What could be more comforting than the thought of a traditional British pub, log fire in the hearth, well-kept hand-pulled real ale, a cheery landlord greeting you with a smile and a word, plenty of comfortable and well-worn chairs to rest in, maybe a game of dominoes or skittles, or even a quiz night if you’re lucky. Bliss!
The point about traditional British pubs is that, contrary to what most catering chains believe, their character cannot be painted on by the yard. True pubs have a unique and often highly eccentric ambience built up over a long period, decor that has acquired texture over the decades, all of which help to create a comfortable atmosphere i which people can relax with company. Many are themed with unique memorabilia relevant to the local area or some other topic. Pub buildings are often old and beautiful, situated in glorious locations. One that springs to mind is the Yew Tree at Cauldon, Staffs – described in the Good Pub Guide thus:
This uniquely idiosyncratic place is not exactly what you’d call spic and span (far from it) and in the past has been affectionately described as a junk shop with a bar, but most readers love its unusual charm and for many it’s an institution. Over the years, the characterful landlord has amassed a museum’s worth of curiosities. The most impressive pieces are perhaps the working polyphons and symphonions – 19th-c developments of the musical box, often taller than a person, each with quite a repertoire of tunes and elaborate sound-effects. But there are also two pairs of Queen Victoria’s stockings, ancient guns and pistols, several penny-farthings, an old sit-and-stride boneshaker, a rocking horse, swordfish blades, a little 800 bc greek vase, and even a fine marquetry cabinet crammed with notable early staffordshire pottery. Soggily sprung sofas mingle with 18th-c settles, plenty of little wooden tables and a four-person oak church choir seat with carved heads which came from St Mary’s church in Stafford; above the bar is an odd iron dog-carrier. As well as all this, there’s a choir of fine tuneful longcase clocks in the gallery just above the entrance, a collection of six pianolas (one of which is played most nights) with an excellent repertoire of piano rolls, a working vintage valve radio set, a crank-handle telephone, a sinuous medieval wind instrument made of leather, and a Jacobean four-poster which was once owned by Josiah Wedgwood and still has his original wig hook on the headboard. Clearly, it would be almost an overwhelming task to keep all this sprucely clean. The drinks here are very reasonably priced so no wonder it’s popular with locals. You’ll find well kept Bass, Burton Bridge and Rudgate Ruby Mild on handpump or tapped from the cask, along with about a dozen interesting malt whiskies; piped music (probably Radio 2), darts, shove-ha’penny, table skittles, dominoes and cribbage. When you arrive, don’t be put off by the plain exterior, or the fact that the pub is tucked unpromisingly between enormous cement works and quarries and almost hidden by a towering yew tree.
Fitting out a pub from scratch is simply not the same, not helped by methods employed in some. I once had a meal with my family in a pub equipped with bookcases and a wide range of old books. Great, I hear you say. Except further examination revealed that the bookcases were in fact very narrow and the books had been sawn off to fit in. Compare that to the Thomas Lord in Hampshire, which not only has bookcases filled with old books for you to read during your stay, but also sells them in aid of the local church – and has a wonderful cricketing theme.
Pub names, from the sublime to the ridiculous, are often derived from folklore and cultural traditions, many going back centuries, and pub signs are an art form in themselves. This is a unique institution. In short, pubs are a true treasure of Britain.
Alas, our traditional pubs are closing at an alarming rate. Breweries always latch on to something to explain away their loss of business – the ban of smoking in public was one, the cheap booze flogged by supermarkets another, but in many ways they should look to themselves. For the most part, the response of big chain pub owners to changing public tastes has been to offer generally cheap mass-produced pub meals (excepting the niche gastropubs) and install TVs so people can watch football.
The closure rate has been exacerbated by the fact that tied tenants are restricted in the beers they can sell and the activities they undertake, and are being squeezed financially because the breweries extract the bulk of profits. Many landlords make next to no money on drinks and need to make food pay in order to survive. If consumers are feeling the pinch and visit the pub less often, small wonder more and more pubs get closed down.
There are of course ‘free houses‘ for landlords that can afford to own and run their own licensed premises, and some make a good living with the right pub in the right place – particularly if you can get into the Good Pub Guide or similar. In some cases, they will attract regulars, passing trade and people driving from many miles because a pub has an excellent reputation. Even so, to make a pub pay you have to work very hard and may not always succeed even then.
Even in hard times, people will still come to places with atmosphere. But we should not take the humble pub for granted. As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Support your local pub!
PS. I don’t really have a local I frequent with any regularity, though here are a few more I have been to, some local:
Plough & Flail, Mobberley (did used to go there a lot when I lived in Cheshire!)
So many more, so little time 😉
PPS. See also this blog about pubs and the Chequers in particular.