Artillery Row

When England has lost its pubs it will no longer be England

The rural pub is becoming increasingly under threat, and with it, a key part of our national identity

To some observers, England is an increasingly lost and unhappy land, unsure even of its own identity. Within a very short time, the parts of the United Kingdom are increasingly being called “the Four Nations” (a term unheard before now), and there are definite signs of fracture, not least in the disappearance of what used to be a familiar sight throughout the land: the English pub. In many inner-city areas, for example, many wonderful, friendly old pubs are no more: that is partly due to drastic demographic changes, something that is never openly discussed, but elsewhere, other causes threaten the existence of what was often, especially in villages, a place as important to the life of the place as was the parish church.

Ye Olde Dick Whittington, Cloth Fair, London, photographed just before its demolition in 1916 (© London Metropolitan Archives/Collections/SC/GL/PHO/A/154/001/q333-353).

There is no question that the English pub was one of the country’s greatest glories; a place of warmth, friendliness, and social mix, in both country and town. Yet it is disappearing for various reasons at a frightening rate. Many old pubs were lost in the twentieth century: one such example was Ye Olde Dick Whittington, Cloth Fair, London, established in the fifteenth century, with a splendid nineteenth-century ground floor happily inserted within a medieval timber-framed structure in a way no Modernist could ever emulate: it was demolished in 1916, but thousands have been lost since then. Nowadays, a pub that does not serve food will have a hard time to survive, and, at the time of writing, when pubs are shut by law because of the pandemic, many will never open their doors again. But that is not the only factor inimical to the survival of the English “public house”.

Some individuals imagine they can run a pub, but only succeed in running it down

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) “expatiated on the felicity of England in its taverns and inns”. Sir John Hawkins (1719-89) reported that the great man stated firmly that a “tavern chair” was the “throne of human felicity”, and that as soon as he entered the door of a tavern he experienced an oblivion of care, for therein he could dogmatise, be contradicted, and in the conflict of opinion and sentiment find delight. That certainly was still true of the real English pub and its clientèle until comparatively recent times. John Earle (1598×1601-65—Bishop of Salisbury from 1663), made clear the distinction between an ale-house and a tavern. The latter was “a degree”, or even “a pair of stairs”, higher than an ale-house, “where men are drunk with more credit and apology … To give you the total reckoning of it, it is the busy man’s recreation, the idle man’s business, the melancholy man’s sanctuary, the stranger’s welcome, the inns-of-court man’s entertainment, the scholar’s kindness, and the citizen’s courtesy”.

There were threats to pubs in the past, of course. There were those of a puritanical disposition who disapproved of drink altogether on religious or moral grounds, or who simply had no sense of the kind of “clubbability” which connoisseurs of pubs sought. Some breweries, with fatuous notions of trendiness or appearing to be “with it”, employed Modernist designers to standardise their house-styles and minimalise the once cosy interiors of their pubs, converting them into antiseptic, characterless, cheerless places, reminiscent of hospital waiting-rooms or worse, and wholly unsuitable for what a pub is all about. One London brewery compounded this by ceasing manufacture of any traditional, real beers, substituting a nauseating, pale, fizzy chemical no self-respecting beer-drinker would care to, or ever would, imbibe.

The late, great Roderick Gradidge (1929-2000), an English architect who loved traditional pubs with their etched glass, mirrors, snugs, and all the things that make a town tavern agreeable, sagely observed that “Modernism never sold a pint of bitter”. In that remark Gradidge put his finger on the problem: the essentially joyless, puritanical, rigidly humourless essence of Modernism. Heretical voices such as Gradidge’s were raised on the architectural front, and many, despairing of the terrible swill being foisted on the public through tied houses of certain breweries, began to campaign for what was termed Real Ale. That movement grew to become a very successful pressure-group, called CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), founded in 1971, publishing guides to good pubs, where real ale could be found, and encouraging the conservation of architecturally outstanding exemplars. It was in the nick of time, but already much damage had been done.

Many pubs are owned by companies, some of which, known as “pubcos”, are run by bean-counters who have no feeling whatsoever for what makes a good pub or a bad one, in terms of its appearance (inside and out), atmosphere, or character, and are only concerned to make as much money out of it as possible. Often, such places have “managers” installed, who again may not be interested in the establishment in any personal way. A few breweries own chains of pubs, and so their “tied houses” are tenanted or managed, and many tenants are not sympathetically treated.

Typical country pub, small in scale, unpretentious, and inviting (photo credit: James Stevens Curl, 1977).

So-called “free houses”, unattached to breweries, and run by individuals, may be a pleasure to visit if the landlord is of the right temperament, knows what makes a pub welcoming, and has the skill to keep potable beer and the sense to provide edible food. Unfortunately, some individuals imagine they can run a pub, but only succeed in running it down.

CAMRA arrived in the nick of time, but already much damage had been done

I can recall a splendid establishment in a village in rural Hampshire years ago, where the landlord and his wife kept a good selection of real ales, served simple but wholesome food, had comfortable furnishings, and made their customers feel welcome: one could always meet someone there with whom one could have an agreeable conversation. When they decided to retire, the pub was taken over by a person with no notion of how to manage a proper village inn: fruit-machines and canned “musak” were installed; terrible ersatz “beer” replaced the real ales; cheap and nasty furniture replaced the old leather chairs (which were thrown out); junk-food replaced fodder that was sound and wholesome; and clueless, untrained halfwits were installed to put customers off with their surly, couldn’t-care-less attitudes. Within a week all regular customers, appalled by the smell of rancid fat, ungracious louts behind the bar, and lack of anything potable, abandoned the place, and very few people ever went there again: it did not last long, and is now closed. Unfortunately, too, the handsome building, an important element in the village, is rapidly deteriorating, and its dereliction means it is in danger.

Interior of a typical, small public bar in The Old House, Ightham Common, Kent (photo credit: Geoff Brandwood, 2015).

Country pubs nestling in the landscape (where alehouses had existed for centuries), with roaring wood fires, small rooms, low ceilings, and good ale within, were welcome ports of call for travellers: there were usually a couple of contented dogs basking in the warmth of the fires, and the stranger would find himself welcomed as he enquired what ale was available, and ordered a good pint, often enjoyed while conversing with total strangers, regulars at the bar.

The difficulties for many of those, often very small establishments, included more and more stringent drink-driving laws: they thereby could not survive selling drink alone. Interiors tended to be very simple and plain, with no pretensions, and so they tended to be undervalued, but it was that very lack of grandeur, lack of pretension, that made them agreeable.

Room in the Square & Compasses, Worth Maltravers, Dorset (photo credit: Geoff Brandwood, 2015)

The problems of providing dining facilties were many: there was usually no space, and considerable investment might be necessary to provide it, requiring not only capital, but great architectural sensitivity if the character of the place were not to be wrecked and the original building overwhelmed, or even ingested, by a massive extension. There were also difficulties in finding competent chefs and keeping them, and reliable staff to serve the customers.

All that, over-zealous hygiene police (requiring, for example, the insane rule to only serve cheese straight from the refrigerator, which any cheese-lover knows is hopeless, killing the flavour, yet that requirement was rigidly enforced by ignorant apparatchiks glorying in their powers to make the lives of landlords difficult), and escalating demands for business rates, rents, etc., increasingly threatened the survival of the rural pub, simply because it became more and more impossible to make a decent living.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) in 1912 warned the English: “change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them”. Once that disaster occurred, however, he recognised that something terrible would happen: “when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”.

It is happening.

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