Monday 2 September 2013

Trying to make sense of it all

I recently wrote about the third anniversary of my Closed Pubs blog and made the comment that “it’s all kinds of pubs – estate pubs, suburban roadhouses, country pubs, village pubs, urban locals, edge-of-town pubs, market town pubs.” However, it can’t be purely random, so I’ve taken a long hard look at the closed pubs I had included on the blog and seen for myself to try to work out whether there was any clear pattern that could be discerned. And some obvious trends did become apparent.

The most obvious is that pubs in working-class areas have suffered worst. In a sense, this is inevitable, as historically most pubs have mainly catered for working-class drinkers but, even so, it seems to be disproportionate. Such areas have been most vulnerable to depopulation and redevelopment, the decline of traditional industries, changes in ethnic mix and the growing gulf between pub and off-trade prices. Smoking prevalence is also much higher amongst working-class people. Within this area, pub closures can be divided into a number of categories:

  • Areas of traditional Victorian terraced housing

  • Inner-city housing “projects”, many of which have now pretty much lost all their pubs

  • Council estates in general

  • Areas on the edge of town centres with a mix of housing and small factories and workshops

  • Smaller industrial towns with no tourist appeal or regional shopping function – for example my original home town of Runcorn

Second is that big pubs, whether estate pub or roadhouse, are more vulnerable than little ones. They are more attractive for residential redevelopment or conversion to convenience stores, they cost more to run, they need more customers to make them viable and many of them were probably never all that appealing in the first place. For example, in Withington in South Manchester, the massive White Lion and Manor House (ex-Golden Lion) have shut down, but smaller pubs like the Albert, Turnpike and Victoria are still going strong.

Third, and maybe counter-intuitively, isolated pubs in residential areas have suffered worse than those grouped with others. People often say “but it’s the only pub for a mile around” but clearly that hasn’t saved it. In some cases, these pubs have struggled to balance the needs of various customer groups, but it shows that the idea that people come home from work, have their tea and then go out for a few drinks at their local is not necessarily the standard pattern of pubgoing. Many pub visits are generated for reasons other than there being a pub on the doorstep, and chimneypots are no guarantee of survival, whereas pubs often seem to prosper by being part of a “circuit”. This applies to a number in areas of Victorian housing as well as those on 20th century estates. For example, returning to Withington, the Cotton Tree, which was in an area of housing about half a mile from the village centre, with no other nearby pubs, has closed down, but there are still five pubs in fairly close proximity in the centre.

The class factor works the other way too, as there seem to be some areas that are quite simply too upmarket to sustain pubs. For example, we have seen the closure of the Bleeding Wolf in Hale, Corbans (ex-Unicorn) in Halebarns (shown above) and the Royal Oak in Alderley Edge, all locations with no shortage of either spending money or potential customers living nearby. The residents may well socialise in restaurants or each other’s houses, but they no longer do it in pubs.

Market towns in general do not seem to have suffered too badly, likewise the smaller and more isolated coastal resorts. Possibly the existence of a captive market is a factor here, if the nearest big town is too far away to be easily reached for a night out, while they may also function as a hub for surrounding villages. Even here, though, the demise of traditional coaching inns is very noticeable, and peripheral pubs have suffered more than those in the centre.

The growing unwillingness to drink and drive even within the legal limit has undoubtedly led to a general thinning-out of pubs in villages and rural areas although, depending on the available catchment area, some have carved out a new niche by going all out for the upmarket “country dining pub” trade – but that is a lot more fickle than local boozers and really only as dependable as the last meal served.

Even so, in most areas there still seems to be a smattering of all-purpose and wet-led pubs, suggesting that the available trade has reduced rather than entirely disappeared. Ironically, this often means that pubgoers end up driving further than they used to. I can’t think of any rural areas that have been largely denuded of pubs in the way that some inner-city areas have been, although I believe this may have happened in some of the remoter, non-touristy parts of East Anglia. Some pubs seem to get into a downward spiral of frequent changes of licensee and format, eventually resulting in closure, whereas those with more continuity and a clear sense of purpose have remained in business.

