Sunday 17 May 2015

Back to when pubs were pubs

I recently happened to be in Stockport town centre on a weekday lunchtime for an optician’s appointment, and afterwards thought I would call in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head on the market place for a swift pint. I’ve written about this pub before as being a bastion of the old-fashioned wet-led, pint-drinking pub culture, but in general I’ve only visited in the evenings and at weekends.

It doesn’t serve food (although it has in the past) but it was noticeable that, just before one o’clock, and not on a market day, it was busy, with a cluster of drinkers at the bar, and pretty much every table having at least one customer. The vast majority were over fifty, and most would fall into the category of being “down-to-earth”. No doubt most were either retired, unemployed or on disability, and so had time on their hands. I, by the way, am a “semi-retired gentleman of leisure” so am completely different.

The beer feminist sisterhood will no doubt point out that it was also a mostly male clientele, but it did include couples, individual women and all-female groups. I don’t see that the pub is in any way female-unfriendly, though, it’s more a generational thing whereby older women just don’t visit pubs on their own. Many widowed or divorced men will find a bit of social life in the pub, if they can get there, but women will be more inclined to sit at home and feel lonely. Maybe in twenty years’ time that will have changed.

Being a Sam’s pub, it has no piped music or TV sports, which will have encouraged the customers to chat to each other. It’s the kind of pub where complete strangers strike up conversation and even offer to buy each other drinks. The low prices will help, too. For these people, the pub is a key part of their social life, not just somewhere to go for a leisure experience. And, to cap it all, there was a large, fluffy, black-and-white pub cat, fast asleep on a bench and taking up two seats. I was warned not to be too affectionate as it had a tendency to be a bit snappy. You don’t get that in Spoons. The Old Brewery Bitter was pretty good, too.

I’ve often sung the praises of Sam Smith’s pubs in the past – cheap beer, brown decor, bench seating, no piped music, no TV sports, and proper pub customers engaging in proper pub chat. Now, they’re certainly not my ideal pubs – the limited beer range and the fact that the punters would often consider the Daily Mail to be a posh newspaper militate against that. But many other pub operators, in their quest to promote fancy food, music, TV and other distractions, seem to have forgotten what pubs were originally all about. And they have priced themselves out of the reach of many ordinary customers who once saw the pub as a valuable social resource.


  1. Now, that's what dreams are made of!
    Shame I may never experience this type of pub again.

  2. Ditto for this (but perhaps not mention the sisterhood). You're on a bit of s roll at the moment I think.

  3. @Xopher - there are still plenty of pubs like this in the North-West, and by no means all Sam Smith's.

    @John - eventually the dam breaks ;-) But I really don't subscribe to the point that pubs like this are female-unfriendly. There were a couple of feisty women in who would give as good as they got.

  4. Thurston McCrew18 May 2015 at 07:23

    Shouldn't the sisterhood be at home anyway cooking up some tasty viitles for their menfolk ?
    Or at least in the lounge on their own.
    This is where I reckon the Muslims are bang on.

  5. I'm lucky to have a Sams pub near me - the most northerly in England. The Prince of Wales was saved from demolition in 1992 by Humphrey Smith who spent a large amount of money and time fighting the developer and the local authority. Sam Smiths then restored it to the 1927 design of famous pub architect FRN Haswell. The pub dates back to 1674 and was reputedly the local headquarters of the Royal Navy's press gangs. Humphrey Smith might run his empire with a feudal system but you can't knock him for supporting pubs.

  6. Curmudgian -"there are still plenty of pubs like this in the North-West"
    Sadly I live in the deep SouthWest - both my locals are food led with one laying up every table ready for food. My nearest town, 10 miles away and a late night £40 taxi home, has a couple of reasonable pubs catering for Royal Navy types and tourists. There are far too many St Austell Brewery pubs with no life in their beer!
    Wetherspoons are coming so there will be change for the better/worse (delete as appropriate at a future date).

  7. There's a couple of pubs like that in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

    North of the city centre is The Hand And Heart. A traditional pub with an unspoilt 1920s interior. Its the last pub in Peterborough to do so.

    South of the city centre is Palmerston Arms.

    Both are quiet pubs during the day, a great place for conversation and good beer.

    On weekend evenings Hand And Heart does have live music.

    There are also two Sam Smiths pubs in Peterborough. One in the centre and one a short walk from Palmerson Arms.

  8. Professor Pie-Tin18 May 2015 at 16:21

    The Haunch of Venison in Salisbury is a wonderful old,tiny boozer that has managed to maintain its dignity downstairs with a bar catering for old-style drinking and chatting ( no TV,music etc ) while running a rather good restaurant upstairs.

    I am happy for pubs to break their no entertainment rules with Test Match Special on during the summer.

  9. If you struggle to find a seat in a Sams pub, mention you are an inspector from the DHSS tracking down benefit fraud. The gaff clears and you can sit where you like.

  10. Martin, Cambridge18 May 2015 at 23:20

    CyberBeer - of course the Hand and Heart used to be a John Smiths stronghold, and pre-ban there were a good number of wet-led John's pubs north of Peterborough in similar styles to Sams. Gone now.

    Re: Sams and limited choice, surely after a couple in the Boars you just move to Winters for Holts, Arden for Robbies and Spoons for greater choice. Why does a pub need to offer a range of bitters ? (do miss Museum though).

  11. Martin, Cambridge18 May 2015 at 23:22

    By the way Mudge, your tests to prove non-robot status (which of these dishes contain sushi !) are getting tougher, particularly after 4 pints.

  12. Yes, I'm sure I've said that in the past you would get the choice by moving between pubs rather than in the one pub. I wouldn't choose to go in Winters, though, as it's full of people too downmarket for the Sam's pubs.

    The robot tests are out of my control - but I know if I don't have them I get inundated by spam.

  13. I used to be a supervisor in the DSS and used to drink in a pub popular with some benefit claimants. Far from clearing the place, I often ended being asked for benefit advice.

  14. electricpics.-
    Which pub is that? Just to satisfy an old Geordie thousands of miles from home...

  15. @ Peter S - Prince of Wales, just along from North Shields fish quay.

  16. Unless it changes radically, Sam's ultra-conservative beer policy will permanently alienate a substantial sector of the drinking public.

    Given that this is probably the group that spends the most money on beer, it's hard to see their current model and attitude being indefinitely sustainable.

  17. @Ben - this may be another example of how London differs from the rest of the country. I go in quite a few Sam's pubs and in general I'd say they are conspicuously busier than most of the local competition.

    Clearly there is a risk that their current clientele may eventually die off, but in Northern towns and cities that "substantial sector of the drinking public" who may be alienated perhaps isn't that large. Most working-class people couldn't give a toss about craft beer.

    And there's probably a steady churn of people who decide to give up going in the Snooty Fox for the chance of a pull and resign themselves to the cheap beer and banter in the Sam's pub.

  18. The biggest risk to Sams pubs is that Ian Duncan Smith and his benefits changes and sanctions. Thank crikey for food banks.

  19. "Sam's ultra-conservative beer policy"

    in London, they serve 2 bitters, a wheat beer and about 4 different types of lager plus all the bottled stuff. That is better than most pubs I have been in

  20. I think the reference was to the limited choice of cask beer. But, on draught, Sam's pubs can serve:

    2 keg milds
    2 keg bitters
    1 cask bitter
    4 lagers
    1 stout
    1 wheat beer
    1 cider

    which I agree is probably a wider choice than most normal pubs offer. I've never actually seen the keg "Best Bitter", but I think the Boar's Head serves all the rest.


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