Categories
pubs

Take out to help out

We’re getting increasingly cross at the regurgitation of the Government’s line that the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme is designed to boost pubs, as in this piece at BBC News.

First, the 50 per cent discount only applies to food and non-alcoholic beverages. That means only pubs serving food can possibly benefit.

But more serious in our view is that the scheme incentivises sitting in. There is no equivalent discount for places operating as takeaways which means that restaurants and pubs which have decided not to open on safety grounds – in the sincere belief that they’re doing the right thing – are going to lose out.

A number of our favourite Bristol pubs such as The Drapers Arms, The Good Measure and The Plough – have made the difficult decision not to open.

And these aren’t all micropubs like The Drapers – The Plough is a fairly normal, average-sized pub.

Sign outside a pub.

This along with the behaviour we witnessed at the weekend has really made us question which pubs we personally want to support, and how, while the coronavirus is still with us.

We’ve now been to the pub, or rather two pubs, four times since they reopened, not counting many trips to the Drapers for takeaway beer.

It felt important to at least try going to a pub or two once they had reopened. After all, we write about beer and pubs and desperately want pubs to survive. We’d also rather the economy didn’t crash further. And Government messaging around “enjoying what you used to do” probably played its part, too.

In both cases, days apart, we went to pubs that were part of large chains, with apps and carefully stated rules, which provided some initial reassurance. Both are also pubs that we’ve visited a lot and would like to see stay open. (There are many more pubs in Bristol that also fit that criteria, of course).

But both also have food offerings that will allow them to benefit from the VAT cut and the discount scheme, so perhaps they’re not the pubs that need our love right now.

Six weeks ago we wrote fairly positively about the plans for reopening pubs and our thoughts still remain the same. The true pub experience for us is not about an economic transaction – it’s about really enjoying a space that isn’t yours and mingling with others. And we think it’s almost impossible to achieve this while also maintaining social distancing. We’re sure the people taking the piss in the pub on Saturday weren’t doing it maliciously, they’d just had a few and wanted to socialise properly, like they would have done pre-pandemic.

Government messaging has not helped, with the emphasis on getting back to normal, rather than reinforcing the point that you’re still supposed to be distanced from other households even if you meet up with them down the local.

Either they have no idea why people go to the pub or how they behave, or they know and are choosing to keep the message vague in the vain hope that a few extra pints sold will somehow save the hospitality industry.

As everything in life is now reduced to risk assessment vs economic benefit, this makes the case all the more plain for continuing with takeaways for most of our Bristol drinking. The pub (The Drapers, primarily) gets the economic benefit and it remains much less risky for them, for us and our community.

This is our personal decision. We’re not criticising those who want or need a cheap meal out at this time – anything to stay cheerful, really.

Nor are we having a pop at those whose only option for human contact is to visit a pub, or who need to spend some time outside their house to keep their brains healthy.

And, of course, we appreciate that being able to enjoy an off licence experience at home while happily paying pub prices for beer is a sign of our privilege.

Categories
pubs

Pub life: moving tables

A pub garden in an unusual summer. Hand sanitiser stations and tables two metres apart. Masks folded on tables. Cautious equilibrium. Then, enter chaos.

A party of fifty-somethings, twenty strong, zeroes in on a large table and sets about enlarging it further, dragging chairs from around the pub.

The sound of metal on stone, the clattering and shouting, summons the bar manager: “GUYS, I’M SORRY, BUT…”

Gently, smiling, as friendly as he can be, he makes them put the chairs back where they found them and the party reluctantly spreads out across half the garden, grumbling and tutting.

Over the next hour, they’ll swap seats and rearrange the party five or six times, before driving off in different cars and taxis.

At the other end of the garden, a party of twenty-somethings descend on two picnic tables. It takes a moment for them to decide they’re too far apart and the lads roll up their sleeves.

Knees bent, biceps popping, grunting and giggling, they lift one table and move it so it butts up against the other.

The whole party cheers.

The manager appears like a genie in a puff of subdued stress: “GUYS, I’M SORRY BUT…”

Like naughty schoolchildren, the boys move the table back and then the entire group of ten finds a way to sit in a single table, piled on laps and perched on bench-ends.

They order tequila, lick salt from their hands, hug, kiss, take bites from each other’s burgers and feed each other chips.

Image by Victor Figueroa via Unsplash.

Categories
pubs

Ordering by app makes you look at the pub differently

We’ve now been to the pub three times since lockdown lifted, not counting various visits to the Drapers for takeaway – twice to a St Austell house and once to the Highbury Vaults, which is a Young’s tenanted pub.

In all visits, we’ve sat in the garden and used an app for ordering. The two apps are pretty similar and easy to use, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s the same underlying software.

This technology has been around for ages and is pretty affordable. When I was indirectly involved in running a large pub-hotel in Cornwall, I recall being offered a similar product during an EPOS update in about 2012, but not taking it up because, well, honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to order like that.

But now, I can definitely see more places doing this in the near future, even quite small places.

