Wednesday 28 August 2013

Warts and all

A point I’ve made before is that pubs can’t – and aren’t – seen in the same way as other businesses, because they are places in which people choose to spend part of their lives, as opposed to just buying stuff, and they also, by and large, have an enduring character and place in their community that goes beyond whatever retail format they happen to be adopting at the present time.

On one level, pubs may be comparable to Tesco but, unlike shops, on another they are also comparable to your own family, and to Chatsworth House.

You are born into your family, you don’t choose them, and to a large extent you have to learn to live with them and get used to their idiosyncracies and foibles. If it gets really bad, you can wash your hands of them, but most people don’t. You may well go to a particular pub because it’s your local, because your mates go there, because it’s near your workplace or the football ground, because the beer’s good even if nothing else is. It may be far from perfect, but you get used to it and eventually may even grow to love its little quirks and the odd characters who frequent it. It’s come to a desperate pass if you say “well, that’s the last time I ever go there.”

And a pub is something that may have historic and architectural value in its own right, over and above the particular business being carried on at a point in time, and even if it doesn’t, it may well be regarded as a distinctive and valued part of the local landscape and community. You might be made to pay through the nose to visit Chatsworth and have a really poor customer experience, but that doesn’t make it any less of a part of our heritage. And it’s entirely credible that you would say of a pub “it’s a lovely old building with great atmosphere, but the beer was poor and the service was slow.” You would never say that of a branch of Tesco.

Over time I go in a huge variety of pubs, some good, some OK, a few downright poor. But none come anywhere near perfection, and in some of the better ones I can think of smelly toilets, supercilious bar staff, officious notices, unkempt gardens, poorly arranged seating and dull, perfunctory food. Even the very top-end pubs, the ones of which you say “you really must go to the Aardvark & Armpit, it’s an absolutely cracking pub”, will always have at least one thing about them where you say “but the X is crap”. And if they don’t, there’s probably something wrong with them.

When brewers and planners deliberately set out to build “ideal” pubs, in the inter-war period and in the fifties and sixties, for the most part they left out those vital but intangible features known as character and atmosphere. Many of those pubs are now gone, and the vast majority of those that remain have been altered beyond recognition.


  1. Martin, Cambridge28 August 2013 at 17:47

    No pub is perfect, and a small change in the customers over an evening can dramatically affect your perception of atmosphere.

    Must just say, the Red Bull on Hillgate was pretty close to perfect when I visited early evening last week, though the Unicorn wasn't quite. I seem to have overlooked what is, I presume, a Robbie's flagship.

  2. The Red Bull is a lovely pub, and sometimes has good "atmosphere". It is a last bastion of a certain type of Robbies' Stockport town centre pub that was numerous when I came of age - but which are all gone now - The Rock House; The Three Tunnes; The Unity; The Manchester Arms; The Royal Oak and The Spread Eagle. I don't go in it as much as I'd like too because of the price of Robinsons' beer, and because of the likely probability that that beer will be not at its best!

  3. I was in the Red Bull at the end of a Stagger a couple of weeks ago. The refurb has been very nicely done, but I can't help recalling the quirky and awkwardly laid out but highly characterful original with its outside bogs. It's in the current GBG so the beer must be considered up to scratch.

  4. Martin, Cambridge28 August 2013 at 23:59

    I only know the Spread Eagle which I remember as extremely eccentric but which closed after my visit about 10 years ago? Agree about outside bogs. My local (Punch owned, Beer Guide) has remarkable Aussie outback-style gents which make overindulgence a necessity.

    The Unicorn was Beer Guide standard but not special, though come to think of it I've only been blown away by the Hatters. What's the best place for Unicorn ?

  5. There must be something special about British pubs. I have never really enjoyed them - their restricted range of drinks, ridiculous pricing for soft drinks and intolerance of children and women are probably the keys. They always struck me as ramparts behind which intolerant men with nicotine addiction could solve the problems of the world.

    I have just returned from 3 weeks in Portland and Seattle in the USA, where no one in my heaqring inveighed dismally against an anti-smoking ban killing pubs; where the p-ubs were mostly full of happy people; where you can get decently-priced pub grub (no gastro-dicking about); where you have a choice from , in some places 8 types of beer, and in others from a menu of 50...and they will do a shandy, which is not on the list, on request, and children are recognised as citizens. And, only one lager at most on the list of beers, which would rule out a massive proportion of British pubs.

    The British pub needs to get out more and get into the 20th century and then maybe it can get into the 21st century.

  6. Graeme: your description of the English pub is an out of date
    stereotype, but, like most stereotypes, there is a grain of truth. I see nothing wrong with your appreciation of American drinking places, but it's a cheap trick to praise what you like by hurling abuse at what you see as its opposite.

  7. Bang on Graeme, you’re not wrong.

    Mudge, you have an overly romantic view of pubs which allows you to forgive those elements of the pub and pub experience that are poor. You may fall in love regardless, but I don’t think most people do.

    I think most people are more dispassionate about them and capable of upping sticks and going elsewhere very easily. If you look at the retail experience of establishments like Tesco’s it has changed radically over the years and decades in order to compete for custom. The pub industry has been stuck in a time warp. The ever decreasing number of customers and decline of the industry speaks volumes to the degree they fail to meet the needs of the modern consumer.

