The Reality of the Village Inn

Two old men in a village pub.

English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?

We’ve been tin­ker­ing with a ver­sion of this post for months but were prompt­ed to fin­ish and post it by this Tweet from an aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ence on drink and drink­ing:

The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to men­tion the decreased cen­tral­i­ty of the inn in vil­lage life even as its absolute cen­tral­i­ty to the idea of the per­fect vil­lage per­sists in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Hope­ful­ly we’ll get to read the fin­ished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few obser­va­tions of our own.

First, though, let’s recap the roman­tic vision of the vil­lage inn, as expressed by Geof­frey Grig­son in an arti­cle called ‘The Vil­lage Inn’ that we found via a 1947 edi­tion of the Indi­an mag­a­zine Mod­ern Review:

Church and vic­arage apart, the build­ing which sur­vives and flour­ish­es all over Eng­land, in every parish, every vil­lage, is the pub­lic house, sen­ti­men­tal­ly called the ‘Inn’, com­mon­ly called the ‘pub’… The ‘pub’ is very much more than a place to which one goes for a drink or to buy cig­a­rettes. It is a social cen­tre, with­out dis­tinc­tion of class or income.… Social dif­fer­ences drop off when vil­lage peo­ple cross the doorstep of the pub. They all sit and drink togeth­er, and buy each oth­er drinks; farmer, work­ing-man from the farm, car­pen­ter, garage hand, and the trade union­ist.… Over their pint pots they share in a com­mu­ni­ty of inter­ests, jokes, gos­sip, weath­er, crops, sales, gar­dens, pol­i­tics.

Beer is Best advert: "Where all men meet as equals..."
A Brew­ers’ Soci­ety adver­tise­ment from 1934.

Until a few years ago our expe­ri­ence of vil­lage pubs was typ­i­cal­ly town-cen­tric: we vis­it­ed them on hol­i­day, or were dri­ven to them for fam­i­ly get-togeth­ers over the carvery table. Then we moved to Corn­wall and for the first six months lived in a vil­lage, Gold­sith­ney, which was very much alive and sup­port­ed (just about) two pubs. Nei­ther quite lived up to the ide­al – the place out of time where all class­es min­gle over tankards of beer or cider in front of an open fire – but nor were they design­er-wellies-gas­tro-pre­ten­tious.

The Trevelyan had a prop­er old-school chintzy lounge, all dark red car­pets and pink cur­tains, where the great and good con­gre­gat­ed for polite con­ver­sa­tion; the pub­lic bar was rel­a­tive­ly bare, a place for mud­dy boots, damp dogs and some­times fierce bick­er­ing. Occa­sion­al­ly tourists from one of the near­by camp­sites would come in for a pie or a pint but that trade nev­er seemed to stick. (We lived in the vil­lage and were nev­er made to feel all that wel­come, despite our best efforts to ingra­ti­ate, such as mak­ing up the num­bers at Tues­day night euchre games for a while.) The Crown across the road was sim­i­lar only slight­ly less cosy and less friend­ly – we once made the mis­take of win­ning the pub quiz and felt the tem­per­a­ture drop by five degrees.

A Cornish village pub.

Even after mov­ing to Pen­zance we con­tin­ued to spend time in vil­lage pubs at all times of year. Most of them seemed to switch between two modes: rammed with tourists and full of reserved signs for din­ers half the year, ghast­ly bleak the rest of the time. Excep­tions were to be found inland away from the sea views and sec­ond homes, in vil­lages like Crowlas, whose Star Inn you may have seen us men­tion once or twice. It came clos­est of any we’ve seen to the ide­al – suits and steel-capped boots did mix and min­gle, it was cosy, con­ver­sa­tions had a cer­tain spice – but it was also crash­ing­ly down to earth. It didn’t feel like being back in time – there were too many smart­phones and too much Absolute 80s for that. But it was a busy, friend­ly, func­tion­al vil­lage inn. They do exist.

