Todder classes – at your local pub?

Date:22-02-2014 08:58:07 read:1

Todder classes – at your local pub?

Pubs are turning to mother-and-toddler classes to widen their appeal. Anna Tyzack pops in to her local with baby in tow

Bang the drum: Hector and friends make Monkey Music at the unlikely venue of the Coopers Arms in Chelsea  Photo: Clara Molden

The curious mix of ageing bohemians and Made in Chelsea-types who congregate at the Coopers Arms in south-west London by night would all run a mile if they could see it now. An array of neon-coloured prams and pushchairs (including my own) have invaded the bar, making it feel more like a branch of Pizza Express than a historic London boozer once frequented by the Rolling Stones.

Mothers, some in designer gym kit – this is Chelsea, remember – are frantically pulling toddlers out of puddle suits and stuffing organic carrot sticks into their mouths. As the clock strikes 11.30am they thunder upstairs for the next Monkey Music class, leaving behind them a trail of baby rice cakes and a row of empty Aptamil cartons on the bar.

For the publican, however, there will be no crying over spilt formula. Babies are the new target market for pubs. Classes such as Monkey Music fill up an otherwise redundant function room in the middle of the week and bring in a bunch of mummies who would otherwise hang out together in local cafés and high street chain restaurants.

According to Rob Rigby, who runs the Coopers Arms, if pubs are to survive, they need to be more than just a place to eat and drink. “We can’t thrive on our reputation as a good local pub any more,” he says. “The classes are a good way of advertising what we do, not just our food and drink but the fact we’re open for christenings, birthdays and weddings too. We want to be a useful part of the local community.”

I’ve taken my son, Hector, to Monkey Music sessions before. The classes, which have been running in locations across Britain for the past 21 years, are attended by more than 10,000 babies and toddlers. Usually, though, we report to a child-friendly venue such as the National Army Museum, where there is a purpose-built play area, or a place in Battersea that doubles up as a children’s hairdresser. The pub is a whole new ball game. Jayne Harris, who runs Monkey Music in the area, says she looked for a venue for two years before she found it; all the local halls are booked up by schools. “Then I walked in to the Coopers, where I used to drink when I first got married, and I saw that it would be just perfect.”

She’s right. My son and I both feel quite at home at “nappy hour” in the Coopers Arms. The newly Farrow & Balled upstairs room, much like the “function space” found in many pubs, is rectangular with high ceilings, perfect for toddlers to charge around in. For half an hour, Hector, who is 15 months, and about 10 others are encouraged to dance, clap, play with figures from a wooden Noah’s Ark, shake maracas and bash drums by Camilla, their extremely pretty teacher.

I’m concerned that the tuneless racket might drive away other punters but Rigby assures me he won’t be opening the pub officially for another half an hour. “Besides, however much noise the kids make, it won’t be as loud as the crowds we get in the evening,” he says.

Is it really appropriate, however, for babies (Monkey Music starts from three months) to be socialising in pubs? Camilla, who is an actress in her other life, agrees that the classes wouldn’t work in every pub. “There’s a big difference between your average pub and one like this in Chelsea,” she says. According to Harris it’s a question of finding the right space and an understanding landlord. “The pub has to be unbelievably clean with somewhere safe to leave the buggies and it helps if it’s closed when the classes are running,” she says.

The way things are going in London, though, there will soon be more baby-friendly pubs than traditional boozers. The Florence in Herne Hill and the Victoria Inn in Peckham run Bea’s Baby Bop sessions each week in large play rooms with television screens and toys to keep young pubgoers entertained, while Monkey Music classes also take place at pubs in Hampstead and Willesden Green.

Meanwhile, the National Childbirth Trust estimates that about 80 pubs have signed up to the Breastfeeding Welcome scheme, which was launched in 2010 to promote breastfeeding in public. Outside the capital, countless pubs, including chains such as Wetherspoon and Harvester, are also latching on to the baby market. The Brewers Fayre in Chafford Hundred, Essex, runs Caterpillar music classes, while pubs such as the Bread and Bitter in Nottingham and the Kings Fee in Hereford offer parent and toddler classes.

When the music stops, Hector tearfully hands back his drumsticks in exchange for a Monkey Music sticker. Camilla then sends us out in a cloud of bubbles, using an industrial-strength machine. Once downstairs in the bar, I wonder if the other mothers might stay for a cheeky glass of wine. Sadly not. A couple of them order coffees but most scuttle back home in time for their child’s lunchtime nap.

Rigby admits that the classes aren’t the most lucrative venture for the pub. “We rent the function room out for a discounted rate and we don’t expect to make much money on food and drinks but we hope that the mothers will come back at other times,” he says.

Does he worry that by turning his pub into a glorified playgroup filled with crying babies and breastfeeding mothers he will lose his regular customers? “Definitely not. Lots of our punters have children so it can only be a good thing to be open minded,” he says. Indeed. A few weeks ago local parent Prince William was in this pub enjoying sausages and mash.

Besides, once the mothers have cleared off, the Coopers Arms looks just like it always does on a weekday lunchtime. A handful of locals are installed at the bar, a couple are ordering lunch at one of the tables, and as I push the buggy out into the street, a Chelsea Pensioner holds the door for me.

*For more information about toddler classes in pubs, see; and

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