Tuesday 22 February 2022

Living to fight another day

The point is often made that, if you actually know much about a subject, you will find that press and media coverage of it is severely lacking. Not, maybe, telling outright lies, but all too often full of half-truths, misconceptions, exaggerations and grasping the wrong end of the stick. Obviously this then leads you to doubt any reports on subjects where you don’t have any specialist knowledge. This tendency is very true of reporting of the pub and beer industry.

Recently, there has been news of the closure of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, a well-known historic pub that claims, perhaps questionably, to be the oldest in England. So, for example, we have the BBC stating:

England's 'oldest pub' Ye Olde Fighting Cocks closes

While the Times reports that:

England’s ‘oldest pub’ Ye Olde Fighting Cocks closes after two years of Covid restrictions

Both of these headlines have something of an air of finality, but if you read the actual reports you will discover that, while the current lessee has gone into administration following two years of poor trading due to restrictions, the owning pubco are fully intending to find someone else to take it on.

The Daily Mirror was even more definite, stating in its headline:

Landlord forced to close 'Britain's oldest pub' which first opened in 8th century

And going on to say in the meat of the report that “A historic pub which has been serving punters for 13 centuries may have called last orders for the final time.” This report also commits the common error of describing a pubco as a brewery. Surely, more than thirty years after the Beer Orders, journalists should have cottoned on by now that most pubs are no longer owner by actual breweries.

Over the years, I have seen plenty of examples of this kind of alarmist reporting, implying that a tenant leaving a pub, possibly followed by a short period of closure, represents last orders in perpetuity, whereas in fact it is a perfectly normal occurrence. Yes, there are many pressures on the pub trade, and large numbers of pubs have closed, but these reports do not help the situation.

Given the Fighting Cocks’ claim to fame from its age, this story has been interpreted by many as an exemplar of the general decline of the pub trade, often by people who really should know better. For example, there was this tweet from someone involved in the industry for many years which I felt the need to correct.

In general, prominent pubs like the Fighting Cocks don’t just close overnight out of the blue, unless they have been affected by compulsory purchase for redevelopment. Pubs tend to die quietly in a corner, undergoing a slow spiral of decline until the final closure is met with people saying philosophically “well, it was only a matter of time.” Most of the pubs I can think of with a reputation beyond their immediate area that have closed are rural ones in landmark locations, such as the Flouch on the Woodhead Pass, which have been undone by changes in social attitudes over time. More recently, the even more famous Cat & Fiddle in Cheshire only narrowly escaped the same fate.

I’m not really that familiar with St Albans, but I would say the location of the Fighting Cocks is less than ideal, being some way from the city centre streets on the edge of a park. But I would be extremely surprised if Mitchells & Butlers reached the conclusion that it wasn’t a viable proposition in the long term.

I see anti-meat pressure group PETA took advantage of the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and suggests that the Fighting Cocks should reopen under a new name serving a vegan menu, which I doubt would do much for its future prospects.

A common example of press nonsense that I have picked up before is the tendency to lapse into the lazy journalistic cliché of describing a pub as “popular”, even if it has just closed down and so manifestly wasn’t. And I recently spotted this report about the Poachers in Bollington, which is celebrating twenty-two years in the Good Beer Guide, but the headline refers to the Good Pub Guide, even though the correct publication is identified in the actual text.

I know journalism has been hollowed out by the digital revolution, and there just isn’t the amount of expertise and experience that there used to be. Sub-editors who would pick up on this kind of thing have become a vanishing species, with journalists filing their copy directly without having anyone to check it over. But, even so, surely it would help if they read it over again before pressing the “Send” button.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Battered by the storm

It has been only too obvious that the pub trade has been hit extremely hard by the Covid lockdowns and restrictions of the past couple of years, but there has been something of a lack of hard figures to quantify this. Now this has been rectified by the British Beer and Pub Association, who have updated their Beer Barometer statistics to bring them up to the end of 2021.

Unfortunately, they haven’t updated the detailed downloadable spreadsheet to back this up, but the headline numbers are all too clear. In 2020, as shown by the graph above, beer sales in pubs were no less than 55% down on 2019, while in 2021, where pubs in England were able to open without restrictions for the final five and a bit months, the drop had been cut back to 38%, which is still pretty devastating.

In this environment, it is hardly surprising that most pubs have found it a financial struggle, and obviously there is a knock-on effect on the brewing industry which was only partially offset by increased off-trade sales. Beer is proportionately consumed more in the on-trade than other forms of alcoholic drinks, and so a switch to home drinking was inevitably accompanied by a movement to wines and spirits, where duty receipts rose by 8% and 13% respectively.

