British Pubs: The Endgame?

One doesn’t have to be particularly observant to see great changes sweeping across the pub industry in the UK of late. For many years, particularly since the days of the inception of themed pubs during the 1970s’, there has always been change. What is apparent now though is something of a sad and ever-accelerating terminal decline.

Passing through many suburban areas, it is possible to see a selection of pubs now sadly having seen their best days. Boarded-up windows are rife, overgrown gardens and crumbling car parks frame semi-derelict buildings, many who’s eventual final fate will be demolition.

The former Town Arms/Aviary at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. A once-hugely busy pub, now fallen on hard times
The former Town Arms/Aviary at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. A once-hugely busy pub, now fallen on hard times

Times change and it should be said that many of the above pubs have been the architect of their own downfall. Dismal run-down surroundings, expensive drinks and mediocre food interest few, and people have higher expectations than of yore.

Perhaps the breweries are to blame more than most however. Their pricing policies often make it near impossible for managers to make a reasonable living at the job it seems. Long hours of work and being tied to the business appear to offer scant rewards for what is not an easy job. Whilst once it was seen as a potentially lucrative business to enter into given the right opportunity, we now see the legend ‘Leasing opportunity’ displayed outside not a few pubs these days indicating the licensing trade flying an extensive white flag.

This general malaise seems to affect all sectors of the pub trade, not just the suburban back street ale houses that are perhaps not seriously missed by some. Heavy (and entirely correct) penalties for drink driving have long since taken their toll on the rural pub trade. With a lack of public transport to these areas people just cannot travel to these often lovely places without desisting from the one activity they are there for, namely to drink alcohol. Over the decades many countryside pubs have responded to this conundrum by becoming restaurants in all but name. There are many and varied exceptions but a number of these establishments have little to offer for the drinker, either with scant pre-drinks areas or even no public bar space at all. These places don’t offer the casual drinker a comfortable and welcoming environment in which to simply sink a couple of pints. They are largely aimed at encouraging the diner solely. For this one can hardly lay too much blame as selling food is their salvation rather than relying on imbibers using the bar only.

The much-lauded and historic Flying Horse Hotel in Nottingham. Now a shopping mall
The much-lauded and historic Flying Horse Hotel in Nottingham. Now a shopping mall

I’m really not sure what the answer is but what I can say is that the damage being done to the pub industry in the UK is probably irreversible. It will never quite be the same as it once was. People’s social habits have changed and many can simply not afford to pay pub prices any more. A common alternative these days is to pay cheaper supermarket prices for a box of beer or a few bottles of wine and stay at home rather than go out to socialise in pubs at extortionate prices. Who can really blame them?

Many of the closed down pubs I see on my travels are unlovely places, it has to be said. Equally there are some fine and often historic public buildings that we are losing to private homes, senior retirement homes, shopping malls and all manner of conversions. These buildings have not only been of historic note but often one of the cornerstones of their local community. This is particularly so in rural areas where in Victorian times and prior, the many more such hostelries in each village have gradually over the years dwindled to one pub or often none at all. 

One comical, if a little sad, instance was when a few short years back when taking a walk along the Trent Valley Towpath alongside the River Trent, I decided on a call with my walking companion at The Hazelford Ferry, a lovely pub nestling in a leafy glade by the river and a great favourite of mine. Noticing the time and also the stringent lunchtime opening hours that were fast coming to a close, we broke into a jog along the river bank in order to get there for ‘last orders’. Strolling in with a hefty thirst we were confronted by the site of a cement mixer in what had been the lounge with the first stages of the pub being converted to a retirement home in full swing! I almost asked for a pint of lager anyway…

Now for the elderly - The Hazelford Ferry
Now for the elderly - The Hazelford Ferry

When travelling around the world to other countries it’s easy to see how unique British pubs are. There really is nothing quite like them, warts and all. Many are the attempts to imitate them and mostly, in my opinion at least, they fail badly. Our custom here has always been to meet in public houses to socialise, unlike say much of North American societies which rely equally on socialising in the home. There is obviously a place for both but I do believe those choices will diminish greatly over the next few years, especially so for those that don’t live near cities.

The future for the great British pub?
The future for the great British pub?

To the future and what it might hold. One interesting trend that grabs me is the rising of local breweries and ales. Just like in the food people eat, a taste is identifying itself for local produce. Perhaps this movement might just be the salvation of the pub industry. Historically many pubs traditionally brewed their own beer on the premises and little instances of that are reoccurring once more. Perhaps when the rich companies who own the breweries have finally killed the pub trade in the UK as we currently know it they will lose interest and plough their efforts and cash elsewhere. Maybe then people who have a genuine love and care for the country’s old pubs and traditions may yet have their say. I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better however.

3 thoughts on “British Pubs: The Endgame?”

  1. A friend of mine was running a lovely and very successful little pub near us. However he success was her downfall as the brewery began to make ridiculous demands on her. In the end she sold up and left. The pub was never the same.

    Low alcohol beers could have been a help to country pubs and the drink and drive problem-but they taste foul!

    I don’t know the answer either. But an old pub with an open fire is a lovely place to be.

    I have awarded you 🙂 Enjoy.

  2. Pubs have been struggling and shutting down at an alarming rate since the smoking ban was introduced. I know a few who have bucked the trend though and are thriving despite all the very real problems you describe. Breweries, supermarkets, smoking ban and now the economic situation in general have contributed to a sad loss of loads of local boozers in my area. In general though, these tend to be less well run pubs that were struggling for years to make ends meet.

    The pubs that continue to do well know their market and give the punters what they want. Serving decent food is huge too and one thing I’ve noticed that none of the recent closures in my area have done.

    I think it’s tough times for the bar trade but it’s the worse run nuclear subs that’ll sink 😉

  3. Interesting thoughts, Rich.

    I sometime think the nature of some Scottish pubs varies a little bit to English pubs. It’s very seldom for instance you’d see a pub down here that didn’t sell food. Almost unheard of in my experience, but of course there are plenty of bars in Scotland that wouldn’t get involved in that.

    One thing they do have in common is the types of pubs that tend to be closing down. Many of them tend to be the architect of their own downfall, failing to move with the times and not giving the customers what they want. Invariably the ones down here I see disappearing are a bit unloved these days anyway.

    When that particular nuclear sub disappears (it’s taking on water badly) we’ll drink to that, buddy!


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