Traditional pubs are under threat but Roy Hattersley, travelling the country, finds hopeby Roy Hattersley / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
In 1980 there were 69,000 pubs in Britain; by 2010, just 51,178
Long before he founded the Salvation Army, William Booth preached the gospel outside the Vine, a public house on the corner of Whitechapel Road, in east London. He also spoke in front of the Blind Beggar, another pub on what was then called the Mile End Waste. One day—when the passers-by were even more aloof than usual—he decided to go inside the Vine to take his message to its customers. He did not record the extent of his success, but for the rest of his life he remembered his first impression of Victorian London’s taprooms. They were, he explained, the only places in which the slum dwellers of the east end could find light, heat and comfort. For many people, therefore, the attraction of the 19th century urban public house was the simple fact that it was more congenial than home.
Increased prosperity, combined with competition from new forms of entertainment, has certainly contributed to the fall in the number of public houses. According to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), in 1980 there were 69,000 pubs in Britain. By 2000, the number had declined to 60,800 and by 2010, 51,178. But the reduction cannot be attributed solely to a change in tastes and higher levels of disposable income. The BBPA blames the beer tax. It has increased by 42 per cent in four years and is now 12 times as high as the duty paid in Germany.
Yet, over the same period, the rate of decline has decelerated. In 2009, pubs closed down at the rate of 52 a week. Now the weekly closure rate is a mere 12. One conclusion to draw from this is that in the early 2000s, the pubs that went out of business were already on the margin of viability. An alternative conclusion is that the more flexible parts of the industry have adjusted to the new world of complicated consumer choice.
Describing what is happening to the British pub is complicated by the difficulty of defining what it is. The BBPA does not even try; despite containing the word “pub” in its name, the association welcomes wine bars and bistros into its membership, meaning that the pub has never had a single or certain description. Country inns and the town pubs always differed in ambience, and often in amenities. Their clienteles were different and pubs tend to take on the character of their customers. Although prosperity, television, the internet and cheap air travel have smoothed out most fundamental differences between Britons, now a more discriminating nation wants to indulge its individuality in little ways. Drinkers have strong views about the character of their local, meaning that, to succeed, a pub has to fit into a niche.
There is a romantic illusion that “pubs”—never “public houses”—represent, or once represented, the spirit of Olde England. GK Chesterton did a great deal to perpetuate the myth with the claim that the Frenchman talks about liberty while the Englishman talks about beer. There was a time when men went to their “local” for companionship as well as alcohol. Perhaps some still do. But it is important not to be oversentimental about the changes in our national habits. In the glory days of the British pub, women stayed at home to cook the supper and made sure it was “on the table” when their husbands got home. For every country tavern with polished horse brasses and talk of harvest home there was a city “boozer” with neglected children waiting outside for their drunken father. The old order—especially the habit of drinking without eating at the same time—has changed for the better.
The Crispin, in the Peak District village that I call home, illustrates how this change can be managed. Like most landlords, Paul Rowlinson could not make a living by simply selling alcohol. He describes his turnover as “50 per cent wet; 50 per cent dry.” The dry half is set out in the pub’s menu and at lunchtime on weekdays, food attracts most of his customers. On a typical Thursday when I visited, the tables were all occupied. There was one lonely drinker at the bar. But it is not only food that makes the Crispin a success. Rowlinson is succeeding because he has made his pub part of the community. He gives over one of his rooms, free of charge, to all local events. His recent guests have included the mourners at a woodland burial, voluntary workers in a retirement home, and a protest group which has come together to protect country footpaths from motorcycle and 4×4 “off-roaders.”
Rowlinson knows what his customers want—and also what they do not. The Crispin has no television, no juke box and no slot machines. Its one concession to technology is wifi. (The discovery that one local inn had replaced its wooden chairs with sofas was greeted with horrified disbelief.) When the smoking ban was introduced Rowlinson erected a cross between a tent and an awning outside his front door, but after a few weeks he decided that “it looked shocking.” So, at his own expense he built a beer garden, complete with gazebo, at the side of the pub. The Crispin is a success because it meets the needs of its market.
