opinion pubs

Rough Pubs: Snobbery vs. Experience

Stink-eye bar-fly.

I admit that I’m over-cautious when it comes to guessing whether a pub is rough, but that hasn’t come out of nowhere.

For a start, there’s my family. My Dad — and I hope he won’t mind me saying this — was himself a major cause of roughness in pubs when he was a young man. My parents met in a pub in Bridgwater as youngsters but Mum had heard of Dad and his brothers long before that:

Your Uncle Ernie especially had a reputation as a real hard man. Your dad never started anything. They’d look at him and because he had red hair they’d see how far they could push him. And you could push him quite a long way but then…. He’d just snap. He got banned from pubs for fighting.

Dad himself is a bit embarrassed by it all now but…

Basically, we went out to pubs for two reasons: either to score, or for a punch-up. Get a few bevvies, have a punch up. That was part of the evening, part of the entertainment. Young men strut about, I’m the bees knees, don’t mess with me — they have a hard man attitude. Back then, the boys from North Petherton, boys from Woolavington, the Bridgwater boys… They were hard boys. And you didn’t mix until you got the bus into town and saw each other in the pubs, so there were tensions. Fights started either because people got pissed and rowdy, or because there was a feud — long-running feuds, sometimes — and it would just spark. You didn’t go looking for it, exactly, but you didn’t back away, and you were always ready. The landlords usually dealt with it themselves: they’d come out from behind the bar with a mallet, a bat, a stick, or a bloody big Alsatian. Swinging their sticks, get ’em out quick, into the street. Some of them used to employ local hard men as their bouncers, like the Starkey brothers on the door at The Newmarket.

I grew up with stories likes this, and similar tales from my late and much-missed Uncle Norman, Mum’s brother, who was in the Army for years. And my Mum could look after herself, too, come to that.

My parents, being experienced pub-goers and briefly publicans themselves, at a pub that wasn’t rough but wasn’t genteel either, were adept at reading them. And in Bridgwater they knew which ones were no-go at any given time and always made sure I knew, too. The pubs on the estate where I grew up were non-starters as far as they were concerned — too dodgy altogether, much better to walk a bit into town.

Living in New Cross in London in my early twenties I tested the boundaries and worked out that I could have a good time in almost any pub. On balance, though, I rather preferred the ones where I didn’t have to watch what I said, or where I sat, and where I wasn’t being stared at. (And that goes for posh pubs, too, actually — it’s a general rule.)

A friend of mine once said that there are two types of people in life: those after a roller-coaster ride, and those who want peace and quiet. I’m very much the latter and so I’ve simply never shared the glee that some seem to find in ambient aggro.

That does mean, however, that I — and therefore we — have missed out on some decent pubs because, at first pass, my spidey sense registered a false positive for roughness. There’s a fine line between rough and characterful and perhaps I need to re-calibrate my instruments, just a little.

18 replies on “Rough Pubs: Snobbery vs. Experience”

A few years ago in the Globe in Liverpool, not a pub noted for trouble, a drunk at the end of the bar demanded aggressively: “Who are you looking at?”

Annoyed with the sheer stupidity of the question, I replied: “Well, definitely not you!”

He looked uncertain and shut up; I think he was trying to work out whether he’d been insulted or not.

I love going in rough pubs and have done so since 1981,i have done all pubs in North Manchester which are pretty rough and most of Salford which is just has bad,then there are the pubs in North Nottingham which are pretty much the same,the same goes for the estate pubs in Hull and some of the pubs i have done on estates in South London.
I will never shy away from a pub if it looks rough.

No not really,but when i do my pub crawls i always use a carrier bag it used to be a Kwik Save one years ago while doing Manchester and Salford and an empty glass bottle of Lucozade if things got out of hand,it is now a chemists bag with their logo on it so you dont look to posh or out of place.
I did encounter a bit of bother from a large and rough looking bloke with two mates outside a Wetherspoons in Wallasey on a very recent visit,he told me to delete the photo i had took of the pub which i refused to do,he then told me again to delete it,i just smiled at him and went into the pub.

