Sunday 13 April 2014

Faith in the future

We are often told that the British pub is in headlong decline, with a tidal wave of closures and pubgoing increasingly becoming irrelevant to the majority of people. However, our two largest British-owned brewers, Greene King and Marston’s, are bucking this trend by opening large numbers of new-build pubs, which are generally pretty big establishments, not dinky little niche bars. They don’t get the recognition they deserve, though, as they’re family-oriented dining pubs located on retail and leisure parks, and thus far from the CAMRA stereotype of community local or multi-beer alehouse.

My namesake (actually Paul Mudge) writes of one in Stafford on the CAMRA forum (registration required):

At a time when CAMRA quite rightly criticises the loss of pubs for conversion to other uses, such as ‘supermarkets’ ( which are neither ‘super’ nor ‘markets’ ), maybe CAMRA should do more to congratulate those companies whose confidence in the brewing and pub industries extends to building and opening new pubs. I would suggest that the three ‘New National Brewers’ are investing the most in new build pubs and a week ago Greene King opened one 2½ miles from my house. It is just half a mile from the county town’s Market Square and is the first proper pub, rather than a bar as part of a larger development, to be built in the town for nearly thirty years when the then Big Six National Brewers dominated the industry.

This new pub is well designed with plenty of the natural light that is sadly missing from those soulless high street drinking barns cheaply converted from premises such as a redundant Woolworths site, and as a spacious building on a large site it has plenty of room for toilets on the ground floor which many of us appreciate. Three cask beers were on the handpumps including Greene King IPA (winner of the Bitter category and overall runner up at CAMRA's 2004 Champion Beer Of Britain Awards) at just £1.99 a pint which is a good 10% cheaper than would be paid at either of the nearby ‘pubs’ of a chain reputed to offer low prices. It was no surprise that there’s an emphasis on food, much of which I fear will be microwaved, but the menu looked inexpensive, the beer and burger at £4.99 or two meals for £8.49 for example probably indicating the best value pub in town.

I have written about the recently-opened local example of the chain here. I concluded that it was a lot better than you might expect and in a number of respects, such as natural light, bench seating and general quality of materials, a definite cut above your average Wetherspoon’s.

And there’s a very interesting blogpost here from Phil Mellows about the Sycamore Farm in Burnley (pictured).

This represents an important shift in the make-up of the pub market and in consumer behaviour. It suggests that at least once or twice a week there are thousands of families who, rather than cook and eat at home, will go out for a meal. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed atmosphere and the price-point they need.
But he concludes – a point with which I would entirely concur:
So far, so good, but is this really the only future of the pub? I can't help but look beyond the balance-sheet and worry that to help fund its expansion into this new breed of pub-restaurant Marston's will, by the end of 2015, have sold off 500 other pubs, at least 200 of them earmarked for conversion to supermarkets.

Some thought needs to go into what we might be losing here. Much as I can admire the likes of Sycamore Farm as an industry observer, as a pub-goer I'd never go near the place.

I have visited its sister pub, the Evenwood Farm in Runcorn, a couple of times for meals with family members. Early doors on Friday evening it was absolutely rammed. But I have to say that on both occasions, while the portions were generous to the point of being overfacing, the food was pretty poor even by the standards of chain pub microwave cooking.

I have sometimes been accused by commenters of wanting all pubs to be the same, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I value and celebrate diversity in pubs, but within that I’m quite entitled to say that I prefer one type of pub to another and regret the fact that the sort of pubs I like have steadily declined, while pubs in general tend to increasingly conform to a common stereotype.

These family dining pubs obviously aren’t my kind of pub, and aren’t where I’d choose to go and read the paper on a Sunday lunchtime. But they certainly meet a demand and their success is undeniable. Surely it’s a good thing for the future of the pub trade to get people visiting somewhere that is at least a vague approximation to a pub rather than an establishment that bears no relation to one. Beer enthusiasts sneer at them at their peril.


  1. You're right the modern pub themed family restaurants are so much nicer than pubs, for sure.

  2. Marstons have built two of these places near me - The Bellflower at Garstang and The Brown Hare at Penwortham. Not my kind of places to be honest, but "families" are where the money is. Why make a few quid on old Dave with his pints of Jennings, when you flog all kinds of extras on a meal deal with Mr. and Mrs. Green and their three "lovely" children?