    Whilst I appreciate you dislike the corporate feel of good old Spoons, part of their success is the retail experience they offer. Clarity of pricing, wide choice of drinks beyond beer, clean bogs, card payment. People even forgive the slow bar service.

    Many pubs appear to operate on a punters get what there given and should be grateful approach, and that no longer cuts it.

    If you look at Robbie’s pubs, they are all pricey in regard to the general market, but some are nice, smart and modern and the missus would go in one, and some are grot holes that have me asking why I would pay that when the Smiths or Spoons is less grotty and cheaper, if I fancy a down at heal bit of working class tradition.

    In the photo you show, you’d only go in that boozer thinking it was a joke, it’s not really like that, the landlord has a sense of humour. If you went in and it was like that, you’d drink up sharpish and buggar off.

    Sadly I think pub and beer enthusiast are among the least able to accurately judge pubs. If you love pubs, know the offer & prices it is difficult to walk in and view it with the dispassionate eyes of a new customer and wonder why some beards gave an award to a boozer with indifferent service, grotty bogs, unclear prices, weirdo regulars and a drinks offer that only becomes apparent when you’ve walked the length and breadth of the place prior to going to the bar.

  8. Ah yes, I thought of you, Cookie, while writing this one.

    The Pol Pot of pub commentary, the man who would happily knock Chatsworth down and replace it with a theme park.

    Some people like pubs to be antiseptic, wipe-clean, standardised, corporate, stripped of any last vestige of individuality or character. Others don't.

  9. Would this theme park have clear prices,an ability to pay with a card and be hygienic enough not to worry about catching something?

  10. Cookie, there is one reason and one reason alone why people go to Spoons: cheap grog. Nice bogs, card payment etc pale into insignificance. If Spoons charged the same as other pubs, they'd have closures. On the other hand, some people would rather pay a bit more to drink in a place with some character, which doesn't inevitably mean disease-ridden lavvies. As for card payments, I can't think of any pubs that don't accept them these days.

  11. Do you fall in love with the place Bill, and consider it a member of your family, learning to love the place despite any deficiency? Writing love poems and sonnets about the gaff like Mudge does?

    Or have you made a more logical, dispassionate choice regarding what offer you like, what you don't like and then moved your custom accordingly, changing boozers when the offer changes ?

  12. Bill: I've just come from Whitby where the new Spoons charges prices close to the norm, and it was heaving all week. Even leaving the Sam Smiths pubs to one side, it wasn't the cheapest in town. Price is a significant factor, but not the only one.
    Also, I know quite a few pubs that still don't accept cards, including one that used to but doesn't any more. That doesn't bother me, as I prefer to pay cash for beer anyway.

    CL: "Sadly I think pub and beer enthusiast are among the least able to accurately judge pubs", which implies you are able to judge pubs accurately, but you are just as influenced by your preferences as any such enthusiast. You have your criteria of a good pub, I have mine, and Curmudgeon has his. Anyone who suggests that his or her view is the definitive one, as you did in the quote above, is arrogant. I always thought you were a mickey taker, not an arrogant boor.

  13. "What's the best place for Unicorn?"

    In my recent experience, the most consistently good Robbies' in and around Stockport has been in the Armoury in Edgeley. Sensibly, they stick to three beers - 1892, Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde - so they have the turnover to keep them in good nick.

  14. It's interesting that Cookie, apart from his obvious liking for Wetherspoon's (which is a bit like holding a Kia Cee'd up as the acme of automotive design), never seems willing to put forward anywhere as an example of good practice.

  15. @Nev saying you are ill equipped to tame lions is not the same as claiming that I am.

    @Mudge that’s ‘cos so many pubs are grotty dumps, if I ever find one worth recommending to you I shall, though I doubt you would consider it a recommendation knowing your dislike of families, pork pie, footie, lout, red onion jus, and any actual signs of life.

  16. @Cookie, I have been known to fall in love with pubs (no sonnets though) but I have also fallen out of love. I have ditched pubs because they changed the beer to something I couldn't stomach, because I moved to just outside walking distance and because the landlord and landlady started behaving like arseholes. I am smitten with my current local (no kids, dogs welcome, bench seats, the whole nine yards) but this could change if the pub changes.
    @RedNev, haven't been to Whitby for years, shame because it's a lovely place. Can't argue with what you say but if there are proper pubs cheaper than Spoons it sounds even better.
    As far as cards are concerned, I can only speak for my area (Bristol and the South-West generally) but I really can't think of anywhere that doesn't take them. Perhaps this is untypical of the rest of the country.

  17. "Nev saying you are ill equipped to tame lions is not the same as claiming that I am."

    Yes, but pompous sayings like that doesn't mean your judgment is in any way superior to anyone else's. You really are full of yourself, aren't you?

  18. A lot of the pubs in Preston are the ones like Cookie describes. I have to travel to Lancaster to find one poncy and expensive enough to be seen in. My shirts would get me beaten up in most places in Preston. Not to mention the ever-present threat of Wainwright.

  19. now I am back in the UK...where do I go to take my family to a friendly place with reasonable (non-gastro) food - there was a place in Portland Oregon where they serve cheese on toast -with a choice of beer that does not involve 6 essentially identical brands of lager?

    And the decline of pubs is about the smoking ban.......yawn

  20. There are loads of family dining "pubs" operated by Greene King, Marstons, Brewer's Fayre etc.


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