There’s a difference between rough around the edges and genuinely rough though.

I love the Good Mixer in Camden, a proper crappy rock / dive bar full of a mix of old regulars and indie, rocker and punks of all ages. That’s rough around the edges, dirty, a bit crap to the untrained eye, but I’ve have had some truly memorable nights. It’s a pub to drink London Pride and do shots of Jameson in.
Never had any trouble in there at all despite how he place looks – Although to be fair being 6’3 helps with avoiding knobheads looking for a punch up.

Maybe I ‘ve been lucky but I’ve walked into places in all parts of the London in my days there (not ended, hopefully!) including Whitechapel, Brixton, East kent Road, and never had a problem. True, it was in the afternoon usually, and I’d always have one and go (anywhere really, in order to try different places, after all these were holidays). I found if you are polite you should be fine. Don’t act like a smartalec in other words or do something silly, whcih really applies anywhere. The one time I felt a problem coming on was in a pub in Soho, the subject was politics and I said something in support of Americans that ticked someone off. I could sense some unease in the air, so I finished up and left. A lesson I think to try to avoid those subjects, not just in an unfamiliar locale but anywhere really unless people know you well.


I’ve certainly not made a career of it, but I’ve occasionally been in pubs where it’s all kicked off but I haven’t felt personally threatened in the slightest.

On the other hand, I’ve also been in pubs where there’s no overt violence, but where I’ve persoanlly been barracked or made fun of.

Unwelcoming pubs come in several different flavours.

Lovely piece. Bridgewater and New Cross certainly are testing grounds !

I’m with Mudge, there’s plenty of quiet pubs where I’ve felt unwelcome, including one Beer Guide regular in Bradford-on-Avon just yesterday where I seemed to be stared at for ages and left quickly. Beer Guide pubs with fights – can only recall one (in Rugby) in nearly 10,000 pubs.

The roughest pub i did in Rugby about two years ago was the London House Inn,full of rough looking customers,was that the one Martin.
On another note you are not doing bad yourself in doing nearly 10,000 pubs.

I’ve seen proper knock-down roll-around-on-the-floor fights in two pubs that I can think of, both of which closed shortly afterwards – I think that’s a clue. Never felt threatened, though – the gentlemen in question were clearly only interested in battering each other.

There’s a certain kind of decor that tells me that if I lingered I might not be comfortable, and/or might get the piss taken by the regulars – think bright lighting and formica tables. (The King’s Head in Chorlton on Medlock was exactly like this, despite doubling as a real ale mecca.) It’s mostly a matter of class, but not entirely – I never feel ill at ease in a ‘pubby’ pub (dark wood, upholstered bench seating etc), even if everyone else is in overalls and work boots. A certain density of cigarette smoke – as in, not being able to see the ceiling – used to be a telltale sign of a working-class boozer, but obviously that doesn’t apply any more.

The last time I saw a proper pub fight – tables knocked over, glasses broken, blood – was in a very upmarket gastro in North London.

There were quite a few rough pubs in the old Tiger Bay area of Cardiff in the late 1970’s. Never felt threatened, but best to keep quiet !
One pub was “rough” for different a reason – it rented upstairs rooms out for the use of local “ladies of the night”. It is long-since demolished.

I’ve always had the worst times, in terms of roughness, at upmarket pubs and nightclubs. Places where punters have something to prove, like to flash their cash and their hard-man cred in equal measure. Give me a mucky dive most days…

A drunk in Dudley once informed me that rough pubs are as rough as you make them. What a load of rubbish, all I want is a nice quiet drink & intelligent conversation, the only snag is that, these days, there are very few ‘nice’ pubs around.

If you’re looking for a fight, head to a nightclub in a provincial market town where the local estate agents, farmers and squaddies have nothing better to do than eyeball the first bloke they don’t recognise.

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