red flag flying
POLITICS IN THE PUB.
Alastair Gilmour visits a village pub where a dash of community spirit is served with every pint.
It’s Friday, it’s “hello weekend” and I’m off to the pub. Destination: Little Moscow. First, the obligatory pocket inspection. Jacket, wallet fondle. Left trouser, loose change jingle. Right trouser, fully-charged phone and bus app confirmed for the umpteenth time. Top pocket, specs check. Back pocket, reading matter – The Communist Manifesto.
There’s no mistaking The Red House, Chopwell
I’m heading for The Red House micropub in Chopwell, Gateshead – a village dubbed Little Moscow through its century-and-a-bit of extreme left-leaning politics. The pub’s rules don’t demand you study Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary summons to the world’s workers as you sup your pint of Ossett Brewery White Rat, but it’s today’s travelling companion and ‘mood setter’.
Towns and villages nicknamed Little Moscow, such as Maerdy in South Wales, Lumphinnans and Vale of Leven in Scotland – plus several others scattered across continental Europe – were typically working class in social structure often linked to a single heavy industry employing the majority of its inhabitants. Local amenities were reliant on the wages their workforce brought in and workers often owed their lives to the vigilance of their colleagues. In Chopwell’s case, it was coal mining from the day the first shaft was sunk in 1781 until the pit’s closure in 1966.
Marx Terrace, Chopwell
Lenin Terrace, Chopwell
Miners' banner from Chopwell Colliery
(photo: The Thrifty Traveller)
The Red House – inspiring and defiant red flags flying here – is mere metres from Chopwell’s bus terminus and the tone is about to be set. A chap aged about forty is striding ahead of me. Neatly turned out in white tee-shirt, baseball cap and camouflage trousers, he waves a fishing rod in his right hand, landing net in his left. A plume of smoke drifts from his tab and were it not for this addition to his bottom lip, his jaunty manner suggests he’d be whistling a jolly tune – something like ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ (although it’s early evenin’). Lolling in the fish net however, is neither trout, salmon or perch, but a ferret.
Just another day Chopwell, in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead.
The Red House, created in 2018 and owned by accomplished home-brewer and fireman-by-day Joe McNestry and his wife Angela, is a tidy, neat-as-ninepence pub with an ambiance that operators strive to generate without coming close to the camaraderie apparent in this single-roomer. A place where one feels part of the local community and in solidarity with the world.
The Red House was at one time the headquarters of the local Communist Party but in 2023 there’s little left of its altruistic past, though several of Chopwell’s terraced streets revel proudly in the names of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Friedrich Engels. The body politic is Chopwellian.
We’ll keep the red flag flying here
Old Chopwell is celebrated in framed photographs around the two-section bar while large feature windows are perfect for a west-facing spring evening. The serving counter is one of the lowest I’ve ever queued at which is a boon for those of us who barely reach five-foot eight and have hangups from teenage drinking days when we’d stand on tiptoe without making it too obvious we were gasping for height. As an example, I would visit The Town Wall pub in Newcastle a lot more if peering over that counter’s high top didn’t make me feel like Oliver Twist: “Please sir, I want some more”.
The Red House drinks range is impressive for a place this size with bar space occupied by the White Rat already mentioned (why has this never been voted Camra Beer of the Year?) plus local brews Allendale Adder Pilsner, Durham Oceans Apart UK/NZ Pale Ale, Anarchy Brew Co Cult Leader and Hadrian Border’s Ouseburn Porter – which seems to get better every time I drink it – plus a fridge stocked with Rosie’s Pig Cider and a bottled beer selection limited only by space. A small range of whiskies and gins has to work hard to keep up with the beer’s fast turnover.
A rough estimate of 20 customers are mostly here for the Friday teatime pizza van parked outside, though one large table is filling up with seasoned drinkers dribbling in for the evening as the fed and watered begin their waddle home. Shiftwork, you might say.
“It’s amazing how people in the village have come out and supported us,” says Joe McNestry. “Some of them hadn’t seen each other in years because they preferred to stay at home, but the pub has made a big difference to their social lives.”
The low bar at The Red House
Some of the local beers on offer
I recall that a Labour councillor in the Chopwell and Rowlands Gill ward of Gateshead Council is one Michael McNestry. “Any relation?” I ask Joe.
“No. Not that I’m aware of,” he says. “Mind, if you throw a stick in Chopwell, you’ll hit a McNestry.”
