Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Lost local

I have a local pub, and indeed an architecturally distinguished one. Five years ago, I wrote about how the Sunday lunchtime drinking experience had been affected by the tides of change through the years. I used to go in there most weeks, at least once, sometimes more. Yet now I hardly ever visit it apart from delivering the local CAMRA magazine. I can’t really call it my “local” in any meaningful sense.

So what has gone wrong? It’s really a steady accretion of different changes, maybe small in themselves, although one or two stand out, that over a period of time have made a very substantial difference to the customer experience. I’m not going to name it, but those who know me will know which pub I’m talking about.

  • The main lounge was converted to a designated dining room, with place settings on every table and drinkers relegated to the rear smoke room. When football is being shown, there is literally nowhere to go for a quiet drink.

  • TV football was extended from the vault into the “best” side of the pub. At first this was only a big pull-down screen for United and City matches, but now there are two massive permanent screens on either side of the smoke room, which is totally out of keeping with the historic interior.

  • After many years as a quiet pub, piped music was introduced, all too often in the form of 21st century R&B which can’t remotely be to the tastes of the typical clientele.

  • It was sensitively refurbished in a way that respected the original fabric, but unfortunately this was accompanied by installing extremely dim lighting, so at night you’re sitting in Stygian gloom.

  • Over the past five years there has been a revolving door of licensees, only one of whom really seems to have got a grip on the pub and imposed their stamp on it. The exception was an experienced management couple who came in immediately after the refurbishment, but then left suddenly within nine months, possibly because they didn’t see eye-to-eye with the brewery.

  • Guest beers from other breweries have been dropped, so the beer range is limited to the products of the owning brewery. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it reflects something of a drawing in of horns. And, perhaps due to falling trade, the quality of those is often very variable.
None of these are in themselves showstoppers, except when United or City are on the telly, but added together they make it a pub that I find much less congenial than it once was. If I was showing someone around the area, I’d take them in there for a pint, not least to show them the largely unspoilt interior, but I don’t personally care to drink in there. And it’s not as though it’s busy accommodating a clientele who want different things from me – indeed often it’s embarrassingly quiet. I know pubs in general have suffered, especially ones in residential areas that aren’t part of nightlife hubs, but the owning brewery seem to have little clue how to make it work and have alienated several different categories of customers. Given that the only other pub within reasonable walking distance has been turned into a craft/gastro extravaganza, this is something of a limitation on my drinking habits.

This may come across as wanting the world to burn, but from a personal perspective I’d go in there a lot more if it was taken over by Sam Smith’s and the TV football, piped music and place settings were banished to oblivion. Even if it didn’t serve cask beer. It doesn’t fit the Wetherspoon’s business model in terms of needing a lot of casual footfall past the door, so that just isn’t going to happen.

42 comments:

  1. I know the pub you're taking about and can understand your frustration. My former local, where I used to drink every Friday night and usually a couple of times in the week too, and which I'm sure you also know, has been even more dramaticaly knocked about, and the beer range peversely expanded as cask drinkers such as myself go less and less, so that turnover has slowed and quality is also variable. Unlike you, I now only go to my former local when City are playing United (only possible in the last couple of years as the last refurbishment took out the live TV football as well as the vault and dart board), both for the atmosphere and the fact that with the number of customers swelling a couple of hours before the match I know I can get turn up just before the kick-off and get a decent pint of their standard bitter, rather than one of the guest beers, which hasn't been sitting in the pipes for a couple of days.

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  2. I read this with interest. I have no doubt that serving food is a vital part of running most pubs but it is the extent of it which becomes a problem. Even when there is a designated drinking area, they can't help overflowing diners into it with the accompanying food smells. You do not want pan fried cod pongs tainting your porter.
    My local showed football in every corner but to their credit realised the lounge end didn't want the TV. It's now mostly off.
    The problem with canned music is it reflects the taste of the bar staff and as they are usual young, the music is usually garbage.
    My personal hate is mobile phones. Text conversations accompanied by the alert every 30 seconds. People playing some ghastly video that everybody can hear. Managers really need to stamp down on this antisocial nightmare.

