‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

Duchess of Kent, North London.

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads — they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Further evidence to support this view arrived in our Twitter timeline earlier this week:

And this summary struck home with particular impact:

The map referenced (irritatingly uncredited at first, though they’ve since apologised and given him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incredibly comprehensive London pub blog Pubology. Do go and explore it, and bookmark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many other postcodes (e.g.) many of which show a broadly similar picture — red and yellow dots in the backstreets, green on the arteries.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are closing, and which ones, concluding that it’s easy for middle class commentators to shrug closures off because it’s not their pubs that are disappearing. This is another angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own compulsive wandering: if you stick to main roads in London, or any other major city, there are plenty of pubs. But cut back a block and the story can be quite different. We’ve seen it with our own eyes — walked miles on the secondary route without seeing a single operating pub, even if the buildings remain, converted for residential, retail or some other use.

Coincidentally, on the same day, we came across a note of a parliamentary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this coming:

I do not think that alcohol is evil in itself. I find that drinking with meals is more beneficial than drinking without a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawling to continue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attractive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-purpose restaurants. I believe that we shall see the larger ‘pubs’ taking over and the smaller ‘pubs’ gradually turning in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just happens to be micropub central.)

It all makes sense in commercial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advantages. Backstreet pubs don’t get as much passing trade, obviously. They can be a nuisance for those who live near them, and are harder to police. (More on this coming up.) And smaller pubs especially, without room for kitchens, waiters, gardens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a particular disadvantage in the 21st century.

Of course there are many, many exceptions — Bailey wrote about one earlier this week; and our old Walthamstow local The Nags Head is another. It’s funny, now we think of it, that those lingering backstreet pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feelings for a moment) the nicest, being all the better for their seclusion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it happens in our new neighbourhood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a couple of surviving back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can manage.

30 thoughts on “‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’”

  1. A large reason for the decline in the backstreet local I’ve always thought was nobody quite knowing what their purpose is anymore. Back 50 years or so, these would be generally working class and the trade was either going to be the workers from a large employer of some sort (factory, mine, etc) or set amongst a working class community. The former have more or less gone as the that type of emplyment has gone, and how many modern industrial estates have any sort of licensed premises? Not many, and usually hotels if anything – and no drinkers from the workplaces and virtually all will be driving.
    For the housing estates, well just take a look at sixties TV, say Corrie or Al Garnett. The local boozer was usually at least as nice as the housing for the locals. Nowadays, the vast majority of the working class will have enough comfort to make going out an effort. Why bother if you have more comfortable furniture, a TV where you can watch whatever you want and if you want a drink you can get it much cheaper from a supermarket. What is better about the experience you get in the small local the would draw most people in, especially in times of ongoing austerity where there is very little discretionary cash for day to day life and you would save that up for special occasions?

    1. “What is better about the experience you get in the small local the would draw most people in ?”

      The better company, Scott. Read what you like into that.

  2. A few years ago, I wrote a blogpost about the differential pattern of pub closures entitled Trying to make sense of it all. This backs up your point that pubs in residential areas have suffered much more than those in town or suburban centres, where there is often something of a clustering effect. A lot of pub visits are tagged on to some other activity rather than specifically being a case of “going out to the pub”.

  3. Looking at the map, I think its got less to do with the size of the road, and more to do with a clustering effect.

    Going to the pub is less of an everyday habit and more of a deliberate act nowadays, and people are willing to go a little further in order to get what they want – be it better beer, better food, more lively company, music, sports, pool tables etc, rather than just sit in their local for convenience.

    The mini-pub crawl, where friends from different neighbourhoods converge via foot/bike/bus/drive to a specific area, go around 2-3 pubs, and then individually walk/bike/bus/drive home again, also supports clusters of pubs outside of the city centre.

    You see it in Nottingham – people might meet up in Beeston, or Bridgford, or Hockley, or Canning Circus, or Mansfield Road, or Mapperley Top where there are clusters of decent pubs.

    Its also obvious in Cambridge: outside of the city centre, the Kite, Mill road, Castle hill, Chesterton road, all have their own clusters of pubs, where people might viably say “lets not go to town tonight, lets just go for a few pints in…”.

