Monday, 30 May 2011

Flattering to deceive

A commenter suggested that I should do a post of “worst pub awards” where you come across an attractive traditional building, but on venturing over the threshold find an appalling, knocked-through, chrome-and-glass monstrosity. It’s certainly happened to me, but I can’t think of any in the local area that are quite that bad. Very often, if they haven’t closed down, they have ended up being remodelled in a slightly more conventional style.

However, I will mention two that I have experienced in recent years. The first was a pub in a Cheshire market town which had gained a reputation for its cask ales and I vaguely remembered having appeared in the Good Beer Guide. The “modern” signage outside gave a clue that all wasn’t well, and inside it was all chrome bar stools and low, glass-topped tables. Needless to say, we took our business elsewhere. The second was a handsome, four-square, stone-built hotel on the main street of a small Scottish town, which inside had been thoroughly knocked through and done over in a self-consciously modern style. I think apart from me there was one middle-aged boozer sitting at the bar.

Edit: I recall being very struck by this phenomenon on visiting the Bear in Oxshott, Surrey, in the early 1980s. I also recall the beer being unusually expensive even for that expensive area.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Spreading the pain

Recent reports suggest that the Scottish government are considering implementing a 45p per unit “floor price” for alcohol by using the alcohol duty system rather than simply imposing minimum prices. This may be because they have looked into the legal implications of minimum pricing and concluded that it would probably be ruled illegal as a form of price fixing. On the other hand, governments are free to set whatever levels of alcohol duty they like.

But, of course, an across-the-board duty increase would hit the on-trade just as much as off-sales, and could well end up driving customers away from pubs and bars. It certainly wouldn’t be the panacea to level the playing field as some na├»ve on-trade advocates have fondly imagined. And having alcohol duties twice as high on one side of a land border as on the other would obviously be a huge invitation to both legal cross-border trade and smuggling.

Part of me says “bring it on – it would be great to see the Righteous with egg on their faces!” but the more realistic side fears it would just be a precursor to similar measures south of the border.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Couldn’t give a XXXX for freedom

We’re all used to the image of Australians as rugged, rough-hewn individualists, always eager to cock a snook at authority. However, Australia is now one of the most urbanised major nations on Earth and, as Chris Snowdon points out here, it is fast becoming the world’s leading Nanny State.

The Taskforce also wants to ban drinks advertising during programmes that are watched by people under 25 – a category so broad as to include virtually every programme – and calls for graphic warnings similar to those now found on cigarette packs to be put on bottles of beer. It also wants the government to establish ‘appropriate portion sizes’ for meals, to tax food that is deemed unhealthy and to hand out cash bonuses to those who meet the state’s criteria of a healthy lifestyle…

…Australia has a unenviable record of internet censorship, for example, and a national website filter has been proposed to protect children from pornography and gambling. It also has a longer list of banned video games than any other Western democracy. And so if you, as an Australian adult, want to exercise your right to gamble and play violent video games, that’s just too bad. The rights of some hypothetical teenager to enjoy freedom from grown-up pursuits trump your own rights to pursue them.
The problem with Australia, as someone once told me, is not that they sent shiploads of convicts out there, but that they sent the warders too, and it is that mentality that now seems to be in the ascendant.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Knocking out the trade

Some slightly worrying comments here from Chris Tulloch, managing director of pub operator Weston Castle who specialise in breathing a new lease of life into failing low-end pubs belonging to Thwaites and Mitchells.

“We always have only one bar, it may serve to more than one area or more than one room. The bar, in our opinion, is the real heart of the community pub and it’s the most important thing in every refurbishment we do.

“Secondly, we take away pokey rooms, corridors and blind spots. This ensures that the bar is the centrepiece of a relatively open-plan venue and everything can be seen from the bar.”

Tulloch added that machine locations are very important too and Weston redesigns the entire layout so that it is able to continue to receive 20% of its profits from machines. There are also pool tables, jukeboxes, darts, bingo, live music and karaoke themed nights.
Well, I suppose anything that improves the trade of pubs has to be welcomed, but knocking them through and turning them into brash, standardised bars may not prove a good idea in the long term when customers value character and distinctiveness. Personally I actively seek out pubs with pokey rooms, corridors and blind spots.