In recent years, too, Ray’s par­ents have moved to a vil­lage with a pub that seems to thrive. Again, it’s not a posh vil­lage – hous­es scat­tered along a main road, with no prop­er church or green or any of that jazz – and the pub isn’t a posh pub. It has a mod­ern plas­tic sign, mul­ti­ple TVs, and if the Lord of the Manor ever pops in to shoot the breeze with the sons of the soil, nei­ther we nor Ray’s par­ents have ever noticed. It’s a pub pri­mar­i­ly for work­ing peo­ple where the land­lord swears more than he doesn’t. There’s a din­ing area usu­al­ly occu­pied by itin­er­ant work­ers (Irish, east­ern Euro­pean, some­times Eng­lish) demol­ish­ing colos­sal steak din­ners with chips that are hand­cut because that’s the best way to make chips, not because it sounds good on the menu. It’s wel­com­ing, to a degree, but not real­ly designed for mid­dle class out­siders.

No, they’re after the next pub up the road, which has £18 main cours­es, open fires tend­ed by well-spo­ken, coun­try-hip bar staff, and well-heeled barflies in tweed and red trousers. Con­ver­sa­tion is con­fined to one dis­tant cor­ner where it won’t put peo­ple off their cas­soulet and any dogs in atten­dance are coiffed and fra­grant.

A village inn from an old postcard.

Odd­ly, the lat­ter looks more like the ide­al vil­lage inn with its scrubbed wood and open fire; but the for­mer has more of the feel. Nei­ther is per­fect, though both kind of work in their ways. Some kind of divi­sion has occurred, the two class­es of vil­lager find­ing their own pubs rather than co-exist­ing in one. If you could some­how press them back togeth­er you might be on to some­thing.

We’re still think­ing this through but gut instinct tells us that if there is a prob­lem with the Eng­lish vil­lage inn it’s real­ly a prob­lem with the Eng­lish vil­lage. It worked when peo­ple were born, lived and worked in the same place their whole lives, but how often does that hap­pen now? Vil­lages that are any­thing approach­ing cute are increas­ing­ly colonised by sec­ond-homers, town­ie retirees and the hol­i­day cot­tage indus­try, while many of the rest seem frankly for­lorn. Nei­ther sit­u­a­tion is good for pubs, as Ian Nairn observed as far back as 1978:

[If plan­ners don’t act] the coun­try pub will become a muse­um-piece, depen­dent on week­end tourists and hol­i­day-mak­ers — the motor­way cafe in a pret­ti­er set­ting. The Eng­lish pub depends on a steady bal­ance, not famine-or-flood. This bal­ance can no longer occur nat­u­ral­ly; it has to be helped.

6 thoughts on “The Reality of the Village Inn”

  1. Six months is noth­ing, to be fair! Stay a cou­ple of years and I’m sure they’d have treat­ed you like… well, hon­orary Gold­sith­nini­ans at least. Although they’d still have ragged you about that time you went and won the quiz, bold as you like…

    (I both do and don’t miss vil­lage life. Most­ly I remem­ber it – which is some­thing in itself con­sid­er­ing I’ve lived in cities since I was 13.)

  2. Most vil­lage pubs around here (Hert­ford­shire) have to be a des­ti­na­tion busi­ness to sur­vive. The local pop­u­la­tions are 99% commuters/retirees. For those too small to have sus­tained a pri­ma­ry school there’ll be scarce­ly a human res­i­dent below six­ty-some­thing in the vil­lage dur­ing the week­day day­time – except per­haps the bar/kitchen staff in the pub :-). Many don’t both­er to open at all Mon­day, and some­times Tues­day as well.
    Day­time trade is passers-by drop­ping in for a lunch. They might drink a beer; but most like­ly don’t.
    Evening trade is usu­al­ly: a small clique of locals back from the office, prop­ping up a cor­ner of the bar; and a far more impor­tant, for the busi­ness, a raft of din­ers lured out of town to play at coun­try pub eat­ing. Again, beer is most­ly irrel­e­vant.

  3. Real­ly enjoyed read­ing this. I must say I hadn’t real­ized that the idea of the “mix­ing of social class­es” was so cen­tral to the ide­al­ized vision of a pub.

    It’s a bit dis­heart­en­ing to think you could make such an effort to be a part of things and still not get a very warm wel­come. If a pub can’t be wel­com­ing to pub sup­port­ers on the lev­el of Boak & Bai­ley, I say they deserve to go straight out of busi­ness!

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