Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Drinking in the atmosphere

One of the best things CAMRA has ever done is to produce the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which lists just under 300 pubs across the country which have interiors that are still largely as built, or as remodelled in the past. It is disappointing that less than 1% of all the pubs remaining in Britain fall into this category. Visiting one these pubs is always something special, and it is good to see a place with such a sense of history still functioning as a modern business, as opposed to being preserved in aspic by the National Trust.

While it is perfectly possible to have a dismal pub operation in a superb building – and I have come across one or two that left me somewhat underwhelmed – in general the unspoilt historic interiors add to the atmosphere and produce a memorable pubgoing experience.

Over and above these, around the country there are still maybe a few thousand pubs that, while changed over the years, still present very much a traditional layout and atmosphere. A few examples from my local area would be the Thatched Tavern in Reddish, the Griffin in Heaton Mersey, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. Many years ago Peter Barnes produced a guide to “Vintage Inns of Greater Manchester” which listed a few hundred pubs that still fell into this category. Some of course have since been closed and gutted, but many are still very much in business.

Some may dismiss this as having an affection for old-fashioned, “dumpy” pubs that have no place in the modern world except as museum pieces, but in reality pubs were designed like this because they worked, and still often provide a far better pubgoing experience than their more modern counterparts.

Until relatively recently, when new pubs were built they still generally conformed to the established norms of layout. For example, Holts’ Sidings in Levenshulme is still recognisably a “proper” pub in the traditional mould. However, over the past couple of decades an entirely new design vocabulary has evolved for pubs and bars that throws all the traditional design concepts out of the window. The key features of this are:
  • Very long bar counters dominating the space in which they are installed
  • Wide circulatory spaces around the bar
  • An interior comprising a sequence of free-form interconnecting areas rather than defined “rooms”
  • Free-standing chairs and tables rather than fixed seating
  • High ceilings
  • A deliberate avoidance of warm textures and colours
While the success of their business model cannot be denied, Wetherspoons must be the single biggest offender in this regard. I counted up that I had been in 31 of their pubs, and without exception they are soulless, impersonal drinking barns largely devoid of pub “feel”. In my view this is a conscious policy to make their establishments look as little as possible like old-style pubs. They have often been praised for their sensitive conversions of impressive buildings, but in general it’s still just the standard Spoons layout and ambiance and doesn’t really gel with the surroundings. If you put a works canteen on the floor of a cathedral, it’s still a works canteen.

This new design language removes any feeling of cosiness or intimacy and produces an atmosphere more akin to an airport lounge than a conventional pub. Unlike a shop, a pub is somewhere where, as well as buying goods, you are in effect buying time in a particular environment. No matter how good the food and drink on offer, if you don’t feel “at home” you’re not really going to enjoy yourself. And give me a keg Sam Smith’s pub with bench seating and geezers standing at the bar any day over drinking some beer that tastes of tropical fruit while perched on a stool in somewhere resembling the interior of a power station.

(The photo of the lounge in the Nursery, Heaton Norris is taken from the National Inventory website)

19 comments:

HardKnott Dave said...

I'm not sure why this one is in. I've never been in it but apparently there is no reason to go in. They don't even serve "real ale", so I'm told.

HardKnott Dave said...

Oh, and another thing, why isn't The Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale in the database?

Curmudgeon said...

The NI is purely concerned with the physical interiors of pubs - there's no requirement to serve real ale, and indeed hardly any of the ones in Northern Ireland will do so.

Anonymous said...

To be historically accurate to the minute detail, would they not be required to put elegantly styled glass ashtrays on each of the tables and at the bar, even if forbidden for usage as their original intent?

Paul said...

I've been to a quarter of the pubs that serve real ale in Northern Ireland and most of them are either expensive, Wetherspoons type places (and rough as hell), or resting on their laurels with indifferent customer service or even with members of staff who abruptly tell you that "we think that beer is rubbish - we drink Guinness here".

Local real ale in Northern Ireland is in its infancy - that said, some of the brews from Whitewater and Hilden can be very good. I'd recommend the stouts - it's what people in Northern Ireland generally drink when it isn't Harp lager.

Usually, the Northern Irish idea of a real ale festival is shipping in beer from England (with a few local brews) and charging £3.50 a pint after a heavy entry fee.

Having said that, the food is frequently excellent in NI so it's well worth going over just for that and there's tons to do.

The Crown Bar is the sort of place I'd recommend for one pint but not to stay and the beer is often changeable.

Curmudgeon said...

When I visited NI I went in the Crown and would agree with you - it's rather magnificent and well worth seeing, but you don't really feel you want to linger. Robinson's next door, although it had no real ale, to my mind had a better atmosphere.

I also, unbeknownst to me at the time, went in this National Inventory pub in Bushmills village. I thought "nice quaint little pub". But I had some Irish Bass that was poor even for keg beer :-(

In NI I found it very difficult to find the kind of decent lunchtime pub grub that you take for granted over here.

