Steeped in history, the Cardigan Arms has been evidenced to exist back in 1798, but is thought to be older than that. This would make it one of Leeds’ oldest still trading public houses, although a few decades younger than Whitelocks and a mere toddler compared to the claimed grand old age of the Bingley Arms in Bardsey, which it is said dates to before 1000 AD.
My personal history with the Cardigan Arms doesn’t quite date that far back! As with many of my Leeds pub experiences, it was my time on the Leeds CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) committee that got my first exposure to the Cardigan Arms.
Back in 2015, we feared for the future of the pub, a former Tetley house. It was running into disrepair and it was unclear what then owner’s, Greene King, long term plans were. The person managing the pub reached out for help and we duly delivered by successfully campaigning to have the pub listed as an ACV (Asset of Community Value). Although perhaps now obsolete due to new Government legislation, these were a great way to slow property developers from re-developing pub sites without planning permission and local community consultation – a planning law loophole that had been exploited countless times nationwide to convert pubs into supermarkets.
Despite the successful campaign, the pub continued to struggle. The manager moved on and was replaced. At that time, I remember, we tried to further support the pub by holding a branch meeting there. Unfortunately, that evening the ale ran out within minutes of people arriving and to this day it is the quickest CAMRA branch meeting I’ve ever chaired.
A theft, further damage and multiple closures, we feared the writing was on the wall for the Cardigan Arms, to follow in the footsteps of its neighbour the Rising Sun, which has stood derelict and unused for a long time now.
Then, hope! After Greene King made clear their intent to sell the pub on, a community group stood forward expressing interest to buy. Wanting the Cardigan to be community owned, the group started to crowd fund. Steve Holt of Kirkstall Brewery stepped forward and, after initially offering to assist the community group, decided to submit his own bid to buy the pub. Steve went on to win.
Kirkstall Brewery, one of Leeds’ oldest active breweries, certainly has a record for producing a fine pub. Owners of the Bridge Inn, in Kirkstall, which they lovingly refurbished and restored back in 2013. Since then, it has gone on to win local CAMRA awards (three-time Pub of the Year) and a national CAMRA Pub Design award. As a fan of the Bridge Inn, it was exciting for me to see what Kirkstall Brewery would do with the Cardigan Arms.
After a month of cleaning and refitting, I was invited along to the press and trade re-launch night for the Cardigan Arms, in early October 2017.
The changes at the Cardigan Arms are subtle, but game changing. As you’d expect, the pub has been refit with full respect to its heritage. No longer does it feel like a tired, run down version of its former self, it feels homely and welcoming, with beautiful beer memorabilia (mirrors, pictures) adorning the walls. Not intrusive, they add to the pub’s character.
The Cardigan is a unique shape, born out of its old age, so you’ll find a rabbit warren of rooms all around the ground floor, all of them cleaned up and presented well, and all somewhere where a few hours with friends could easily be spent.
Behind the bar, you’ll find the warm welcome of Ian Forster. Regulars to the Kirkstall Bridge Inn will recognise him as the former manager there. He’s now been charged with managing the Cardigan Arms. A strong and experienced pair of hands to guide this pub as it moves into a new chapter of life.
On the bar, you will of course find a variety of Kirkstall beers, both on traditional hand pulled cask and keg taps. There will also be an excellent supporting cast of guest breweries on tap (for launch night this included Wylam, Dry & Bitter, Okell’s, Five Points and Verdant), and a range of bottles and cans. You will not struggle for choice here, a range similar to the one you will find at the Kirkstall Bridge Inn.
It was also great to see support from local beer people. There was representation from North Brewing, Nomadic Beers, Eyes Brewing, Little Leeds Beer House, Raynville Stores, Beerhawk, Whitelocks, Wapentake amongst many others. Over hearing some of them talk enthusiastically about the Cardigan encourages me as to what the future now has in store for this pub that has been given a fresh lease of life.
Some of that future is rumoured already. This phase of the re-fit focused on the ground floor. The next phase will look at the upper floor, previously used as a gig room for live bands and entertainment. Also, tucked away behind the pub is a long disused on-site micro-brewery, something that has so much potential to add to the Cardigan, if it was brought back into service again.
In a time where pub closures are continuous, it is wonderful to see a pub under threat be given another chance. I think under Kirkstall’s ownership and with Ian at the helm, the Cardigan can be a very special place and I look forward to visiting again. You should visit too.