In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.
It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.
Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.
Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.
They’re not as interesting as old editions of the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide – Ronay and his team weren’t especially interested in beer – and lack the entertainment value of those Batsford guides. Still, there are nuggets of gold to be found.
Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:
I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’
We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.
It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.
There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’
Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)
The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.
Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:
At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.
That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?
Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.
One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:
Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.
Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:
During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!
Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.
In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:
A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.
We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:
One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.
We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:
This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.
We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’
And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.