The removal of the remaining Covid restrictions in England from 27 January gave a positive psychological signal, and hopefully the road is now clear for the pub trade to make a sustained recovery during 2022. But they are certainly not out of the woods yet. Kate Nicholls of UK Hospitality reported yesterday that, even now, 23% of pubs and bars are still trading at a loss, and only 30% are doing any more than break even, so there is still a long way to go.

An important factor in underpinning the recovery will be maintaining the lower VAT rate of 12.5%, which is due to end in April, until at least October. While this does not directly affect beer, it does give a boost to any establishments that serve food.

It’s always hard to generalise from one’s own personal experiences, but I have got the impression that the business in pubs has noticeably picked up over the past three weeks, and in fact my local Wetherspoon’s was pretty rammed on two different occasions. In contrast, last autumn there was always, with few exceptions, the feeling of a slight shadow hanging over proceedings, which was only made worse by the overhyped Omicron scare in December. So there are grounds for optimism, and hopefully we can look forward to a good summer, especially given that a lot more people will be taking holidays in this country.

Tuesday 1 February 2022

The fickle finger of fate

In 2009, Marston’s opened a new dining pub called the Fallow Deer prominently situated on the A6 Chapel-en-le-Frith bypass in Derbyshire. It was faced with stone to match the local environment, resulting in a more attractive and upmarket appearance than is typical of such establishments. I called in a year or so later to see what it was like, but unsurprisingly found it entirely geared up for eating, with nowhere to just sit down for a drink.

A few years later it was refurbished and renamed the Fickle Mermaid. While Fallow Deer is just a generic “rural name” this did in fact relate to the local legend of the mermaid's pool on the side of Kinder Scout, where allegedly a beautiful mermaid used to lure men and either make them immortal or end their lives. However, it’s doubtful whether many people actually knew of that – I had to look it up – and to most it would simply come across as a rather odd and whimsical name for a pub fifty miles from the sea.

I didn’t really give it much more thought, but was surprised to read a report that planning permission had been granted to demolish it and replace it with a petrol station and takeaway coffee shop. It has to be said that if a large and expensive new-build pub is to be demolished only thirteen years after it opened it is a very poor reflection on the original site selection.

I’ve written before about how these family dining pubs, while they may have little appeal to the beer enthusiast, have been something of a success story for the pub industry in recent years, and Marston’s and Greene King have both invested considerable sums in developing them. Indeed, Marston’s opened a new one in my original home town of Runcorn, the Ten Lock Flight, shortly before Covid struck. I have often noticed when passing how busy they appear to be at teatime and early evening at weekends, a time when I would never really consider going to a pub unless in the later stages of an urban pub crawl.

However, maybe the clue is in the title of that blogpost, “Follow the money to the retail park.” I don’t claim to be an expert on pub site selection, but I suspect an important factor for this type of pub is to have a substantial population within ten or fifteen minutes’ drive, and a further plus point is being able to combine the pub visit with a bit of shopping or another leisure activity such as the cinema or bowling.

The Fickle Mermaid, while it is in a prominent position on the main road heading from the Manchester area into the Peak District, doesn’t actually have all that people living nearby. If people are going out for a day in Peak, they’ll probably not want to eat until they actually get there and, while I can imagine it might become busy with returning trippers in the early evenings at weekends, that isn’t going to be enough to sustain it throughout the week.

In any case, the planning application was rejected on appeal, so it remains to be seen what Marston’s response is. They could try to make another go of it, which has not been unknown elsewhere, or find another pub operator who is interested. I don’t see that a dining pub in that location is inherently a lost cause. Or they could board it up and leave it to rot, and come back with another planning application in eighteen months, by which time it will have become an eyesore.

This prompted me to ask on Twitter for other examples of short-lived new-build pubs, and quite a few were forthcoming. Another in my local area was the Bandstand in Gorton, Manchester, which stood on a small retail park and can’t have lasted fifteen years. And, in the late 1980s, Banks’s built the Springbrook at the A50/A56 junction on the eastern fringe of Warrington, where planning permission has now been requested to redevelop the site into a care home. There were plenty of instances of brand new pubs of various types that had barely lasted twenty years.

I odn’t know how it compares with other types of retail and hospitality business, but pub operators in general seem to have a distinctly patchy record on identifying locations for new pubs. While Wetherspoon’s are not generally in the business of new-builds, they have had their fair share of missteps over the years. One of the worst was the Sir Edwin Chadwick in Longsight, Manchester, where they totally misread the character of the area and the way it was likely to develop. I think it only lasted about five years. Apparently, Tim Martin, on one of his regular tours, walked through the door, took a quick look around and instantly said “Get rid!” Also in this general area, are the Lodestar in Neston, Cheshire and the Red Lyon in Whitchurch, Shropshire, neither of which lasted long under their stewardship and are now closed. One can only assume that Wetherspoon’s misjudged the character of the towns concerned, as they seem to thrive in other places of similar size.