What he is describing sounds very much like the typical failed pub model of the past forty years. There’s no mention of improving the drink and food offer, nor indeed of ensuring that there are decent smoking facilities. And, by definition, you can’t see outside areas from the bar.

Ask a silly question...

Alcohol Concern currently have a poll on their website asking the opinions of under-18s on alcohol advertising. Given their previous impeccable reputation for impartiality, I’m sure everything will be entirely fair and above board and none of the questions will be loaded to the slightest degree. I mean, it’s not as if they’re pushing a particular agenda, is it?

Obviously if you’re 18 or over you can’t respond, as it does ask for your age, but if you have any children or young relatives in the right age group perhaps you could encourage them to make their voices heard.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Counting the Spoons

The most recent poll asked people how many different Wetherspoon pubs they had visited. I was really just asking this out of curiosity after I recently counted up that I had visited 31, rather than trying to make any particular point. There were 99 responses, broken down as follows:

None: 13 (13%)
1-5: 31 (31%)
6-10: 25 (25%)
11-20: 12 (12%)
21-30: 4 (4%)
31-50: 8 (8%)
Over 50: 6 (6%)

It is perhaps somewhat surprising that anyone who currently ever visits pubs in the UK has not been to at least one, but there you go.

Although I have visited many Spoons around the country, including three in Scotland and two in Northern Ireland, I haven’t visited quite a few in my local area, as since they’re much of a muchness there’s little point in going out of your way if another is more convenient.

I have been critical of the lack of atmosphere in Spoons’ pubs, but, on the other hand, if you’re in an unfamiliar town they are somewhere you can rely on for reasonable food and a range of cask beers that are likely to be in decent nick. Few town centre pubs serve food in the evenings or on Sundays, and realistically you are often comparing Spoons with Pizza Express and the Bengal Palace rather than other pubs. Taunton in particular was a town singularly devoid of decent pubs to offer Spoons any worthwhile competition.

This chap has been to pretty much all of them.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Staggering around Shaw Heath

There’s more of my deathless prose in the May edition of Opening Times – see Page 7 for my write-up of the Shaw Heath and Higher Hillgate Stagger. Sadly the licensee of the Plough passed away between doing the crawl and the publication date. In hindsight, I probably should have mentioned the fake but appealing coal fire in his pub.

The piece on the closure of the Woodman in Hazel Grove by Mike Wilson on Page 9 is also well worth reading, making the point that even if a pub seems “no great loss” now it may well have seen better days in the past, and it marks the disappearance of another part of our heritage and traditions:
The Woodman was the sort of pub you could easily wander into on your own, order a truly excellent pint and then chat to the locals. As corny as it sounds, there was often some extemporore singing in the snug, aided and abetted by Bertha and Jenny who sat conveniently close to the snug's serving hatch, thus ensuring a ready supply of free drinks as new customers arrived. At one point an argument broke out between Bertha and Jenny and they were never reconciled to my knowledge, with the result that Jenny then took residence in the other front room - but this wasn't nearly as effective for her supply of free drinks, no longer being visible from the main bar.

Are our children safe?

The Daily Mail reports with characteristic relish that a group of primary school teachers “disgraced themselves” by enjoying a night out and posting the pictures on Facebook. Now, as far as I can see, they did nothing worse than any typical group of young women would, and their chief transgression was not setting their profiles to “private”. Amongst the deadly sins they committed were “smoking” and “drinking cocktails”. How can anyone be happy to entrust their children to the care of such a bunch of debauched trollops? Perhaps next time they should consider having themselves pictured at a knitting circle or a feminist book reading group.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Dust and ashes

Here’s a picture of the now-closed Ash Hotel in Heaton Norris, Stockport, scene of the last night smoke-in described here. It’s a rather magnificent redbrick Edwardian building in the Jacobean style. I hadn’t really appreciated before taking this photo how impressive the side elevation was as well. At one time it had its own bowling green at the side, later used as a beer garden.