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    1. Nor do you want to be climbed over by children or dogs. I agree with the writer's list of detractions too.

      I thought that I was in the hate-the-high-tables stable, but TBH, some of the chairs are rather comfortable, they get you above the pets and kids, and they discourage them from entry in the first place, so I'm being won over.

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  3. No objection at all to them serving food, just that designating the main lounge as a diners-only area makes it unwelcoming to drinkers, especially when the other room is full of people watching the football.

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  4. It's surprising how careless pubs can be about adding music and TV. It doesn't appear to add too much when everyone does it, it drastically changes a pub and it's not cheap.

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  5. If larger parts of its area are dedictated to dining, then it's a restaurant with a bar, not a pub. That's not neccessarily a bad thing, but most dry led chain pubs are only interested in consistency; Consistent bland with few exceptions...

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    1. No no no! A pub that sells food rarely deserves the sobriquet restaurant. In a restaurant you are greeted on arrival by a flunky and seated at your table with a menu. A waiter then comes to take your order and brings your drinks. Throughout the meal the waiter is attentive to your needs and will bring you further drinks on request.

      How many dining pubs meet those criteria? Most of them are just licensed snack bars, usually understaffed to the point where service is an abstract idea..

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  6. I think we're heading the way of the micro these days. Places with a switched-on local beer-loving presence and a willing clientele of drinkers will always find places for a micro. I love my local micro. We have several in the local area.

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    1. Not really a huge fan of micropubs, for the reasons I gave here. To be honest, I've yet to find one that I'd want to have a second pint in.

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    2. The one real bone of contention I have with micropubs is the extremely uncomfortable seating arrangements. A rethink may be needed.

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    3. Micropubs are great as they keep the beardies out of regular pubs. They are all happy listening to a talk on IPA in a pokey former chip shop and the rest of us can have a burger and chips in comfort without people sniffing their beer.

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    4. How about the inadequate toilet arrangements as well?

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    5. Maybe that could be a business idea, get a micropub and deck it out in Victoriana. The buildings are mostly victorian and their small floor space would mean that it's unlikely to be unrealistically expensive:curved wall benches, darkwood bar backs, fireplaces, snob screens, everything. "Standing coffin" urinals can be had for nothing from ebay that have been ripped out of normal pubs during "renovations".

      https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Armitage-Shanks-Vintage-Antique-Urinal/253960844946?hash=item3b213ef692%3Ag%3AUZsAAOSwVH9b21D1&LH_ItemCondition=4

      Sam smiths have made a successful business un-modernising pubs.

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    6. You can't go to hide in a micro pub (or Hyde in Mudgie's local). I know exactly what Mudgie means about being happy to show a pub off but rarely fancying a pint off. Could say the same about several famous Cambridge pubs.


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    7. The toilet arrangements in every micro that I have been in meet the legal requirements. I know that you dislike uni-sex toilets but they are becoming more common even outside micros.
      Is it because you are a bachelor? Having shared a bathroom with two women for many years the idea seems quite normal to me. :-) :-)

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    8. My objection is not so much to unisex toilets as to the inadequate number of facilities. If there is only a single WC, there is a likelihood that it may be occupied for a prolonged period (I don't need to spell this out), thus leaving those outside waiting in a very awkward position. Therefore I would not personally choose to drink in any bar with that limitation.

      Having said that, given the nature of trade in most pubs, there's a strong case for providing male urinals to maximise throughput as well.

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  7. This is a place where Direct Democracy could really be of help. Ask the punters what they want. Ideally, there should be a pub for the ragamuffins and ones for the young and old farts who want a pint of Best.

