The traditional English pub is being eaten alive by
Guardian Weekend, 23 July 2005
Behind the bar counter, eighty-four year old Mary
Wright pours me a pint of Otter Head beer. Mary is the
landlady of the Luppitt Inn, in the tiny Devon village
of Luppitt. She is also the last steward of a time capsule.
Half a century ago, the country was dotted with pubs
like the Luppitt, which is little more than the front
room of Mary's old stone farmhouse. It has a tiny wooden
counter, one battered table and two small casks of beer
brewed in a microbrewery at the top of the valley. The
walls are decorated with cobwebbed photographs of old
village life. There's no till, price list or handpumps,
and the room can hold perhaps ten people at a push.
The toilet is across the farmyard, in a shed with no
electricity. The pub has been in Mary's family for a
century and when she goes, it will probably go with
Tonight it's packed with red-faced dairy farmers who
have come from a meeting in the village hall. The talk
is of fertiliser, the stupidity of the Cornish and a
local dog which may or may not be part-wolf. Fifty years
ago, maybe even 100, you could have walked through the
half-door of the Luppitt and been greeted with much
the same sight.
'It's changed, of course,' says Mary, as she pours the
beer. 'There used to be dairy farms all round here.
Not any more. A lot of new people moved into the village
and they don't come in here. There's no living in this
now. It's more like an old car. You put in more than
you get out. But I do it for the regulars. '
Waiting for my beer, I am keenly aware that I'm bearing
witness to a way of life that, in most other parts of
the country, is already long-dead. Somehow, the Luppitt
Inn has remained unchanged as the rest of the world
has moved on. It is a portrait of how things used to
be in an institution which, for centuries, has been
one of our cultural keystones: the pub.
A hundred and thirty miles away, up a narrow lane on
the edge of an Oxfordshire village, James Clarke stands
looking up at the yellow stone and dark wood of his
Victorian tower brewery as it belches clouds of beery
steam across the fields. The Hook Norton brewery is
the only steam-powered brewery left in the country.
Clarke, who inherited it from his father last year,
is the man charged with steering a path for his 150-year
old business, with its horse-drawn drays, steam-driven
brewing engine, mash tuns, spurging pipes, fermenting
rooms, grist mill and malt loft, through the new and
ruthless world of the modern drinks industry.
'If we'd have sat here ten years ago', he tells me later
as we sit in Hook Norton's in-house bar, 'and you'd
said that when we next sat down, now, Morrells brewery
wouldn't be here, and Brakspear's wouldn't be here and
Morland wouldn't be here, I'd have laughed. And they've
all gone.' He recites the names of his three former
regional competitors with regret rather than relish.
'There's been a lot of change', he says, understatedly.
Clarke knows he is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to
good management, good beer and probably a degree of
luck, Hook Norton survives in a world very different
to the one it was born into in 1849. But it is one of
just 38 regional breweries that do. Hook Norton, like
the Luppitt Inn, is a remnant of the past in a world
where the future looks very uncertain.
In 1900, there were more than 6000 breweries in the
UK. Today there are just over 500. Thirty three have
closed since 1990, taking over 130 regional and national
beer brands with them. The last decade has seen the
end of, among others, Morrells of Oxford (founded 1782),
Brakspear of Henley (1799), Castle Eden of Hartlepool
(1826), Morland of Abingdon (1711), Ruddles of Rutland
(1857), Courage of Bristol (1702) and Mitchells of Lancaster
(1871) - names that were sources of national heritage,
regional pride and local employment sold off, shut down
or taken over. In 2005 we will say farewell to Strangeways
of Manchester (brewers of Boddingtons) and Newcastle's
Tyne Brewery (home to Newcastle Brown). They are unlikely
to be the last.
Then there are the pubs which the breweries serve. Twenty
of them close every month - converted into housing,
theme bars or luxury flats. Half of those that remain
are in the hands of ambitious and rapidly-expanding
pub corporations which have set about remaking them
with the help of loans from Japanese banks and marketing
techniques developed in pizza and sandwich chains.
