Feature: Knaresborough’s Blind Jack’s Lives On

I went to meet Christian Ogley a few weeks back at the newly opened Christians café on Silver Street in Knaresborough. He was running late. He’d broken down. He insisted I tuck into a free breakfast while I waited, and said he wouldn’t be long. I obliged and enjoyed a really tasty breakfast of salmon and (perfectly poached) eggs.

Christians used to be situated at Crimple Hall near Pannal. Using a £1500 loan, Christian opened the café back in 2012 and it’s since built a great reputation. When the chance came to move into a new site in Christian’s home town, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Christians Cafe in Knaresborough

I never went to the previous site, but I was immediately struck with the clean, modern feel of the new place. The impressive interior décor boasts wooden floors, mirrored tiles behind the counter, skylight windows, funky lighting, rustic wooden tables, blackboards and an exposed brick feature on the wall. Is sleepy Knaresborough ready for this place? Who knows, but it’s clear how much time, energy and passion has been poured in already, and that’s certainly worthy of support.

When Christian arrived, it was clear he is a busy man. Dressed in ‘DIY attire’, he told me how pretty much all of the renovation and decorating had been done by himself and his fiancée Alice, with support from his family and some talented friends. One such friend had made the stunning iron work around the top of the stairway, and he’d had help lifting an incredibly heavy cast iron radiator into the first floor café only to find that he couldn’t actually get it to work. I had to admire the commitment of this guy and his lack of compromise when it comes to interior features.

Christian’s Café is clearly a passion for the young businessman, and having made such a success of his previous incarnation it’s also firmly within his comfort zone.

I have to confess, however, my reasons for wanting to meet him weren’t primarily to do with the café.  As well as recently opening the café business, Christian and Alice had also just got the keys for Blind Jack’s – a traditional hostelry in Knaresborough’s glorious marketplace. Blind Jack’s had previously been owned for many years by Paul and Debbie Holden-Ridgway, who also established Knaresborough Brewing Co, which then became Bad Company. Over recent years, the focus on the brewing business meant their emotional investment in Blind Jack’s became heavily diluted, and they decided the time had come to let someone else take the reigns of the cherished public house.

The cherished pub in Market Place

Blind Jack’s has a reputation in the community; it’s a very traditional no-frills drinking house with some of the best-kept beer around. If you value quality ale, I imagine you’ll already know this place well. News of the departure of Paul and Debbie had made my heart sink, as if the place got into the hands of a developer or was acquired by a pub chain, everything that matters about the Blind Jack’s we know and love could very easily be destroyed, and we’d be helpless as a community. I suddenly felt protective, even at one point contemplating a campaign to acquire the pub as a community and launching a public share issue.

Beer-loving locals and Blind Jack’s fans watched with baited breath. The announcement that Christian and Alice were to take on the place created mixed feelings for me. Hurrah that the place would remain in independent hands; they were locals and so there would inevitably be passion and it would surely retain that community ethos. But wait, these guys are food people – what do they know about pubs? More to the point, what do they know about beer? One thing was clear – this couple are a force to be reckoned with. They’ve already achieved so much, and the drive and vision they have for what they’ve already done is indisputable. It was time to put some cautious faith in what they would do with the place.

When I spoke to Christian in the café that morning, they’d literally just got the keys a few days before. He told me they picked up those keys and gone and sat in the pub, immediately making plans and discussing ideas.  What an exciting and terrifying time for them, I thought. That day he made it clear they had no plans to make the place anything it isn’t. They wanted to clean it up, freshen the décor, invest in making more of a feature of the rustic detail, and work with all the original quirks. Yes, there are plans for introducing food on a simple scale, but Christian seemed to understand the draw of this place is the beer.

There wasn’t much more than a concept in his head on that day. He’d been working flat-out on getting the café up and running, and now he was straight on with Blind Jack’s. They didn’t want to stay closed for long he said, which was great to hear. I suggested that some of his biggest learning about what to do with the place would come from getting the locals back in and listening to what matters to them; people really care about what happens to this pub. Christian told me a story about how they’d been working in there the day before and the front door was left open. They were getting people sticking their heads around asking when they’d be open again, and even one asking him not to throw away his tankard from behind the bar.  A pub with tankards behind the bar is one that is much-loved.

I left Christian to his day – he clearly had a lot to do, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one impatient about the reopening.

New interiors upstairs at Blind Jack’s

A couple of weeks later, I hadn’t seen anything on social media about a re-opening, and decided to take a trip to Knaresborough to see what was going on. It was open! Stepping inside, I have to admit, took my breath away a little. It was all so familiar, and yet different. We were greeted by a smiling Christian and Alice. They’d just opened that weekend, and it had been hectic. They were making the most of a quieter stint. Holding my breath I assessed the beer choice, noting and smiling at the presence of a Bad Co beer on cask as well as a Tiny Rebel (Hank), Thornbridge (Lord Marbles), Ilkley (Mary Jane), Titanic (Plum Porter), Fuggle Bunny (New Beginnings), and a good old faithful Black Sheep Best. There were also a range of keg beers, and Northern Monk was a welcome sight. I went for a Wild Weather/ Yeastie Boys Virtual IPA on keg, which I’d never seen before. We took our pints and were shown upstairs by Christian. Only one of the two upstairs rooms was ready, and it looked stunning. The floors had been stripped back to wood, furniture replaced with rustic wooden benches and green leather sofas, and the walls painted in deep period blue, which brings out the panelled walls as a feature. There’s clearly an eye for design and detail here, as with the café.

Most importantly, the pint was incredibly good. It had the usual Blind Jack’s hard-to-beat incredibly well-kept quality to it. I enjoyed spending an hour taking it all in and feeling an element of relief – it was open, it looked lovely, the beer was some of the best I’d had in a good while. This was so important, not only to me, but to the community and the town and anyone who’s ever cared about Knaresborough’s local economy. Maybe it sounds silly, but I have always firmly believed that Blind Jack’s has the potential to breathe new life into the town’s beer scene and put Knaresborough back on the map as a social destination. Many have been drawn to Harrogate in recent years and its choice of good beer venues. Now there’s a Knaresborough draw again, and that makes my heart sing. It’s a town I love, and I want to see it thrive.  

I hope Christian and Alice continue to put the beer at Blind Jack’s at the heart of everything they do there. If they get that right, I don’t believe they can fail at this. Everything else they do is and should be complementary to that. I don’t think they have oodles of experience in beer or pubs, but they are passionate and driven and mindful of the sensitivities around this place. They want to do it right, and I think they need help and support from as many people as possible to do that. I’ve suggested they hook up with Richard at The Little Ale House. Rich gets it right. Beer is his number one priority, and it shows. If Christian and Alice can replicate this approach at Blind Jack’s, I believe it could become one of the best pubs we have for miles.

I know not everyone will welcome change, as some just don’t like it, but for me these guys are breathing new life into not just Blind Jack’s but also into the town, and that’s important. I urge locals to get behind this young couple and support their ventures.  They saved this pub from falling into the wrong hands. I personally cannot thank them enough for that.

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