Thursday 31 August 2017

Forty years of progress?

The 1978 edition, which came out six months after I turned eighteen, was the first Good Beer Guide I ever bought. It played a formative role in moulding my perceptions of the beer and pub landscape. After a while, I threw it away on the grounds that it was now “out of date”, a decision I later came to regret as it became a fascinating historical record and an insight into a past era of my life. So I recently acquired a copy via eBay, in impressively good condition. As they say, one man’s tat is another man’s treasure.

The cover picture, possibly the most memorable of any GBG, is a map of Great Britain made up of pints of beer, with the same on the back cover, only with beermats. It was the last guide to use the “blob” system for denoting beers, with a pale ring against a brewer’s name indicating bitter and a dark one mild. If a brewer produced more than one, there was a little number inside the blob that you needed to cross-reference to the brewery section at the back. It was also the last for many years to include a location map at the beginning of each county section – the 1979 edition switched to having a mini road atlas in the back with a little symbol against each town or village with a listed pub, which in my view was much harder to use.

It provides an interesting contrast with the 2018 edition, which dropped on to my doormat earlier this week. For a start, the latest one is much thicker – 1032 pages as opposed to 256. The brewery section has expanded from 14 to a staggering 289 pages, and that’s not including the index of beer names. On the other hand, the total number of pubs has fallen from around 5,500 to 4,500, the extra pages being accounted for by longer descriptions and a bigger typeface. The cover price has risen from £1.95 (which, according, to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator would be £10.27 in current prices) to £15.99.

Some of the descriptions are famously terse, such as “An old pub”, “A friendly local”, “An honest alehouse”, but others expand into a kind of poetry. For example, the Crown in Stockport is described as “Spotless museum piece with awesome view of the viaduct from the outside gents”, while of the Victoria in St Annes it says “A totally unspoilt Victorian building which bears some resemblance to a licensed rabbit warren”. Not surprisingly, neither of these statements still apply. Pubs are often described as “smart”, which is not really a term that would be used today. The only smart pubs now are dining pubs.

While the current longer descriptions are potentially much more informative, much of them are given over to guff such as “Standing next to the 10th century St Ethelbald’s church, the Jolly Plover has impressive views over the flood plain of the River Slutch. Lambert Simnel is reputed to have slept here in 1493” which tell you nothing about what the pub is actually like.

There are also some useful little notes about the general real ale situation in some of the towns listed. For example, “Lancaster has 18 Mitchells houses and 17 Yates & Jackson houses; all sell real ale” and “Macclesfield has 8 different brews in more than 60 pubs”.

Opening hours are shown against each location, rather than against individual pubs, and in general pubs stuck fairly religiously to them. If there were any variations, such as opening later in the mornings, or on Saturday evenings, it is noted against the pub. It was ten years before the introduction of all-day opening, but back then it was much easier to get a drink in a pub before noon.

A few towns still had the traditional market day extensions. There were none reported in Cheshire, but in Ormskirk in Lancashire the pubs were open until 4 on Thursdays, while in Ashbourne in Derbyshire you could drink from 10 to 4 on Saturdays in Marston’s White Hart, and in Oswestry in Shropshire (then called Salop) the Black Lion was open until 4.30 pm on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

The substantial number of pubs using electric pumps to dispense real ale is very noticeable. In Cheshire, it is 28 out 92 entries, while on the page of Greater Manchester including Stockport it is 9 out of 27. On the final page of West Midlands including Wolverhampton it is 13 from 27.

The vast majority of pubs were brewery tied houses, in many cases just offering plain Bitter and Mild, but there were the first signs of the multi-beer free house. The Midway in Stockport offered Draught Bass, McEwan’s 80/-, Wilsons Brewer’s Bitter, Boddingtons Bitter, Thwaites Best Mild and Bitter and Pollards Bitter, from a mixture of electric and handpumps, while the Windmill at Whiteley Green in Cheshire has Marston’s Pedigree, Thwaites Best Mild and Bitter, Wilsons Brewer’s Bitter, Boddingtons Bitter and Robinsons Best Bitter and Best Mild, all on handpump.

Stockport has only six entries, compared with twelve in the 2018 edition. These were the long-closed Bridgewater Arms and Golden Lion, and the Arden Arms, Crown, Midway and Red Bull, which are all still going strong. There is also a comment that “Stockport is well off for real ale – with beers from 13 breweries. Robinson’s and Boddingtons’ pubs are safe; choose Wilsons’ with care”. Such later perennial favourites in the Stockport suburbs as the Nursery in Heaton Norris and the Davenport Arms at Woodford are absent, but Holts’ Griffin in Heaton Mersey offers “a good choice of rooms with traditional decor”.

There are sad reminders of fine pubs now lost, such as the Crown at Tiverton in Cheshire, described as “A fine unspoilt old pub” offering McEwan’s 70/- on gravity, which I never got to visit in its original form, Thwaites’ Highwayman at Rainow and Boddingtons’ Railway at Heatley near Lymm, described as “Large, popular and boisterous”.

Obviously a huge amount has changed in the ensuing forty years, including the dramatic expansion of micro-breweries, the rise of the specialist beer pub and the erosion of the tied house system. Probably the change that brought about the greatest improvement to my personal experience of pubgoing was all-day opening, which was introduced in 1988, but didn’t become commonplace for a few years after that.

Whether life for the beer drinker was better in 1978 than in 2018 is obviously open to debate. Some aspects are now better, others worse. But it can’t be denied that in 1978 there were more pubs, they were a lot busier, in total they sold a lot more real ale, and they were used by a wider range of people on a wider variety of occasions


  1. Fascinating piece. You make a good observation about opening hours. They are stuck to less rigidly and increasingly you're lucky to get lunchtime opening at all.