By the time I first visited, it had been extensively altered inside, but it still retained a possibly unique free-standing hexagonal handpump stand in the space between the lounge and vault bar counters, and a “Cocktail Bar” in the left-hand lounge which was typical of 1960s attempts to make pubs appear more sophisticated. It later received a further nondescript refurbishment which involved reducing the public area and taking the large rear vault out of use. Now it will never trade as a pub again – reports say it is to be used as a bakery.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Poppy choppers

The debate over whether CAMRA should support non-real craft beers continues to rumble on, as Tandleman puts it. In the latest issue of CAMRA’s quarterly “glossy” magazine BEER, there is a “for and against” opinion piece, with Tim Webb putting the case for, and Tandleman himself arguing against, although certainly not saying there is no merit in any non-real craft beers.

Now, as you’ll have gathered, I am no cask exclusivist, but on this issue I am inclined to agree with Tandleman, primarily because embracing non-real beers opens up a can of worms. CAMRA does what it says on the tin – it campaigns for real ale, something that has a clear and objective definition. It is not my view that means it should campaign against other beer styles (and founder member Michael Hardman agrees), or regard “real ale” as encompassing the vast majority of what is good in the beer world, although sadly there are still some in the organisation who see things that way.

However, once you start supporting craft beer as such, whether real or non-real, you have to make subjective judgments as to what qualifies. If Tim Taylors, a respected, long-established small family brewer, started making a non-nitro keg version of Landlord, would that be craft? Or Black Sheep, a very successful new brewery (no longer really a micro), albeit one whose cask beers are often thought a little dull? And, if not, why not? How are those beers different in kind from keg Jaipur IPA? And, if keg Landlord, why not keg 6X, or keg Pedigree?

Since the inception of CAMRA, there has always been a strand of opinion that anything widely available and produced on a large scale was inherently dull, and should be shunned in favour of the obscure, extreme and niche. At first this involved dismissing any cask beers produced by the erstwhile Big Six national brewers, then anything brewed by the major regionals like Greene King and Marston’s, then pretty much anything from any established family brewer, then even the products of successful micro-brewers that have expanded into mainstream pubs like Black Sheep and Butcombe. You meet some members nowadays who dismiss out of hand the entire output of brewers such as Shepherd Neame, Wadworth’s and Robinson’s who in the early days were the absolute acme of what the campaign was all about.

By and large, this kind of exclusivity has been rejected, but the advent of “craft beer” enables the issue of sorting breweries into sheep and goats to be opened up again. The embrace of “craft beer” would allow the righteous brewers operating at the cutting edge to be exalted, and those who have committed the deadly sin of achieving mainstream success amongst non-enthusiasts to be cut down as tall poppies.

As an aside, I have yet to encounter any “craft keg” outside of specialist beer pubs. Is this all really something of a storm in a nip glass?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Clouds on the horizon

“Anti-drink lobby? What anti-drink lobby?” someone wondered. “As far as I can see, the quality and variety of drink available is better than ever before, we have the most liberal licensing hours for a hundred years, and I don’t see any actual restrictions on me being able to have a drink.”

In a way you can understand why someone would hold that view, but it does reflect a narrow, blinkered perception and an unawareness of how the plates are shifting in the wider world.

There are already some official legal or quasi-legal measures, of course. We now have the highest levels of alcohol duty in Western Europe, with the prospect of it continuing to increase above inflation for the next four years. From October, we will have a 25% surtax on stronger beers. Most bottles and cans now carry exaggerated “safe drinking” information. The growing adoption of “Challenge 25”, while not actually stopping anyone doing anything legal, provides a major disincentive to young people buying alcohol when they are fingered as suspects every time they try to do so.

You would also have to live a very sheltered life to be unaware of the increasingly negative stance on even moderate drinking taken in both government publicity and media reporting, which has led to a noticeable shift in public attitudes. People in the public eye, from showbiz stars to business leaders, will more and more make a point of saying they never touch a drop.