In contrast, there are three distinct types of area where pubs and bars continue to thrive and indeed grow in numbers:

  • The centres of large cities which also function as entertainment hubs for the surrounding area. This includes Manchester, but not any of its major satellite towns such as Bolton and Stockport. The inner London pub market seems to have become completely detached from the rest of the country.

  • Major towns and cathedral cities which are substantial tourist draws in their own right, such as Bath and York, although even here you will see the typical pattern of pub decline in the suburbs and on peripheral estates.

  • Middle-class residential urban enclaves, typically with a high proportion of workers in the education, media and healthcare sectors, such as Chorlton and to a lesser extent Didsbury in Manchester, and similar areas in other major cities. Chorlton has seen one of the most dramatic expansions of bar numbers anywhere, many of which serve interesting beer.
But, across the generality of struggling, workaday, provincial Britain, the pub sector has witnessed a drastic retrenchment in the past fifteen or so years that once would simply not have been conceived as credible. I don’t propose here to get into the debate as to what extent the lost pubs have been replaced by “bars” or other types of licensed outlet, but that large numbers of once viable and often prominent pubs have closed is indisputable.


  1. In sunny Bradford - and I suspect some other areas too - there's a further factor. Bradford's working class is now overwhelmingly Muslim and they don't drink (or rather they don't drink in pubs - almost all the Asians I know drink).

  2. I did mention "changes in ethnic mix". This was put forward off-the-record by a Hydes brewery representative as one of the reasons for the decline of the Gateway in South Manchester - which actually is in a more middle-class type of area. That has since been taken over by Wetherspoons but I wouldn't say it is thriving.

  3. Walking through some of the more ethnically diverse areas of Notts, I've noticed something I've never seen before: alcohol-free pubs packed full of (mainly) Muslims, playing pool, socialising and watching Sky sports.

  4. I've noticed that the pubs that have closed since the smoking ban are wet-leaning pubs that people don't go to pull in.

    So, town centre bars are safe because people go to pull. They don't have any choice but to go out to those bars in order to pull.

    Food pub/restaurants are safe, because they're unaffected by the smoking ban, or may even find food sales increase. In reality, they're not really pubs now.

    And while there were some closures before the smoking ban, for various reasons, such as locals moving out of villages and being replaced by the middle classes, drink-driving laws and plain bad management, it's the smoking ban. I can point people at well-managed pubs that were booming a decade ago that are now struggling to survive, because a certain amount of regular, reliable trade, the bread and butter of the pub has gone.

    Having been to France recently, I realised that we are about to have the same food and drink culture as that country: a mix of cafes and the odd little boozer in towns (the latter mostly serving at lunchtime and after work), and lots of restaurants in the country.

  5. Have you done the sums around closure grouped by Tied Houses/Free Houses/national Chain run pubs/etc ?

    Is it too rose tinted a view that in the past many tied houses barely broke even but breweries kept them open for nostalgic reasons or to keep a rival out of the area. But, once corporate chains picked up the pubs through buy-outs they all had to stand on their own feet and are shut down as soon as they don't make a certain level of profit (or even fail to grow on previous quarter/year's profits)

  6. What you're describing is a state of entropy. A slow inevitable decay. To find a pattern, one must measure first then use a Bayesian method to extrapolate. Physics innit?

  7. Interesting that you say Manchester Center "but not any of its major satellite towns such as Bolton and Stockport" - interesting that you pick those two examples - while they might not be the kind of pubs that you and I would frequent regularly and they may be predominately focussed on the extended weekend drinker, Bolton is a world apart from the ghost town that is Stockport after dark.

    Equally Ashton, Rochdale & Altrincham may be comatose, but Oldham, Sale & Bury seem to me to be doing pretty well in keeping a viable night-time economy going.

  8. These towns may be keeping a viable night-time economy but that hasn't prevented them seeing a number of pub closures in and around the central area - Oldham certainly has.