Rural pubs are disappearing with unprecedented speed,
leaving many villages 'dry' - bereft not just of a place
to drink but of the community focus that went with it.
In towns and cities, giant high street drinking sheds
- known in the trade as 'high volume vertical drinking
establishments' - open in their place, selling alcopops
to teenagers and fuelling the 'binge drinking' phenomenon.
The last ten years have witnessed an explosion of identikit
chains - O'Neill's, All Bar One, the Slug and Lettuce,
Wetherspoons - in what critics call a whirlwind 'McDonaldisation'
of the traditional pub.
To put this in context, imagine that it's happening
in France. Imagine that classic grape varieties - Pinot
Noir, Riesling, pink Muscat - are no longer being grown;
that the chateaus which produced them are being converted
into luxury flats for wealthy Parisians. Imagine that
you can no longer buy Veuve Clicquot, Mouton Rothschild
or Sancerre. Imagine that instead people are drinking
a few heavily-marketed varieties of imported Australian
or Californian wine distributed by a handful of drinks
corporations. Imagine the riots on the streets of France,
and the outrage in the diningrooms of middle class houses
all over Britain.
Substitute 'beer' for 'wine' and you get some idea of
the significance of what is happening here. There was
a time, not so long ago, when the country was a tapestry
of tastes woven from its national drink; the dark, hoppy
beer known originally as 'ale.' Its tastes, flavours,
ingredients and history vary as much as the atmosphere
and interiors of the pubs which sell it. In English
beer and the English pub we have, whether we know it
or not, something unique. And it is being lost.
If you think this is an exaggeration, then hear it from
a Frenchman. Hilaire Belloc, the poet who made England
his home in the early 20th century spent much of his
time here quaffing flagons of ale in various taverns.
Amongst all the guff about Empire, cricket and the playing
fields of Eton, Belloc thought he had pinned down where
the heart of his adopted nation really lay. 'When you
have lost your inns', he said, 'drown your empty selves.
For you will have lost the last of England.'
To Belloc, the pub - the institution of the ordinary
people - was closer to the nation's pulse than the monarchy,
the Church of England or the 'Mother of Parliaments'
would ever be. He was not alone in singing its praises.
Samuel Johnson famously delivered himself of the opinion
that 'there is nothing which has yet been contrived
by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by
a good tavern or inn.' Belloc and Johnson weren't just
talking about the beer (Johnson, in any case, preferred
wine - and plenty of it). They were talking about the
atmosphere that made the pub what it was. The debates,
the discussions, the games, the drunkenness, the foibles
of the landlord, the conviviality, the unpredictable
gathering of diverse people; the indefinable something
which made every pub different to every other.
The pub has an ancient history. The Romans imported
its predecessor, the tabernae, in the 1st century AD.
By the 10th century, beer-drinking was such a popular
national pastime that King Edgar initiated the first
government campaign against binge drinking, issuing
a law limiting the number of alehouses in each village
to one, and decreeing that only half a pint could be
drunk at any one sitting. It failed miserably, and over
the ensuing centuries taverns, alehouses and inns -
originally developed as watering holes for medieval
pilgrims - multiplied with an unstoppable momentum.
But the pub and the 20th century were set for a collision.
After World War Two, the biggest brewers became more
ambitious, and by the 1980s, the six largest national
brewers owned over half of the country's pubs and produced
75% of its beer. Over the same period brewers began
to turn their backs on traditional ale, focusing instead
on newly-developed 'nitro-keg' beers - pasteurised versions
which were cheaper to brew, travelled better and lasted
longer - and heavily-promoted lagers. They began, too,
to brand their pubs, ripping out historic interiors
and putting in 'themed' replacements.
But the big brewers had pushed things too far and Margaret
Thatcher, who hated both monopolies and brewers (whom
she regarded as part of the Old Establishment) swooped.
