Pub Preservation: The Railway Hotel, Edgware

Railway Hotel in the rain.
‘Railway Hotel Unloved’ by Matt Brown, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

We don’t usually get involved in campaigns or promote petitions but this one struck a particular chord with us.

It was set up by Mark Amies (@superfast72) who blogs about history and architecture and has a particular interest in inter-war pubs in the Greater London area. His piece on The Comet, Hatfield, is a particular favourite of ours.

The Railway Hotel in Edgware, North London, the subject of his petition, is another pub from the same period, so few of which are left that the remaining examples have become precious.

It’s a pub we know quite well even though we didn’t make it there on our tour of outer London’s inter-war pubs earlier in the year. It is mentioned in passing in Basil Oliver’s essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House as a notable example of the kind of ‘imposing inn… quasi timber-framed’ that Truman, Hanbury & Buxton were building at the time. Now, Mark says:

It closed in the early 2000’s and has remained boarded up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a portion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been prosecuted for this to our knowledge. The Railway Hotel has has several owners since last year.

These situations can be turned around. A couple of weeks back we visited The Fellowship Inn, a similar premises in South London, which having been listed is now the focus of a well-funded project which promises not only to restore the building architecturally but also to bring it back to life, giving over the pub to experienced chain operators, installing a microbrewery, and turning the derelict dance hall into a cinema.

Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers

Efforts to boost the pub trade often focus on nagging those who already go to go more often, and to more pubs, and drink more while they’re there. This seems misguided to us.

We go to the pub several times a week — more often than most of our friends and family — but sometimes feel under pressure from the collective weight of pub campaigners, messages from the trade, and fellow enthusiasts, to pull a bit more weight. Don’t ask us for specific examples — this is just a sense we’ve picked up over several years drifting about in the conversation.

But we reckon the saving of the pub (if it needs saving — an entirely different conversation) is in making it a normal part of everyday life for more and different people. We have plenty of acquaintances who used to go to the pub, who have a good time at the pub when they do, but just… don’t.

Why not?

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Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)

A Landlady Complains

Illustration: moody London pub.

What a nice pub, I say. Authentic, cosy and characterful, full of little quirks. ‘Ha!’ says the landlady, bitterly. ‘It’s a dump.’

The sloping bar top is hilarious: if you put your glass anywhere but on a drip mat it drifts towards the precipice. A customer makes a dive to save his lager, catching it just in time, and everyone laughs, except the landlady.

‘We lose a few pints that way,’ she says. ‘We’ve asked time and time again for it to be fixed but, no, they don’t care about us — we’re only tenants. If this was a managed house they’d be all over it, but not us.’ She prods the floor behind the bar with her toe, steps with theatrical care over a gap in the floor I can’t see. ‘This is all rotten. They want us to spend our own money on it. Well, you can forget that.’

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