In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield

Photography with thanks to Shay Rowan

The Kings Arms

A five-minute walk away from Manchester Deansgate is a bohemian bustling boozer, complete with a cobbled beer garden, built-in upstairs theatre and David Bowie themed snug. It is The King's Arms on Bloom Street in Salford: a venue determined to encourage artistic experimentation, creative endeavour and a sense of community.

“Everything goes here, that’s how I’d describe it.” Owner Lisa Connor told HAUNT Manchester. “We want to give everyone the stage to try something out – you only learn by doing that and making mistakes after all, and what we really want is for this to be a comfortable hub for everyone to be part of.”

Lisa Connor

From grassroots gigs to being the base of The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, The King's Arms certainly is no ordinary pub. The much-loved, characterful interior with a high-stool bar, brass fittings and retro décor – including aKings Arms inner very fine jukebox – hides another aspect altogether: an array of artistic opportunity.

For under its roof there are also three refurbished theatres – with one of those tucked in the cellar – an array of artist studios and rehearsal areas.

From the first Foundations Festival – celebrating grassroots creativity and music – to being a base for creatives, including the DJ-Producer Black Lodge (HAUNT Manchester previously interviewed him here), who recorded his album Bitter Blood at The King's Arms, this is a venue determined to uphold artistry of all kinds.

The upstairs theatre space is particularly striking, with its dark furnishing and dramatically arched ceiling, and has seen numerous award-winning and atmospheric productions over the years: from Rosie Fleeshman’s Narcissist in the Mirror to Joe O’Byrne’s The Haunting of Blaine Manor (pictured below).

“We are happy for people to use and manipulate that upstairs space as they like, as long as they clear up after themselves.” Considered Lisa. “We’ve had a two-storey house built up there, people have shifted the room into all different kinds of formations! We’ve hosted bands, festivals, shows, comedy gigs… and there are a number of charity nights, with The King's Arms offering free space for charitable organisations.”

The Haunting of Blaine Manor

“We also use The King's Arms as the base for the Greater Manchester Fringe – a festival celebrating grassroots creativity - which I set up with Zena Barrie, who formerly owned the pub,” Lisa added.

It was in 2011 that the lease of The King's Arms was taken over by Zena Barrie and Beautiful South star Paul Heaton, with the pub increasingly becoming a place for creativity. By 2015, when Lisa took over the pub, she had even more ideas as to how to use the space. She reflected:

“I trained at drama school myself and started up the theatre space previously at The Lass O’Gowrie. I’m from Ashton, whilst my husband Colin is from Belfast… and we’ve produced award-winning shows together, plus I have worked extensively on The Greater Manchester Fringe. My ‘arm’ of The Fringe lies in producing, and it’s important too that The King's Arms isn’t just a venue for live shows, but a space where people can create work and run through ideas. Fringe theatre is important after all, as that is where the risks are taken. We also work with local schools and encourage the students to take more creative control.

“Crucially, we don’t want artists to have to worry about having a venue… and finances are sadly a big stopping factor for a lot of artists. That’s why we try to offer space affordably and accessibly. Our spaces were free in January, for example. Ultimately, we are all in this together and no one is going to be a millionaire… so let’s all be crazy together!”

And it seems that it has been a hub of activity in the long-term; retaining a bohemian boozer charm with an over 200-year history. First licensed in 1807, The King's Arms was first actually located on the opposite side of Bloom Street from where it now stands, nestled in what was then a bustling strip of shops, offices and even a workhouse – the façade of which can still be seen, though now an apartment building. The current venue opened in the 1880s.

theatre

Much of its quirky charm (as seen in the image of the theatre roof, above) has been retained, but has its extensive history led to any haunted activity, so to speak? According to Lisa:

“I’m not a believer, but the old landlord died here after falling down the stairs. Lots of paranormal investigators also keep wanting to film in the pub!