In 1989, acting on a recommendation from the Monopolies
and Mergers Commission, the Tory government introduced
sweeping legislation to end the brewers' dominance.
The 1989 'Beer Orders', as the legislation became known,
decreed that no brewer could own more than 2000 pubs.
Furthermore, they would now have to give their landlords
the option of selling at least one 'guest beer' produced
by a rival.
The idea was simple: the smashing of the monopoly would
see a flowering of smaller brewers, more varied pubs
and more choice for drinkers. Everyone - except the
big brewers - would win.
Roger Protz grins sheepishly when I ask him what happened
next. Protz, probably the best-known beer writer in
Britain, is a leading light in the Campaign for Real
Ale (CAMRA), which was founded in the 1970s to fight
the corner of traditional beer and pubs. He sits on
a swivel chair in CAMRA's head office in St Albans and
considers what went wrong.
'Basically, I think we were tremendously naïve'
he says. 'We were very optimistic. The Beer Orders said
that the big brewers couldn't own more than 2000 pubs,
and we thought "they'll be happy with that."
They weren't happy, because they weren't prepared to
open their pubs up to other brewers' beers.'
The Beer Orders did not, after all, break up the monopoly
of pub ownership and beer-brewing: all they did was
to shift it sideways. Rather than sell off some of their
pubs and keep the rest, the big brewers created something
new - pub companies - to which they sold all their pubs.
Because they didn't brew beer themselves, the companies
- known as PubCos - were exempt from the legislation.
'There were a lot of sweetheart deals' explains Protz.
'The brewers would say to some of their management team
"here's a golden handshake, go off and start a
pub company. Buy a tranche of pubs and in return, only
take our beers." And that was what happened.'
Today it is the PubCos, not the brewers, who call the
shots. In 1989, the six biggest brewers owned around
30,000 pubs - half of the country's total. Today the
ten biggest PubCos own around the same number. The two
biggest own a quarter of all pubs between them. Meanwhile
the six biggest brewers - now multinational companies
- own no pubs at all, but produce a higher proportion
of beer than they did in the 1980s - eight out of every
ten pints drunk.
'My own personal feeling is that the situation is worse',
says Protz. 'The national brewers saw pubs as places
they could sell their beer. Modern pub companies see
pubs as real estate, and if they can sell them all and
make money that way, they'll do it
are quite blatantly referred to as "traffic".
You don't want old Charlie going in and sitting all
night over a pint of mild and bitter. You want people
coming in, having a few drinks and going, and being
replaced by somebody else.' He looks frustrated.
'Everything is about profit now', he says. 'Of course
the old brewers were there to make money too. But they
understood that pubs had a community role. The modern
pub companies just couldn't give a stuff about that.'
He shakes his head.
'The corporatisation of pubs', he says. '
have no idea what to do about it.'
Tony Jenkins knows what he'd like to do about it, but
he thinks it may be unprintable. In the dark depths
of a January evening he is standing in an alley in central
Leeds outside the local branch of Mook, a national chain
of bars aimed at hip young dudes. Tony is not a hip
young dude. He is the chairman of the Leeds branch of
CAMRA; a large, jovial man wearing a fleece with the
words 'Tetley Bittermen' emblazoned on it. He shivers
in the cold and sticks his hands into his pockets.
'I'm not going in there', he says. 'It's a matter of
Mook, until recently, was a traditional backstreet local
called The Whip. Then it was bought by the Spirit Group,
one of the country's youngest and most ambitious PubCos.
'It was really quite sad' says Tony, 'because there
were people who'd been there every week for 50 years,
you know. And Spirit came along and just trashed it.
Where did those people go? It's not that I object to
bars like this, but Leeds is full of them. We didn't
need another' - he wrinkles his nose and spits out the
word - 'Mook.'