    Pretty soon, the single man will have nowhere to go. It's almost as if they planned it that way...

  3. There's always Spoons - even if he doesn't have a nice bench to sit on.

  4. Do you have bench seating in your living room, mudge, or sofas and cushions, like?

  5. Was in a spoons in Coventry 2 days ago, it was like being in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Why is CAMRA so infatuated with these awful dives. Vouchers anyone?
    As for Greene King, since they destroyed a couple of hundred wrought Iron pub signs in the dead of night replacing them with big garish illuminated plastic, I won't darken their door again.

    GK IPA is pish, awards or no.

  6. Sit on upturned beer crates in my living room, Cookie.

  7. Greene King have just opened a new "family pub" in Bristol amid howls of protest from the neo-prohibitionistas. It's not really my cup of tea but at least you can get a beer of some description in it.
    NB: off to my local in a bit, where I shall sit on a bench seat. I spurn cushions.

  8. Martin, Cambridge13 April 2014 at 20:54

    The beer in the new Marston's and Greene King diners is generally good, due to the number of older real ale drinking diners who keep these places busy. Most of the ales they sell are well known names, and the range is always a sensible size.

    The real variability is, as you say, in the food. 2 for 1 deals are pretty much guarantees of dire quality, even on basics like burgers and chips. At least Wetherspoons can make a decent steak.

  9. Lots of wet-led pubs keep opening in Cambridge because there are lots of people with a bit of cash in their pocket and being pretentious middle class tossers like me, they like old fashioned real ale pubs.

    The issue in other places is probably just that people are still skint from the recession.

  10. I visited a newly built Marstons pub near Norwich, a couple of months ago and wrote about it here.

    Not the sort of place I would go to for a quiet drink, but it does what it says on the tin, and was evidently very popular with diners, given its location on a large retail park.

    Obviously the way to go for Britain's new "National Brewers", which is fine as long as they don't start selling off too much of their stock of traditional pubs in order to pay for such developments.

  11. I'm disappointed, Mudge. I'm a fan of pub sheds and enjoy the various sites dedicated to them. It shows a spirit of recreating something lost in your own back yard. I hoped you'd recreate the pub snug in your living room. Optics on the wall and all that.

    I don't believe you live on up turned beer crates. You are too much the polite average middle aged, middle class chap for that. Allow me to believe you live in one of them pre war houses that turn up every so often on the news. You know, someone dies and the news show that the old chap/lady lived in a house that was last decorated in 1930 and there are no mod cons, everything is pre war. Old B&W telly, transistor radio, all antiques. No washing washing or fridge. Just a larder, outside bog and mangle to rinse out clothes.

    Allow me to believe this.

  12. Pre war transistor radio, Cookle? That would be a find that would annul a couple of Nobel prizes :-)

  13. Is that too modern? In that case vacuum tubes or summat. Everything in black and white is from the same era to me.

    Like them old Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes films where Sherlock is dressed as a Victorian but battling Nazi's in the second world war, and everyone else is dressed for the 1940's but no one bats an eyelid at the Victorian clobber.

    Or even them time travel things you see on you tube of grainy footage and "is this a mobile phone is 1920?"

    I only appreciate flares and kipper ties were post war because old clips of Tiswas are in colour. "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there"

    I now, of course, appreciate being a ugly child, because no radio 1 DJ tried to bum me.

  14. Martin, Cambridge14 April 2014 at 21:01

    py - where are these wet-led pubs that keep opening in Cambridge - the Pint Shop is just a restaurant with craft keg add-on !

  15. Its more that a lot of pubs that had previously shut have reopened in a different guise with a focus on real ale and/or "craft beer". The Pint shop is completely new. I never see anyone eating in there except for the scotch eggs off the bar. Then there is the Brewhouse, the Blue Moon, the Haymakers, the Brunswick, the Carpenters, the Emperor, the Alex, go back a bit further and the Devonshire, etc etc. Even the Earl has started doing 5 real ales.

    The Loco has also reopened after being shut for years, although its a mexican themed bar now. I also hear the Royal Standard has been bought by the Cambridge Blue people and is being converted back from an Indian restaurant into a pub again.

