All About Beer
magazine has recently published an article by Boak and Bailey entitled Decoding the English Pub
, about the potential pitfalls awaiting the unwary explorer if they inadvertently venture into the “wrong kind” of pub.
But if you wander into side streets, the outer suburbs, or into the shade of concrete tower blocks, you might still come across the kind of pub where it is possible for an innocent abroad to get into trouble. There aren’t many exterior clues other than a general state of disrepair, although with experience you develop a kind of sixth sense based on the state of the curtains or some subtle hint implied in the signage.
While I can identify with much of what they describe, I have to say that the article rather exaggerates the scale of the problem. I’ve been making a point of going in to unfamiliar pubs for more than forty years, and during the earlier part of the period I was very much a speccy, geeky student type who would stand out like a sore thumb in a working-class boozer. Obviously not all pubs are to everyone’s taste, but the occasions where I’ve experienced any kind of overt hostility have been extremely rare. And those have more often than not been in smart pubs, or ones that clearly set their stall out to welcome casual customers, not grotty backstreet boozers.
To some extent, the process is made easier by the passage of time. When you’re young, you tend to be more self-conscious, and often with good reason, as young people tend to be much more judgmental about their peers. The examples I referred to above in general occurred when I was under thirty, and involved people of a similar age. But, as you grow older, this dissipates, and you just blur into the generality of middle-aged people. Nobody’s looking at you, nobody’s judging you, nobody’s bothered. It only becomes an issue if you choose a slack time to venture into a pub that there’s no obvious reason for someone like you to visit.
Another factor is the decline of the tied house system. Going back forty years, the vast majority of pubs were tied to breweries, and these estates include a wide cross-section of types of pub. In many areas, you would have to visit some pretty unpromising establishments to find a particular beer. I remember visiting the Bay Horse on Grinfield Street in Liverpool, about fifteen minutes’ uphill walk from the city centre, in search of Thwaites. It wasn’t threatening as such, but a fairly grim council estate boozer that I wouldn’t remotely have chosen to go to except for the beer.
But, as the Big Six tied estates have been broken up, and the remaining family brewers have disposed of most of their bottom-end pubs, it’s pretty rare that you will need to go anywhere “rough” in search of a specific brew. While many people may feel seriously out of place in the new generation of craft bars and micropubs, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be told to their face that they’re not welcome.
The question must also be asked how many people are actually looking to visit unfamiliar pubs at random anyway. Yes, if you’re a pub enthusiast such as Boak & Bailey or myself, you might be, but I’ve written before how the general public are much less likely to visit pubs on spec now than they used to be. And, with the growth of information on pubs available on the Internet, a couple of minutes’ research should give an indication of the flavour of the place. Pub enthusiasts will know the rules of the game and sometimes will be willing to take a chance out of curiosity.
True, the Good Beer Guide tickers are under a compulsion to visit certain pubs, like them or not, but how many of the kind of unwelcoming establishments we’re talking about actually make it into its pages nowadays? They might have done forty years ago, but not now. Ironically, you’re more likely to encounter a problem ticking off the National Inventory, which records architectural distinction, not pub quality as such. I’ve written before about how I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb when visiting the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach in the suburbs of St Helens, and I also felt in the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen that, while it had some interesting features, there was no conceivable reason I’d want to be there for beer, company or atmosphere.
The well-documented decline of the traditional working-class boozer, exacerbated by the smoking ban, has greatly reduced the potential for the casual pubgoer to encounter a hostile reaction. Such pubs do still exist but, as the article says, you have to actively seek them out in inner-urban backstreets, downmarket suburbs and council estates, and are unlikely to stumble upon them by accident. There are still a few in plain sight in locations with greater footfall – two that spring to mind, at least by reputation, are the Three Legs and the General Eliott in Leeds city centre. However, there is a difference between the atmosphere being a touch “raw” and actively threatening, and both of these pubs must be accustomed to the occasional casual punter wandering in off a busy city street. Having said that, I recently found no problem in the Eliott’s sister pub, the Duncan, although a keg-only, no-food boozer with an older, working-class clientele may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
For a related, although not identical, set of reasons, the “strangers in tonight” rural pub of the “Slaughtered Lamb” type is also a vanishing species, although I’m sure some do still exist in the deep countryside away from the major conurbations and off the tourist trail. They may well appear on WhatPub and other online guides, but the evenings-only opening hours and lack of food (and possibly the absence of real ale) give a clear indication that they’re not looking to appeal to outside visitors.
There can, of course, be other forms of discomfiture of a more subtle and unintentional nature. After all, not every pub is going to suit everyone, and in some you may well conclude “this just isn’t for me”. I recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester city centre (since demolished) and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. You would probably feel the same today if you wandered into the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, although how many 20-year-olds would do that just on the offchance?
A couple of decades later, I went into the National Inventory-listed Golden Cross in Cardiff to admire its magnificent tiled bar, unaware that in the evenings it was the city’s premier gay venue. It was inevitable that other customers drew the wrong conclusion about my reasons for being there. And many people may get the impression that their custom isn’t really wanted if they go into a pub and find that every single table has a place setting, or they’ve never heard to any of the beers on the bar.
In summary, the chances of the casual punter wandering into a pub where they’re made to actively feel unwelcome are actually pretty slim, and probably lower than they ever have been. If it really concerns you, there’s a simple option in most towns of any size, which is to go in Wetherspoon’s. Yes, they may contain some rough-hewn customers, but the general atmosphere is never hostile, as their whole set-up is intended to welcome casual custom. Or, very simply, don’t go in any pub that doesn’t display a food menu. On the other hand, some of the most genuinely welcoming and characterful pubs in the country, both urban and rural, may not look too promising from the outside. But, if you are curious about pubs, it’s always best to do a bit of research beforehand rather than leaving it entirely to chance.
On a different note, the article also refers to the tourist trap pub, where “you will end up paying over the odds for substandard food and drink consumed in a joyless, plastic setting.” Now, I’m sure such places do exist, which cynically provide a poor offer at inflated prices to a captive market, but again I’d say they are a lot less common than they once were as people become more savvy. I can’t, for example, think of a single place in the centre of Chester that falls into that category. And it shouldn’t be taken to include branches of chains such as Wetherspoon’s and Nicholson’s, that happen to be in favourable locations, but in fact just provide the organisation’s standard fare.