Britain's pubs say cheers to their revival

Thousands have closed but others are reinventing themselves

Latest British government statistics on public houses indicate that the decline in their numbers has been halted and that pub culture may actually be coming back into fashion.
Latest British government statistics on public houses indicate that the decline in their numbers has been halted and that pub culture may actually be coming back into fashion. PHOTO: REUTERS

The church, the cricket lawn and the pub. For centuries, that "holy trinity" was the essence of life in a typical English village.

Church congregations have long ago melted away, and there were fears that the pubs, those drinking establishments with quaint names, rickety furniture and lukewarm beer, would also disappear. Thousands of such "public houses" went out of business over the past two decades alone.

But Britain's pubs are fighting back, and are proving surprisingly resilient. Latest government statistics indicate that the decline in their numbers has been halted and that pub culture may actually be coming back into fashion.

For countless generations of Brits, pubs were never just about drinking; they were social hubs, the beating hearts of local communities.

In the age before the combustion engine, pubs were the staging posts for a national network of horse-drawn carriages.

The recruitment of men into the military often started in pubs and, in times of national crises, it was to pubs that the Brits turned to to get the news and discuss their fate. Of all the myths about Britain's resilience and determination during World War II, the image of ordinary people huddled around a radio set in a pub to greet bad news with a stoic face and victories with cheers happens to be absolutely true.

The open fire on a cold evening and snoozing family dogs in a pub's corner are also part of Britain's iconic images.

And as any fan of British detective fiction stories can attest, the vital clues to solving a crime and apprehending the culprit invariably emerge in the pub.

The beer may have been flat and warm, the fried sausages frequently tough and greasy and the tobacco smoke always insufferable, but nobody could beat the pub for atmosphere and community spirit.

Yet, like many British institutions, the pub seemed overtaken by events. Drinking habits have changed, as people prefer to buy far cheaper alcohol from supermarkets and get it delivered to their home.

Ways of social interaction have evolved. In an age of mobile phones and WhatsApp, going to a pub to meet one's friends is no longer essential.

The ban on smoking in public places may be perfectly justified on health grounds, but it was a disaster for an industry in which smoking and drinking always came together. And then, there was rising competition from fast-food restaurants.

Over the past 10 years, more than 9,000 British pubs closed their doors for the last time, accelerating a trend which started during the previous decade. Overall, up to a quarter of all the country's pubs have now disappeared.

But the latest market indicators suggest that the worst may be over. In the final months of last year, pubs generated a sales increase of over 5 per cent, more than double the figures registered by the restaurant industry, with which they are regularly compared. More significantly, the British Beer & Pub Association reports that beer sales grew by more last year than they had for 45 years.

One explanation for the pubs' higher profitability is that they are largely insulated from the pressures of higher property rents and other costs associated with the restaurant industry. Most pubs have owned the building and the land on which they have stood for generations.

Pubs are also benefiting from growing interest in premium drinks. So, while the traditional brands are obtainable at deeply discounted rates from supermarkets, the premium ones are now offered in pubs, creating a novel experience. Pubs are also more flexible than restaurants in their opening hours: They can stay open for breakfast, and go on through the day.

But the main reason for their revival is that pubs have reinvented themselves as community centres, with an emphasis on today's communities. Take the Railway pub in Streatham, south London, for example. It runs morning classes for mothers and babies, as well as quizzes and comedy shows in the evening.

And then there is the George pub in Burpham, a little village in southern England, which was saved from bankruptcy after it was bought by village residents. "By the locals, for the locals, of the locals - and a very warm welcome to everyone", it proudly proclaims. The latest Michelin Guide for Britain agrees. "The seasonal menu is full of tasty, popular classics," it writes of the George.

And there are some who believe that Britain's impending departure from the European Union could help pubs. "As the UK prepares to exit the EU, the government will have the freedom to reduce beer duty specifically in pubs," claims the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation devoted to the promotion of better British beer.

British ministers are unlikely to be impressed by this argument. Still, with all projections about Britain's future after Brexit remaining bleak, it may be comforting to some that the pub - that quintessential British institution - may continue to thrive.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 03, 2019, with the headline Britain's pubs say cheers to their revival. Subscribe