Pub/Bar of the Month April 2014: The Bartons Arms, Birmingham, UK
Built in 1901, The Bartons Arms is a jewel among pubs, defiantly holding its own against a tide of social and industrial change in the Aston area of Birmingham.
It's impossible to imagine how the area must have looked when the foundation stone of this red-brick palace was laid.
Characterful surrounding buildings were swept away in the hectic redevelopments of the 1960s, to be replaced by a functional conglomeration of residential units, nightclubs, retail outlets and the constant rumble of traffic on the A34 dual carriageway.
Consequently, the wedge-shaped building stands alone today, isolated in both age and architecture.
The elaborate façade is impressive from first glance, dominated by a town hall-style clock tower set into a roofscape that brings a touch of the exotic with gables that could easily belong to a merchant's house in Amsterdam. The real treasures are inside, however.
One step through the central door and the hustle and bustle of the modern world is gratefully left behind. Immediately, the magnificence of the Victorian tilework grabs your attention, a feast of cream, blue and gold extending in all directions.
To the right, the impressive mahogany bar counter – carved, inlaid with rare snob screens and illuminated by globe lamps – stretches away into the V-shaped main bar with its sloping polished wooden floor and burgundy banquettes.
Tall arched windows, some etched, sadly don't offer much of an outlook today, but everything of interest is on the inside anyway.
At the other end of the pub, there are further drinking areas, with an ornate fireplace and an upright piano both poised for service. Redundant bell pushes take you back to the days of waiter service which, in a sense, have returned as many tables here are laid for dining, with a full menu of highly-regarded Thai cooking on offer.
Opposite a splendid tiled portrait of a traditional hunting scene stands a dramatic, wrought-iron staircase. This sweeps up to the first floor where there's a spacious concert room ('The Palace of Varieties'), complete with stage, as well as a meeting room, laid out as a company boardroom.
Illuminating the stairs, a glorious stained-glass window reveals the pub's year of construction and the logo of its former brewery owner, Mitchells & Butlers.
As you meander through the pub, in awe of its beautifully preserved antiquity, it's hard to believe, indeed rather shocking, that, not so long ago, it was boarded up and facing a bleak future. Then, in 2002, along to its rescue rode enterprising Peterborough brewery Oakham Ales.
The brewery has reclaimed the premises admirably and goes that step further by offering its widely acclaimed ales over the bar.
Perhaps half a dozen of Oakham's finest may be available – from the award-winning JHB to the juicy Citra – as well as well chosen guest ales from breweries such as Ramsgate and Oldershaw, all impeccably kept in the vast cellar below.
Chalked on one blackboard at the side of the bar, two familiar faces take you back to the heyday of this fine establishment.
Laurel and Hardy – among many stars – famously frequented The Bartons Arms when they worked the neighbouring Aston Hippodrome theatre in 1954 and the pub likes to remind you of those halcyon days.
Even though some walls and doors have been moved since their time, the comedians would still recognise the place now, thanks both to Oakham's careful restoration and the Grade II listing of the interior that has offered a cloak of protection since the 1970s.
That's something Stan and Ollie would drink to, I'm sure, perhaps even murmuring a quiet prayer of thanks that this is one pub that greedy developers have not been allowed to turn into another fine mess.
The Bartons Arms, 144 High Street, Aston, Birmingham B6 4UP
Tel. (0121) 333 5988
Opening Hours: 12–11