John O'Gaunt - The end of an Era
Words by Sue Parish, pictures Barrie Marshall
Black & White Photographs by George Coupe
30th November 2004

Lancaster's finest Landlord and Landlady Steve and Ula Thorn bowed out from the John O Gaunt after nearly two decades on Tuesday 30th November. The pub was jam-packed with loyal regulars for the celebratory evening, which featured a glorious performance by the New Riverside Jazz Band. It wasn't so much a case of "standing room only" as "no room at the inn" - the place was full to bursting, and the atmosphere was sweatily good natured, as more and more folk fought their way in to join in the fun.

Steve's policy of good music, good beer and good food has made the John O Gaunt the drinking den of choice for people of all ages and temperaments. Six sessions of live music a week have meant something for all tastes, from storming rhythm and blues to folk. Plus, of course, a really strong jazz policy, with a strong trad emphasis. The Sunday lunchtime jazz, dogs and sausages session hosted by the Sun Street Stompers is renowned for welcoming sitters-in and has been the launch pad for a number of young jazz careers. Bob Moffatt and friends on a Monday night have blasted away a few musical cobwebs over the years, and the Tuesday jazz nights have featured a range of bands, including regular appearances by ace sax player Harold Salisbury, and increasingly renowned trumpeter Danny Riley. The pub has an enviable decor of historic musical photos and beer-related ephemera. And its as quirky and witty as a pub can be, thanks to Steve's unstoppable sense of humour and his constant adding of small and delightful details to the walls, the menu and other aspects of the pub.

 Steve's last night featured a number of high points. Members of Camra presented him with a tankard  to express their gratitude for his support of fine ales, well kept and served - a finale to his receipt of numerous awards over the years. Musicians from the area offered their thanks for all the gigs by presenting a specially commissioned automated sculpture made by local craftsman Mike Woods of Albion Ironworks - featuring, of course, a sax player, and a banjo! And the public part of the evening drew to a rousing finale when Steve himself grabbed his tenor sax and joined the band for a rendition of his favourite tune "Hustling and Bustling for Baby" and an appropriate finale in the form of Dr Jazz which brought deafening cheers from the audience. Then it was "time gentlemen please" - at least officially, as Steve rang the bell one last time, again to levels of applause probably not heard in the JoG before. It didn't quite end there, although many people were probably glad to emerge into the fresh air after such an astonishing night.  Those who stuck around a little longer were treated to the memorable sight of Steve in Biggles outfit performing aerial dives to the strains of the Dam Busters march, which as regulars will know, has long been played at high decibel levels to rid the pub of its final determined drinkers of an evening.

And of course, there was a bit of a party afterwards.... which will, I suspect, be another fond memory for those who were present.

Seeing as I've been lucky enough to be asked to write this piece, I'd like to take the opportunity to say how grateful I am to have experienced 12 of the 18 or so years that Steve and Ula have run the John O Gaunt. It's been a key part of Lancaster's very special music and social scene. It's been a friendly, cheering and jolly pub to drink in, full of fine people, excellent beer and quality music. It's offered me and many other musicians the chance to develop our craft - and draw inspiration from others. In short, it's been life-enhancing.

I can't quite believe that Steve isn't going to be there any more, although I'm very, very glad to hear that new landlord Robin Edmundson plans to make it business as usual and keep up all the things that make the pub special. But I do feel those of us who have spent time in what the (national) Guardian described as "one of the best town pubs in England" are very lucky indeed. Thank you Steve.

Sue Parish

Jenny Greenhalgh, Chair, 
Lunesdale Branch of Camra.

writes .....

Before he took the John O'Gaunt, Steve managed a Victoria Wines shop in Frances Passage in Lancaster. He seemed very young at the time, but he knew his stuff so when he made it  known that he was taking over the JOG those of us in Camra were optimistic. This pub, along with the Nag's Head [now Last Orders] in Church Street had had a dubious reputation with regular reports of fights appearing in the local press. The pub was shut for several months for a general refurb and when it was opened again Camra supported the pub and formed a pub quiz team for Monday nights. We also contributed to the decoration by supplying beer mats which Steve preserved by putting them in frames. These now reflect the history and sad decline of our regional brewers and the range of brews we have lost. We also contributed a few photos of Lancaster City buses which used to go up and down Market Street. The quiz team was eventually lost to the music nights which have provided this pub with its essential atmosphere, but it didn't matter as Steve had found his feet and a goodly flow of regulars had built up. 

When Tetley's introduced "guest beers" they chose Jennings of Cockermouth, which we in Camra thought was innovative as this beer is quite distinctive and we had no Jennings in the immediate area. Steve took this on and it sold [it still does], and subsequently with the changes of ownership from brewery to pub chain, the range of guest beers has grown and is always changing, maintaining the interest of Camra and non-Camra drinkers. Well presented beers reflects the skill of the person keeping the cellar. Beer is a food and should be bought in the size of the container that can be sold in a couple of days, so knowing how much to buy that will sell within the correct time requires attention to this detail. When Camra decides to put an entry into the Good Beer Guide, we should be confident that a stranger will be able to enter that pub with the full confidence that he will obtain a good pint. Steve maintained these standards over the years as the list of GBG stickers on the window shows. Camra has shown its respect for him by awarding Pub of the Year accolades and launching the Good Beer Guide at his pub. So, on Tuesday, we presented him with a glass tankard and card thanking him for his services to the trade. It was a small token, but if standards are maintained by Robin we know that Steve's reputation will be upheld and his fine tradition recognised.

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