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  8. If you were a real #Pubman you'd do one of the following

    1. Get an uber to a proper pub
    2. Get a bus ticket to a proper pub
    3. Buy some decent shoes and walk to a proper pub.

    All this is no excuse to pub swerve.

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    1. Where did I say I wasn't doing this? And this year I have used the train to do pub crawls of numerous towns and cities as well, which is a true #Pubman activity.

      Incidentally, will you be at the beard club meeting on Thursday?

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    2. I've seen the effects of this steady drip-drip on several local pubs. There's one, just five minutes walk from my house, which is now sadly boarded up, and facing an unknown future.

      A succession of unsuitable licensees failed to turn the pub's fortunes around, because they either didn't do their homework properly, or the owning pub company didn't bother telling them that not everyone wants a constant diet of Sky Sports, karaoke; fancy dress evenings and quiz nights.

      It was a cracking little two-bar pub when I first knew it, and a proper boozer to boot. In the right hands, it could have been a real success, instead of ending up on the scrapheap.

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    3. Just googled where you're all off to.

      Looks a delightful place
      https://twitter.com/search?l=&q=brexit%20from%3Apetersgate_tap&src=typd&lang=en

      You'd all be better off in the nearby spoons.

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  9. Ironically, I've been in there tonight to deliver the CAMRA magazine, and some noticeably brighter lighting had been installed, plus they were playing some rather more mainstream and tasteful music, including "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel" by Tavares. Not really my favourite genre, but a big improvement on (c)rap. Plus the beer was quite decent.

    So maybe things are looking up, although still a no-go area on Sunday lunchtimes when football is on.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie6 November 2018 at 22:01

      Better lighting, music and beer within a day means they must keenly follow your blog.
      Place settings and TV football gone and a pub cat installed in the next few months and it might stand a chance of national pub of the year again.

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  10. Interesting post. Inspired by your statement last year of how many pubs you had visited and a secret, in the closet, desire to somehow emulate the Camra pub tickers ( but without their commitment!), I decided to keep a record of how many pubs I visited this year. I also decided to call in all those pubs closest to where I live which I had never visited. I emjoy all sorts of pubs and beer styles but of the 140 pubs locally I have visited, I can honestly say that I am unlikely to ever set foot in at least 40 of them ever again. Ever-present TV screens regardless of content, food smells from poor fare, "Barmaids Choice" music, lack of atmosphere and conversation, corporate brewery identikit makeovers ( grey and copper?) and poorly kept beer.

    Within the Stockport suburbs closest to me, there were few memorable places and no previously unvisited ones that I would make any effort to return to. Brought up in North Manchester, my drinking education was in pubs such as The Alliance on Rochdale Road, a Boddingtons beer only licence where drinks were ordered by simply shouting a number of pints of bitter required.Wooden seats and nicotine brown decor. No spirits, lager, few ladies, no food, "down for Jacks", three football and two darts teams and banter still sparkling 43 years later. I only once encountered a similar atmosphere in my tour: a tap room/vault in a Compstall Robbies house.

    I would rather drink in the local Micros ( Oldknow, Jakes & The Beer Shed ) or in pubs in the small local towns than many of the others that have gone the way of your local.

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    1. Grey and copper? Who could you mean?

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    2. The Samuel Oldknow is a great micro pub, really warm and friendly. It's also larger than quite a few pubs I know of.

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  11. It's a nice enough pub, but it's rapidly slipping off the list of pubs worth a special trip. Converting an area - any area - to dining-only is a huge black mark in my book. (Spoons seem to do fine without actually barring drinkers from anywhere!)

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie7 November 2018 at 09:03

      Phil,
      But "Spoons seem to do fine" only if you're not comparing them to pubs.

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    2. 'Spoons falls straight into the "licensed caff" category. And none the worse for it.

