DAVE Wickett was sweeping away flood water the day he realised just quite how well loved his pub was.
All afternoon the previous day in June 2007 he’d looked at the adjacent River Don rising as rain – “the kind that hurts your head,” he recalls – beat down mercilessly.
He’d ordered staff to take all bottles, food, furniture and equipment upstairs, hoping it was an unnecessary precaution. It wasn’t.
Sometime in the late afternoon, water poured into The Fat Cat, in Alma Street, Kelham Island.
“There was nothing we could do but stand and watch,” recalls the 64-year-old of Fulwood. “You just hope it will be OK in the end. You draw on that British Blitz spirit.
“But what I remember most was how the next day we were all standing there in the water, a couple of blokes came in.
“‘Hi Dave, are you still serving?’ I just looked around at the damage and said ‘I’m sorry, lads, we appear to have been flooded’.
“But it was actually comforting to know that even then people wanted to come here. I thought ‘Are they daft?’ But it really lifted spirits somehow.”
It is 30 years this month since Dave, a then lecturer in economics at the old Sheffield Polytechnic, opened The Fat Cat.
Today the pub is credited with both kick starting the city’s much lauded real ale renaissance and with inspiring the regeneration of the Kelham Island quarter.
Its success has been such a rival landlord – long since gone – once felt compelled to visit the pub and tell staff he’d just taken over a nearby bar and was going to be stealing The Fat Cat’s ethos, ideas and customers - “I thought ‘Oh, well that’s nice, and I want to punch you in the face’,” laughs Dave today as we sit in the boozer’s famous beer garden.
Proof of that success?
On the opening night customers queued to get in even as staff finished decorating, while just this year a young man called Alex Turner filmed part of Arctic Monkeys latest video there.
Ann Widdecombe has enjoyed lunch in the snug, former England captain (and Sheffield United manager) Bryan Robson was once a regular and Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets proclaimed the beer the best they’d ever tasted.
Today the pub sells thousands of pints to thousands of customers every year, while the adjacent Kelham Island Brewery – set up by Dave in 1991 – produces ale for The Fat Cat and bars around the world.
Dave, meanwhile, has just been presented with a Lifetime Achievement award by the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group.
It is a far cry from those humble beginnings when this young entrepreneur was told by one supplier ‘I’ll give you a year, tops.’.
Sheffield 1981 was a very different world.
Kelham Island was a run-down steel quarter, ugly by day, bordering on dangerous by night.
City pubs, meanwhile, were generally ‘tied’ houses, meaning they would sell just one kind of beer – either Wards, Whitbread, Stones or John Smith’s – and cask ales were increasingly off the menu.
“Choice was disappearing,” says Dave, a Londoner who came here in 1969 to study at the University of Sheffield. “Me and some mates use to go for a pint after we’d played five-a-side and there was no enjoyment in it.
“We’d say how nice it would be if we could go to a pub with a selection of different real ales where there weren’t any gambling machines or jukeboxes making noise and you could relax and enjoy a drink. It’s incredible now but there was nowhere like that in the city.
“When I told people I was thinking about opening one up, they said I was mad. They thought a place that sold anything other than Sheffield beers wouldn’t work. People won’t drink London ale up here they told me.
“But I was sure they would. I was sure variety would attract people and I talked about it so much, eventually a couple of the lads said ‘Dave, you’re going have to do this’.”
So, he did.
In summer of 1981, an old failed pub called The Alma came up for auction.
“Kelham Island wasn’t very nice back then,” says Dave. “After 6pm when the factories had shut it was quite a scary place.
“But it wasn’t far from the city centre, it was near the legal quarter and the two universities are close by so I felt sure it could attract people.
“There were four bidders at the auction and I was the only one who wanted to keep it as a pub. The others were asking me why I thought I could succeed when the old place had failed but I just wanted to see if the idea would work.”
His bid was successful, and he shelled out £35,000 for the venue. Then the real work started.
Together with a gang of mates, Dave spent the next two months ripping out old furniture, decorating, installing new pumps, and generally getting to grips with the place.
A former catering student was hired as head chef with the simple instructions – just five or six dishes were to be on the menu each day, including a couple of pies.
“I knew full well when I went into a pub where there were 40 dishes available I was eating frozen dinners, and I wanted The Fat Cat to be about freshly prepared food,” explains father-of-one Dave.
That name incidentally was chosen by wife Helen.
“We agreed on it the same night I bought the pub,” he says. “She got a beer mat and drew a symbol of a fat cat, and that was it. It’s the one we use today on our signs.”
The hard work also included persuading breweries from around the country to supply the pub with ale.
“It was strange,” says Dave. “You’d ring up and say ‘I’m starting this pub and we want to put your beer on’, and they’d say ‘Oh no, you won’t sell it in Sheffield’.
“I remember Timothy Taylor in Keighley refused to deliver because they thought we wouldn’t sell it so I had to pick it up myself.
“They sold me what’s called seven kils and said I’d have to sell it in five days or it would go off.
“I phoned them the Monday after our first weekend and said ‘We’re going to need another seven’. They started delivering after that.”
The opening few days, it seems, were a sign of things to come.
From there, the pub’s status would grow to a point where the Arctic Monkeys were drinkers, a New York version was set up and a whole raft of copy-cat boozers turned the once troubled Kelham Island into the award-winning Real Ale Capital of the UK...
The biggest blow
“WHEN they tell you, you’ve got cancer, your first thought is just... wow”
Dave Wickett, founder of Sheffield’s legendary Fat Cat pub thinks for a second.
“It’s your only thought. It’s all you can think. It just doesn’t really sink in.”
It was January last year when Dave - otherwise healthy in every way - was diagnosed with myeloma, a form of leukaemia.
At first he responded well to treatment and within six months was his old active self.
“I was walking my dogs, just living life more or less the same as before,” he says.
Then in February this year, he woke up one morning and had no strength in his legs.
“They were just wobbly,” says Dave. “I got through that day but the next I had to go to hospital. They said it was a tumour and I had to have radiotherapy.”
Tragically, the treatment failed.
After four days he was told he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“It’s frustrating because I was so active,” says Dave. “But you learn to cope. I’m learning, I’m getting there slowly.”