One of the main areas in which this has happened is drinking at work. When I started full-time work in the early 80s, it was commonplace to go to the pub at lunchtime at least one day a week, sometimes more, and most of those going, apart from confirmed non-drinkers, would have a couple of drinks. Now, it only happens on rare special occasions, and most present will be on soft drinks. Many employers, far more than in 1981, now impose a total ban on drinking during the working day.

Now it could be argued that this is a good thing, leading to fewer long liquid lunches and snoozing, unproductive workers, but that illustrates a key point about many anti-drink measures, that, taken in isolation, they may not seem that unreasonable, but their cumulative effect is to steadily curtail the opportunities for drinking and adversely affect public perceptions. And the fact that, over thirty years, we have lost a third of the pubs in Britain, and on-trade beer consumption is down by three-fifths, demonstrates clearly how that shift has already affected people’s real-world behaviour.

Realistically, there has been little significant movement in the legal restrictions on drinking. But, in a sense, the ground has been prepared for the coming onslaught, with the constant drip-drip of stories placing alcohol in a negative light and the growing currency of the idea that no quantity of alcohol can be regarded as entirely safe. We are perhaps in the position that tobacco was in twenty-five years ago.

And what are we likely to get in future – continued above-average duty rises, tiered beer duty, minimum pricing, graphic health warnings on bottles and cans, separate drink tills in shops, quantitative restrictions on on- and off-licences, advertising restrictions or bans, curbs on point-of-sale displays, compulsory reductions in the strength of drinks – all of which have been discussed on here at some point over the past four years?

It’s not for me to say to exactly what will happen, or when, but sadly I believe there’s every chance that in the coming years much of this will be brought in. It won’t be Prohibition as such, or anything close to it, and if you still want a drink you will be able to get one (at a price), but the social acceptability of drinking will be much reduced and, in the process, it will more and more retreat from pubs and bars into private spaces. Hmm, that sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? It’s ultimately not so much about the law as about how public perceptions change.

In twenty years’ time, might the regular drinker be regarded in much the same way as the known regular cannabis smoker is today, as someone who is tolerated, but is looked on with a kind of weary resignation and the implication that they really need to smarten up and get with the programme rather than wasting their life away in a daze?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Forever changes

Recently, another blogger, who shall remain nameless, berated me (indirectly) for having a “fear of change” and displaying a negative attitude towards what he regarded as positive developments in the licensed trade. He didn’t extend the courtesy of linking directly to me, so I will reciprocate.

Perhaps I am guilty of being resistant to change, but isn’t that what a curmudgeon is supposed to do anyway? If you don’t like what it says on the can, don’t reach for the tin-opener.

But I think at times the nostalgic aspect of this blog rather passes people by. I may well think it’s a sad thing that the Colliers Arms at Hartshead Pike is no longer with us, but I wouldn’t hold it out as a model of how a pub should be run in 2011. And (whisper it softly) I may occasionally be guilty of exaggerating a tad for effect.

Back in 2003 I wrote a piece musing on change, in which I said:
Change is an unavoidable feature of life, and it often seems that the pace of change gets ever faster. It’s also part of human nature that as you grow older, you will recall with regret the things that have been lost, while viewing with suspicion any new-fangled innovations. Thus people become, well, a touch curmudgeonly. People’s view of the world tends to be formed in the period when they entered the world as young adults, and they view any deviation from that state of affairs in a negative light.
And to some extent that will always hold true.

But it often seems to me that those berating others for “fear of change” are themselves just as guilty of cherrypicking between those changes they approve of, and those they don’t. You wonder whether those who say that people should accept the smoking ban and move on would take the same attitude towards the Beeching Axe or the current government’s tuition fees policy.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Vintage stuff

Another extract from Vintage Pubs and Real Ale in Greater Manchester, this time describing the long-closed (and keg only) Colliers Arms at Hartshead Pike:
The incredible Colliers Arms is attached to a farm, high above Mossley, right next to Hartshead Pike Tower. It is delightfully ancient and pokey. Nothing has altered for decades. It is difficult to know which are the public rooms and which are the private household areas. In fact there is only one public room with odd corners, very old bench seats, a fireplace and a piano. In reasonable weather most people drink outside the pub rather than inside. The beer is served from the doorway of a small back room rather like a scullery. Alas, it’s Bass keg beer. In this setting it should be home-brewed beer, dispensed by jug. Worth a visit for curiosity value, but not for the beer.
This must have been the last remaining pub of its kind within the Greater Manchester borders. There’s more information here – some interesting comments about the toilets.

