Saturday, 13 July 2019

Woken from slumber

In the early years of my drinking career, one of the most interesting aspects was visiting new pubs and finding so many that seemed to have been little changed for many years, both in their fabric and the way they were run. Indeed many could have to been said to be stuck in something of a timewarp. Some of them were pubs that fell into the category of Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs featured by Rodney Wolfe Coe on his famous list. The Sun at Leintwardine, pictured right, was the only one to merit five stars, although since then, while the original core remains unchanged, it has received a large modern extension at the rear. I did have the privilege of seeing it in its original form in the late 1980s.

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.

11 comments:

  1. I was going to say "Welsh Marches snd West Wales" just as you mentioned them.

    Mr Coe had a rigid standard. I met him accidentally in Snargate one gorgeous May night and he told me that Doris wasn't happy at losing a star because she sold coke or something daft.

    Recent trips to West Wales have shown there's still a fair few pubs that survive on wet sales. Expecting them to survive purely or largely on beer may be a step too far!

    And one person's basic is another's cliquey. I'd prefer the Stile in Wolves to many on that list.

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    1. It is, after all, what it says it is, a list of basic, unspoilt pubs. And, as we know with the Hop Pole at Risbury, there's a fine line between basic and squalid. He's also rather arbitrary in limiting it to pubs that sell real ale, as that excludes pubs like the now-closed King's Head at Bootle in Cumberland, which was one of the small handful without a bar counter.

      The Stile is really a better example of the kind of thing I'm talking about. The Tiviot in Stockport was probably the last time-warp pub locally.

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    2. I'm pretty certain the rather eccentric looking gentleman, dressed in a tweed suit whom I met one lunchtime, also at the Red Lion, Snargate was Mr RWC.

      He famously resigned his membership of CAMRA because he didn't agree with the computerisation of the organisation.

      An excellent article btw, Mudge. I still haven't been to the Sun at Leintwardine, but I'm determined to one day.

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  2. Really good piece Mudgie. Very well written and insightful.

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    1. Thanks Peter: I put a bit of thought into this one and it's nice to see my efforts appreciated :-)

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    2. All your pieces are well written and interesting, even if the content is sometimes rubbish :-)

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    3. Pity the comments don't match up to that standard :P

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  3. Times move on and pubs and people change with them, but within my particular time frame and mindset, there is nothing worse than a corparate styled pub where the staff are uniformed and insist on calling me sir, give me old style diversity any day.

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    1. I always think a key way of telling that is whether or not a pub has cards of nuts, scratchings, Bacon Fries etc. pinned up on the bar back.

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  4. How very true all these comments are. As a student, I remember visiting many locals (in Devon) and always found something unique - the devon horned fox (mounted) on the wall in one - a regular showing me the church clock (opposite the pub) and telling me the size of the markings on the face (Chagford?) Watching euchre being played (never did understand it). I always seemed to learn something in a good local. Those were the days indeed....

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  5. Great piece Mudgie ��
    I think of estate style pubs like the Lyndon, the Viking and the highwood in Olton when I was younger and always a funny as in humorous atmosphere and ALWAYS something happening...times change and just as people want wi fi, central heating, wide-screen TV, mobile phones so people also want pizzas and ever incongruous tasting beer.
    Not necessarily what I want but I am in a minority, albeit one who spends a fair bit of cash in boozers!
    Britain Beermat

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