Adaptation is the secret of survival, yet this is a solution to the industry’s contraction which, by their nature, the big chain pubs find difficult to embrace. For them, it is easier to promote fruitless petitions calling for a reduction in tax and to remind the country of the contribution that brewing and the sale of alcohol make to the economy. That is as pointless an occupation as hoping for a return of the kind of snug in which Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell, characters from Coronation Street, used to drink their glasses of stout. Licensed tranquillity is possible. But it has to be organised.
John Smith’s, the Tadcaster brewery, has also been successful in adapting its pubs. The Windsor Castle—a quarter of a mile from London’s Victoria station—was making a reasonable profit during the 70 years in which, due to its location in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral, it was called the Cardinal. But the brewery decided that the pub could perform better and decided that it should be “refurbished” and its original name, the Windsor Castle, reinstated. The return to the old name was consistent with a renovation which restored the glories of Victorian pub design in an explosion of plate glass and brass. According to the rumours at the bar, the work cost close to £6m.
Victorian chic has proved an irresistible attraction and together with Joanne Stephenson, its energetic landlady, it has enabled the pub to succeed. The Windsor Castle’s income from the sale of alcohol far outstrips its takings from the pies and sausages that are offered on the menu. Many of its customers are transient (on their way home) and they are generally the sort of people who smoke. There is no space for an “outdoor” smoking area and the bylaws prohibit the bar room spilling on to the pavement. Yet the Windsor Castle is full night after night because of its decor. The success of a pub is almost as much dependent on its furniture as on its beer.
The Kelham Island Inn in industrial Sheffield has a different appeal. It caters for serious beer drinkers. The Campaign for Real Ale voted it pub of the year twice in succession and the seriousness with which Trevor Wright, the owner and landlord, takes the genuine brew is illustrated by the open contempt in which he holds lager, a drink that he says “used to be drunk by ladies—with lime.” Lager makes up 75 per cent of all bar sales, but Wright, who spent 20 years as an engineer, offers only one, German, brand. The Kelham Island Inn is a free house, meaning that it is not owned by a parent company or brewery. So the big breweries would charge Wright anything up to a £100 a barrel less than they charge their own appropriately named “tied houses.” Despite this, Kelham prefers to buy from the specialists whose beers have romantic names: Brewers Gold, Barnsley Bitter and Bradfield Farmers Blonde. The secret of his success is catering for the beer connoisseur.
Dan Powell is landlord of the George Inn at Abbots Leigh in Bristol, and is also the head chef. That would, in itself, be unusual though by no means unique for a public house—if the George can be accurately described as a pub. Powell thinks of it as a restaurant with “public house aspects” and emphasises his determination to meet local needs and demands. There are, he says, 30 or 40 of his neighbours in the bar each night. But most of the diners are carriage trade. In the afternoon on which we spoke, he was cooking a “gourmet dinner” which consisted of eight courses including quail scotch eggs, curried scallops and veal sweetbread, rack of lamb, and sheep’s cheese. There were two wines with each course. When Powell took over 18 months ago, he “completely redecorated the rather dilapidated building.” In the licensed trade, even at the top of the market, appearance matters.
But for real success, it has to be explicitly designed to meet the taste of the chosen, or available, clientele. There exist property companies that rent out licensed premises in the detached way that office and apartment blocks are leased, and companies like this can make money from pubs that take the scatter-gun approach to their customers. Their franchises may not provide what their casual callers would choose, but the organisations are big and prosperous enough to ride out the disappointment. They can also transcend the social and economic burdens that are heaped on public houses, such as: the growing expectations about service; the increased resentment at rising prices; the alternative ways of spending a comparatively inexpensive night out; and young drinkers who “load up” before they arrive with cheap wine or cut-price canned lager bought at the supermarket.
For more independent pubs to succeed, to survive even, they have to specialise. As long as they meet the needs of a clearly identified clientele, they will not join the ranks of the 12 weekly casualties. They will also provide a service that is infinitely superior to anything that the pub chains can offer.
In a way, my habits illustrate the need for pubs to tailor-make their product. Beer was never my favourite drink. But I enjoy a pint in the right circumstances. I cannot remember when I was last in a city pub. But I occasionally walk across the village green to the Crispin. I go there for haddock and chips. But it is always local bitter that washes it down. Out walking—if it a summer’s day and my dog and I can drink outside—I call in pubs that we pass when I am thirsty. But I feel no social or psychological compulsion to hold a tankard in my hand.