While up to 40 boozers are closing every week, some doughty Britishers have rediscovered the secret of running a great bar. Kate Burt seeks them out.
One of my favourite pubs in south London is pretty unremarkable. It’s what hasn’t happened to it that makes it special. This quiet Victorian corner boozer has had nothing ripped out and no fancy gastro food shipped in. You can buy pork scratchings at the bar, your dog is welcome and, instead of a hipster DJ, there’s an eclectic jukebox playing deeply uncool music (the Beach Boys, Abba, Glenn Miller and a techno remix of Queen’s theme to Flash Gordon). The décor is nothing special – dark heavy curtains, velvet banquettes, period mouldings, lots of etched mirrors – but it’s comfortable.
What makes it so loveable? Quite simply, the people. On one visit, I was lucky enough to meet the Dancing Raconteur, an immaculately turned-out old Jamaican guy in a trilby, who revealed his salacious life story via the medium of song and dance.
The great British pub is in danger, along with the characters it attracts. At least 26 close each month, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), for demolition or conversion (it’s more like 39 a week, according to the British Beer & Pub Association). And those pubs left behind are changing beyond recognition; stripped of soul and memorable landlords, and filled instead with repro antiques, staff who don’t know your ‘usual’ or too-loud music, leaving the nation increasingly bereft of characterful boozers. And why should we care?
There’s a reason Samuel Pepys described the pub as ‘the heart of England’: these places are the cornerstone of British culture, they bind communities together and they are a vital part of our national heritage – from the Tabard Inn immortalised in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Corrie’s Rover’s Return, without which the soap would surely have few plots. All of which is why many people out there are doing their best to preserve our pubs.
‘The slide began in the Eighties and Nineties,’ explains Camra’s Nik Antona, ‘when big pub companies took over from many of the breweries.’ Whereas the breweries were happy as long as they were making a reasonable profit – because it was in their interest that the pubs succeeded – the companies had a different agenda: ‘They effectively became property businesses,’ says Antona, ‘focused on making returns on their investments.’ Result? Up went rents and the cost of booze – which tenants are obliged to buy from these companies. Things were compounded during the Noughties’ property boom, as the real estate value of pubs rocketed. ‘Especially’, Antona points out, ‘the ones in desirable villages with
a big car park because, to a property developer, that’s five or six houses’. One such property is The Unicorn pub in the village of Cublington in north Buckinghamshire. The village is attractive, and close to a fast London train service. The pub, built in the 17th century, is very attractive indeed. But by the late Nineties, it was a dog-eared, down-at-heel place with a dwindling bank of regulars.
It became yet another property on an estate agent’s list. But the buyers who came along had no plans to turn it into an executive des res of the kind that proliferate in this part of the Home Counties. Instead, they turned it into – a pub. A better pub. Three wealthy locals decided that if the pub went, the village (no shops and one functioning church) would lose half its soul. So they clubbed together and bought the place.
It’s now owned outright by Steve George, one of the three. He has sunk £500,000 of his own money into refurbishing and running the place. There are quiz nights, a very popular French food month and, of course, a busy kitchen. But the essential point of it hasn’t changed: to stand at the bar with a pint and chat to your neighbours, after a day organising a £50 million takeover bid or bringing in the winter feed, after playgroup or a fête-organising committee meeting, after christenings, marriages and funerals. The village soul is intact because it has a place it can go to thrive.
And the beer is good. Antona believes, that those who were able to afford to buy freehold pubs and which sell real ale, such as The Unicorn, are now thriving. ‘They are offering a product, unlike lager, that you can’t get in the supermarket – it’s not the same in bottles. It’s a strong USP to draw people in.’
So real ale is a winner. What else is keeping our last remaining characterful pubs afloat? A charismatic landlord or landlady goes a long way. ‘You need personality,’ says Antona, ‘someone who makes you feel welcome, understands the community and wants to become part of it – someone who makes you want to put your hands in your pocket.’
Andrew Kenyon and Susan Walker, who run The New Inn in Roberttown, West Yorkshire, seem to have that knack. They rescued the ailing pub in October last year and now sell 1,000 pints of ale a week, and are packed, even on quiet nights. ‘People say the place never felt very friendly before,’ explains Susan Walker. ‘I don’t think there’s a secret to our success here, beyond the fact that we like talking to people. It’s a village pub and there’s a strong sense of community – we didn’t want to alienate anyone. The atmosphere we’ve created seems to work: it’s nothing fancy, just somewhere comfortable where people can come and have a good conversation. We keep it simple.’
In Brighton, meanwhile, The World’s End pub on London Road looks every bit the trad boozer – wooden beams, tankards hanging from the bar. Yet, despite being in a swishy part of the country, it has survived. There’s a quiet area, sectioned off by a beaded curtain, old-school pool table, as well as quiz and open-mic nights. Richard Hilton took over five years ago. ‘For me, a pub is the pulse of the community,’ he says.
Hilton looked at the local demographic and decided to keep the significant student population happy. ‘Students like not spending too much, playing pool and live music,’ he says, ‘so we gave them that.’ But cleverly this doesn’t alienate the rest of the locals. ‘It warms me greatly that the local church group come in on a Sunday,’ says Hilton. ‘I even sponsor their football team.’
The weekly quiz night is another draw: ‘It attracts people who don’t usually go to pubs – which is brilliant.’ The food hits the mark, too: ‘The idea is that it’s good food but not the sort of meal you need to wear a suit and tie to eat. We’re not trying to be a gastro pub,’ he says proudly.
And the ultimate endorsement? ‘I know the names of 60 per cent of my trade,’ says Hilton. ‘That’s got to be a sign that we’re doing something right.’
‘The pubs that are surviving are the ones remaining true to what a great pub should be – the ones full of character, life, spirit and hope,’ says Paul Moody, who is co-writing a book called The Search For The Perfect Pub: Looking For The Moon Under Water (published by Orion in November), based on George Orwell’s idea of the perfect pub, The Moon Under Water, and his belief that atmosphere is everything (see box, right). ‘It’s about the feeling you get when you walk through the door,’ says Moody.
There’s a pub near Stoke called The Yew Tree which the landlord of 50 years, Alan, has decked out in Victorian ephemera, ranging from a penny-farthing to one of Queen Victoria’s old stockings. The till is pre-decimal.
At The Montague in New Cross, London, you can turn up one night and see a band, watch crazy art performances with people dressed up like the Witchfinder General, or take part in the ‘Unwrong Quiz’ (where there are no right or wrong answers), all in a pub where there’s a lifesize zebra inside a horse-drawn carriage and the landlord and landlady are in their 80s. Nothing has changed since they took over in 1978.
Great pubs are magical. They’re some of our best cultural assets. They should be treasured and cherished. Pubs like these are good for communities, good for tourism, good for the soul, and we must celebrate – and support – them to keep them alive.
So what are you waiting for? Get in quick, before they ring that comfortingly familiar bell for last orders forever…