Monday, 23 May 2016

Digging for gold

When CAMRA was formed, it already knew of all the traditional breweries and beers still in existence in the UK, partly due to the pioneering work of Frank Baillie and his Beer Drinker’s Companion. There were no obscure little backwoods producers with a handful of tied pubs still to be discovered. However, despite the emphasis put on the destruction of pub interiors in Christopher Hutt’s The Death of the English Pub, the same could not be said of our pub stock.

CAMRA was quick to establish a Pub Preservation Group, and there were a number of high-profile campaigns where historic pubs were threatened by the bulldozer. It soon became clear that many of the classic inns well-known for their distinguished exteriors had in fact been thoroughly gutted inside, and that true untouched interiors were often to be found in outwardly plain and little-known pubs.

In the 1980s, a more systematic approach was adopted, with the PPG morphing into the Pub Heritage Group, and the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors being formally ebtablished. This was quite clear that the prime consideration for inclusion was the intactness of the original pub interior, however plain and humble it might be, and the architectural quality of the exterior alone was irrelevant.

Surveying was very much a case of following up suggestions that “Pub X is very traditional – why not go and take a look?” I remember doing a number of pub exploring trips with John Clarke from which we can certainly claim credit for verifying the credentials of the Duke of York at Elton in Derbyshire (pictured at top) and the Vine at Pittshill, Stoke-on-Trent. Both of these very special pubs are fortunately still with us. On the other hand, some leads turned out to be completely worthless, with us wondering what on earth possessed someone to suggest them in the first place.

The National Inventory has expanded to include a “second division” of pubs that retain significant original features, although far from entirely intact, and Regional Inventories of pubs that, while broadly unspoilt, don’t quite achieve the exacting standards of the main list. Even so, it’s a sobering thought that only around a thousand pubs are covered, about 2% of the total in the country. 98% of pubs have been so altered over the years that little of their original character remains, or are modern creations that never had any in the first place.

In recent years, there have been a number of new additions in Scotland, which have typically been long-standing keg-only pubs that people from CAMRA rarely even visited, let alone realised their architectural significance. There are probably now very few left to be discovered, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. Typically they would be pubs in rather off-the-beaten track locations, in suburban backwoods, small non-tourist towns or the deep countryside, that have rarely if ever sold real ale, and which have never caught the eye of someone with a feel for pub interiors.

One relatively recent addition is Sam Smith’s Turnpike in Withington, which has a remarkably intact early 1960s internal refit, and for long was keg-only. When CAMRA was formed, it would probably have been considered modernistic and worthless.

CAMRA have produced an attractive and lavishly-illustrated book of Britain’s Real Heritage Pubs, available at a very reasonable £9.99. It was published in 2011, but dates a lot more slowly than the Good Beer Guide. I’d say it’s an essential for any pub-lover’s bookshelf. To me, the whole project is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things CAMRA has achieved. Determined neophytes may of course find it of little interest, which of course is their right.

The National Inventory is something that could also set a challenge for completists. It currently comprises 270 pubs, spread across the country, some in remote rural locations, but most in urban areas and readily accessible by public transport. Not easy, but quite doable. I’ve never had the “spotter” motivation, but I have always aimed to seek out National Inventory pubs if in the vicinity, and have rarely been disappointed. In a sense, I’ve almost used it as a guide to proper, traditional pubs that I might like, although inclusion is no guarantee of quality, and I was very disappointed last year by the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen, a terrible pub in a characterful building.

I was perhaps surprised to find out I had only done 55 of the 270, but that does include the Bush House in Bushmills, County Antrim, which I bet you’ve never been to! I’d also be surprised if there are many people beyond those involved in its creation who have visited more.


  1. I've been to the Bush House, and luckily my wife was driving (pregnancy has some side benefits for the man). Quite special, and some very drunk locals.

  2. Yes, researching the National Inventory was great fun. I did quite a lot of fieldwork in Birmingham and there were some right duffers among the leads there. The (now-closed) Gate in Bordesely is in my all time top 10 worst pubs ("Topless barmaid Janine every Friday 7-9pm". Needless to say that's when me and my pal Alan turned up. And she couldn't pull a decent pint but I guess that wasn't the point).

  3. We would be appalled if large numbers of the population lived in rickety old draughty buildings. We appreciate modern building with central heating, modern plumbing etc.

    Why do people want to drink in a rickety old building or impose it on a pub manager?. You want safe electrics, decent plumbing, heating, room for disabled toilets. A 21st century standard.

    On a small island you need to knock the old crap down to make the space for the new stuff which in time will itself be replaced. If you want to educate the kids at how crap old building were, take some photos, put it in a book and maybe keep one for a museum.

    There is no permanence. That is not the reality of our existence. Everything is process. Entropy shows us the constant change and decay. Buddhism knew this before science. There can be no permanence in a universe where any and all objects decay from one microsecond to the next.

    1. And there was me going to buy you a gift membership of the Natoinal Trust for your birthday.

      You might have noticed, though, that the older the house, the more it tends to sell for.

  4. Ah, but, Cookie, we fear change. All change portends our own death. Isn't it?

  5. Britain’s Real Heritage Pubs is currently being updated ( not sure when it will be out)as the list is constantly changing with additions and deletions. When on my travels i use this book for reference purposes more so than the GBG. Due to the splendid nature of some of the pubs it really is a delight to find some marvelous unspoilt interiors that i would never have come across

  6. Just totted up and I have been to 60, and I have nothing to do with the listings! But the book is fantastic, all credit to those concerned and I can only echo the comments above, my visit to the Railway Tavern in Kincardine is something I shall never forget. Look forward to the new edition and some more regional guides, especially the North West.

  7. To save me trawling through the NI website, are the 270 pubs you mention the “top-flight” ones, or does that number include the “also rans” as well?

    I must admit I’m attempting to knock a few off the list, as I travel around the country, and have got a couple planned for this weekend’s visit to Norfolk.

    1. The 270 (which are listed in the back of the book) are Part A and Part B of the National Inventory, i.e. complete and partial interiors of national importance. They don't include any of the regional listings.

      Incidentally, having gone through the list again, I make it 73 that I've visited. I thought 55 was a bit of an underestimate - I must have missed a page.

      If you regularly visited central London, it would be pretty easy to knock off another twenty or so.


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