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Five Years On at The Grayston....

The iconic Grayston Unity in Halifax celebrates its 5th anniversary this week, and it is hard to remember life before it existed, such has been its impact on the town's bar scene, its drinkers, the wider community, and much further beyond. As someone who has spent a lot of time there I have been looking back over the past few years, and here are some thoughts as it moves into the next exciting phase of its life....

Well, where do I start? I have written many times in these blogs over the past 5 years about The Grayston Unity. Indeed, back in October, with another lockdown looming, and as the Grayston went into a self-imposed hibernation a couple of weeks early I wrote the following: 

"...the Grayston is something special. Yes, the staff are very friendly, beer is good, the gin selection is vast, the pork pies pretty decent, the soundtrack can be amazing, and it attracts an eclectic mix of customers. I have made a lot of friends and met some really interesting people there. The Grayston has got a character of its own, it's not just that first pub that you call in as you hit town, or the last one before you get the bus home, it is one that can keep you there in between and keeps drawing you back the next time. The quirky decor, the venue with its auntie's sitting room chic, are all unlike anywhere else you'll have ever been. Piles of books on the mantlepiece, a green guitar on the wall. As the evenings draw in, the lights of the main bar take on a luminescence of their own, picking out the colours of the bottles of spirits on the shelves behind the bar, enticing the passing visitor walking beside the town hall along the otherwise dark Wesley Street."

When it first opened on May 24th 2016, a new venture for Michael Ainsworth and his wife Jess based in a former electrical shop, it arrived into a town that was waiting to come to life. The magnificent Piece Hall, which now draws thousands of visitors every week, had not re-opened, there were relatively few cultural events, and many of the exciting small businesses and enterprises that now provide so much for the town had not opened, although FC Halifax Town had won the FA Trophy two days earlier providing a much-needed lift to the town's mood in which to welcome the nascent bar. In terms of pubs and bars, only the Victorian Craft Beer Cafe, which had opened in 2014, provided any modern and interesting beers in the town centre. A few days after The Grayston opened I visited and mentioned it in a blog, referring to it not as a micro as it featured music (the criteria defining micropubs were much stricter back in 2016):

"Although the Grayston Unity is small, it is not a micro pub. There are two rooms, plus a corridor-type space with seating. The bar has 3 hand pumps on it, always featuring Goose Eye Chinook, together with fairly local guests from the likes of Small World, Wishbone, and Ghost. I had a particularly good pint of Ghost Reaper on my most recent visit. There are also a selection of craft ales on tap, plus a range of bottles, and a cider. The second room is a 70's retro-style lounge with coffee tables, settee and armchairs. All in all, the quirky decor and chilled ambience has brought something new to the town, and I have enjoyed every visit I have made. And what about the name? Well, 'Grayston' comes from Michael's family who ran a number of pubs around Keighley, and 'Unity' is about bringing people together. Well worth checking out."

The Grayston soon began to attract a loyal bunch of eclectic regulars. It was a place for conversation. It soon became established as a popular music and events venue attracting not just local musicians but many from much further afield, such as Jeffrey Lewis and Daniel Knox from the US and The Burning Hell from Canada. Nadine Shah popped in once to do an impromptu set, and The Orielles launched their debut album here. Other local-based indie bands such as Working Men's Club and The Lounge Society performed here early in their careers before gaining a national following helped by regular plays on 6 Music. The Grayston's fame spread far and wide and music industry legends like James Endeacott and Sybil Bell, founder of Independent Venue Week, became regular visitors. Talks, poetry, and other events took place, and it became a touchpoint for the cultural revitalisation of the town. But it was a place you could just drop in for a pint, chat to friends, whoever was behind the bar, a complete stranger, or simply keep your own counsel and listen to the invariably great soundtrack. With a regular spot in the Good Beer Guide it attracted visitors from across the country; not just the dedicated pub ticker but football fans and tourists drawn to the town by the Piece Hall or Anne Lister.

Over the years changes have been made to The Grayston, generally small and gradual - a new lick of paint here, a new piece of artwork there. But the enforced lockdown shutdown of the past few months meant that there was an opportunity to make some more wide-ranging changes to the inside of the building that would enable the bar to move forward and make it more comfortable for customers whilst retaining its essential character. And so the transformation began...

Work in progress earlier this year at The Grayston

So what has changed? Well, from mid-April the Grayston opened for outdoor service only and with some new retractable covers and heaters, it was more comfortable for customers even with the sharp mid-evening drop in temperature. But it was inside where the biggest alterations had taken place. The bar front has been moved forward making it relatively spacious (though still cosy!) for staff working behind it. But the biggest change is that it has been opened out so that the wall on the left where you go in has been removed, thus removing bottlenecks that built up when busy with the queue for the bar and in the doorway as by the bar. It still though retains the quirky look, with an assortment of odd tables and chairs (now augmented by a group of cinema-style seats), old photographs and random paintings (look out for the one featuring Nick Cave). The green acoustic guitar is still hanging on the wall above the fireplace. The changes allow much more light to get in, the large and attractive windows now visible throughout rather than just being confined to the room beyond the bar, and there is generally a more spacious and airy feel to the place.

Opened out: The new-look Grayston Unity in Halifax.

Of course, these changes mean that the capacity for gigs at The Grayston is no longer 18, which was the smallest in the UK, although despite the changes with the bar's small footprint it won't be a quantum leap in numbers. It does mean that for paid gigs it is most likely to be admittance for ticket-holders only. But there are still plenty of free gigs in the offing, with music starting up in the yard outside from June and there is the prospect of a monthly folk and roots evening to look forward to, with amongst others Katie Spencer, who performed the last gig prior to lockdown last March, scheduled to make a return in September. Later in the autumn, the Halifax Festival of Words returns after a one year Covid-induced gap with a number of events covering music, talks, and interviews due to take place at The Grayston.

On the beer front, three of the breweries I mentioned in that blog from 2016 have been on the bar since it opened for trade outdoors last month. Chinook continues to be the permanent cask beer 5 years on and is a big seller, but Small World have also provided a guest bitter and Wishbone have appeared on keg. But whilst these are pretty local, some of the other beers have come from further afield, such as Northern Alchemy from Newcastle, and from even further away, there is soon to be a permanent keg line dedicated to innovative Aberdeen-based brewers, Fierce, whose excellent beers are to be sold both here and across town at the Grayston's sister bar Meandering Bear, which is owned by Michael, Jess, and local businessman Andrew Murphy.

Looking around the newly-enlarged room, it is still very much the Grayston, and on my visits I haven't detected any particular concerns from customers about the changes. A steady stream of familiar faces and regular visitors, keen to see the changes, have been generally complimentary. The look may be slightly different but there is nothing to suggest the character of the place has intrinsically changed. It is still clearly, and could only ever be, the unique and special place that is the Grayston Unity.

And so, let's raise a glass to celebrate, and here's looking forward to the next five years and beyond....

Follow me on twitter: @realalemusic


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