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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Lee Grimsditch

Liverpool city centre's most 'uncompromising' pub people compare to Star Wars cantina

While Liverpool as a city has become well accustomed to reinventing itself since the 1980s, there are some places you hope will never change.

For many city centre drinkers, that place is the Swan Inn. Known simply as 'the Swan', this historic pub has stood on Wood Street since Victorian times.

Stepping into the pub from the daylight of Wood Street can be a shock. Your eyes take time to adjust to its cool darkness and glowing red light while simultaneously rocked by a punch of heavy metal blasting from its legendary jukebox.

READ MORE: Liverpool's lost 'throwback to dark ages' pub was 'like Moe's Tavern' with £1.20 pint

Its seating is a combination of wooden pews and tables; its walls an exhibition of classic posters and swan-themed paintings. There's also an upstairs bar overlooked by a mezzanine.

The Swan's position at the top of Wood Street has traditionally meant that from the 1970s through to the 2000s, it has acted as a starting point for drinkers and gig-goers heading to Wilsons and Sloanes – later the Krazyhouse. Now the last surviving venue of its kind on Wood Street, the Swan still pulls in the "alternative" crowds, old and young.

But to say that the Swan caters just to an alternative crowd would be a massive injustice. The pub is renowned for welcoming anyone and everyone through its doors.

Inside the Swan Inn glows an inviting red, on Wood Street, Liverpool. Legendary jukebox on the back wall (Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo)

For years the Swan's eclectic selection of beers has tempted the real ale drinkers, long before men unironically sporting flat caps around the bars of the Baltic Triangle were a regular sight. Its reputation for friendliness and community – a rare thing in a city centre pub these days – make it a favourite for businessmen and students alike.

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The Swan is part of a classic triumvirate of Liverpool pubs under the same ownership as Ye Cracke on Rice Street and The Pilgrim on Pilgrim Street. John Storton, managing director of Yellow Spider Media who look after all three pubs, said the Swan survived the pandemic with the help of its regular customers.

John told the ECHO: "All of the regulars were so supportive – we did all sorts. We were doing a virtual jukebox on Spotify, social media competitions and selling pub merchandise.

"It was great to see how the community got together and said, 'look, these places aren't going anywhere – we need them.' It just shows how important they were, particularly the Swan, because it's the alternative pub.

"It's that uncompromising vibe it has being a bit of a sanctuary for the alternative crowd and metal music fans. It's a safe haven if you like.

Bar at the ground floor of the Swan on Wood Street (Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo)

"I've heard it described as the Mos Eisley Cantina, the pub in Star Wars. And everyone that works there and everybody involved with the place doesn't see that as a negative – they want to be a collection of outsiders if you like, and that's what really makes it a community place."

John describes the Swan as almost the "antitheses" of the trendy wine bar type venues that dominate most areas of the city centre these days. The same is true of Wood Street; most of the haunts that made it a hub for rockers, goths and punks have now disappeared, perhaps in-part to changing tastes as well as the more pervasive influence of nearby Concert Square.

The legendary Swan jukebox (Lee Grimsditch)

However, that's not to say the Swan hasn't lived comfortably beside such venues in the past. It was news to me when I discovered a trendy wine bar called the Steering Wheel used to occupy the space above the Swan.

Now a regular visitor to the Swan, I didn't start drinking there until the early '00s, when a group of friends introduced me to it. Surprising, as back-in-the-day, I was a regular at Sloanes (later Krazyhouse) and even attended gigs in Wilsons in the 1990s.

Me sitting in the Swan some 20-years ago (Lee Grimsditch)

My earliest memories of the place were finding an out-of-order toilet cubicle with the word "f****d" helpfully written on the door. Another time, I remember attempting to play a song on the newer jukebox in the upstairs bar when I miss keyed.

The unmistakable first few bars of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood boomed out to the metal-loving crowd. Looks were aimed at me that I will never forget.

Rock karaoke in the Swan on Boxing Night could be a tough crowd (Eddie Naylor)

It was also in the mid-to-late '00s that the tradition of a Boxing Night rock karaoke (complete with brutal X-Factor style judges) was one of the highlights of the Swan's calendar. Another traditional sight at the pub, especially from the 1970s to the '90s, was seeing a row of Harley Davidson, Triumphs and other classic motorbikes parked outside the pub as their biker owners enjoyed the hospitality inside.

Especially when it came to the verdict of the judges (Eddie Naylor)

Ex-regular Nick Glyne remembered the classic bikes. He told the ECHO: "The Swan was my favourite haunt in the late eighties/early nineties.

"The toilets were horrendous but the jukebox was the best. Harleys and other great bikes would be parked next door in front of the Mantunna tea factory."

The Swan Inn, Wood Street seen c.1910 with some beautifully ornate features (Sunday Echo)

Another Swan regular and ex-barman from 1989 to 2001, and later again in the mid-00s, was Derek Bradley. Remembering his days behind the bar, and particularly the legendary jukebox, he told the ECHO: "Back in the day when the Swan had a real jukebox with records, every month a maintenance man used to arrive to service it and change some of the records.

The Swan Inn on Wood Street in 1978. Steering Wheel bar above (Swan Inn)

"Many of the staff had a deep hatred of the song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, which just seemed to whine on forever and generally get played over and over by certain customers. One day, a contingent took their chance and mobbed the maintenance man just as he opened the jukebox.

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"We grabbed the record and jumped all over it, rendering it unplayable. Later we found out it was an original pressing and was worth a few bob, oops!"

Staff and regulars behind the bar at the Swan Inn in 1990 (Derek Bradley)

Derek also remembers a particularly clever April Fools prank the pub's then manager, Chris Panton, played on his customers and staff in 1991. Derek said: "He convinced regulars and staff months before that the owners were changing the Swan into a wine bar – they even had a petition going.

"The week before, he had us get dressed up for April 1st with a doormat of fancy carpet and some bottles of wine for sale. Chris kept it pretty tight until the day and fooled lots of people; the staff were only brought in on the joke the night before.

Derek Bradley (bottom row, middle) when he worked at the Swan in 1991. The bar's staff had been part of an April Fools prank that had convinced customers the rock pub was about to be turned into a wine bar (Derek Bradley)

"Some people were livid and signed the petition to stop the Swan from becoming a wine bar. Chris was a great storyteller; he kept in character as the distraught manager and was very convincing!"

The latest series of Memory Lane is in major retailers including Asda, Tesco, Home Bargains and selected newsagents now. This series of the bumper picture special looks at fun in the sun - with stunning photographs and treasured memories of family holidays from years gone by. You can also buy Memory Lane online here.

A considerable refurbishment of the Swan in the mid-noughties saw the iconic jukebox move upstairs to its sister pub, The Pilgrim. Besides removing the ancient – and much disliked – downstairs toilets, the pub changed little, much to the delight of its regulars.

So while much of everything else has changed on Wood Street since the Swan opened, it's reassuring that some things have, and hopefully will, remain the same. Please raise your glasses, throw up your horns, and give three cheers to the Swan.

Does this story bring back memories for you? Let us know in the comments below.


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