"It certainly has atmosphere anyway – and many stories too. For example, in the 1880s, Lucy Davis and her husband bought the pub… and considering that he was a raging alcoholic, it meant she was pretty much running the pub on her own. Her grave is just behind here, actually.  She also used to rent rooms out by the hour – so the rooms have always been rented in a sense, just not necessarily for artistic purposes!

“Yes, this building has had so much varied use. Upstairs was once a dancehall – now it is a theatre. We also have five bands using a recording studio, and there is a room right at the very top we call ‘the crow’s nest’. There’s been a hotel here, a snooker hall, and in past years the pub has had quite a reputation… it was a regular drinking place of Dockers coming off shift. It certainly has a history!”

Yet during its years of trade, The King's Arms has also continued to host a diverse range of activity and eclectic audiences, perhaps now more than ever.  

Fake News

“A weird and wonderful variety of things take place here too,” reflected Lisa. “For example, I’ve just spoken to someone who last came in to see a Berkoff show, and before that, a performance which featured a Drag Queen pulling bananas out of their pants whilst covered in glitter! We are proud to have a strong LGBTQ+ community here - and after all, in my mind, the heart of the pub is those who use it – so we want those communities that gather here to feel like they own it as well.”

The King's Arms has also historically been the regular meeting place of a number of clubs and societies. The North of England Irish Terrier Club long-used the pub as a regular haunt, whilst the world’s oldest angling club, Salford Friendly Anglers Society, continues to meet there; with the words ‘Ye Anglers Club House’ still faintly visible on the gable end of the building.  A Knitting Club gathers in the snug every Monday, as it has for over a decade – yet another example of the many eclectic uses the building.

Kings Arms Tap Room

“Folk Fridays in the snug are always popular,” reflected Lisa. “People come from all over the country. There’s even a man who makes the long trip in a campervan!

“Lots of artists have meetings and auditions here too – and I’m glad about that, artists need that space. And yet space across the cities is being threatened; bars and venues are shutting left right and centre – it’s scary. The difference is, I’m not in it to make millions of pounds – as long as I can pay my mortgage and buy a new pair of Doc Martens occasionally.  This is a labour of love, I have brilliant staff, and I’m often up to 2 O’Clock in the morning, doing the stuff you don’t usually see – it’s all DIY. It also changes people’s perceptions about artists and creatives, we have to work really hard to get our opportunities – I’m a trained actor, but I’ll also pull a pint!”

From Cracker to Fresh Meat, a variety of TV Productions have also had sections filmed here, gaining The King's Arms a wide-spreading recognition. Yet it is the creative community of the area that Lisa emphasizes as the most important:

“People often argue about the Salford-Manchester divide – and yes, we’re in Salford and we have a great number of locals, but I see the pub as part of Greater Manchester really.” Lisa considered. “Plus there’s the added benefit that we’re practically a ten minute walk from Manchester Town Hall, close to the train stations – and yet we don’t have to pay city centre business rates. That’s reflected in the prices for our customers too.

Spring and Port Wine play at The Kings Arms

“We are also part of a great artistic scene here, where other venues feel part of a creative community. We are unlike London in that sense – these other venues are not competition, we celebrate them and vice versa. After all, we want to learn from each other, support each other. Great things are going on in places like Hope Mill Theatre, Salford Arts Theatre and the artist collectives around Islington Mill. Just some examples.”

Great things, it seems, are ahead for The King's Arms too – with plans for 2019 including an outdoor stage and the front of the pub being pedestrianised, welcoming a walkway and cycle route all the way from New Bailey.

“I still find myself surprised and excited by the creativity people bring here too,” Lisa added. “So there are always exciting things ahead. The beating heart of the creativity is in the underground – the enjoyment in experimenting. It is where the fun is had.”

Gary Starr Image

Productions/performers in photographs (in order as listed): The Haunting of Blaine Manor, Fake News, Spring and Port Wine, Garry Starr

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