I’m a student of my own theory that you can judge a community pub’s customers by the contents of its ‘bring-one-borrow-one’ bookshelf. The Red House is cultured and
easy to read, with random hardbacks on bird identification, dog obedience and The Oxford Book of Quotations where I find: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite.”
The Red House is a thriving community micropub
Margrave of the Marshes, the late John Peel’s autobiography, catches the eye, as does How Music Works by David Byrne and Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion, first written in 1993, but still the best book ever on the subject. Then I do a swap, pick My Life by Fidel Castro and donate my Marx and Engels. Doubtless the boys would approve.
They formed the basis for the modern communist movement as we know it, arguing that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct to be replaced by socialism and ultimately communism.
I begin to wonder if broadcaster and writer Stuart Maconie’s 2015 book The Pie at Night: In Search of the North at Play will ever make an appearance in this collection. One section describes Beamish Museum in County Durham – which is for all the world Chopwell/Little Moscow. He writes:
“The feeling that, however hard the life, the sense of community here must have been extraordinary; hundreds of families living side by side, even working side by side underground; kids going to the same school. This must have had its darker side, of insularity and claustrophobia, but it must have also fostered strong feelings of solidarity and belonging.”
Communism lives, according to
this poster in Hexham
Emphasising the rural approach
The May 2023 local elections reveal the Labour Party locally swept up 68.8% of the electorate with Michael McNestry retaining his seat with a majority of 1,279. Throw a stick and make your mark.
Right up the top end of the village, sitting in solitude holding panoramic views of the Derwent Valley, The Chopwell Officials Social Club (The Gaffers) was built originally for pit managers and opened to the general public in 1972. A neat community allotment to the rear offers fruit and veg plots alongside four beehives managed by the North East Young Dads And Lads group. On a sunny day, it’s idyllic. I seriously consider taking out a Club membership.
The Chopwell pub on the main drag is long boarded up with a couple of For Sale stickers attached in a half-hearted but ultimately forlorn attempt to attract a buyer. A sign outside The Central promises Live Sport, Beer Garden, Live Music and Wi Fi. A mention of beer might be nice.
In between, the betting shop gathers dust behind its shutters like a cockroach following nuclear war, reminding me of the observation by Franco-English historian Hilaire Beloc (although he writes of the demise of the English inn and what it means to society). I deliberately misquote:
“But when you have lost your bookies, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”.
The Red House’s neighbourhood is a combination of long rows of two-up-two-downs, miners’ cottages, bungalows and handsome townhouses, punctuated by new developments complete with e-vehicles parked on the drive. But word on the streets is that a two-bedroom, double-glazed end terrace house can be yours for £58,000 (your-move.co.uk).
Everything in Chopwell appears to be part of a collective that has survived a former use – The Red House being a prime example (baby goods, pre-pub). The Victorian-era bank is now a collection of rentable workspaces taking great pride in its ‘pay as you feel’ café. The old colliery site has resurfaced as a managed nature reserve.
Collections of domesticity are interspersed with green spaces, forested cycle tracks, a red kite trail, woodland park and play areas, while the community centre itself – formerly the pit head baths – is a welcoming hub coloured in with hanging baskets and bright mining mosaics that lighten the greyest of days.
Gazing out of The Red House’s large square, windows and halfway through my mighty Anarchy Cult Leader (5.6% abv) I swear I can hear the strains of a traditional air:
“Raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
In a social and economic Communist system, individuals do not own land or factories or machinery. The government or the whole community owns them. Everyone shares the wealth they create. That’s the theory anyway. Spreading the spirit of the local pub is an added bonus, whether it’s a low-slung bar or Rosie’s Pig cider.
On my return to the bus stop I encounter an elderly chap approaching from the Co-op, leaning on his walking stick to balance the large carrier bag he’s manhandling (sadly no ferret apparent).
“Aal reet?” he says merrily as he tap taps towards me.
“Aye, fine thanks.”
“Good lad.” Tap tap. “Good lad.”
I half expect him to add “comrade” to his greeting, but no. I turn to talk but he doesn’t hear. Undaunted, I repeat: “End terrace, fifty-eight thousand they say?”
The Red House, 1 Millfield Terrace, Chopwell, Newcastle upon Tyne NE17 7LL
Tel: 01207 560065.
Open Thursday-Sunday, 17.00-21.30