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The old school pubs in Greater Manchester where “no mobiles” are allowed

These traditional “digital free” pubs in Greater Manchester have “crazy” house rules
The Malt Shovels digital free pub in Altrincham

The Malt Shovels in Altrincham make no apologies for being a “digital free premises” and doesn’t allow any mobile, tablets or laptops inside the pub. “If you do need to use them, please do so outside,” insists the company policy. 

The Shovels – about 500 yards from the station – dates back to the 18th Century and is one of the oldest pubs in town. And the pub owned by Samuel Smith’s Brewery seemingly hasn’t changed much since then enforcing Victorian rules on its patrons. “Do it outside if you need to,” they stress. Thankfully, though, there are indoor toilets here so you don’t have to ‘do’ your business in the street, too. 

Apparently, it was only recently that they ditched the cash-only policy and started accepting card payments.

Other Samuel Smith owned pubs in Greater Manchester with the same company policy include the Sun In September in Burnage, The Boars Head in Stockport and many more you can locate here. Many pubs maybe stockists of Smith’s products but don’t all adopt their house rules.

The Malt Shovels Samuel Smith's pub in Altrincham

I called The Malt Shovels’ landline from my iPhone 13 Pro Max to speak to the landlord Shane who said he wasn’t at liberty to comment. “I’m not allowed to do interviews,” said landlord Shane, “sorry pal.” So I went in anonymously to chat to him the old fashioned way – face to face with a beer. 

The Malt Shovels is what you might call a bit of a spit-and-sawdust kind of establishment. Named in reference to the art of shovelling malt and brewing beer, The Malt Shovels is not just one of the oldest boozers in town but also one of the cheapest with a pint of bitter or mild from just £2.20.

Promising value for money, choice of beer on draught includes Samuel Smith Alpine Lager, Cider Reserve, XXXX Best (keg bitter), Old Brewery Bitter (cask), plus a stout and a mild which, by the way, blend very nicely together in one pint. There’s loads of bottled beer in the fridges, too, including organic lager, pale ale and fruit beer.

Entering the pub from Stamford Street leads you into a large open plan bar that serves all areas of the pub. To the right of the entrance is the seating area of the main bar with traditional bench seating against the walls. To the left is a snug with an open fire. Straight ahead is a staircase leading to the former meeting room which now acts as a games room with a dartboard and pool table. To the rear of the pub is a lounge area with another real fire. The walls are adorned with old black and white photographs of Altrincham through the ages.

I was looking over my shoulder while taking these photos for fear of punishment by public whipping in the street.

Unfortunately, landlord Shane wasn’t in when I visited so I spoke to a bartender whose real name will remain anonymous to save him from perhaps the death penalty. It was a very quiet Sunday evening with only a handful of drinkers in. There was no music nor any background noise, let alone the sound of mobile phones. Some might say it’s quiet enough to talk.

“The top boss has been in other pubs and closed them down on the spot because people were on their mobile phones,” he said. I asked if he meant calling it a day and closing just for that night and he said: “No, closed for good. He’s very set in his ways.”

He was talking about Humphrey Smith, the owner of Samuel Smith’s Brewery, and descendent of Samuel who founded the brewery in 1758. Humphrey has been in charge of the independent brewery, which operates around 200 pubs in the north of England, since the 1980s and has a reputation for being anti-social.

“There used to be entertainment on in here,” says regular Dennis. “There used to be jazz in the back room. Now it’s just full of old fogies.” Does he think the demographic has anything to do with the rules? “No, I think the young’uns just prefer bars these days. Although most of us regulars aren’t the type to stare at our phones, I often check bus times on mine. Sam Smith’s pubs in London don’t have the same rules and they are thriving.”

“It used to be absolutely buzzing in here,” said another regular who overheard our conversation. “I’ve been coming in here since 1971 and it was rammed full of students and young people. You’d be lucky to get a drink from the bar, it was that busy. Humphrey has lost his mind. No phones, no entertainment, no TVs. No talking. That’s what’s next. It’s crazy.”

Contrary to popular belief, regular Mark, who has been going in The Shovels for over 10 years thinks that the pub is all the better for its ‘no mobiles’ rule.

“It’s supposed to keep people present and talking to each other, which I think is a nice principle.”

So what attracted him to the pub in the first place?

“Really great prices – maybe the cheapest in Altrincham,” he said. “There’s some nice corners to catch up with old friends in. The pool and darts upstairs are good to have and you never have to wait for a game.”

So if you have the willpower to resist getting your phone out, why not try a traditional, affordable pub with old school principles.

Remember, digital free premises means a distraction free atmosphere.

And we’ll drink to that. Cheers!

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