal reet, mate?" "aye, canny" relationships that are born and die as you make eye contact with another patron waiting to be served, but the kind of mighty all-night-until-closing-time drinking alliances that see pretty much everyone in this little beer house becoming members of a collective consciousness- multiple bodies but one hive mind focused on drinking good beer and having a class time, and absolutely not being a dick.
The Office is tiny. It's a former monumental stonemason's in the market town of Morpeth, in South East Northumberland. There's room for maybe five tables and I'd be surprised if you could fit more than 40 people in the whole place. There's no gambling machines, no telly and no jukebox. The management, I'm told by a regular, won't have them under any circumstances. There's no piped music either. The bar is only about five feet long (still boasting four keg taps and four cask pumps) and the toilet is unisex by virtue of being the only netty in the building. The Office quickly fills up, and the atmosphere bubbles with conversation and good humour. In much the same way as the German fashion for long benches in their bierkellers leads to communal drinking and the breaking down of barriers so does The Office's petite nature. If you want a pub where you can slump against a wall drinking alone and looking hot and moody for five hours until someone asks you for a shag then you are shit out of luck drinking in The Office. People will talk to you when you're still halfway through the door. People you haven't met in your life will approach you and all of it will be totally good natured. The Office is too small a place to be a moody loner and too cosy and compact to be a shouty, aggressive blowhard.
|The Office back when it was a stonemason's, courtesy of Google Earth. I wasn't going to stand in the middle of the street to get a photo.|
|This is pretty much the entirety of The Office. It's not big.|
And let's not forget about the beer. I didn't just head to The Office to experience its vast open spaces. The Office is the brewery tap of Acton Ales, a local outfit with some top beverages that I must confess I hadn't drank until my visit. It's also supported by local stalwarts Wylam Brewery, and my second drinkof the night there was possibly the best pint of their Jakehead IPA I've ever guzzled. My first pint of the night had been Tyne Bank's Heavenly Porter, again perfectly pulled and tasting very much on point. The Office sells excellent beer. Its one nod to the mainstream is Moretti on tap. That's it. That's the most macro this place gets. And I didn't pay more than £4 a pint.
But sadly, all this beery wonderment might end. The little beer house is at risk.
The Office has recently had its retroactive planning permission request denied, after a committee ruled that the pub would have an "adverse impact on neighbouring residential amenity".
Landlady Andrea Johnson, who runs the pub with her husband (and Acton Ales headman) Paul, has lodged an appeal against this and the pub remains open to customers, keeping what must be the most conservative opening hours in the entire town. The Office opens at 17:00 on weeknights and calls time, every night, at 22:30. Even on weekends, when its doors open from noon, it still has last orders at the very genteel time of Not Even Eleven. And having experienced last orders and drinking up time at The Office, I can confidently say that the patrons of this pub disappear into the Morpeth night like ghosts once they've been sent packing. They drift off quietly into the darkness and not every pub can say this about its clientele.
While they're inside The Office they make The Office sound like a pub. It sounds like a place in which a score or so of people are having a good time. There's no shitty Beatles cover band clanging out Back in the USSR on a tiny stage in the corner, there's no blind-drunk asshat vomiting Gangnam Style into a karaoke machine, and there's nobody going apeshit to ball sports on the plasma TV. It's just people talking. Their voices, their laughter, their humanity and their energy. Antisocially loud? Is it bollocks.
Two other pubs, the Waterford Lodge and the Joiner's Arms, are spectacularly close to The Office and both have longer hours, opening their doors earlier in the day. One of them is the next door neighbour of a residential amenity that adjoins The Office. And both stay resolutely licensed, operational and committee approved.
I contacted Northumberland County Council about The Office's predicament. My request for details of the nature of any complaints against the pub under the Freedom of Information Act was not fulfilled in a timely fashion. The pub's staff, however, did tell me that noise detectors were in place as part of the appeal process.
A request for a Council representative to make a statement on the Council's plans to ensure a fair process of appeal was similarly not fulfilled.
The Office is a fantastic pub, a happy little boozer with a great clientele. It's the kind of good place that draws in good people. The Office has to stay open, and other little, quirky, self-start beer houses just like The Office need to pop up all over the land. Beer culture is a positive thing and safe spaces that promote by their very nature amicable and jovial consumption of alcohol are a bonus to society, not a hindrance.
I would like to think that people further afield than this little parcel of Northumbrian land will watch The Office's appeal with interest and a raised glass in support. If you're within travelling distance, I heartily recommend going there, drinking some excellent beers, enjoying the craic and signing their petition which will hopefully keep their doors open.
I promise you you won't feel the need to visit any other pub in the town.
editorial note- I advised the council in my FOI request on Monday that today was my publication day, and in the same email requested a statement from a council spokesperson.
Second editorial note- I admit that my journalistic drills slipped a little and I forgot that I could view the complaint letters and other planning documents online. However this does not change the fact that the Council refused to comment.