    The pub scene is far from dead here. Wet-led pubs like the Blue, the Kingston, the Elm Tree, the Empress ( I could go on) are always packed to the rafters. There was an attempt to open a Cambridge Tap, and Brewdog have targeted Cambridge for their next round of openings.

  16. Good to see you can book a table for 20 at the wet led pint shop

  17. The feeling I get in Cambridge is that the it's a pretty good market for "destination pubs", whether that means town centre vertical drinking places or beardy real ale pubs. Suburban and village locals still seem to be up against it - unless (like the Carpenters, for instance) they start making a feature of their food.

    In general, I think, we're still willing to go for a big expensive night out, but either we aren't as bothered about heading down to the local for a couple of pints on Tuesday evening, or else we still are but people dropping in for a couple of pints on a Tuesday evening aren't that lucrative compared to the option of building five student flats and a Tesco Metro.

    In fact, isn't that roughly what's happening in a lot of places?

  18. I go into Cambridge every Wednesday and Thursday evening for a few pints after playing squash around 9-10pm. We rotate around about 5-6 different traditional pubs in the Petersfield area.

    I cannot remember the last time I got a seat. Every week without fail, the pubs are absolutely heaving. No-one is eating. 90% of people are drinking real ale or craft beer.

    I don't know as much about Notts, but a lot of the pubs I used to know as struggling rough pubs have been taken over by local breweries and turned into real ale places and are now doing well. Every time I go, there is a real ale festival on. Several pubs have opened in Lincoln too with a craft beer/ real ale vibe and seem to be doing very well.

  19. Obviously everyone’s views will be coloured by their own personal experiences, but I think DaveS is basically right here. As I’ve said before, Cambridge is very untypical of the rest of the country and combines three of the scenarios most favourable to pubs – high student population, tourist magnet and middle-class urban enclave. In most types of areas, the drip-drip of pub closures continues and many of those that remain, particularly the more wet-led ones, are visibly struggling.

    As a counterpoint, try this account of Phil Wieland’s experiences in Parr, a suburb of St Helens, which is about as far from Cambridge pub-wise as you could get. Across much of South Lancs it’s only the new-build eaterie and the town-centre Spoons that are doing good business.

  20. The students don't go to the pubs, they've got their own private bars us plebs aren't allowed in. Most of them are too scared to venture into Petersfield. Tourists mainly stick to the tacky city centre pubs as well.

    Middle class, yes, fair enough. But there are plenty of middle class people in Cheshire too Mudgie - and from what I see of places I go regularly like Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Lincoln, the real ale pubs there seem to be doing alright as well.

    I'm not saying you're wrong that there are many areas that are seriously struggling, but I think its more of a northern thing. The Midlands and the South seems to be doing ok on the pub front at the minute. (Cheshire is really in the midlands of course.)

  21. Actually you know what really helps the pub scene Cambridge? There are two Wetherspoons: one is out of town in the wrong direction and no-one goes there, and the other is a massive Lloyds and is rough as toast and full of chavs.

    10 traditional pubs can survive on the clientele of one barn-like wetherspoons beer-outlet-mall.

  22. Oh, loads of pubs have closed in Cheshire in recent years – I can think of seven, for example, in the prosperous corridor between Warrington and Altrincham, which is well known to me, out of a total of maybe 25. Several of the remaining ones have either had periods of closure or don’t appear to be particularly thriving. In all kinds of areas, too – town centres, suburbs, urban fringe, villages, countryside. The only area I can think of that hasn’t seen significant closures is Chester within and just outside the city walls.

    And a couple of years ago a correspondent sent me 30-odd photos of recently-closed pubs in Burton-on-Trent and surrounding villages.

  23. Py: the Petersfield area is full of exactly the sort of place I mean by "destination pubs", though. It's not the town centre, but it's an area where people from all over town will go for an evening out. Meanwhile other areas are losing pubs - try telling people who used to drink at the Zebra, the Hat and Feathers, the Penny Ferry, the Unicorn, the Five Bells, the Cross Keys, the Rosemary Branch, the Grove, the Osborne Arms, the Blackamoor's Head, the Seven Stars and so on that wet-led pubs in Cambridge are raking it in...

