However, this tendency now seems to have spread into the field of pubs. After a quiet period when the country was in the economic doldrums, the last few years have seen an unprecedented wave of new bars opening and existing pubs being expensively refurbished by brewers and pubcos. Pretty much every project has been accompanied by a noticeable broadening of the beer offer – even family dining pubs now have a craft beer fridge. But, just as it was with beer, all of this seems to be met with universal, uncritical approval.
In my view, the only really acceptable form of pub refurbishment is a good spring-cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery. However, in the real world it has to be accepted that pub owners often do think that changing the layout and appearance of a pub may yield dividends, and so you have to consider how sensitively it is done, and how congenial an environment the new pub offers. I’ve mentioned before that, all things considered, Robinsons have done a pretty good job with the Tatton Arms at Moss Nook and the Davenport Arms at Woodford.
However, I was strongly critical of the pretentious, over-designed scheme at the Farmers Arms, Poynton, even though what went before didn’t have much to be said for it either. And, after I had listed the Bakers Vaults in Stockport market place as Worst Pub Refurbishment of the Year, I was taken to task for criticising it, as it had reopened a previously closed pub and offered a more enterprising beer choice than any other Robinsons pub. That’s true, but the interior (pictured) is still to my eye utterly dreadful, making a very poor use of space and offering scarcely any seating except at high-level posing tables. Good beer does not excuse bad design.
Some may argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all basically just a matter of personal taste. However, I would counter that an insensitive disregard for previous arrangements, and coming up with schemes that are austere and uncomfortable, or absurdly mannered and over-styled, are always very hard to justify. It’s also the case that many of the new-wave bars, while often showing admirable enterprise on the beer front, present an austere, hard-edged aspect that is reminiscent of an IKEA kitchen-diner and are not places where your backside would thank you for lingering.
In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation was happy to criticise pub operators for opening pubs out, knocking two bars into one, and generally eroding their character. Nowadays, though, you will often see interiors that are bright, airy and open-plan being spoken of as a step forward. Possibly a factor in this is that, nowadays, CAMRA scouts are likely to be much better acquainted with licensees than they were back in the 1970s, and so are reluctant to make any criticism, even if the design scheme is entirely the responsibility of the pub owner. Many licensees interpret any criticism of their pub as something personal.
Surely, though, it is high time that beer writers and CAMRA publications started to apply a more critical eye to pub refurbishments and design schemes, rather than just taking the view that, if the beer’s good, then a blind eye should be turned to any kind of aesthetic or architectural vandalism.