Birkonian said...

I loathe the tendency for long bars. I was brought up to expect that I'd be served roughly in turn but pick the wrong spot in Wetherspoon-type pubs and you can wait all night for service.

Yes, The Old Dungeon Ghyll is wonderful.

Tandleman said...

Good article Mudgie. I agree almost entirely with what you say. I love a decent old boozer, heritage or not and having been in a few of the heritage ones, they, like a decent local boozer, tend to be great places to be in and that counts for a lot.

Leigh said...

agreed - although its a shame many of them no longer serve decent beer. Some wonderful, wonderful places to drink in there.

Mark said...

I agree that the atmosphere in a pub is important, and that Wetherspoons are generally crap, but I think that's more about not caring and trying to do it on the cheap rather than a new design vocabulary. Also about just being too big, in most cases.

The large amount of standing space around the bar is sensible in a pub that gets a huge amount of customers, as a lot of town centre pubs do. They're not really my kind of pub, but that's another matter. It's also hardly a new thing, there are national inventory pubs with it.

I like fixed seating, but I think that's a complete red herring. There are lots of proper traditional pubs, even some very historic ones, with no fixed seating. There are also Wetherspoons that do have fixed seating.

Curmudgeon said...

Fixed seating, or bench-type seating, isn't the be-all and end-all, but it is a significant element of the "mix" of a traditional pub. There may be some NI pubs without it, but it certainly features in all the seven NI pubs in Cheshire and the five in Stockport.

Phil said...

I'm not surprised you used a library photo of the Nursery - I've been there twice and got lost both times. Great pub, though - lucky locals.

Agreed about Spoons interiors. I spent a lot of my drinking time in JDW's during their recent beer festival, and it was a joy to get back to drinking in a pub.

Curmudgeon said...

The Nursery is my local pub. I have a picture of the outside, but not of the inside.

Don't get me wrong - I do use Spoons pubs, especially when away on holiday. You'll get a decent pint at a low price and tolerable food. But with few exceptions, they just don't feel like pubs to me.

Paul said...

I've been to a quarter of the pubs that serve real ale in Northern Ireland and most of them are either expensive, Wetherspoons type places (and rough as hell), or resting on their laurels with indifferent customer service or even with members of staff who abruptly tell you that "we think that beer is rubbish - we drink Guinness here".

Local real ale in Northern Ireland is in its infancy - that said, some of the brews from Whitewater and Hilden can be very good. I'd recommend the stouts - it's what people in Northern Ireland generally drink when it isn't Harp lager.

Usually, the Northern Irish idea of a real ale festival is shipping in beer from England (with a few local brews) and charging £3.50 a pint after a heavy entry fee.

Having said that, the food is frequently excellent in NI so it's well worth going over just for that and there's tons to do.

The Crown Bar is the sort of place I'd recommend for one pint but not to stay and the beer is often changeable.

Curmudgeon said...

When I visited NI I went in the Crown and would agree with you - it's rather magnificent and well worth seeing, but you don't really feel you want to linger. Robinson's next door, although it had no real ale, to my mind had a better atmosphere.

I also, unbeknownst to me at the time, went in this National Inventory pub in Bushmills village. I thought "nice quaint little pub". But I had some Irish Bass that was poor even for keg beer :-(

In NI I found it very difficult to find the kind of decent lunchtime pub grub that you take for granted over here.

RedNev said...

My local, the Guest House in Southport, is an Edwardian pub with a largely unaltered interior; it retains several rooms, one with wood panels, and all with seating around the walls. It also serves upto 11 real ales.

It's quite possible that a pub that you think should be in the National Inventory isn't there simply because no one has nominated it, and I've been wondering if my local would qualify; I suppose I should begin by finding out whether it's ever been nominated before.

I do agree, CM, that the traditional design of pubs came about because it worked, so it's not just nostalgia that makes them so attractive to us.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, I've been in the Guest House and would certainly agree that it's "my sort of pub". I get the impression that sometimes the compilers of the National Inventory apply extremely high standards so many pubs that do have a wholly traditional feel don't get on as they have been architecturally compromised over the years, even if it isn't entirely obvious.

CAMRA are now doing a series of regional guides to heritage pubs which include these "second division" pubs as well as the ones on the NI.

Some NI entries have only been recently unearthed because they have been keg for years and thus off the radar of local CAMRA activists - I believe the Shakespeare in Farnworth near Bolton comes into this category.

Tandleman said...

Good article Mudgie. I agree almost entirely with what you say. I love a decent old boozer, heritage or not and having been in a few of the heritage ones, they, like a decent local boozer, tend to be great places to be in and that counts for a lot.

Leigh said...

Agreed - although its a shame many of them no longer serve decent beer. Some wonderful, wonderful places to drink in there.