Friday, 31 July 2015

Pubbly Jubbly

Back around 2007, when beer blogging was in its infancy, there was a tendency for bloggers to gush with enthusiasm over every new development in beer. This became described as “cheery beery”, in the sense of seeing every innovation as positive and exciting without any discrimination between excellent and mediocre. Since then, people have grown up, the craft beer industry has jumped a number of sharks, and writers are more willing to be critical when it is deserved.

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.


  1. Don't recall seeing you being taken to task for criticising the Baker's on the comments or the twitters, or even bring offered a lift to somewhere near task. Pointed at and laughed at yes, but not taken to task.

  2. Trouble is not everyone shares your very specific ideas as to what a "proper" pub should look like. The Bakers Vaults is a classic example of this conundrum I think.

  3. Pubs will never be as they were until ashtrays are there to be used inside. Craft beers are an overpriced joke. E.g. Punjabi puma, or something like that from that neck of the woods. If I wish to suck on orange peel I will buy an orange. It is a lot cheaper.
    I have never been a fan of CAMRA. I am not a trainspotter, or commie, so CAMRA weren't my enjoyment of beer.

    Yours, soon to be 60.

  4. @John - but it's always a moot point what is simply a matter of personal preference, and what is in a meaningful sense good and bad.

    I might like Constable, and you might prefer Beryl Cook, but would anyone seriously argue that the two were of equivalent artistic worth?

    Many pub interiors have evolved piecemeal over the years and are a bit of a mixed bag, but for something that has been deliberately designed as a whole the Bakers really is horrible.

  5. With one or two exceptions I don't think comparing pub design to high art gets us very far (and there will be those who do think Beryl Cook's work is of equal artistic merit to a Constable.

    But beauty is always in the eye of the beholder - obviously you don't like the Bakers but to state as an absolute that it really is horrible sort of makes my point. Lots of people (me included) don't agree with that at all.

    I agree that punches should not be pulled where something really is OTT (for example that cow in the Farmers) or an act of pointless vandalism but in many cases it's not appropriate because what some people won't like others will. It's usually not black and white at all and again the Bakers is a classic example of this.

  6. It's fairly clear that pubs try an attract a certain punter. The young and affluent tend not to go for traditional and grotty. So long as there is choice what is the problem?

    If you don't like the Bakers, either for it's £3+ prices or tarts decor, pop in the Boars for a sub £2 pint in traditional wearworn & grotty. Among the old and poor you find a better craick.

    I prefer the latter, but why begrudge the former? If mugs wanna pay for it, let 'em. I'm sure it's good for the economy or summat.

  7. I don't mind what the pub looks like particularly as long as the beer and service are good. Ive been in quite a few micro pubs that just look like a shop (and many of them used to be) and had a good time. My beef is bloody kids in pubs. Thought there used to be a law or something!

  8. This popped up on Facebook just after reading this:

  9. @PubReviews - if I'm going to a pub, I want to feel comfortable and "at home". Even the best beer in the world won't compensate for feeling out of place and ill-at-ease. I agree about kids in pubs, though (or at least proper pubs, not family dining outlets)

    @Rob Nicholson - if somewhere's been created from scratch, then I'm perfectly at liberty to say I don't like it, but I can't really complain. If it's been created by vandalising an existing pub interior, that's something different.

  10. I went to the Farmer's Arms after I'd been walking. A sign on the door said "No wellingtons allowed as we've just done up the pub and don't want to spoil the floors". I had wellies on so could only look through the window. I couldn't see the cow.

    It shouldn't be called the Farmer's if you can't wear willies in there.

  11. Wellies not willies sorry! I'm not a robot.

  12. improving summat ain't vandalising it.

  13. @Andy = what is known as a "Freudian slip" ;-)

    @Cookie - and, likewise, vandalising something isn't improving it

  14. I must admit, I largely agree with the Curmudgeon regarding the specific pubs he's mentioned (according to the photos anyhow). However, I'm generally in favour of experimenting with new designs - as long as it doesn't mean gutting a traditional pub interior.

    Down in Brighton we have a few quirky pub designs that work rather well.

  15. Time will tell how the refurbishment of the Holly Busy in Bollington turns out. Robinsons appear to be sympathetic so fingers crossed:

  16. Ahh, can't link directly to a pub on the CAMRA heritage site. Here's a PDF of the page:

  17. @Mel - as said above, there's a difference between altering something that's already in existence, and creating something brand new. As a middle-aged chap it does continue to baffle me, though, why providing comfortable seating in new pub and bar designs is viewed as such a no-no.

    @Rob - you can link directly to the pages if you can find out the relevant Pub ID.

    What Robbies did to the fairly similar Hatters Arms in Marple was quite sensitive and tasteful.

  18. How did you find the pub ID? I found it myself by doing a search of the pubs in Cheshire and then "hacking" the source of the page to find the ID...

  19. I did a Google search and found the link on this page on the Heritage Pubs site.

    You can also get a direct link from the relevant page on WhatPub?

    It's a poor piece of web design, though.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval. See here for details of my comment policy.