A few hundred yards away, down another alley off a shopping
street, lies what Jenkins calls 'the last real city
centre pub in Leeds.' Whitelock's is something of an
institution. The 300-year old tavern has been hymned
by the likes of John Betjeman, Peter O'Toole and Keith
Waterhouse for its atmosphere, its beer and its regional
cuisine. Its Yorkshire Puddings and jam roly-polies
are particularly praised.
Or they used to be. That was before the Spirit Group
got hold of Whitelock's too. You won't find jam roly-polies
or Yorkshire Pudding on its menu now. You'll find nachos,
penne pasta and Kashmiri chicken. You'll find, in fact,
the sort of food sold in all the other Spirit Group
pubs around the country.
Tony and I squeeze into the long, narrow bar and order
a couple of pints. The 1880s interior is a riot of carved
wood, old tiles, brass, decorated mirrors and very low
beams. Tonight's customers range from a white-haired
old man slowly rolling cigarettes in a corner, to a
pair of twenty-something lovebirds gazing into each
others' eyes over pints of Staropramen.
The cloning of the Whitelock's menu caused fury in Leeds
last summer. In August 2004, a journalist on the Yorkshire
Evening Post got hold of an internal memo that had been
sent to the pub's staff. It described two imaginary
customers who represented the sort of clientele that
the PubCo now wanted Whitelock's to attract.
'Mick and Ruth' were two work colleagues: he was a manager
who drove a BMW and drank beer; she was an office worker
who ate pasta and drank pinot grigio wine. They were
both busy, modern, business-minded people and neither
of them, apparently, was interested in Yorkshire Pudding.
Soon after the memo went round, the menu and wine list
were changed by head office. Fearing that the Spirit
Group wanted to do to Whitelock's what it had already
done to The Whip, over 1400 people signed a petition
urging the PubCo not to touch "this gem of the
north." But many people, Tony Jenkins included,
are still nervous.
'If you dredge through the Spirit Group website', he
says, conspiratorially, 'you discover that they have
chains within chains. They have "Spirit locals",
"city day pubs" - all these "concepts."
I think they decide what to do with their pubs by using
postcodes. Whitelock's is in LS1, and somewhere in the
Spirit Group manual it will say "a pub in the city
centre has to be an alcopop bar for 14 year olds."
What they wanted to do was make Whitelock's fit their
brand.' He downs the remains of his pint.
'But', he says with satisfaction, 'they got caught.'
'I've got a huge dislike of things corporate,'
says Karen Jones.
This seems a curious statement from the Chief Executive
of a £500 million company. But Jones, CEO of the
Spirit Group, is one of the new breed of dressed-down,
tousle-haired, Branson-esque corporate bosses. Jones,
the woman who founded the Café Rouge and Dome
chains, now directs operations in her 2400 pubs from
Spirit's giant, call-centre-style HQ in Burton-on-Trent.
'Look, this Whitelock's story', she says. 'The truth
of the matter is that in July last year we painted it
and put new curtains in it, and changed the menu. That's
all. I think people were very worried that we were going
to change it in some way that was deleterious. Nothing
could be further from the truth.'
The Spirit Group is a centrally-controlled operation.
That, says Jones, is the way to 'make standards as good
as we can make them, all the time.' Spirit has done
away with landlords - who rent their pubs and then run
them largely on their own terms - and replaced them
with managers, who take their orders directly from head
That way, says Jones, 'all our customers are our customers.
We have a direct relationship with them
based on great relationships with the customer. If you
don't get that right you might as well pack up and go
We need to motivate our managers - the people
who actually give you a pint of Carlsberg or bring a
burger to your table - to do the job that we want them
to do.' She denies, though, that this means imposing
the same model on every pub.
'I'm firmly against this march of cookie-cutter brands',
she insists. 'Part of our job as a pub company is to
avoid being in any way bland or corporate.' It's important
to understand, she says, that pubs, like any other part
of society, change with the times. 'The number of people
visiting pubs is increasingly overall', she says - but
only because companies like hers are changing them to
meet new demands - less beer, more wine and, most of
all, more food - 'the growth part of the market.' This
is what people want, and this is what the Spirit Group
are going to provide - but in a way, insists Karen Jones,
which makes all her customers 'feel like individuals.'
