A spruce up yes, but don’t change the Dolphin much

The smell of polish was evident – and pleasant – when I popped into Ye Olde Dolphin Inn this week for a quick one. There was a tradesman fixing something behind the bar, too. Derby’s oldest pub is in new hands and a breeze, if not a full-scale wind of change, is in the offing.

Very few people will want it to change too much, most certainly in terms of its appearance. Jim Harris had the pub for 20 years before moving to the Mason’s Arms at Mickleover recently. And whoever has this quite astonishing pub has a great deal of responsibility. They are curators of its history.

The Dolphin's classic snug and (inset) new licensee Jason Weston.
The Dolphin’s classic snug and (inset) new licensee Jason Weston.
(Image: Main pic, Mick Slaughter)

It should be good news, then, that the man who has taken over, Jason Weston, will know all about such history. He has come from the Salutation Inn, in Nottingham, and the parallels between the two pubs are many. Both lay claim to being the most haunted in their respective cities, both are in the Campaign for Real Ale’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors, and both are listed buildings. Mr Weston should be a good choice. I haven’t had a chat with him yet. I missed him when I popped in, but saying hello will be on my to do list.

It was just a little alarming, however, to read that the owners of the Dolphin, Stonegate Group, the company formerly known as Enterprise Inns, plan to “spruce it up”. Surely, we have to hope that they do not intend to change much inside the pub. The listed building status ought to ensure that is the case – and so should plain common sense.

It is a simply spectacular building. After all these years of calling in, I still find it fascinating. As you walk around it, you can see that, here and there, at various times in a history which dates back to 1530, bits have been added on, sometimes in the most illogical manner – a window here, a door there. But it all works.

The pub’s brilliant wood-panelled snug, in the centre of the building, with a serving hatch to the bar and a real fire, is very special. From the main bar, which has a huge fireplace, you take a couple of steps up into The Offiler’s Lounge, which has been dedicated to memorabilia from the long-defunct Derby brewery of that name.

A casual first-time visitor might not even realise that there is a further lounge at the back, with yet another large fireplace, also with its own serving area from the main central bar. It is often seen as the quiet reading room. Food has been served in upstairs rooms at the pub, too. An uneven stone passageway runs down the middle of all this.

A 1900 painting of Ye Olde Dolphin pub in Derby.
A 1900 painting of Ye Olde Dolphin pub in Derby.

The ghost stories, the tales of rogue doctors dissecting bodies brought to them by grave-robbers, the secret passages discovered over the years… the pub is a historical treasure trove. And yet, ancient as it looks to the untrained eye, the Dolphin is far from all original. The picture here of the pub in 1900, compared to a more recent one, shows that some of the timbers are changed now. It matters little, really.

Anyway, let us cut Stonegate a little slack. In their planning application, to be decided in July by the city council, they say the work they want to do is mainly to the outdoor area, where bands have often been put on and will assuredly be again, as Mr Weston has a strong pedigree of doing so at the Salutation. You can see why the outdoor area could do with a spruce up. It could be a good move. As long as they leave the interior largely alone, all will be well.

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