  4. As Py said Cambs doesn’t seem to fall in line with this description. I am very definitely on a back street, there is another pub just across the road a third one about 50 yards away and a fourth just down the alleyway – in fact here it is the back street boozers that are doing well and the pubs on the main roads that have closed….

    1. My tilt at this is that people increasingly want to go for a drink with their friends from all over town rather than with their neighbours, hence will tend to end up going somewhere that’s easy for everyone to get to, which in turn generally means somewhere fairly central and handy for busses, taxis etc. Cambridge is a bit of an exception because a) it’s inherently weird in all sorts of ways and b) enough people cycle that it doesn’t make much odds whether you meet up on Mill Road or Castle Hill so long as the people are happy with the pub.

      1. Central Cambridge is just a tourist and upper-class twit write-off that all sensible people avoid like the plague.

        1. This is mainly true. Going to Cambridge and sticking to the generic central GK pubs (Eagle/Granta/Anchor) would be a massive mistake. The only place really worth visiting in the city centre is the Pint Shop, but they’ve definitely pitched their prices towards the inaccessible end of the scale.

      2. I think there’s definitely something in this idea of friendship groups being more dispersed – partly through wider car ownership meaning people work further from home, and women working meaning that a couple ends up compromising and living between two workplaces rather than on the doorstep of one. Also more internet friendships.

        But there’s also the midmarket squeeze that you see in other fields – people either go for the cheap option from Lidl/Primark etc, or the premium option (farmer’s markets, boutique clothes), but cut out the midmarket option (Tesco/M&S). In this world the backstreet local is the midmarket option – more expensive than cans from the supermarket at home or Spoons but not as good a choice (of drinks or the opposite sex) as the premium town centre bars.

        Some people are drawn to the local for the social aspect. But you also get gangs of pensioners who have no loyalty – they like the pub but only go to the “local” one which has the best deal on that day (the White Lion on Tuesdays, the Swan on Wednesdays etc), failing that they end up at Spoons as they wouldn’t go to any other pub in the centre. I still don’t get CAMRA’s enthusiasm for Spoons, they are the biggest killer of pubs in the country. You might want to identify where the Spoons are on the map.

    2. I don’t think its just Cambridge – there are similar spatial distributions of pubs in most cities.

    3. Cambridge is so weird though – it’s got dense residential areas right in the city centre, of a sophisticated international crowd with a strong drinking culture who don’t mind a bit of rowdiness at night even when they’re not part of it. The weirdest thing about it is that a large proportion of that crowd are banned from keeping a motor vehicle within 10 miles of Great St Mary’s. That drives people from cars onto bike and foot, which in turn takes them away from traffic arteries and into the “capillaries”.

      You can’t really deduce anything from Cambridge.

      Looking at the London map – we all think about the “push” factors of pub decline, but it’s also true that buildings in quiet back streets are much more desirable to convert into residential than buildings on main roads.

      Size is important – it’s not just the lack of space for kitchens and beer gardens, but just the number of covers in a typical backstreet pub when the fixed costs of running a pub have been spiraling.

      Licensing is also important – there’s been a definite strategy of moving drinking into small zones and away from residential areas, aside from any grassroots complaints. But I know one pub that could open another 30-60 minutes on a Friday/Saturday night and would probably add 10-15% to its weekly turnover in that time, if it wasn’t for one neighbour who has a problem. Since the marginal costs of opening that extra length of time are minimal, it would make a significant difference to the profitability of the pub.

      It’s unfashionable to say so, but crap publicans are part of the problem. The aforementioned pub was run by an old-school publican who had just got to that time of life where he just didn’t care any more – the fags weren’t tidied up, wasn’t interested in putting new stuff on the bar, that kind of thing. He moved on and was replaced by someone younger and female. Suddenly all the details were being attended to, which meant that all the old boys who were drinking Carling through the week, were bringing their missus on a Friday/Saturday night, who in turn when offered fancy gins and the like were buying them instead of cheap pinot grigio. The pub becomes a real social centre, which means it’s busier, and by not expecting the lowest common denominator it’s making better margins.

  5. Sorry, didn’t mean to turn this into a discussion about Cambridge. Nottingham has similar distributions of clusters of pubs outside the city centre.