How this desire to help people 'feel like individuals'
squares with the company's modus operandi, is unclear.
For the Spirit Group is very big on demographics. It
divides its pubs into what Tony Jenkins calls 'chains
within chains' and Karen Jones prefers to call 'groups
of pubs that trade to particular groups of customers.'
There are 800 'Spirit Locals', which themselves are
divided into smaller groups with names like 'great locals'
('big-hearted community pubs'), 'young and classics'
('where the community live'), and 'sports'. There are
600 'City Spirits', which include 'Bars and Clubs' ('the
place to be seen') and 'City Night' ('the best night
out in town'), and 500 'Spirit Foods' with brands like
'Chef and Brewer' and 'Two For One'. Each grouping targets
different markets - and every time it is head office
'We won't have an individual menu for every single pub',
confirms Jones. 'That would be unworkable with 2000
pubs. And also it's not the way to keep pushing quality
up. As I know from rolling out 150 Café Rouge,
trying to do fresh food on a mass scale - the pitfalls
This, in a nutshell, explains what happened to Whitelock's
and Mook. They didn't fit the blueprint. The Spirit
Group, like other big PubCos, is making the stock market
very happy by applying the operating techniques of chains
like Pizza Express and Café Rouge to the traditional
pub. In the process of doing so, they are replacing
the very things that make each individual pub distinctive
- from the menus to the bar furniture to the atmosphere
- with manufactured environments, imposed from above.
From where Karen Jones is sitting this is the way to
'ensure consistency'. From the alley outside Mook, or
the dining room of Whitelock's, consistency looks more
like the problem than the solution.
Meanwhile, out in the country, rural pubs
are facing their own problems. The village pub, while
it has less chance of being turned into a branch of
Mook, is probably under even greater threat than its
urban counterpart - and since the country pub seems
to be burned into the psyche of the English nation,
its rapid decline is perhaps even more of an issue.
The Countryside Agency laid out the scale of the problem
in 2001, when it reported that, for the first time since
the Norman Conquest, more than half of the villages
in England were without a pub. The 7000 rural pubs that
remain are closing at the frightening rate of six a
It's not hard to see why. The decline in rural pubs
mirrors an equivalent decline in village shops, post
offices and other services. As more villages become
dormitories for commuters or collections of holiday
homes, community pubs fall with rural communities.
But this is not the whole story. A closer look reveals
a tale of profiteering at the expense of rural pubs.
A rural local, run well, can usually make a decent living
for its tenants. But for PubCos, answerable to shareholders
looking for quick returns, decent livings are not enough.
Mike Bell's pub, the Portobello Gold, is in Notting
Hill, London; but he takes a keen interest in the fate
of the rural pub too. Bell is the founder of Freedom
For Pubs, a pressure group he set up last year to tackle
the 'injustices' imposed on landlords by PubCos and
'In the case of rural pubs,' says Bell, 'it's simple:
with today's property prices, a pub is never going be
worth as much as a private house. So PubCos, brewers
and some private individuals look to turn them into
homes. Their problem is that they have to apply to the
council for "change of use" permission - and
they have to show that the pub is unviable before it
will be granted. So what do they do? They run the pub
into the ground; deliberately employ the wrong tenant,
or raise his rents so high that he can't make a go of
it. Then they turn round and say "sorry, we can't
make it work".'
The result has been a wave of rural pub closures, as
local drinking holes make way for luxury homes. Those
that survive often do so by joining the new wave of
'gastro pubs' - essentially rural restaurants with bars
attached which, while often popular in themselves, are
as far away in atmosphere and purpose from the rural
community pub as a supermarket is from a village shop.