    Incidentally, I don't think there's a single "new bar" anywhere within the Stockport inner ring road.

  9. Martin, Cambridge3 September 2013 at 17:46

    Very interesting piece.

    In support of your main argument, I'd also say that an increasing number of suburban pubs many pubs no longer open at lunchtime, with Stockport market place a particular beer desert when I visited a couple of Mondays ago (Sam's pubs apart).

    Talking of tourist cathedral towns, three of the pubs I wanted to visit in Salisbury last mid-week lunchtime were closed, and the open ones had minimal custom (except the Spoons). Ten miles south, the End of the Road music festival sold out of all it's real ales half-way through, reflecting the preferences of the largely 20+ and 50+ audience.

  10. I think the only open pubs on Stockport Market Place now are the Baker's Vaults and Boar's Head. The Bull's Head is closed and the Pack Horse seems to be in the last chance saloon. The Arden and Spoons would be open, though.

    Salisbury in my experience is nothing like the tourist draw of Bath, Chester or York and apart from the cathedral close is a bit disappointing.

  11. Some interesting trends reported here, Curmudgeon. I'm not really surprised at the demise of the large, inter-war roadhouse type of pub as, although Geoff Brandwood and English Heritage might disagree, these places were pretty souless and lacking in character at the best of times. They were also, as you point out, far too large to remain vaiblee now that trade has dropped off.

    They were also an artificial creation, dreamt up by brewers during the 1920's and 30's who were anxious to present what they believed Licensing Magistrates would view as "respectable establishments". This move towards large pubs, catering for a wide cross section of the community, was even called the "Improved Pub Movement".

    Other areas you mention, such as pub sites being attractive to developers, and people increasingly concerned about not driving even whilst staying within the legal limit, are both significant factors in reducing the pub stock in this neck of the woods.

    I could list quite a long list of local pubs lost to re-development (either housing, or supermarket conversion) and, just across the county border from here, Sussex Police are well known for lying in wait close to isolated rural pubs, and then using the flimsiest of excuses to pull motorists over and breathalyse them. Even if one is well under the drink-drive limit this can still be a hear-stopping moment, and not surprisingly the practice (which borders on legality), has led to a number of rural pubs going out of business.

    One other point you raised deserves further attention, and that is "continuity". This is a very important factor in deciding whether a pub remains viable or not. No-one really likes change, especially when it seems to be occuring with monotonous regularity. Unfortunately there are still significant numbers of people going into the pub trade, either with their eyes closed or, people who are totally unsuited to the long hours and social skills it takes to run a good pub.

    Finally, I believe that despite claims about the effect, or otherwise, of the smoking ban, there has been a significant change in people's habits and behaviour; changes in the way they choose to spend their leisure time and the way in which they socialise and interact with one another. This, probably more than anything else, is what has led to the decline in pub-going and the closure of all these pubs.

  12. The town of Nelson in Lancashire has many closed pubs, it's the worst-hit town I know. There are only two pubs still trading. The reason is a mixture of all of the above plus the "ethnic mix" of the town; it is full of Pakistanis. Lately there have been some Polish immigrants to the town; these people drink a lot, put not in pubs - rather in parks or on benches on the streets.

    The next town, Colne, is completely different with many varied types of pubs and it has suffered hardly any losses. The rural area surrounding Nelson has many thriving pubs too; this is a beautiful, but overlooked, part of the country.

    Also, I think the Pack Horse in Stockport is shut and has been for over a week, whether for good or temporarily I don't know.

  13. Martin, Cambridge4 September 2013 at 17:50

    That explains the Pack Horse anyway. To be fair it may have been close to 3pm when I got to the Market Place, but the air of closure was still a bit sad given how gorgeous central Stockport is (no irony intended).

    I agree about Colne. We admired some gorgeous old buildings and Pendle views from the Spoons and that other basic but fabulous beer guide pub last month. Colne looked quite affluent, which I doubt it is.


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