Defining a ‘Classic Pub’

The corner of a pub lounge in Chester.

We recently exchanged a few Tweets with pub blogger Martin Taylor (AKA @NHS_Martin) about his term ‘classic pub’ — what does it mean? Does such a thing exist?

There is the abstract idea of the perfect or ideal pub, explored most famously in George Orwell’s rather over-quoted 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’, and at length in a book it inspired, The Search for the Perfect Pub by Paul Moody and Robin Turner, published in 2011. Moody and Turner conclude that perfect pubs are those that possess

individuality, wit and wisdom… which fly the flag for independence in the face of corporate domination and the onset of a homogenised ‘clone town’ Britain: the ones which feed the community yet give back in double measures, at happy hour prices.

We reckon that in this context, perfect and classic are synonymous — both imply a quality that bears reflection, that goes beyond mere function, and to which the drinker has a reaction deep in the soul.

The thing is, Orwell tried to draw up a set of rules — no music, cheap food, pink mugs, and so on — but that’s a flawed approach because it just invites a different kind of homogeneity, and homogeneity (as Moody and Turner suggest) is the enemy of character, which is what causes a pub to latch on to your heart.

Inside the Hunter's Inn, Devon
Inside the Hunter’s Inn, Devon.

On the whole, we prefer pubs with lots of dark corners, but there are pubs which have that but that we don’t like at all, and pubs with bright open spaces, chrome and stripped wood that (against the odds, perhaps) we love. We’ve fallen for pubs with food, and pubs without; pubs with jukeboxes, and those as silent as monasteries; crowded pub, quiet pubs; Olde Inns, new builds; round the corner from our house, or on holiday; full of friendly locals, or big-city-aloof. And so on.

Where this conversation so often goes wrong is in the idea that only pubs that match the observers’ particular preferences (which might take a decade of therapy to understand) are Proper Pubs — TRUE pubs. But pubs have been all sorts of things mixed up and inter-mingled since they faded into existence over the course of a few centuries — wine, beer, gin, food, music, art, theatre, children, bareboards, plush furnishings, cut glass, spit and sawdust — you name it. They’re all part of what is and has been The Pub.

Window of the Star Inn.

And when we talk to people for whom a post-war prefab was the Local, their memories are as fond as yours might be of a favourite Victorian corner pub or distant craft beer bar.

Ultimately, for us, the only defining feature of a pub is that we can walk in off the street without making an appointment and drink a beer or two without eating. (And, we suppose, without being made to feel guilty for not eating either.) Beyond that, what defines the meaning of Pub is its diversity, and what makes for a classic pub is that it gets to you, that you remember it and (optional?) that you find yourself longing to go back.

9 thoughts on “Defining a ‘Classic Pub’”

  1. Surely inherent in the idea of a “classic pub” is that it is to some extent unspoilt, or has stood the test of time. A modern interior can provide an excellent pub, but by definition it isn’t – yet – a classic.

    I’d say there’s also an implication that the place still functions well as a pub, and isn’t just a sterile museum-piece, or has been entirely transformed into a restaurant.

    It’s analagous to a “classic car” – and, of course, that can encompass both a vintage Bentley and a Morris Minor. A classic car, like a classic pub, can also have something of “Trigger’s broom” about it. It’s defined not by absolute authenticity but by the impression it’s intended to make.

    1. What got us thinking about this was when Martin referred to Hand Bar in Falmouth — a craft beer bar opened in (top of head) about 2011, not occupying an old pub building — as a ‘classic pub’. So, for him (perhaps he’ll chip in later) it obviously means something distinct from old/original/historic.

  2. That’s a lovely piece.

    I’d defer to anyone’s better use of language, but will still use the term to describe recent things that other folk will violently disagree on. (Portugal v France was a classic final by the way).

    I do think Hand is a masterpiece of a pub/bar/living room (definitions again). Never had the cask there, but what I’ve had there are proper pub experiences. Wide mix of custom, lovely seating, interesting décor, craft beer range, bar staff willing to decant halves into pint glasses for better tasting beer etc.

    Falmouth is blessed; the ‘Front and Seven Stars in wonderful in more traditional ways.

  3. A marvelous topic, and I love the balanced approach you’ve taken. You’re quite right, people are always eager to make a list of rules based on their own preferences and present that as a guide for everyone else.

    As an American, I have a couple of preferences that come from my tendency to define a pub in contrast to a typical bar found over here. Most pubs are much more home-like than American bars; that old idea that you “feel like you’re in somebody’s front room” has added allure to me because you basically never encounter it in America. (Even the faux Irish pubs, some of them fairly convincing, tend to go for hand-carved opulence rather than the home-like atmosphere.) So my main bias is perhaps that to whatever degree a pub in the UK looks and feels like a typical American boozer, it holds no interest for me.

    The other main bias I have is toward the age of the building– again, something strongly influenced by the relative youth of my country, and the rarity of bars that are even located in buildings from the 19th century or earlier, let alone featuring interiors that are substantially unchanged from those times. An English pub that was built in 1985 is unlikely to cast a spell on me like one that was built in 1785.

    I do wonder if either of my criteria figure prominently on the “wish lists” that pub fans tend to have in the UK.

  4. You could also make a comparison with “classic literature”, which takes time to be established in the canon. if you look back, there are many examples of popular books that were critically lauded at the time that, fifty years later, have sank without trace.

    But it’s important to make the point that a pub can be excellent without yet qualifying as a classic. The two are not synonymous.

  5. I have very fond memories of some rough and ready estate pubs in Nottingham, where every Friday and Saturday night the pool tables were cleared away and the local girls danced the night away to the old bloke with the moustache’s mobile disco of classic 80s tunes, whilst we tried in vain to play darts over by the cigarette machine.

    They also ran a pub quiz on a Tuesday night that as students we played in on a weekly basis simply because it came with a free hot meal. The winners won a carvery dinner for 2 on a Sunday, where you could nurse your hangover amongst the same white haired clientele that you chatted to the same time last week.

    I got to know the landlord quite well. He was a nice old bloke. I think its shut now, put out of business by a wetherspoons opening on the next street and undercutting them by a quid a pint.

  6. I read this post earlier and was ruminating on it. I overtook a couple walking in the park. The woman asked the man “what would have, an old house or a new house?” this was greeted by a strained “oooooooooh”

    I think we’re generally suckers for the old and worn in Britain. It gives a place a certain proven dependability.

  7. I think a classic pub is less about architecture or interior design and more about atmosphere and attitude. It is the character of the owners, staff and regulars that make a pub more than how it looks.

    A classic pub makes you feel welcome, but not too welcome too soon – that just makes it feel like a faceless customer service exercise. But it does make you feel more like a regular with every pint over the course of an evening. The bar staff remember what you’re drinking whether it is your first time in, or your 5,000th time.

    The regulars are happy to leave you alone, but also welcome you in to their communal conversations. They know their Guinness will get poured as soon as they step over the threshold, but they don’t expect to be served before anyone else.

    One or two regulars are probably a bit barmy. There will also be a fount of all knowledge and someone known for knowing nothing. Some will have their spots to sit in, but they don’t get too grumpy when some unsuspecting soul has sat there without knowing that.

    There is a feel of community about a classic pub, but it is an optional one. You can take some time alone, or can join a surrogate family for the evening.

  8. Another connotation of “classic” is that it is an archetype of a particular category of pub. Thus you might refer to “a classic street-corner local” or “a classic Brewer’s Tudor roadhouse”.

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