Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?
We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.
In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.
Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.
At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.
So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.
Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.
Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.
Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.
But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!