    I think the GBG is a baragain at the tenner we pay for it, though the brewery section is pointless as you'll never see 95% of those beers, even if you spend your life travelling round the country visiting different pubs.


    1. It would be interesting to know how many of the beers listed in the brewery section actually are named in pub entries.

      The big problem with opening hours prior to 1988 was Saturday evenings. Obviously Saturday was the prime day for going out and about visiting pubs, but many pubs didn't open until 7 pm. Liverpool was supposedly 5 pm opening, but I remember once quite a crowd of us standing outside the Grapes at 5.30 on a Saturday knocking on the door. No demand, obviously. In fact it says "Many Stockport pubs open later on Saturday evenings".

  2. The 1978 GBG was the first I bought; I gave to a friend to complete his collection a few years ago. The big difference in opening hours is: then the council decided them for all their pubs (with occasional exceptions), whereas now pub licences vary widely, as we know. What hasn't changed is certain pubs opening and closing on a whim, which can be irritating.

    District-wide opening hours led to cross-boundary rushes at closing time. For example, my council, Sefton, had 10:30 pm closing, whereas in neighbouring Liverpool it was 11:00 pm. At half past ten, people would pile into cars and drive over the boundary to get the extra half hour's drinking.

    1. The same thing happened at various spots in London in the early 80s (and no doubt before, but I only moved to London in 1980). The boundary between the licensing districts covering Wandsworth (where I lived once) and Tooting was a railway line with a pub on each side of the bridge; if you were on the 'wrong side of the tracks' at 1030 you just had to stroll over the bridge for the extra half-hour. At the same time the boundary between Tower Hamlets and the City licensing districts ran down the middle of Minories, leaving the Three Lords on the wrong side. I think it was a Youngs pub by then but at 2.30 there was an exodus to the East India Arms nearby, which was also Youngs but in the City and thus open until 3.

    2. Yep.

      My dear departed Dad used to tell about drinking in London back in the late 40's near Putney Bridge. One side was 10:30pm closing while the other was 11:00pm. A mad dash across the bridge at 10:30pm was the order of the day. :)

      Slightly off topic but over here in Canada (way back when I was a youngun) it was interesting to note that most bars (not pubs) would start to fill up four hours prior to closing. In Ontario closing time was 1:00am and bars would start to get full around 9pm. We used to make a few forays over to Buffalo, New York (closing times of 4am!) and we noticed how there were very few folks there until gone 11pm.



    3. The variations in lunchtime hours would be worthy of a post of their own. Broadly speaking, in inner London and the North closing was 3 pm, in the South and Midlands 2.30, but there were various exceptions. Northampton and Worcester (although not the surrounding towns) for some reason had 2 pm closing! Rochdale was an odd bastion of 2.30 closing in the North, Shrewsbury an outpost of 3 pm in the Midlands. Parts of the South Wales valleys had 4 pm closing. And in some parts of the south, such as much of Essex and Gloucestershire, opening was as early as 10 am.

    4. I seem to remember that there were differences in pub closing hours between Manchester and Salford once, with people crossing the bridges over the Irwell to get a drink in whatever city shut later.

    5. 'The big difference in opening hours is: then the council decided them for all their pubs'

      Thing is, back then councils decided no hours at all, for anyone. That was the beauty of the old system run by magistrates and the police - no interference from nanny state council jobsworths at all.

    6. Just as a matter of record, it wasn't the local council that decided opening and closing times, but the local licensing magistrates.

  3. I did notice that with some big cities,that the opening hours seemed to be later on a Saturday evening,usually 7pm,there were no problems in Nottingham with that,the pubs shut at 2.30 and opened at 5.30.
    On the question as to was 1978 better than 2018 better for us drinkers,well i miss the proper brewery tied houses and you did know what time pubs opened and closed,but you do not have to cram in 3 pints after 2.30 closing or wait 5 hours on a Sunday for a pub to open.
    I much prefer 2018 with its all day opening and if you know the area where you are drinking you know which pubs open or close at times in the day.

  4. There were a lot more proper pubs back in 78 as opposed to now, but there are still plenty about, but I'll take 2018's beer choice every time.

  5. Bet you all get in cheap for a tenner, helping to kill off CAMRA so they can't afford stamps.

    Just like you're killing pubs with them discounts.

    Pay full price! Buy 2 ! Save CAMRA !

    1. well you say that :) but being only a digital refusenik when it comes to reading CAMRA newspapers , Ive been subscribing for the past must be 6/7 years to the GBG mobile app version instead, my last book copy was 2010. The mobile app version has its advantages (maps/locations mainly) and drawbacks as they replace the full listings each year and so you never end up with a year by year pub archive, which with pubs and brewers disappearing all the time is disappointing as eventually that memory of pubs is lost. And they keep threatening to update the app to make it more "useful" in their words, the last update they tried it became so unusable they had to pull it from the Apple store and I think offered refunds to people who had bought it.Fortunately Id never got round to installing the update.

      But for £10, Ill be ordering a paper copy :) so thats 1 more book theyve sold this year.

    2. Direct debit is an ideal form of inertia selling, though...

  6. The White Post at Rimpton sits astride the Somerset/Dorset border. Now more a restaurant, it was a solid rural pub when used it occasionally in the 70s and 80s. Trying to recall which was round it was, but either winter or summer evening closing times were half an hour different between Dorset and Somerset, and conveniently the two bar pub had one in each county, so everyone merely moved the length of the pub for the extra drinking time.


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