More Blogger problems

As you probably noticed, Blogger was offline for the best part of a day on Thursday evening and Friday last week, and a lot of posts and comments vanished into thin air. Fortunately, I didn’t lose any posts (and I always compose them in draft first anyway), but a number of comments made on this one disappeared.

Now, on the latest poll, I’m sure there had been 27 votes yesterday, but the total has now reduced to 18, so clearly all is still not well.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Serendipity

In the comments recently, Nisakiman said:
I really count myself lucky that I was going to, and enjoying, country pubs when they really did epitomise a British way of life; before the breathalyser, before the smoking ban, before the gastro-pub. It was a hoot driving out to some semi hidden pub in the middle of nowhere, only to find it heaving. Old sofas in the saloon, hole-in-the-wall bar, kegs* with wooden stopper taps racked up behind, grumpy old bugger behind the bar, no TV, no music, great atmosphere and lots of instant friends. Alas no more. A great loss.
Now, I can fully identify with that, and would say it continued well after the breathalyser. In particular, I recall the Royal Oak at Hooksway in West Sussex (pictured) in the early 80s fully fitting into that category, especially the grumpy landlord. In that period I had a friend who successively lived in Gloucestershire and West Sussex, and we enjoyed many productive pubhunting trips in those areas. And we never drove a coach and horses through the breathalyser law either. I have also written about the Boot at Boothsdale in Cheshire.

But things steadily changed, as pubs became more self-aware and consciously aiming to appeal to specific markets. The unspoilt, unpretentious alehouse of 1980 may by 2010, if it has not closed down, have become a heavily promoted country dining outlet. There are still good pubs about, of course, but that sense of finding one that is what it is because it has been run in the same way for thirty years has pretty much entirely disappeared. It may still exist in some very remote rural areas in Shropshire and Norfolk, but in Cheshire and the fringes of Greater Manchester it is a thing of the past.

And, if you go pubhunting in the urban wastelands, even if you find a pub open, you’re unlikely to encounter a crowd of friendly locals, let alone an unspoilt interior. This pub is on the National Inventory, but, looking around at the immediate neighbourhood, you would be a bold man to park your car on the car park, let alone venture through the door.

* (Yeah, I know, it was really casks, not kegs)

Edit: it’s worth mentioning this post on a similar theme from a couple of years ago

Wot no mats?

Something that has baffled me for years is why a growing number of pubs refuse to provide beermats. Especially with the now-universal adoption of brim measure glasses, they perform a useful role in soaking up spilt and overflowing beer, stopping it staining tables and running off the edge to spoil your clothes. I’m convinced it comes from the same misguided school of “trying not to look like an old-fashioned boozer” that has led to the widespread ripping out of bench seating. It goes without saying that Wetherspoons don’t have mats.

I was surprised and disappointed today to walk into one of my favourite local pubs - which in many respects is very traditional - and find they had decided to scrap the beer mats. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s another niggly reason to feel it’s less than ideal.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Turning the air blue

In recent months there’s been a lot of discussion about the concept of Blue Labour, which seeks to return the Labour movement to its roots in working-class communities, voluntarism and mutualism and rejects the top-down Statism and multiculturalism of the Blair and Brown era.

Now, many will dismiss the idea as a pack of nonsense on a par with Red Toryism. But I was very interested to see an interview in today’s Times (hidden behind the paywall) with Lord Maurice Glasman, leading proponent of Blue Labour, in which he says:

I would bring back smoking rooms in pubs. The idea that you meet your mates and you can’t have a cigarette with your beer is the most authoritarian, nightmarish, anti-English and anti-pleasure thing.
It’s widely thought that Labour was kicking its traditional working-class support in the teeth by bringing in the blanket smoking ban. But if I ever see that in a Labour manifesto then I really will bare my arse on the Town Hall steps.