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  12. Is it a problem with the pub's design? '30s (and later) pubs aren't as appreciated as Victorian ones so no-one really knows what to do with them. They're too big to succeed as wet-led, but the multi-room layout causes problems. Perhaps they'll come back into fashion and will start being restored like other '30s architecture - lidos, Odeons, houses etc.
    AP

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    1. The Three Pigeons in Halifax is a National Treasure, as is the Test Match in Nottingham, on the other hand.

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    2. I don't think this pub is fundamentally unviable, just that it's lost its way. For many years, everything was held together by a strong character licensee, and since he retired things have never been the same. It has three distinct customer groups - diners, TV football fans and local people who just want a quiet drink - and their interests have to be balanced.

      My key recommendations would be:

      1. Bring in a chef who can offer food that is a cut above the standard brewery managed house menu, so it regains its reputation as a food destination. In the old days, everything was home-made by the licensee's wife, and was very highly regarded.

      2. Do something to resolve the conflict between food, football and drinkers, possibly by one or both of only showing United and City matches in the rear room (or reduce it at other times to one screen with the sound off), and stopping allocating all the tables in the main lounge to diners.

      3. If you can't scrap the piped music entirely, limit it to something that isn't going to put people off, such as "classic hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s".

      4. If the level of trade supports it, reinstate a single rotating guest beer to get it back on the CAMRA radar.

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    3. I having sport without the sound the best way. If you don't like the sport you can ignore it. And if you are a real 'fic then that is the best way to enjoy it: there is no commentary when you go to Old Trafford or The Emirates

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    4. If you're a real 'fic, then you've likely shelled out several times the BBC licence fee for your own sport TV deal and for a 64" set.

      Having done that, you'll probably invite round your pals to share a slab of Stella rather than go to the pub, unless you want to look a bit daft.

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  13. As a general observation, it is gobsmacking how so many pubs do their unwitting best to alienate the people most likely to give them business, then scratch their heads over why the place is empty.

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    1. Quite so - and the key point to remember is that not everyone in a pub wants the same thing.

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    2. But a Proper Pub to many licensees is one much as described above, and with other irritations chucked in such as gaming machines.

      And if you don't like a Proper Pub, well, then it's you who is at fault, not the landlord, so be off with you. He doesn't want your sort in his premises.

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  14. I think most of us these days probably have a 'local' which is local in the strictly geographical sense, with few compelling reasons for us to visit regularly.

    The pub you mention sounds not dissimilar to the local not two minutes walk away from me. Architecturally not without merit, but I hardly ever go in, unless I specifically want to watch the football match being broadcast, or if there's a dreary GK seasonal to tick. Probably once every couple of months if they're lucky.

    I have to walk right past it to get to or from any other pub or the bus stop or the railway station. And typically do so without a second thought.

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    1. The thing is, though, going back twenty or twenty-five years, this was a brilliant pub, and indeed a winner of CAMRA's National Pub of the Year.

      And I think everyone's missing something if they don't have at least a halfway decent pub within comfortable walking distance.

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  15. I know the place, it used to be heaving. Very sad. I've known other pubs make similar alienating changes, and have always wondered why the customers weren't asked. They never are. Why not have questionnaires at the bar to gauge opinion on proposed changes? Would you like piped music Y/N? Would you like large screen TVs Y/N? etc.

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  16. I wonder if, as CAMRA members, we overstate in our own minds the importance of Pub of the Year and other CAMRA awards.

    I've seen CAMRA darlings deteriorate/evolve over time (and occasionally overnight) into places that members wouldn't cross the road to visit - and there is movement in the other direction too of course, with no-go pubs transformed into cask havens.

    Of course there are also plenty of drinking holes that have never been remotely on the radar for a CAMRA gong, don't give a shit about such things, and are doing absolutely fine for themselves and their customer base. There are those for whom 'CAMRA pubs' are seen as something to be actively avoided.

    It all seems hugely significant to people like us, but possibly isn't so for ordinary drinkers. And in some cases I suspect that that winning the award once (but getting to display the certificate for ever after like the 2001 GBG stickers in the window) is enough.

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