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Dead pubs versus peaceful pubs: what is ‘atmosphere’?

It’s not just about people: something about the way pubs are laid out, or decorated, can give them life even when they’re quiet.

We’ve got an interesting case study here in Bristol in The Llandoger Trow and The Old Duke, which are directly opposite each other on King Street.

We quite often find ourselves bobbing between the two pubs on the same day and the contrast is remarkable.

The Llandoger Trow has an excellent selection of beer. There’s usually a range of quality out-of-town cask ales, interesting keg beers, and an extensive line-up of German and Czech lager.

The building is interesting, too, being a historic building with lots of corners and partitioned rooms.

And yet… It often feels cold, gloomy, and lacking in atmosphere. Is it the white-painted walls? The hard surfaces?

When you speak, it feels as if your words are echoing around the whole building.

It’s better than it ever was as the neon-lit bar attached to a Premier Inn, but it’s still not right.

Then, across the road, there’s The Old Duke.

It’s really just a big cube. There’s an open floor for dancing or standing crowds and chairs and tables round the outside.

The walls and ceiling are painted dark, covered with posters advertising long-past jazz and blues gigs, with a layer of nicotine (or nicotine-effect) on top of that.

Even with only a handful of customers, it somehow seems to buzz, and to feel intimate.

You can see and hear the other customers, in the abstract, but you never feel as if you’re eavesdropping, or staring.

We noticed the same dynamic when we visited The Pembury Tavern in Hackney last weekend, which positively crackled despite being (a) huge and (b) having only about eight customers.

Compare this to, er, The Pembury Tavern a few years ago. We used to love the old BitCoin hippy Morris Dancing version of the ‘Pembo’ but it could sometimes be bleak.

So, OK, just do whatever they’d done in The Pembury and The Old Duke to The Llandoger Trow, right?

We’re just not sure what that would be, exactly. Darker walls and more greebling might help but, really, it feels like a spiritual thing. (Man.)

When we asked our Patreon supporters about this one of them, Peter A, said of The Pembury:

I had the same experience there back in June and wonder if it is also the sense that something will be going on there later that very day, even if it is quiet now. There is a buzzy atmosphere just waiting to be unleashed.

We like this theory, which might also apply to The Old Duke. It’s never ‘dead’, only ever ‘pre-gig’ or ‘post-gig’. And the energy of thousands of bands has soaked into the walls.

Or it could be as simple as this, now we think about it: The Old Duke always has music playing in the background, as does the current incarnation of The Pembury. Whereas The Llandoger and the old Pembury don’t/didn’t.

In conclusion, then, atmosphere is, or might be:

  • dark walls
  • greebling
  • background music
  • potential energy

2 replies on “Dead pubs versus peaceful pubs: what is ‘atmosphere’?”

The only thing better than being in a totally deserted pub in the afternoon with posters advertising gigs including one that evening is being in a totally deserted pub in the afternoon watching people carting mysterious bits of sound and lighting kit through to the back room for that evening’s gig. Tell a lie, even that combination of relaxation and buzz can be improved by a good jukebox, preferably with some albums with long tracks so that you don’t run through your pound too quickly (Astral Weeks, Satanic Majesties’, PSBs’ Introspective, Blackstar…).

Whether a pub can stay open on the proceeds of one old git in the corner nursing a pint and listening to the Stones on the jukebox (even if there is a band on in the evening) is another question!

Pub atmosphere is a very subjective thing, and perceptions vary widely between different people. Indeed some people seem totally impervious too it.

From a personal point of view I’d say fixed bench seating makes a big difference, plus bar clutter and a carpet.

And the wrong kind of piped music can be totally destructive of atmosphere!

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