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Small town blues

bridgwater.jpgI’ve just come back from my home town (Bridgwater, in Somerset) where the pubs are having something of a crisis. For years, it’s been one of those towns that claims to have more pubs per head than any other. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are a lot of pubs. And, for almost as many years, those pubs have managed to make their way, despite the heavy competition.

Sadly, in recent years, a couple of big (and, crucially, cheap) chain pubs have opened in the town centre, leaving many of the smaller “locals” all but empty, even on Boxing Day (traditionally a very busy day).

Big business and the council are partly to blame here, but I have to say that some of the pubs are doing themselves no favours. In the face of stiff competition, they should be rising to the challenge and making the local the place to be. Instead, the pub nearest my parents house has decided that:

1. the best way to make the pub feel more lively is to put Radio 1 on at full volume and turn off the juke box

2. they’re too depressed to greet people when they enter the pub, or smile at them during service

3. it doesn’t matter if the excellent local bitter — Butcombe, on which more later — is stale or off

4. there’s no need to wash the glasses

5. that currying favour with five grumpy regulars is more important than making newcomers feel welcome.

This is typical, sadly. So, in my home town, the local pubs are now less friendly, more expensive, dirtier, less atmospheric, and have worse beer than Wetherspoons. And that’s saying something. My Dad, who has been drinking in Bridgwater pubs since he was old enough to lie to a barman about his age, got so depressed we had to leave.

I suspect that in Bridgwater, and many other towns across the UK, we’re going to see an end to the days when a population of 36,000 can support almost 200 pubs. Bad pubs are going to die. Cheap chain pubs will prosper. But good pubs — pubs that keep a small range of ales in good condition, which make their customers feel welcome, that create atmosphere, and that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month — will survive.

I’ll name names: the Bower Manor is a fairly unassuming restaurant/hotel, with a small bar. It, too, was quiet on Boxing Day, but the landlady was friendly; there was one fresh, well-kept real ale (Sharp’s Doom Bar — the best pint of this I’ve ever had); a roaring fire; and a Christmas Tree. It was hard to leave!

Oh, and I promised to say something about Butcombe Bitter: it’s a great beer. One of my favourites (my judgement being partly clouded by homesickness, I’ll admit). At its best, it’s very bitter, very satisfying, and slightly sulphurous on the nose. I can’t vouch for how it will taste if you see it on tap outside the West Country, but try a half and let me know what you think.


9 replies on “Small town blues”

Would you believe that my hometown is Bridgewater, Somerset County, New Jersey, United States?

Yes, we Merkins put an unnecessary ‘E’ in the middle of an otherwise perfectly serviceable name. (There are several Bridgewaters in the States.)

Not that there’s any decent pubs there.

Your post disturbs me, though. I have this dream of returning to England and visiting a genuine pub. There’s not much of a pub culture over here, and I feel like we’re missing out. I’d love to have a “local”, but the one establishment in town allowed to sell booze is a scary place. (Too many John Deere hats and not enough teeth.)

You make it sound like if I want to do that I’d better hurry up and book the trip.

Having just spent a night at Australia’s oldest brewery and found that they too serve freezing, fizzy beer, talk of Butcombe makes me very homesick. I have a real dread that I’ll return to Blighty only to find that it’s gone the way of Greene King: bland, mass-produced and with a suspicious white, foam head.

Al – there’s some argument that Bridgwater once had an “E”, but lost it when they built the railway station (economising on the sign). Certainly the Duke of Bridgewater, Bridgewater canal and Bridgewater Hall all have the E…

As for pubs, locals etc – it’s easy to romanticise our pub culture, but the fact is that a lot of our pubs are like the ones Bailey described, and have been for many years.

However, looking on the positive side, the pubs in my area that have closed in the last couple of years have been the bad ones, and at least one has been re-opened to great success (better beer, better welcome = lots of clientele). So hopefully there will be a few decent ones left when you get over here!

I think that’s a great article, just the kind I like to read.

This caught my attention though: you talk about pubs “that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month”.

That begs the question – should you be treated like a regular if you only go somewhere twice a month? If that’s how infrequently we visit our favourite local pubs, can we complain if they close due to lack of business?


That’s a good point, and depends on how many great pubs you have in your area that need your support, I suppose!

We have a couple of pubs that we visit very frequently (and only one has good beer), but other than that, we like to “spread the love” and seek out new pubs. Every couple of weeks would be quite frequent for us for a pub that wasn’t in our immediate vicinity.

But is it too much to ask that people make you feel like a regular no matter how (in)frequently you go? Maybe some people get off on feeling like they belong to an exclusive club in their local (and I’m sure we’ve all been in one of those!) but I think a truly great pub is where you feel welcome immediately.

Interestingly, in Spain, where you have many more bars per head than here, you tend to have five or six “locals”, which you visit on the same night (admittedly, drinking small amounts).

Al: Get yourself down to the Triumph Brewing Company. It’s only about half an hour’s drive away from you – it’s in Princeton. Looks like a really good brewpub to boot!

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