  24. All of which shut down, what between 3-8 years ago in the middle of the recession?

    The ones of those that were still open 5 years ago when I moved to Cambridge were rough as anything. No real ale, just keg beer, a surly barman and a few regulars eyeballing you. No wonder no-one went in them. A lot of them are in industrial estates with no passing trade and no other reason to go there in the evening.

    The Penny Ferry was shut down because it was full of gypos. You can add the Blue Lion to that list as well. Another rough pub, where people quite literally just went for a fight in the car park.
    The Seven Stars was a horrible dive. Another pub near it (will not mention the name) only stays open because it turns a blind eye to IDing U18s.

    But all this is precisely my point. In Cambridge at least, the bad pubs shut, and new pubs open up to take their place. Its economic selection in action.

  25. I have been to The Earl of Derby, The flying pig , The Osborne and a number of other pubs in Cambridge but that was in 2006 before the , erm , recession kicked in. I thought it had a pretty good night life , which I put down to in part because of students and in part because of tech companies, lots of young high earners. Although it also could have been because word got around that I was gracing Cambridge with my presence. I noticed plenty of smokers in plenty of pubs, but as I said that was in 2006 before the , erm, recession, which , erm, killed pubs like no other recession before.

  26. Martin, Cambridge16 April 2014 at 07:18

    py - agree with last point that many pubs in Cambridge closing since smoking ban (24% in five years) weren't great or very welcoming, but still a loss to good folk in the suburbs.

    Don't agree that the relative pub resurgence, welcome as it is, is wet led. Visiting pubs after 9pm you won't see much dining trade. Good point about the relative weakness of the Spoons (though the Tivoli gets rammed with students on food club nights).

  27. I don't have the figures but I would be amazed if the spate of new/refurbished pubs don't make the majority of their takings from drinks. Most of them only have a very cursory menu, some of them don't do food at all.

    These are definitely not your typical Hungry Horse style food led family pubs that it is being implied is the only pub sector in growth.

  28. Very unconvinced by that. Maybe it's true for the Mill Road / East Road area and the centre (although the Pint Shop probably has about twice as much restaurant space as bar space) but those are the sort of areas where people from all over town have traditionally gone for a night out. But outside of those areas, a fairly high proportion of the suburban local type pubs that are still going have significant food offerings - the Wrestlers do Thai food, the Haymakers, and the Red Bull are fairly serious about their pizza, the Carpenters is borderline gastro with a proper restaurant area and table service, the Punter is basically a restaurant, the Brunswick actually is a restaurant afaict...

    And to be honest there's nothing magic about a pub being "wet led" - provided I can still drop in when I fancy a pint and don't want to walk for more than five minutes, I'm quite happy that my local also does good food. Arguably, the "pub themed family restaurant" thing (but actually functioning as a decent pub too) is a possible way forward for struggling suburban pubs...

  29. Is the empress still going off mill road? In the mid 90's I had 2 knee tremblers with 2 different lasses on the same night in there, alongside a skinfull of flowers keg ale & I won 4 games on the trot on the pool table. If I ever achieve anything in life, they could put a blue plague outside it, or summat.

  30. The CAMRA Investments pub - the Salisbury Arms - used to be on Tenison Road off Mill Road.

    From my recollection of Cambridge, that is a classic middle-class urban enclave area. To say the local pubs are thriving is like saying those in Didsbury or Chorlton are thriving - i.e. not really representative of other areas.

  31. Half of England is a middle class enclave if we're honest.

    Yes the Salisbury Arms is still going.

    as is the Empress, great little pub. Real ale, pool table still there, good juke box. They've got a 2nd pub called the Emperor now as well.

    What do we define as "wet led" anyway, simply 51%+ of takings come from drinks?

    In reality, it seems like the difference is more subtle than that.

    The Red Bull is a pub you go for a pint and occasionally have a pizza as well. Its not a pub you go for pizza and occasionally go for a pint.

  32. No, a "middle-class urban enclave" is a very specific type of area - relatively close to the city centre, with predominantly Victorian/Edwardian housing, a high proportion of younger professional workers, many in the education, healthcare and media sectors. Locally to me, that describes Chorlton and Didsbury, but is very untypical of middle-class residential areas in general, many of which have seen pub losses if indeed they had any pubs to start with. It is very much NOT characteristic 1930s suburbia.

  33. So like The Park in Nottingham. Every city has one, the yuppies have to live somewhere.


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