JW Lees have built a brand new pub from scratch
It’s rare these days to see a new pub. More often than not the news is about them closing down. But residents in the vicinity of the former Woodford Aerodrome are about to get exactly that this week with The Aviator.
The JW Lees pub, which sits on the edge of the Woodford Garden Village, a new development in South Manchester, will open its doors to the public on Friday 25 February. It will be the family-owned Manchester brewery's first new-build pub in 20 years.
Apart from the fact that we sell food and drink, people just want a meeting place
Serving a trademark JW Lees offering of award-winning cask ale, craft lager and premium spirits, The Aviator’s carefully curated wine list will also pair with the pub’s offering of homemade, British pub food classics capped off each week by a Sunday roast.
But how do you go about building a pub in this day and age from scratch? We took a first-look walk around The Aviator to find out.
Townhouse pub meets country bolthole
“When the fire’s lit in there, it’s fabulous,” general manager Hugh Smyth tells me as he talks me through his favourite parts of the pub.
“You could say, I’ll go for my dinner next to the fire, and you’re not moving from the table. The problem I’ll have is resetting the table. I don’t think anyone’s going to move.”
The freedom that has come with building a pub from scratch has been taken firmly with both hands by The Aviator team. The dining room which Hugh is referring to is an inviting space with a tall ceiling and stylish wood-burning fireplace.
The fire is one of three in the pub, two wood-burning and one gas. To the right of the fire is a cosy alcove that would suit a larger group, and on the other side, the room is flanked by large windows allowing natural light to pour in.
The Aviator mixes elements of a city-centre townhouse pub with the cosy compartmentalisation of a country bolthole. The space is light and airy, with a grand central bar and enough seating inside to sit 150.
The outside beer garden, complete with aviation-themed playground, open-fronted cabin seating and a scattering of seats and tables can cater to a further 140 which means Hugh is going to be a busy man come summertime.
Back inside and the intent of the building’s design is clear. Spaces are separated but a line of sight can be maintained throughout. People-watching is encouraged and the atmosphere is able to spill out across the pub into all quarters. At the far end of the pub is a snug-like spot which, during the fit out, Hugh designated as his office.
Hugh has since relocated his daytime admin operations to a table closer to one of the aforementioned wood-burning fireplaces as he greets the steady stream of contractors. Someone’s in today finishing off the bathrooms, which are reminiscent of the charming New York stylings of a Wes Anderson-inspired bistro.
A community awaits its hub
When George Orwell wrote about The Moon Under Water (his fictional dream pub) in the Evening Standard in 1946, he talked about draught stout a lot. He wrote about open fires, solid lunches, regulars and atmosphere.
Something that Orwell also emphasised, which might surprise some if their vision of the perfect pub is rooted in old-man pub cliché, is a sense of community. Not just a community of blokes but a pub for everyone.
Orwell wrote about “the puritanical nonsense of excluding children — and therefore, to some extent, women”, saying that The Moon Under Water would be the opposite. Orwell berated the culture that has “turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.”
The Aviator pub is a pub for everyone. When the nearby Redrow estate is fully finished, the pub will sit on the doorstep of around 900 homes (roughly 400 are currently finished) providing people with their new local. A place to make their own.
“I can see barbecues there on the grass in the future,” Hugh says, gesturing to the beer garden. “The kids can play in the playground and the park over there.”
“Apart from the fact that we sell food and drink, people just want a meeting place. They’ve been here for three or four years. They’ve passed each other in cars, seen people walking dogs or running, but nobody has actually talked yet. Everyone’s so excited, it’s unbelievable.”
The excitement is palpable but also measurable. The Aviator has already had some 1100 table booking requests and it’s not even open yet. The team have had to pause bookings for now, keeping to an initial walk-in policy for the first week to ensure as many people as possible can pop in and experience the pub that will provide a new hub for the community.
The Aviator couldn’t have been called anything else. Sat on the site of the former Woodford Aerodrome, the airfield which opened in 1924 and closed in 2011, was the home of the former Avro aircraft production centre. The site produced notable military aircraft including the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers, and hosted training.
Whilst the site’s aircraft activity is now confined to the nearby Avro Heritage Museum, The Aviator has taken inspiration from the area’s history with finishing touches throughout the pub, including a gallery wall on the stairs.
Pilots would approve of three hand-pulled JW Lees cask ales on at any one time as well as its own Manchester craft pale, original lager and Manchester craft lager. With no sense of irony, Hugh tells me the latter has been “flying out” of the brewery’s pubs. “We can’t make enough of it,” he adds. Orwell, meanwhile, would approve of JW Lees stout on draught.
Brunch, a cosy lunch and evening service will complement drinks with a premium pub food offer. Menu stalwarts like the Brewery Tower Burger and Three Cheese Pie sit alongside the more refined glazed shoulder of lamb shank and baked salmon fillet.
The new building, which JW Lees originally began work on in 2016, has allowed The Aviator team to build exactly what they want to the last tee. From the kitchen which Hugh describes as being designed ergonomically “for flow” to the space’s dynamic ability to change from a formal dining space to a relaxed drinking space. Everyone from the audit team to the stock takers had a say in the project to inform the ultimate design.
Building aside, what Hugh and the team most look forward to seeing is the local community take in the pub as its own.
“All the local community have had up until this point is a little shop and a garden centre. People will pass like ships in the night not speaking to each other and I think when you sit there in the pub, and then the talk starts and you start forming friendships and the kids start meeting each other and there’s a family bond - I think it’s going to be brilliant.”
Cheers to that.
The Aviator, 6 Lancastrian Way, Woodford, Stockport SK7 1SA
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