The argument is often made that, while we have lost many traditional pubs, they have to some extent been replaced by new-style bars. I’ve always thought that was a very questionable proposition, especially given that the new bars don’t tend to be the locations where the pubs have closed. It’s well worth repeating what I said back in October 2011:
For a start, the bars aren’t opening in the places where pubs have closed. In fact, they’re very much concentrated in middle-class urban enclaves. There may be a cluster in Chorlton, but they’re not spread evenly across the board. In recent years, the large Cheshire village of Helsby has lost two of its four pubs. Are there any new bars to replace them? What do you think? It’s not much use if you have to go eight miles down the road to Chester to find one.And I still entirely stand by that five years later. There has continued to be a steady movement between the two, with more and more proper pubs closing down, but trendy bars opening up in areas of high concentration.
Most of these new bars are targeted at the younger end of the market and have little to offer the more mature pubgoer. They don’t have the across-the-board appeal of proper pubs. And, although there are some honourable exceptions, most offer nothing of interest on the beer front. What is more, how can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees? Most will be fly-by-night operations with a limited lifespan and no continuity.
Realistically, the idea that the growth of new bars offers any kind of adequate replacement for closed pubs, except in very limited circumstances, is absurd. Chorlton is not representative of the rest of the world, and is very much the exception.
There was a recent debate sponsored by the British Guild of Beer Writers where the proposition was “Are traditional pubs losing their relevance?” As shown in this report from What’s Brewing, CAMRA national director Andy Shaw certainly argued that café-bars were no substitute for community pubs.
There’s another aspect to it. A pub is something that is immediately identifiable and conveys a distinct body language that it somewhere that is genuinely open to all. See a Red Lion or a Coach & Horses and you instantly know what it is. Of course some pubs can be unwelcoming to strangers, but by and large this holds true.
On the other hand, with a new-style bar, you really don’t know what to expect, and the casual customer may well be deterred. Some, such as the Chiverton Tap in Cheadle Hulme, do put across the body language of “pub”, but all too many don’t. If you had just chanced upon it, would someone looking for “a pub” really go in a place called “Mary and Archie”? If there is a feeling that there is likely to be a narrow age range or a cliquey atmosphere, they can hardly be said to encourage community cohesion and ward off loneliness.
And CAMRA branches – to their shame – have started putting these new, trendy bars in the Good Beer Guide in place of proper pubs. Maybe it’s time for CAMRA to start practising what it preaches about community pubs.