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.

5 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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