Sunday 13 March 2016

Drinking in a goldfish bowl

One of the most obvious changes that has taken place in pubs over the past couple of decades is the wholesale removal of etched, frosted and stained glass windows. The thinking behind this is very simple, that it allows potential customers to see inside and thus get an idea of what they’re going to encounter once they cross the threshold. It’s very noticeable that Wetherspoons’ shop conversions tend to have floor-to-ceiling windows just as a shop would.

I know from experience that, in the past, you were often taking pot luck when walking into an unfamiliar pub because you had no idea what to expect. I remember once, when I was a fresh-faced student, walking into a pub in Leicester which was absolutely rammed and where the minimum age of the customers was probably over 50. I’d probably love it now, although I doubt whether it’s still there. There also used to be a feeling that pubs were dens of ill-repute which impressionable people, especially children, shouldn’t be allowed to see inside. I’m not aware that this was ever a legal requirement, but it still is for betting shops where, of course, under-18s are not permitted.

However, there are major downsides to this trend. Much high-quality original glasswork has been lost, probably just ending up dumped in a builder’s skip. And, from the point of view of the customer, you don’t really want people in the street gawping in at you, or to be constantly distracted by the sight of lorries and double-decker buses turning just a few yards away. Also, part of the appeal of pubs has always been that they are a cosy refuge from the stresses and pressures of daily life.

Surely pub operators should show more respect for the heritage of the buildings in their possession, and recognise that a touch of seclusion is desired by many pub customers. Maybe a compromise would be to have frosted panels that hide the heads of seated customers, but still allow those standing in the street to see over them.

One particular local pub that deserves praise on this front is the Armoury in Edgeley, Stockport. A few years ago, this received a fairly sensitive refurbishment that left it with clear glass windows, albeit with slatted blinds. However, reproduction frosted panels were later restored, as shown in the photo, which improve its appearance and also help the customers inside to forget that it’s situated on a busy roundabout.

The photo below (courtesy of Martin Taylor) shows the Board Inn in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, which retains some impressive stained glass windows, probably from the early years of the twentieth century.

These two photos (the second again from Martin) show the Posada in Wolverhampton. I’d guess that this pub originally had frosted windows but, by the time the first was taken, probably in the nineties when it was in Holt, Plant & Deakin livery, these had gone. However, they had been replaced by a curtain that gave drinkers some privacy. The second, on the other hand, shows the front window completely clear, which, to my mind, leaves customers uncomfortably exposed in a pub with a protruding bay on a busy city-centre street.

(any excuse for a cat picture, obviously)


  1. Reinforced plastic is safer for rough Stockport though.

  2. Pubs in Scotland generally do not have windows on to the street at all, rather like sex shops. Sometimes there will be narrow, opaque windows at the top of the frontage, well above head height. Their churches don't usually have stained glass either!

  3. Tricky one. Unless I'm going in irrespective, I like to go in a pub that's neither empty or packed (many folk use same criteria in picking a restaurant). On the other hand I understand the desire to be away from the world in a pub, and those frosted windows are beautiful.

  4. I'm on holiday in Knaresborough this week, so this is a serendipitous post to steer my way. Frosted or stained usually leaves enough to see whether the silhouettes look dodgy I find. One work lunchtime over a decade ago I went into the Black Boy in Wythenshawe. I don't recall having a chance to see what the interior looked like otherwise I wouldn't have gone in. I went in wanting to ask whether they did food and order half a pint. By the time I got to the bar I found myself ordering a double scotch. I would have appreciated advance warning.

    As far as I remember the Posada is long and thin, so only a few patrons get forced to be ship mannequins, and the Posada needs to advertise.

  5. What a delicate lot we are. If you don't like the look of a pub after you've entered, why not just turn around and walk out? After all, you'd have no compunction about doing that in a shop.

    I can think of one or two pubs that have restored frosted glass, having previously removed it.

  6. Just round the corner from The Armoury in Stockport, Ye Olde Vic takes obscured windows to another level.

    1. Ye Olde Vic used to do a very good job of suggesting to the passer-by that it was closed entirely. It looks rather more welcoming now than it that pic, though.

  7. I love the mystery factor of not having a clue what a pub is going to be like when I enter. I like dark pubs too so give me blackout curtains or murky etched glass.

    The idea that if you choose the door on the right, you will be greeted like a long lost friend by a bunch of strangers, but if you chose the door in the left, you might be stabbed in the face.

    Wonderful stuff, just as pubs should be.

    1. Less of a problem now that so many pubs have been knocked through, but in the past it could often be a lottery as to which door you went in. In some pubs, the famous Ma Pardoe's being a good example, the public bar was the heart of the pub and nobody went in the tiny lounge at the back. On the other hand, in many pubs any casual customers would be expected to use the lounge, and if you ventured into the public bar you would stared at.

    2. Simon makes a good point about the joy of surprise. I appreciate that in a pub I'm going in, but I quite like glancing in pubs to see what's going on; too nosey for my own good

      Guessing which entrance will take you to the room with people on it, or the handpumps, is all part of the fun.


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