Sunday 1 July 2012

Whatever happened to pubs?

Regular readers will be familiar with my blog of Closed Pubs, which draws attention to the huge number of pubs that currently lie closed and boarded, or have disappeared in recent years.

Now, this is not just another smoking ban post, and indeed many of these closures date back to before 1 July 2007. The smoking ban was just another nail in a coffin that was already under construction. But it is clear that something profound has happened to the British pub since its heyday in the late 70s.

That is when I first learned to drink, and back then pubs were a ubiquitous, taken-for-granted institution, running through the whole of society. They varied hugely, from the basic to the snooty, but every pub seemed to have its regulars, its casual drinkers and, often, those who had just come in for a bite to eat. The “pub lunch” was very popular, but nobody would ever confuse it with a “restaurant meal”. Each pub had its own character, and usually its own cast of characters too.

But somehow, in the following thirty-odd years, something has changed. Many of those pubs have closed, and many of those that remain have gone over to food to such an extent that they are now in effect restaurants, not social meeting places. In a sense that is an inevitable reaction to the changing market-place, and pub owners can’t really be blamed for doing it, but it still renders them radically different places.

Where the all-purpose pub does survive, its trade often seems thin and apologetic, and far from the parade of human nature that once could be seen. The trade is also much more concentrated towards the traditional weekend busy periods – lunchtimes and early evenings can be utterly dead. I go in pubs at times when they once were heaving and find them virtually deserted.

Sometimes, you come across a pub that still “works” as most pubs used to in the late 70s, but it is so rare as to be something worth remarking on, and also something largely characterised by customers over the age of 50 who remember how things used to be.

Overall, we as a society drink a bit more (maybe around 10%) than we did in the late 70s, but our relationship with alcohol has changed. It is no longer something to be enjoyed in moderation (and often with a vague sense of naughtiness) as part of everyday life, but something to be consumed more deliberately when other responsibilities can be set aside. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.

And that is why pubs, as a seven days, fourteen sessions a week, institution, are a shadow of their former selves. I suspect if I was thirty-five years younger, and just embarking on the world of adulthood, regular pubgoing would be something that would not even feature on the agenda. Yet, over the years, I have found such pleasure, solace and companionship in pubs that it is desperately sad to see their place in society so much eroded.

Pubs continue to do much better in Inner London, and indeed in the centres of other big cities, than in the country as a whole, which is maybe why this trend has received so little attention from the journalistic profession.


  1. "Just going to the pub" without involving a meal is no longer an acceptable pursuit in polite society-it certainly is as far as myself and many of my friends are concerned-indeed I've just returned from a quick 2 hour visit to my "local" (not by distance but by choice)-I have neither the finances or the desire to visit pubs all the time but on a Friday or at the weekend consider it sacrosanct to do so-firstly for good quality ale, closely followed by the social aspect, but also, because I get so much from the pub experience (define that however you wish), because I believe in and wish to support the whole ethos of pubs-I could stay in,buy my beer at supermarkets for half the price, but a) why do I want to stay in and b) why do I want to help make supermarkets even richer at the expense of my local, Having said all of that, I appreciate I may not be typical, and understand and agree with the "thrust" of what you say. I have some friends who are of the "take it or leave it persuausion" when it comes to Friday night pub visits, and I think it is with people like that that we need to start-convince them that its worth the effort of that rainy walk to the bus stop or whatever-I pride myself on being persuasive in that regard-and they inevitably enjoy themselves in the end!

  2. Have been a regular visitor to your site over the last year or so. Always interesting but, through no fault of yours, somewhat gloomy.

    I may be certifiably insane but me and my other half are about to open a brand new pub. Built from scratch in an old Grade II listed empty, former shop (an ex-pet shop, ceased to be, pushing up the daisies etc etc).

    We'll be specialising in local Real Ales (Exmoor, Otter, Dartmoor, Sharpe's etc) and real Cider (we're in central Devon).

    Huge local enthusiasm for it.

    Inspired by what's been going on in Kent started by Martyn Hillier of the Butcher's Arms in Herne ( Do visit this site.

    So there is hope. I mean that in an expectant way, not vainly.

    Anybody interested, drop me a line at

    Duncan B

  3. @Mike - you do, and good luck to you, but society in general no longer does.

  4. An exceelent post Curmudgeon, and one that I find particularly poignant. Like yourself, I began my drinking career during the 1970's and for many a year, "going to the pub" was a regular part of my life. Indeed it would be a rare evening that I didn't pop in to one, or more, of several pubs that I would regard as my local. On Saturdays and Sundays pub visits were the highlight of the weekend. This was especially true of Sunday lunchtime.

    Popping in for a pint during the week, at lunchtimes, particularly on Friday was considered quite normal back then, and providing one didn't over-indulge, few work places begrudged their workforce this escape from the daily grind.

    These visits gradually tailed off over the years as commitments such as a mortgage and the responsibility of raising a family beagn to take precedence. Also, I feel that I myself have changed and now, except when I'm on holiday or am visiting somewhere special, don't really enjoy lunchtime drinking in the way I used to.

    I am certain I'm not the only person to feel like this, and I don't feel it through any outside pressures to conform to what today's health fascists regard as "acceptable behaviour".

    Having said all that I do feel a nostalgia for the heady days of the 1970's, when pub going was at its peak. At least people like you and I can remember those days and look back on them withj a degree of fondness, which is more than can be said of today's generation.

