In August this year, Wandsworth council in south London moved to protect 120 of its best-loved pubs from the threat of redevelopment, becoming the first local authority in the country to do so.
Deputy council leader Jonathan Cook declared it a “genuine defence against the relentless spread of mini-supermarkets and estate agents”. “We know how much our residents love their locals,” he said, before describing them as “the epicentre of community life”.
It was a rare piece of good news for the pub, that great British institution that sometimes appears to be in terminal decline. It’s true that pubs are closing at a staggering rate. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) estimates that 27 pubs a week are calling last orders for the final time.
Developers play a big part in this. In one shocking example, an unscrupulous owner demolished the historic Carlton Tavern in Kilburn without warning, just as discussions to list it were advancing. The pub, built in the 1920s, was the only building on its street to survive the Blitz, but fell victim to the London’s endless obsession with luxury flats.
But Westminster City Council reacted angrily and, in an unprecedented move, demanded the developers rebuild it “brick by brick”.
Paul Ainsworth, chair of the Camra’s pub campaigning committee, describes London as “a killing field” for pubs, but points to changing social habits and deindustrialisation as the reasons behind the pub’s decline nationwide.
Yet the headline figures don’t tell the whole story. Pubs have somewhat arrested their decline (45-a-week were closing in 2009), while the moves by Wandsworth and Westminster feel significant. Camra’s next campaign, we are told, is to extend ACVs (assets of community value) — where locals can bid if pubs are under threat from development — to include all public houses.
“The doom and gloom around pubs isn’t always helpful,” says Ainsworth, “even if it is the reality. There are a lot of fantastic pubs out there, many that are doing very well.”
Ye olden times
The Romans may have brought wine-selling tabarnae — later taverns — to these shores, but the modern pub has its origins in the alehouses of the middle ages.
The word ‘local’ wasn’t adopted until the 1920s, according to the historian Paul Jennings, but it was during the medieval period that the pub became the beating heart of communities as thousands sprung up. “The Black Death killed off so many workers that those who survived were in high demand, and their wages went up. They could afford to drink more and so more alehouses developed,” he explains.
According to Jennings, a government survey at the time put the number of alehouses in Britain somewhere around 24,000 — a staggering amount given the size of the population at the time.
Few of these pubs survive, but there are several that lay claim to being Britain’s oldest. Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, in Nottingham, so the story goes, is where volunteers were recruited to join Richard the Lionheart’s Crusades.
The building itself, carved into rock, dates back to the 17th century (rather than the spurious 1189 above the door), but ale was served on the site far earlier. Impressively, the city also boasts Ye Olde Salutation Inn and The Bell Inn — which allegedly date back to 1240 and 1437, respectively. In Bolton, there is the 13th-century timber-framed Ye Olde Man & Scythe, while St Albans’ Ye Olde Fighting Cocks dates back to the 1500s.
The Cock, in Brent Eleigh, Suffolk, is slightly younger, but no less impressive (and, like Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem, features in Camra’s authoritative Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs book). Its wood-panelled bar, found in a beautiful old thatched building, dates back to the 18th century at least, and is well worth a visit.
It was the Victorians who built perhaps our greatest pubs. Chief among them is the Philharmonic Dining Rooms in Liverpool, a staggeringly beautiful pub, and The Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast (built earlier, but refitted close to 1900), both marked by intricate, ornate features, which have been remarkably well persevered.
“Money was no object, they are real palaces,” says Ainsworth. “They are such sensational places to go in and gawp at and think, ‘Blimey, they didn’t skimp on the décor here’.
“The Crown is a belter. It’s actually owned by the National Trust, which is probably why it’s been so well looked after. It’s got some unique features, such as the little snugs — I don’t know of any other pubs like that, where you have a row of five or six of them, one after the other.”
Pubs also tell the history of our idiosyncrasies. The Black Friar in London, which was built in the 1840s, is, as Camra puts it, quite unlike anything else. Its marble walls and peculiar decorations, which depict friars, make it one of our most unusual pubs (Liverpool’s Peter Kavanagh’s, replete with Hogarth and Dickens murals on the walls, is also a contender). London’s The Old Bank Of England is among the grandest.
Britain’s pubs have played an incredible part in our cultural and political history, and many of our greatest authors, poets and musicians spent many a lost weekend in them, to the extent that London has several literary pub crawls. One of the most common pit-stops is the beautiful, 16th century The George Inn in Southwark, frequented, it is claimed, by both William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
In Edinburgh, The Café Royal, which dates back to 1861, and is one of the UK’s prettiest pubs, contains six beautiful painted tile panels depicting inventors such as Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday at their moment of discovery, as well as intricate stained glass windows illustrating famous sportsmen.
Then there’s The French House, in London’s Soho, which has an unimaginably colourful history: it acted as the workplace for Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War, and was the favourite of luminaries such as Bredan Behan, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. A drunk Dylan Thomas, no stranger to a tipple, once left the manuscript of Under Milk Wood under his chair there.
But, of course, it’s not just pubs frequented by great artists, or designed in ornate style by great architects, that should be celebrated and saved.
The pub has played a remarkable, almost unparalleled role in the story of Britain. As Paul Ainsworth puts it: “They’re unique and wonderful institutions that play a key part in our heritage. They’re something we should be hugely proud of.”
This article was published in Travelzoo Experience, created by Waterfront Publishing, of which I am a director.