But there were also plenty of pubs that, while not meeting those standards, didn’t fall far short, and quite a lot of them were within brewery tied estates. Often it was actually the Big Six brewers who had the least spoilt pubs, as they had acquired huge swathes of pubs from often moribund family brewers over the preceding couple of decades and had not yet got round to doing much about many of them. Some of the independent brewers had, in contrast, been pretty assiduous in upgrading their pubs – I was struck in the early 80s by the contrast between Greenalls’ estate in Cheshire, and the unimproved nature of many Allied Breweries and Courage pubs in Surrey. Even at the bottom end of the size scale, most Donnington pubs had received a significant makeover in the 60s or early 70s in a style that was fashionable at the time. On the other hand, some independents had estates that seemed barely touched for decades – Brakspear particularly springs to mind.
To me, and many others, one of the key aspects of the 1970s “real ale movement” was the preservation of our beer, brewery and pub heritage, and there was certainly plenty out there to explore and discover. Back in those days, there was much less of a spotlight on the performance of individual businesses, and it was a lot easier just to plod along for many years ploughing your own furrow. But that is now all in the past, and to find any pub that can remotely be described as unspoilt is far more difficult.
Since then, a huge amount has changed. Large numbers of pubs have been drastically altered, and still more have seen their offer totally revamped, often to accommodate the seemingly inexorable advance of food. At the same time, pubgoing has become much less of a default activity for the general public. Many thousands of pubs have closed, especially in the present century, and those have often been the smaller and less altered ones. And, even when some of the classic unspoilt pubs survive, they have become in effect museum pieces owned by people with deep pockets rather than a living tradition. The original fabric of the front rooms of the Sun at Leintwardine has been preserved, but they have become little more than a curio attached to a much larger modern pub.
No more can pubs just moulder away with little attention as part of sprawling tied estates. Since the Beer Orders, pretty much all the pubs previously in the hands of the Big Six have been churned and rechurned several times through the hands of various pub companies, with each one being put under a spotlight and the less lucrative allowed to fall by the wayside. The surviving family breweries have also in most cases taken a long hard look at their estates and disposed of those pubs that don’t fit in to their desired business model.
There has also been a distinct change in public attitudes. Back in the 1970s, the fact that a pub was quirky, old-fashioned and unspoilt was often reason in itself to visit it, but that has now largely reversed, with the new, glossy and trendy finding favour. In their 1989 book, The Quest for the Perfect Pub, Nick and Charlie Hurt wrote that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be found here.” Their modern-day counterparts don’t do that, and would look at you in bafflement if you suggested they should.
Of course there are still plenty of good experiences to be had in pubs, and the mere fact that one is modern, or has been dramatically remodelled, doesn’t meant it isn’t worth visiting. But it’s now much harder to find one where you get the impression that the decor and the food and drink offer haven’t been fairly recently put under a corporate microscope. And, all too often, in the rush to promote various “activities” in pubs – dining, watching sport, listening to music, doing quizzes – their original core purpose of just providing a space for people to meet and have a drink seems to be forgotten.
Often now, the best chance of finding genuinely unspoilt pubs is in long-established free houses, which by definition are more likely to be in market towns and rural areas rather than large towns and cities. Family ownership through multiple generations is often a factor. In my experience, the Welsh Marches (at least south of Llangollen) and Mid and West Wales are some of the most fertile hunting grounds. But, even here, it’s possible to walk into an outwardly traditional-looking pub in a small and sleepy town and be confronted by a monstrosity of chrome and mirrors.
Some may say that none of this really matters so long as the food and drink are good, but that’s rather missing the point. Pubs are far more than just retail businesses, they are part of our heritage, and it can’t be denied that something valuable has been lost in the march of progress over the past forty years.