Friday, September 7, 2007

The Crown of Life

Malcolm gave up the weed when fags went to 4/6 [22½p] a packet, and because, quite frankly, he couldn't see the point.

However, he is a beer bore. There are few British breweries of which he is totally ignorant. He regards the Belgians with considerable affection for their ability to turn basic ingredients into something splendiferous. An American micro-brewery is another delight to be tested, tasted and marked down for love or (rarely) loathing.

So he was distinctly chuffed when first Irish, then Northern Irish, then British pubs went smoke-free.

Now, in the spirit of Dave Bowman's advice to Heywood Floyd, for something wonderful.

There is, in Belfast, at 46 Great Victoria Street, the self-proclaimed Most Beautiful Bar in the World. That claim may be arguable, but not actionable. In any case, the Crown Liquor Saloon has one of the best pub-based websites in the world (albeit in need of a spell-check), and that is beyond peradventure.

The Crown has been owned by the National Trust for thirty years, and it has been well-loved. Malcolm's first visit there was long before that, and before it began to be tidied up and gentrified. Its survival (together with that other wonder, the Edwardian glass in Stroke City's Guildhall) is one of the great escapes of the years of the Troubles (and the decades of "redevelopment"): in its own small way as remarkable and deserved a survival as St Paul's and St Pancras in London, or the Kölner Dom.

Now, the Crown is a fixture and place of pilgrimage on every Belfast tourist trail. Rightly so. And it's about to get even better. Here's Linda McKee doing a puff piece for the Belfast Telegraph:

The nicotine layer has been scraped away - and restorers working at the Crown Bar in Belfast are discovering the beautiful colours beneath.

A small army of conservators has been working hard to restore the National Trust-owned Victorian pub to its former glory, and the work is expected to be complete by the end of October.

Project manager Claire McGill, a freelance conservator, says the £500,000 restoration scheme was long overdue.

The popular bar is the only National Trust-owned pub in Northern Ireland and has been described as the best preserved Victorian pub in the UK.

Not only was one of its snugs reproduced for the classic film Odd Man Out but its interior was described by John Betjeman as a "many coloured cavern".

But the gorgeous glass, ceramic and woodwork which lined that cavern has suffered a lethal combination of cigarette smoke, graffiti, wear and around 20 bomb attacks in the area.

Ah, yes. The ceiling was always a very dusky brown. The snugs bore the imprints of many a misplaced pen-knife. The floor and tiles were, at best, well-worn. The jakes were a disgrace.

All changed, changed utterly. And all, Malcolm hopes and expects, for the better.

Malcolm's only regret is that he has no visit planned before December. Just time for the Guinness properly to settle.
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