Vintage Pubs

Following my last post about traditional pub interiors, I dug out my copy of Vintage Pubs and Real Ale in Greater Manchester by Peter Barnes, published in 1988. It even lists me (with my correct current phone number) as contact for the local CAMRA branch inside the back cover.

It is not a beer guide as such (and indeed includes a smattering of keg pubs) but instead sets out to list 150 pubs that still offer a “traditional” atmosphere, which it defines as:
  • Separate rooms or definable areas to give you a choice of company, of comfort, of ambience.
  • Minimum of structural alterations or pubs where change has evolved at a gentle pace, giving a feeling of continuity and permanence
  • Serving all sections of the community or, in other words, the sort of pub where no one need feel out of place
Of the pubs listed, some, such as the Duke of Edinburgh in Bradford (Manchester) and the King William IV in Partington have been demolished, while the Horse & Jockey at Delph is now a mouldering ruin. Others, such as the Queens in Cheadle and the Roebuck in Urmston have been renovated out of all recognition.

But there are plenty that have come through the intervening 23 years pretty much unscathed. Of the nine pubs listed in Stockport, the Alexandra, Arden Arms and Swan with Two Necks retain their National Inventory status, the Armoury and Blossoms, while altered to some extent, still have a pretty traditional feel, the Florist, Pack Horse and Red Bull have been more substantially, although not insensitively, remodelled and the Gladstone (now Bishop Blaize), while little altered, became very run down and is now closed and boarded. It is perhaps surprising that the Tiviot, which is still like stepping back into the 1950s, was not included.

Nearby, the National Inventory listed Nursery in Heaton Norris retains its fabric intact, while the Griffin in Heaton Mersey has had an extension added on one side, but the original four-roomed pub, with its magnificent curved wood-and-glass bar counter, is little changed.

It is interesting that at least three current National Inventory pubs – the Grapes in Heywood, the Queens Head (Turners Vaults) in Stockport and the Turnpike in Withington – do not appear, although in the case of the Turnpike its original early 60s decor may not have screamed “unspoilt” back in 1988.

The description of the Albert in Withington is something that would be unthinkable nowadays on at least two levels:
The Albert is a pub where a working man can relax and not worry where his cigarette ash goes. It is a simple, small, low-ceilinged room, formed out of even smaller rooms in the past, with a central doorway. Thus the pub is a vault. You are not likely to see any woman in here. The furniture is very basic, the television is very prominent and the main colours are dark brown and nicotine.
It’s still going, although no longer serving cask beer and obviously not permitting smoking, and I suspect you would find much the same type of clientele in there. The picture on StreetView appears to have been taken in the midst of a thunderstorm.

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)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Definition of a curmudgeon

I was rather taken by this which I stumbled across the other day:

A curmudgeon often has a black sense of humor. They don't just complain about things, they do it with flair, style, panache, satire, and a sardonic view of life! That's what makes them memorable. They also, deep down (very deep down), believe that by saying something about it, life will change. Saying even more about it will hopefully make life change faster and sooner.

All it takes to change the world, making life the way it used to be, is for people to pay attention. Instead of running around like a bunch of chickens with no heads, people — particularly young people — should spend a few hours listening to curmudgeons. Then they'd know what the real world is all about.

Your average grump and grouch are just complainers. They moan and groan about how things are going wrong, they don't like this and they don't like that. But a curmudgeon has a world outlook. They see that entire societies and civilizations are going to Hell in a hand-basket!

A grouch understands that things are pretty bad, but they're probably getting better. A curmudgeon knows that things may be getting better, but that everything is about to get worse.
(That’s meant to be green ink, in case you were wondering)

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Back on the agenda?

