Category Archives: pubs

The Decline of Mild

“I think that lighter beers… people used to drink with their eyes — if one person lifted a pint and looked through it, everybody did. Another stepping stone was the introduction of lager. When we talk about mild drinkers, they’re probably the lager drinkers now. Didn’t like bitter beer, enjoyed the mild beer, and now gone on to lager.”

Don Nixon, pub landlord 1960-1989, in Public Houses, Private Livesan oral history of Life in York pubs in the mid-20th century. (With some corrections to punctuation.)

Portrait of a Publican

victorian_bar_474

The landlord’s high stool at the end of the bar is really a kind of throne from which he exercises benign authority.

Gouty and beetroot-cheeked, he is no dabbler, but a pub man in his very heart: he is proud of what he has built, and feels what is right without making any self-conscious effort.

The well-worn wooden counter looks rightly Victorian. Cards games are played on green baize. New wallpaper with a fashionable pattern gestures at refurbishment and yet, with its wine-red curlicues, enhances the atmosphere rather than snuffing it out.

But the essence of ‘pubness’ isn’t in the décor: it emanates from him, like a psychic projection or force field.

He would probably go mad if he didn’t get to spend his working day amongst other people. Greeting new visitors with a few courtly words, and looking after his regulars, makes him glow and stretch tall, like a dog having its belly rubbed.

But his kingdom shows signs of decay. The glowing Guinness font is only for show, glasses being filled (not quite openly) from cans in the fridge. Where there were once three ‘guest ales’, the condition of which he was justifiably proud, there is now one, chosen for its cheapness.

Even with a full pub, we wonder if he is making any money at all, and suspect that what keeps it afloat is one thing: his love of the game.

The Seven Types of Boozer, c.2001

It can be hard sometimes to recall details of the recent past. It does, after all, tend to blend rather seamlessly into the present.

That’s why we love coming across specific, detailed contemporary observations such as this academic study of nightlife in British cities in the period 2000-2002.

Its authors, Meg Aubrey, Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands, categorised the seven types of drinking establishment in the UK c.2001 as follows:

  • Style Bar: One off, individual, décor obviously highly designed and stylised. By nature fairly new. Could be part of a large company which owns many pubs but a style bar would not be branded.

  • Café Bar: High levels of design, serves food & coffee, lots of seats/tables, range of clientele/atmospheres throughout day. Can be independent or part of a national operator.

  • Traditional Pub: Characterised wood tables, patterned carpets etc Can be either corporate or owner-run so includes branded traditional pubs.

  • Ale House: Very Traditional, scarcely changed, original features & loyal, regular clientele. Can be either brewery owned or independent. Often in need of redecoration. Often situated in run down areas.

  • Theme Pub/Bar: Main feature is that it follows an obvious style throughout, often with memorabilia, chalk boards, bar dress etc. Themed outlets include (1) multi-sited, national High Street Brands such as Sport, Nationalities (Australian, New Zealand, Irish) or student theme pubs or (2) single site concept bars.

  • Disco Bar: Vertical drinking, loud music, few seats, very busy Fri/Sat. Often closed during day and do not open till evening.

  • Alternative Pub: Defined by décor, but often due to music policy, clientele, attitude.

That chimes with our memories of our early twenties when we spent a lot of time  in one particular ‘alternative pub’, drawn by the music and atmosphere rather than the beer.

But would a 2014 version of that list today also include ‘Craft Beer Bar’ as a distinct category? An early example of the phenomenon, Leeds’ North Bar, founded in 1997, actually gets a mention in a quote from a clubgoer (link to PDF, p20):

There is a real Milos crowd like there is a real North Bar crowd. They are quite similar to the North Bar people in fact some of them used to be North Bar people and then they grown out and they moved to Milos because there is like DJ sort of funk. And friends of the DJ will come and it is the bar people are all friends with each other and it is a big scene.

By way of context, the authors say: ‘One of the distinctive elements of Leeds’ nightlife is that many of the bars have loyal followings, often based upon musical and style policy.’

Perhaps these days, ‘craft beer’ is part of ‘style policy’. Or is it a ‘theme’?

The Social Attractiveness of Pubs, 1901

“[Public houses] are, as a rule, brilliantly lit, and often gaudily, if cheaply, decorated. In winter they are always kept temptingly warm. The company is almost entirely composed of young persons, youths and girls, sitting round the room and at small tables… Every one is drinking, but not heavily… In a round of the public-houses [of York] which the writer made on Saturday evening in May 1901, the fact of their social attractiveness struck him very forcibly. It points to the need for the establishment on temperance lines of something equally attractive in this respect.”

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree in Poverty: a study of town life (1908 edition) apparently liking pubs more than he wanted to.

19th Century Pubs of St Ives

Golden Lion, St Ives.

The Golden Lion and George and Dragon, St Ives. SOURCE: Saffron100_UK on Flickr.

We’ve recently joined the Morrab Library in Penzance where we’re discovering all kinds of interesting nuggets about beer and pubs.

For example, Old St Ives: the reminiscences of William Paynter, published in 1928, contains a short chapter about inns and ‘beer shops’ in Cornwall in the mid-nineteenth century. Here are some highlights:

In the early years of the last century the drinking of a certain amount of alcohol was looked upon as a necessary precaution against illness, and in consequence everyone used to drink, women as well as men. To meet the demand for liquor there were about twenty public-houses in St Ives, small as it was then as compared with to-day. In St Andrew Street alone there were three inns — the Blue Bell, the Star, and the Red Lion. Fore Street and the Wharf could boast of nine — the Castle Inn, the Union Inn, the Britannia, the Victory, the Dolphin, the Globe, the Sloop, the White Hart, and the Ship Aground. Round the market-place were the King’s Arms, the George and Dragon and the Golden Lion, while further afield were the Queen’s, the Western and the Sheaf of Wheat.

[...]

In those days, when there were no means of entertainment and amusement in the evenings, the public-houses served as clubs, like the coffee-houses of the eighteenth century. People used to meet in them to talk over the events of the day. A favourite diversion was the making up of rhymes on current events… It was customary for a few people to join together to buy a newspapers, and to meet in an inn to read it aloud and discuss it.

[...]

In addition to the social attractions offered by the inns, there were found very useful for business purposes. Wages were paid there on Saturday nights, a circumstances often detrimental to the amount handed by husbands to their wives on their return home.

[...]

A great many smuggling plots were hatched in the inns, for in spite of customs officers smuggling did not come to an end in St Ives till the eighteen seventies… One old woman, after drawing a pint of beer for a customer, always asked him if he wanted ‘something to take the chill off.’ The answer was usually a significant wink, and Martha ‘Chill-off’, as she was called, flourished, like many others, on the illicit transaction.

Notes

  1. The book was written by S. Winifred Paynter, based on stories she heard from her father. She may have misheard, mis-remembered, censored or embroidered, so it can’t be considered completely reliable as a source.
  2. There are still pubs called the Golden Lionthe Sloopthe Queen’s, the Sheaf of Wheat in St Ives.
  3. ‘Chill-off’ is a badass nickname.
  4. Next time you’re in the pub with mates and conversation starts to flag, why not compose a rhyme about current affairs?