  5. @Mike - I hope you may prove that Publicans to be an endangered species but not extinct.
    Far to often we're met by inexpensive young barstaff, sometimes a manager or maybe a licenced restaurateur but oh so rarely a real publican proudly welcoming you to his home.

  6. 'Tis time,me thinks, for a reality check on the demise of the English Tavern,beloved of the Anglo Saxon race for over a Millenium
    Too few we have of Englishmen and Women who will stand up,be counted,be heard in defence of an
    Institution close to the heart of our Engish ways.
    We are now led and controlled by
    soft palmed ,holier than thou ,
    weaklings ,liars and traitors.
    The few with any semblence of spirit and soul float around the
    digital graveyard grasping any tweet or blog which indicate some life at the cemetry gates.
    Unlike our fathers and fore fathers who ,when called ,leapt from the trenches to face the obvious,
    we now have a band of Don Quixotes jousting at the Wndmills of Despair with well worn keyboards and fingered mice.
    When the blinkers and ear muffs are discarded and some ,however few,are prepared to kick and scratch,then will hope and renaissance return,no sooner.
    Fight or Fail

    The Ticking Clock

  7. I visit my local usually about 5 days out of 7 and I think I'd fit into your 'embarking on the world of adulthood' range ...then again I've been told I'm a 40yr old in a 25yr old's body...

  8. Martin, Cambridge2 July 2012 at 19:58

    It's definitely the weekday lunchtime trade that's been hit most.

    Unless they offer cheap meals to attract the OAP trade, suburban and rural pubs often seem to open out of habit rather than for any commercial logic. A weekend travel round some good East Yorkshire pubs just showed us that, though at least most of them still opened at 12.

    The lack of atmosphere at lunchtime can only discourage the sociable pub-goer as well.

  9. And more and more pubs don't open on weekday lunchtimes at all - including one I can think of on a fairly busy suburban high street.

    Generally no shortage of punters in Spoons, but Spoons are very careful with their site selection and there are many locations they wouldn't touch.

  10. How far is this post and the comments beneath it fuzzy nostalgia? I still have a copy of "The Death of the English Pub" written by Christopher Hutt and published in 1973, in which he made a convincing case for the end of the pub as generations of English drinkers had known and loved it. And yet here we are looking on those very times as the heyday of the pub! Things change, and pub closures are nothing new: about 150 years ago there were more than 50 pubs and beer houses in the vicinity of Liverpool town hall, where now there are fewer than 10.

    Along Liverpool's famous Scotland Road there was a pub on every corner, and I certainly can still remember lots of pubs there in the 60s, steadily reducing in number from the 70s onwards until now when I think there are two. There is a lot of housing still in that area, so depopulation isn't the cause.

    Have we all become our parents, going on about how better things were in our day? I hope not, but I think some of us have.

  11. I have a copy of The Death of the English Pub - but what Christopher Hutt was describing was essentially the destruction of character, not pubs as such. In fact, pubs in general enjoyed a long boom from about 1960 to 1979, with beer sales almost doubling. On the other hand, nowadays it is a matter of observable fact that large number of pubs have closer in a way they never used to, and beer sales in pubs are now well below the 1960 level.

    Some may say, "quality before quantity" and feel quite happy in their little beer bubble. I don't.

  12. I never say "quality before quantity" - that's for wealthy beer snobs who'd happily pay £4 or £5 a pint as a self-congratulatory measure of their own discernment. I was simply pointing out that there is nothing new about talk of the good old days or pub closures.

  13. I have to say that Anonymous was particularly entertainng this time.

  14. Yes, anonymous's post struck a cord with me, although I'm not quite sure about the digital graveyard bit!

  15. He can be quite poetic at times :-)

  16. This must be a new use of the word 'poetic' that I've not come across before.

  17. British pubs are the coolest places on Earth! I have been to England two times now and the pubs were the places I enjoyed most in those trips. It's sad to know that they are slowly declining, but you guys seem to be doing a good job, bringing this topic to public attention.

    By the way, I have proposed a new site on Stack Exchange, called "Pub culture". If we can manage to gather enough people supporting this proposal, the site gets off the ground. And then, we're going to have a nice tool for interacting with each other, discussing topics related to pubs (and pub decline) and promoting ideas to revert this tendency.

    If you're interested, follow the proposal:

  18. I was in Stockport the other night - Tuesday - and half the pubs I passed were closed for the evening; when I poked my head in at the Swan with Two Necks I was told the "bar" had closed at 7.00. Closing on weekday evenings is surely the beginning of the end. I have to say, Stockport centre in general felt like a ghost town - it was after 11.00 by the time I got back to Chorlton, and it still seemed livelier than Stockport.

  19. Interesting article, I am old enough to remember when pubs closed after 2:30pm, and getting a drink after this hour required a bit of planning.

    I love pubs, and a couple of years ago, for some reason or other, I compiled a list of the London pubs in which I had drunk at least a pint. I thought it might amount to fifty pubs. I used the web to help my memory, google maps and (think that's the URL).

    In the end, it was just short of five hundred pubs.

    Happy days.

  20. Nowadays Chorlton is very much the exception rather than the rule - because of its location and demography it is one of those rare places that supports an active pub/bar going scene.


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