At the local CAMRA branch meeting the other day, one member expressed his disappointment on having visited Glossop on a weekday lunchtime, only to find the highly-regarded Star Inn firmly closed. This is despite it being situated right opposite the station in the centre of a busy town. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Stockport town centre at lunchtime, and thought I would pay a call in the Petersgate Tap, which I hadn’t yet been in. But, again, the shutters were firmly down, so I still haven’t. This illustrates the problem, which I have written about in this month’s Opening Times column, of never knowing when pubs are going to be open.
In the first eleven years of my drinking career, pubs adhered to specified hours, with a mandatory afternoon break. Sometimes they didn’t open for every single permitted hour, in particular often opening later on Saturday evenings, and in the South, where the official hours allowed opening at 10 or 10.30 in the morning, often leaving it for another hour. But it was so rare as to be noteworthy that a pub didn’t open for any one of the fourteen sessions each week. If you wanted to visit a pub, you could be pretty confident it would be open when it was supposed to be. I remember doing a Good Beer Guide survey of one Bass Charrington pub in Surrey where the manager made a point of saying that he was open “all permitted hours”.
In the early years of all-day opening, from 1988 onwards, it could often be difficult to find pubs open during the afternoon. But, maybe prompted by the rise of Wetherspoons and other national chains, all-day opening steadily became more commonplace from the early 90s onwards, to the extent that in the centres of big towns and cities it is now the norm.
However, in areas with more of a local clientele and less footfall, it was hard to justify the extra staff and utility costs, and the trend began to turn the other way, with lunchtime opening being steadily curtailed. Often this is just Monday to Thursday or Friday, but sometimes seven days a week. For example, in the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge, only two of the six pubs are open at lunchtimes Monday to Friday, and three of the remaining four do not open before 2 pm on any day of the week. This kind of pattern of opening is now commonplace across large swathes of the country. I would say, though, that it is largely a phenomenon of the present century, and in particular the past ten years. In the earlier days of relaxed licensing hours it remained rare.
Now, I don’t for a minute wish to criticise any pub that chooses to open restricted hours, so long as they take reasonable steps to make it clear what their hours actually are. There’s no point in opening when there is negligible custom, and every extra hour of opening represents a significant increase in staff costs. It’s entirely understandable why many micropubs choose very limited hours, so that they can effectively be run by one person or a couple.
But I can’t help thinking that the pub trade has lost something from opening hours no longer being at all predictable. It’s still the case that you can normally expect shops to be open, roughly speaking, from about 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, Monday to Saturday. They may vary it a little, and some independent shops may close one day a week, but you don’t tend to come across shops that open at two in the afternoon.
Obviously pubs are different from shops, and rely much more on regular trade, but even so you often have no idea when they are going to be open unless you check first. By definition, anyone aiming to explore pubs outside their local area will generally tend to be doing so at lunchtimes or in the afternoon, when they are increasingly likely to be shut. And I’d say that casual drinking, by members of the general public, as opposed to beer geeks, has greatly diminished over the past few decades. Across the country, most pubs are much less likely to see unfamiliar drinking customers than they once were. It must also be said that closing at lunchtimes because there’s no trade all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I fully understand the economic reasons behind it. But the loss of predictable opening hours is, overall, a significant detriment to the pub trade.
A related point is how the traditional afternoon closure seems to have persisted much more in the South than the North. Looking in the Good Beer Guide, none of the first twenty entries for Greater Manchester follow this pattern, either opening all day, or from 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I can’t think of a single pub in my area that opens at lunchtime but closes in the afternoon. But quite a number in Somerset do, including the second in the listings, the Ring o’Bells at Ashcott.