According to Mike Bell, landlords from
both town and country are united in facing a common
enemy: the market-driven greed of the PubCos. Theme
pubs and cloned menus are a concern, he says, but the
issue for most landlords today is a starker one: basic
'I've got toe-curling, stomach-churning stories about
what PubCos are doing to pubs', he says. Since Bell
set up Freedom For Pubs he's received testimonies from
hundreds of unhappy landlords, many of them sent anonymously
for fear of reprisals.
'The problem is what's called the "beer tie"'
he explains. 'I pay rent to Enterprise Inns, the PubCo
which owns my pub, but I also have to buy all my beer
from them. The PubCos are actually uncompetitive wholesalers,
and they're driving pubs into the ground.'
Francis Patton, though, is having none of it. Patton
is customer services director of Punch Taverns, the
country's second-biggest PubCo, which owns 8400 pubs,
and he says Mike Bell has got it wrong.
'It's not in our interests to make life difficult for
our tenants', he insists. 'We're only as successful
as the people we have running our pubs. You've got to
understand the way the model works
if you want
to own and run your own pub, as a Free House, it will
cost you about £450,000. If you take a lease with
us, the deal is that you pay a lower than market price
rent on your property, and you buy all your beer from
us. Therefore, we take part of the risk.' It is, he
says, a bargain.
Tell that to Andrew Hall, who has run the Rose and Crown
pub in Oxford for 22 years. Hall looks like a traditional
landlord might be expected to look: he's round and bearded,
smokes cigarettes and enforces a 'no dogs or politicians'
rule on his premises at all times. He is also, since
Punch took over his pub, in financial trouble.
'I'm not singling out Punch', he says. 'My criticism
is of PubCos in general. The basic problem is simple.
When pubs were run by brewers they charged us very low
rents and we had to buy all our beer from them. Now
they're run by PubCos who are charging high rents, and
we still have to buy all our beer from them, at very
high prices. As a result, this is now a business where
you can't make money.'
'My rent', he explains 'has doubled since the late 1980s.
I'm presently paying a rent of about £26,000 a
year, and it's about to be raised again by another five
thousand or so. Punch says - all the PubCos will say
this - that this is a low rent to pay for a business.
This may be true but it's beside the point, because
in no other business will you have to buy all your products
at cripplingly high prices from the person who rents
you the premises. Punch will sell me 18 gallons of Adnams
bitter for £145. The market price is £60,
but I'm not allowed to buy it elsewhere. When my wife
and I started as tenants here we were doing very well.
Now we're heading towards bankruptcy. We're earning
a third less now, in real terms, than we were twenty
years ago, even though our business is doing as well,
if not better. In what other trade could you say that?'
He sighs. 'The PubCos have got us up against the wall.'
On the table between us, in the pub's low, wooden front
room, sits a folder of documents. From it, Andrew Hall
pulls a newspaper clipping from early 2004, detailing
how Punch's 37-year old chief executive, Giles Thorley,
has pocketed £3.6 million from selling some of
his shares. In total, says the article, Thorley is estimated
to be worth around £20 million.
'Look at this', says Hall, gesturing with his cigarette.
'Giles Thorley. The man's a great entrepreneur. I don't
want to discourage great entrepreneurs in our society.
But he's made his money by taking my living away from
me. And that I find hard.'
Whether the Rose and Crown will survive remains to
be seen. In the meantime though, the corporatisation
of pubs - and the cultural loss it represents - marches
on. PubCos, when challenged, will say that change is
inevitable; they are simply responding to it. The issue,
though, is not whether pubs change - they always have
and always will. The issue is how they change - and
who changes them.
There was a time when the state of the English pub could
be said to define the state of England. Today the state
of the English pub is increasingly defined by the stock
market. And when the rough edges, the variety of character
and the sheer bloody-minded localness of the traditional
pub meet the brands, images, chains and concepts of
modern corporate culture, it's not hard to work out
which will triumph.