    1. Cambridge is an interesting example though and as the original article is also location based, I wonder whether London and other big cities have a different pattern to the smaller towns and cities – thinking back to the places I’ve worked over the years there has been no shortages in busy back street pubs…

      1. Cambridge has experienced significant population, employment and wage growth over the past 10 years, at a time when other areas of the country have been struggling.

        So the fact that it “bucks the trend” in terms of there being ~ about as many new pubs opening as shutting in that time period is hardly surprising. There are simply more people here, who have more money to spend in pubs.

        1. I agree with you completely, but as you pointed out Nottingham has a similar profile, and while it may have changed since I left, I would say both Reading and to a certain extent Exeter also have plenty of back street pubs.

          1. Anecdotally, Winchester still has some good back street boozers, though I guess its demographic is similar to Cambridge. High wages, weird people.

      2. The examples you list are still pretty middle-class, it’s working-class pubs that have taken the hit. I can think of northern towns where half the pubs have closed down in a generation – helped in part by pubcos trying to take more money out of them than is realistic, but even so. Nearby towns with a slightly more middle-class demographic (but far from “posh”) have similar pubs just about clinging on. If you want to be really depressed, take the Oldham road out from Manchester centre out to the M60 – there’s a closed pub every couple of blocks, I don’t know anywhere quite like it.

        1. By coincidence, I mentioned the Oldham Road in this blogpost yesterday. It’s probably the most extreme example, but you’ll see something similar along many of the main radial routes in our big cities. And continue along the A62 over the tops to Huddersfield and you’ll see a similar pattern of pub devastation extending out into the countryside.

  6. Demographic that hasn’t been mentioned here of course, is the religious change of inner city populations. A back street local with 90% muslim in the neighbourhood is always going to struggle.

    1. We looked into this a bit when we were researching the book because it often comes up in these conversations.

      The total UK Muslim population is less than 5 per cent; the absolute highest concentration (if I remember rightly) is in Tower Hamlets, London at something like 45 per cent; but Tower Hamlets actually has a relatively high number of licensed premises per head. They might not all be pubs, but there’s certainly no evidence the borough’s gone dry.

      I seem to recall we found a similar pattern for other areas with relatively high Muslim populations based on the available census data.

      It’s one of those things people feel in their guts but invariably they’re (a) over-estimating the ‘demographic change’ and (b) assuming a connection between that and pubs closures for which there is no evidence.

      Which is why we didn’t bother discussing it in the book in the end.

      1. I can well understand why you steered clear of it, as it’s a potential minefield. However, Muslim populations tend to be concentrated in specific areas within wider local government districts, and surely it should be an uncontroversial statement of fact that, if most people in a given area don’t drink for religious or cultural reasons, then the demand for pubs will plummet.

        For example, the Glodwick district of Oldham has lost pretty much all its pubs, and in Rusholme in Manchester, location of the famous “curry mile”, which was once a heavily Irish area, virtually all the backstreet pubs and most of those along the main drag have gone.

        1. Well, we steered clear because we couldn’t find any evidence, not because we were chicken.

          It’s not necessarily *controversial* but it’s over-reaching without evidence that what’s happened in Rusholme is any different to what’s happened in similar areas with a different, more alcohol friendly religious/ethnic make-up.

          That backstreet pubs seem to be disappearing *everywhere*, to my mind, rather undercuts this argument. I’d guess that any area where people on relatively low incomes are trying to raise families, and which has had particular problems with crime and disorder in the last 30 years or so, will struggle to retain pubs for one reason or another even if everyone living nearby is a raging pisshead.

          (I also think, from personal experience, that people rather over-estimate the tendency of British Muslims to stay strictly teetotal and avoid pubs, in London at least. As long as their mums don’t find out etc.)

          1. There are a couple of halal pubs in Nottingham. Everything you would expect to find in a pub. A bar, tables, sky sports on the tv, a pool table, except they don’t serve alcohol.

  7. A while ago I tried to open a micropub in a backstreet. Terraced housing, corner building. Used to be an off licence (proper old school, with sherry from the wood). Planning recieved 2 objections and a dozen comments in support. Planning committee rejected it on the grounds it was too residential.

    What i think is sad is that it seems most new housing developements are built without a pub.

    1. What is also sad is that new housing developments that do have a pub are often awful Marstons/GK/Hungry Horse-type hell holes.

Comments are closed.