‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

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.

The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.

Breaking out of the Rut

Illustration: moody London pub.

It’s easy to end up drinking the same beers, and going to the same pubs and bars, and feel miserable about it. But there are ways to break free.

1. Walk down a new street or visit a new town and go into the first pub you walk past after a certain hour. (Don’t cheat.)

2. Or go to every single pub in a neighbourhood, town or village, however weird or unpromising.

3. Buy an old guide book and visit the pubs it recommends, or take on a famous historic crawl.

4. Drink your way through a list of beers from a book or listicle.

5. Get someone else to choose beers for you.

6. Drink every beer you can find in a particular style, from a particular region, or that meet some other criteria – ABV, colour, Christmas themed…

7. Critically revisit beers you know you don’t like but haven’t tried in years. After all, they change, and you change too.

8. Spend a month drinking things other than beer, but with beer in mind.

There are lots of other ways to go about this kind of thing. The point is, like writing poetry using restrictive rules, or cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats, it should be sort of pointless… But not really.

You might hate all the new pubs you go in and beers you taste, or you might find new favourites you kick yourself for having missed out on for so long. Even the duds will teach you something.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 05 August 2017: Anchor, ‘Arf Pints, Amsterdam

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week, from a very significant big brewery takeover to a bunch of priests on the lash.

The big news this week — really big news — was the takeover of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing by Sapporo of Japan. Depending how you look at it, Anchor has a claim to being patient zero in the craft beer boom of the past half-century, and so this does go a bit beyond just another takeover. There’s been lots of analysis but our favourite piece is by a local writer, Esther Mobley, for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In San Francisco, the emotional stakes are especially high when it comes to Anchor. Not only is it our brewery — our first, our signature — but it’s America’s original craft beer. It’s an icon of independence, and has seemed, at least we thought, large and established enough to be insulated from the pressures that have forced others to sell.


In De Wildeman

For Left Lion Benedict Cooper has written a wonderful account of his pilgrimage from an English pub to its twin in Continental Europe:

I’ve been in the Poacher I prefer not to recall how many times, but I’d never noticed the brass plaque on one of the walls until one slow, winter evening this year. Sitting at the long table, I found myself reading:

The Lincolnshire Poacher
Nottingham, England
Twinned with
In De Wildeman
Amsterdam, Netherlands

It feels as if more pubs ought to be twinned — does anyone know of others?


Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Alec Latham has been pondering again: why is it, he asks, that a half-pint glass full of beer feels like much less than half a pint of beer?

[A] pint goes down in gradations as you nurse it and watch the level of others’ if you’re in company.

A half should stretch to fifty per cent of that time but seems like several mouthfuls. Half a pint – the reality – doesn’t last as long as half a pint – the notion. In other words, a half isn’t as much as half of a pint. Do you follow?

Maybe that’s why it’s often prefixed with ‘swift’.


The Gaping Goose, Leeds.

Richard Coldwell revisited a once favourite pub only to be dismayed at the changes it had undergone, prompting some reflection on how fragile the unique identities of pubs, beers and neighbourhoods can be:

There’s plenty other pubs who laid claim to have sold the best Tetley’s in Leeds. In fact depending on who you talk to, everyone will have their own idea, but that’s life for you. If you’ve never experienced Joshua Tetley’s Bitter, the real mccoy, then you’ve never lived. A smooth, creamy pint of beer that created a plimsoll type gauge down the glass denoting the length of each slurp. The creaminess was created by the autovac system that recirculated the beer back into the beer engine as it overflowed from the glass into the trough like drip tray. I’ve read a lot about people’s thoughts on autovacs, mostly from the kind of folk with that modern OCD based, you’ve just touched someone wash your hands, wash them again, turn round three times to the left, jump to the right and you won’t catch any germs kind of attitude; recycled beer never did me any harm.


This is a classic silly season story but irresistible nonetheless, not least because of the pure Father Ted-ness of it all: a Cardiff pub this week attempted to eject a party of priests having mistaken them for a costume-wearing stag party.


A couple of other bits of news, just for the record: the Craft Beer Co, which owns pubs across London and (a bit) beyond, has quietly closed its Clapham branch; and Purecraft has closed its Nottingham branch. Not evidence of a crisis, we don’t think, so much as pragmatic business decisions. But, still.


And, finally, the customary pick of the Tweets to sign off:

20th Century Pub

The cover of 20th Century Pub.

Right, so it’s finally real — we have hard copies of the new book, as handed over in a Bristol pub last night in a vaguely cloak-and-dagger exchange.

The idea behind the book is that it tells the story of how pubs changed and developed between 1900 and the present via inter-war improved pubs, post-war estate pubs, theme pubs, Irish pubs, gastropubs, micropubs, and so on. The tone is similar to Brew Britannia with perhaps a little more flair in the prose — we’ve had three years extra practice, after all.

You can pre-order from Amazon UK now as well as various other places (list below). The official publication date is 15 September but it’s likely to go out earlier than that.

Detail of one of the illustrations.
Detail from a 1955 illustration by Clarke Hutton, securing the rights to which took considerable detective work on Jo’s part.

And (fingers crossed) it should also be available at the Great British Beer Festival bookshop next week. Assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be there signing copies on Tuesday afternoon (trade day) at around 1:30, and will be hanging about until about 7pm in case anyone misses that organised signing session. Come and say hello!

Chapter header.
Dale Tomlinson, the designer, is a type nerd.

It’s a very pretty book, if we do say so ourselves — bright, tactile, with lots of crisp black-and-white photos, both from the archives and taken by us on our travels during 2015-2017. We’re delighted to say that some of the illustrations we most wanted to include made the cut after much detective work and bargaining by Joanna Copestick at Homewood Press.

Detail from a mock advertisement by Nick Tolson.
Nick Tolson gave us permission to reproduce this mock advertisement from Viz comic as an easter egg on the inside rear cover.

Here’s that list of suppliers we know of so far:

Or, if you want a signed copy sent by post, drop us a line (contact@boakandbailey.com) and we’ll see what we can do.