By Emily Oldfield

Right next to the glorious Gothic-style centrepiece of Rochdale Town Hall, is a pub packed with character, weird and wonderful goings-on and was voted Greater Manchester’s Pub Of The Year for 2018: it’s The Flying Horse Hotel.

The Flying Horse Pub

There has been a pub in its place on Packer Street ever since 1691 – though it was rebuilt in 1923, and reopened in 1926. Yet still it retains much of its historic intrigue, the windows draped with ivy and impressive flower displays in the summer, inside boasting log fireplaces, rustic wooden furniture, a generous slab of a bar and decorations in the ceiling which give the appearance of treetops.

It certainly is characterful – and full of quirk. Ben Boothman, who owns the pub and became familiar with the space from the age of 7 when his mum worked as a cleaner, reflects:

“I’ve been around The Flying Horse most of my life – what I want to stress is that it really is an independent family business. Not only did my mum work here… at this current moment 12 staff members are related to me! We call ourselves the ‘The Flyer Family’ (the pub is affectionately known as ‘The Flyer’) and this place is rightly recognised for its sense of community. For example, we’ve not only gained the title of Greater Manchester’s Pub Of The Year by CAMRA, but also Rochdale, Oldham & Bury CAMRA’s ‘pub of the year’ for the last three… and a key part of that is community. We get such a varied range of visitors here, and people travel for it: we even have a regular from Switzerland who stays a number of times a year and someone from Halifax who comes most weeks. We are welcoming, friendly and deliver on quality and price.

“Yes, it is difficult at times of course, but I do love it. The biggest obstacle is always maintenance… keeping a building like this going is expensive. For example, we spent £7000 upgrading our cellar last summer: and these are the kind of important works that the public don’t usually see. We did celebrate the repairs though with a tour of the cellars when finished! There is also the long-standing rumour that underground here is connected to the Town Hall… though that really doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Flying Horse Inside

“Of course there have been various spooky and weird stories associated with the building over the years, especially as it functioned as a Police Court House. I haven’t seen much myself– and I started working properly here in 1997, going on to own the buisness in 2011. There was one night though when myself and my business partner had to stay over in the pub itself as it was the Feel Good Festival and there were no free rooms upstairs. We heard the hand dryers and urinals working in the Men’s Toilets without anyone being there. Needless to say we relocated and locked ourselves in the office!”

Also listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide as amongst the top 16 pubs in the UK, The Flying Horse has a range of 10 cask ales on rotation, 2 cask ciders and regularly sources from and celebrates local breweries. These include Phoenix brewery from nearby Heywood (selling over 400 pints a week), Rochdale’s own Pictish, Mighty Medicine, Serious Brewing Co and J.W. Lees, located close by. Manchester brewing companies including Wander Beyond, Track and Pomona Island have also had their ales welcomed at The Flying Horse.

The Flying Horse Bar

But why the name? In the days when the post was delivered by horse carriage, the pub was one of the last stops in Lancashire before the Yorkshire boundary – hence the post would be rushing (i.e. flying!) there for some well-earned refreshment. Hence, The Flying Horse.

It’s not just been a well-loved watering hole either. The considerable size of the building meant that in the 19th century it held the largest public room in the town, subsequently used as a courtroom – as the Town Hall wasn’t yet built.

When The Town hall went up in 1866, completed in 1871, this perhaps added to the historic feel around the location of The Flying Horse. However, many of its close surroundings have been in place even longer – including St Chad’s Church on the hill just above, which was first consecrated in 1170.

The Flying Horse History

According to Dr Jennie Bailey, who studied her PhD in Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, focusing largely on Rochdale: “Near the Flying Horse you have two folklore stories and a literary link. St Chad's Church at the top of the hill - looks over town, above the Packer Spout fountain - is said to have been built up at the top as goblins kept stealing the original stones. The original folk tale, known as "the goblin builders", was retold by John Roby in his comprehensive Lancashire folk collections too. In addition, the dialect poet John "Tim Bobbin" Collier (AKA "the Lancashire Hogarth") is buried in the grounds of the church.”

It seems ‘Tim Bobbin’ spent some time in The Flying Horse too; though an argument with a girlfriend in there one evening led to him being barred. Born John Collier, ‘Tim Bobbin’ became the affectionate title many people know him by today – as following a move to Milnrow aged 17, John turned to characterful dialect poetry to supplement his income, with his View of the Lancashire Dialect appearing in 1746. His work often focused on the weird and wonderful goings-on of the region, including in places like The Flying Horse.

For those who want to see his grave, perhaps a swift drink in the pub is the way to begin before a journey up the steps. After all, there are 122 in total. The grave, bearing the epitaph ‘Jack of all trades...left to lie i'th dark’ – apparently written by ‘Tim Bobbin’ himself just 20 minutes before he died, was even visited in the late 18th Century by Sir Walter Scott, who encouraged fundraising for its upkeep.

The Flying Horse Hotel Outside

Fascinating stories clearly surround the pub and the areas around it – and it has picked up plenty in recent times too. It is a visited location from far and wide, with notable supporters of the pub including members of The Levellers and Paul Heaton. The Flying Horse has strong and proud musical connections after all, putting on live music at least three times a week – and comedians also, with the likes of John Bishop having travelled out to Rochdale to enjoy the venue.

 It is also the long-term sponsor of Rochdale’s annual Feel Good Festival and provides a meeting space for numerous clubs and societies: The Royal Naval Association, The Fusiliers, biker group The Rochdale MT Heads and Scooter club Rochdale Mystery Tours, to name just a few. It’s also home to sports teams including Rochdale Cobras and Rochdale Hockey Club.

The Flying Horse Gig

Not only serving a range of communities, The Flying Horse stands out for serving its own food. By that, it is ‘own’ in every sense of the term – with all food (with exception of the Rag Pudding and vegan roast) handmade on site. From pastries and pies, to sauces and even ice cream – this is a real authentic affair. It has been one of ongoing positive developments at The Flying Horse, providing their varied visitors with even more to enjoy. But what next?

“There are always plans, always things to be getting on with.” Reflects Ben. “We want to do something with the garage – it would make a great courtyard space. And then I’d really like to upgrade the bedrooms upstairs… there is still accommodation here after all. At its current level, it is quite basic, but we are very clear about this. In the future though, it would be fantastic to create a boutique hotel up there. It’s inspiring after all, seeing how other businesses are starting up and being adventurous in Rochdale, supporting each other. Exciting things are to come.”

Photographs provided by Ben Boothman of The Flying Horse Hotel, with thanks