We had all thought that the idea of minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland was dead and buried, but the SNP’s surprisingly decisive victory in the Scottish Parliament elections will surely bring it back on the agenda. In a sense, I’d like to see them try it on and have it struck down as anti-competitive by the European courts. The sight of HGVs trundling cases of whisky from Scottish distilleries down the M74 to Carlisle ASDA, and white vans hauling them back again to Glasgow, would underline just how barmy the idea is.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Soaking it up

Tandleman recently on his blog was lamenting the demise of the pub sandwich. Thirty years ago, this used to be a staple of pub catering, a couple of slices of bread with a simple filling of beef, ham or cheese, cut into quarters and sold at a bargain price. It was the ideal thing to soak up a few pints. Yet, nowadays, many pubs don’t serve any snacks at all, just full meals, and where they do they are so often expensive ciabattas and wraps with exotic fillings. The humble filled roll or sliced bread butty is virtually an extinct species.

To make matters worse, very often you find these upmarket sandwiches being offered by default “with chips” in an attempt to make them seem more like meals. By and large, if you want a sandwich-type snack, you’re not after something with chips, and it would make more sense just to offer a bowl of chips as an extra if you want it.

I know it’s pretty much a lost cause now, but I continue to believe it would have been better all round if pubs had not tried to ape restaurants but instead had concentrated on evolving their own distinctive, informal, snacky, mix-and-match style of food. The idea of food as an adjunct to drinking and socialising rather than an end in itself seems to have disappeared.

In a generation’s time, I suspect such pubs as still remain will tend to be seen as informal restaurants serving British-style food, and the suggestion that they were once mainly places for social drinking would be met with bafflement. Even today, many people’s only experience of pubs will be visiting them to eat a sit-down, knife-and-fork meal, which is largely missing the point of what they are all about.

You can see this today in new-build establishments such as Marston’s Fallow Deer by the A6 at Chapel-en-le-Frith. It does what it sets out to do, but it is an eating house, and effectively none of it is laid out in a way that says “social drinking”, not “dining”. It is an example of what will be a growing phenomenon in the years to come – the Pub In Name Only or PINO.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Beer inflation

While people have been distracted by things like Tesco's 4 for £5 offer (which unfortunately finished yesterday), following the budget the major retailers have on the quiet been pushing through significant increases in the price of bottled beers. The standard price for a 500ml PBA in Tesco is now £1.89, and many bottled 500ml lagers, including the Polish ones that once were considered a bit low-rent, are a similar price. The £1.89 includes the 3.8% ABV Courage Best, making it a Don Shenker-pleasing 99p a unit.

Realistically, that’s comparable with the prices for cask ales in Wetherspoon’s, and the Magnet in Stockport sells a wide range of well-kept cask beers for £2.50 or less.

Of course you can still get slabs of Carling and Stella for much less per pint than the equivalent beers in the pub, but when it comes to premium products the differential, at least at official list price, is now much less than is often supposed.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Call for nominations

The Save Our Pubs and Clubs Campaign are calling for nominations from members of the public for the best pub smoking area. You can send them your nomination here. All they need are brief details – they will then go on to contact the licensee to get more information.

Some may argue that giving an award for smoking areas is in effect legitimising the smoking ban. However, at present it is a fact of life that pub operators have to live with, and to argue otherwise is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Despite the ban, smokers are still more likely to be pub customers than non-smokers, and it makes good business sense for pubs to extend a warm welcome to them as far as possible within the law. Highlighting the provision of smoking areas also helps keep the general issue of the smoking ban in the public eye.

One of the key features of a successful smoking area is that it should make smokers feel valued and part of the pub in general, something that a dingy lean-to tacked on at the back will never do. It is disappointing that one or two high-profile pubs that do many things well have made little effort to cater for smokers, even though they clearly have the space to do so and in other respects have received significant investment.

Probably the best smoking shelter I am aware of in the local area, and one I will be nominating, is that at the Railway, Rose Hill, Marple, which is a smart area of covered decking at the rear of the pub overlooking the garden and car park. It is attractive and modern and gives the impression of considerable expense having been incurred on it, and is only a short, level walk from the main bar of the pub.

It is also noteworthy that in the recent refurbishment of the Tatton Arms at Moss Nook an attractive dedicated smoking shelter has been provided, although that isn’t as well integrated with the rest of the pub.