This weekend, as we drank our electronically-ordered pints, we considered some of the ways apps might change pub habits.

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.”

Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps.

Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.

We don’t tend to think about the Highbury Vaults as belonging to Young’s. It’s not as if they hide the fact but they have managed to preserve a distinct identity thanks to a quirky interior, home-cooked food and the fact the landlord’s been there for 25 years.

Now, all of a sudden, it immediately feels more of a corporate, homogenised space, even if the pub itself is still its lovable old self.

On a similar note, we expect that many Bristolians outside the beer bubble will be surprised to discover over the next few months that Bath Ales is owned by St Austell.

Thirdly, there’s an obvious points about transactions being potentially easier for some people (people on their own, those unable to stand at bars or place orders verbally) and more difficult for others who may not feel comfortable with the technology.

As long as app-based ordering isn’t the only option, and in both places there are waiting staff with notepads on the floor, then apps should enable rather than impede.

Finally, as social distancing continues – remember that as we write this, in England, you are only supposed to socialise with other households at a distance – remote ordering might provide a nice way to buy your mates a pint, whether you’re in the same pub or not.

There’s precedent for this: when the Wetherspoon app launched, there was a spate of stories about people soliciting drinks by sharing their table number on social media, only to get sent plates of peas.

If there’s one obvious improvement to be made, it’s the addition to apps of real-time information on how busy a given pub is. This might help reassure more nervous customers and match punters to pubs that need them.

Categories
Beer history pubs

Pub culture: the tower of pennies for charity

Looking through old brewery in-house magazines from the 1950s and 60s, one recurring image is inescapable: a monstrous pile of pennies on a bar, in the process of being toppled by a celebrity.

Investigating this oddity of pub culture has been on our to-do list for some time but John Clarke (@beer4john) raised it with us recently which prompted us to dig into the archives.

First, we started with our own collection of magazines from Whitbread and Watney’s. Between them, they give a clear idea of when this trend took off and explain the mechanics.

How it worked

The House of Whitbread for spring 1955 has the earliest reference with a wonderful photograph of Mr. R. Back, tenant of The Trooper Inn, Froxfield, Wiltshire, and a customer placing a penny.

Towers of pennies in a pub.

Publicans with a tower of coins.

The Red Barrel for August 1955 has another early reference, with more detail:

Congratulations to Mr and Mrs George Jones of The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, [London] WC2, who, through their efforts and the generosity of their customers collected a tower of coppers, totalling 4,602, and amounting to £19 3s. 5d. The amount netted was given to the Spastics, and the pennies, stuck with beer, nearly reached the ceiling. The ceremony of ‘Pushing the Pennies’, that is tumbling over the tower, aroused considerable interest, including that of Alan Dick of the Daily Herald who reported the event.

The key detail there: the coins were glued together with beer.

It’s also worth pointing out that the National Spastic Society, founded in 1952 to support parents of children with cerebral palsy, and now known as Scope, was a frequent recipient of funds raised from penny towers. We wonder if this was something they suggested to publicans as part of their fundraising activity?

The next entry from the Red Barrel, from October the same year, concerns The Northumberland Arms in Isleworth, West London, offers more info on how these towers were structured and on the fund-raising tactics surrounding them:

The pyramid of pennies shown in the picture was built on a half-pint glass, and so large did it grow that it overtopped the tall figure of Wag Carbine, a regular customer, as he stood on the bar beside it. Carbine craved the favour of pushing over the pyramid of pennies christened ‘Little Willie’. Jack Cannon, the publican, consented, with the proviso that he had £5 to the pennies for the privilege… During the evening of ‘Little Willie’s’ demise shillings were paid for the opportunity to guess the amount collected.

Wag Carbine! What a name.

In total, they raised about £70 which paid for the old folk of the Isleworth Silver Threads to spend a day at the seaside.

When did it start?

Elsewhere, we’ve found reference to this trend having begun in 1954, specifically at The Masons Arms in London’s Fitzrovia district. And here’s evidence that, yes, that pub did have a coin tower at that time:

But it didn’t take long to find earlier examples via the marvellous British Newspaper Archive, such as this from the Birmingham Mail for 10 August 1943:

This is not a Fasces – the symbol of the defunct Fascist regime – but a pillar of British money collected in two months from June 1 to July 31 by patrons of The Corner Cupboard licensed house, Union Street, Birmingham. Including two 10 [shilling] notes and a reinforcement of half-crowns in two layers, the ‘pillar of wealth’ contains about £40 with a pint glass base on which it stands full of silver and octagonal [threepenny] pieces and a V for Victory sign made up of shillings and sixpenny pieces.

There are also earlier references to ‘pyramids of pennies’ outside pubs, at market town carnivals, from the 1930s. As ever, if you know of an earlier example of a tower of coins in a pub, we’d be delighted to hear about it.

For now, though, we’ve got a hazy chronology: it began between the wars, crept into pubs in the 1940s and became a full blown craze in 1954-55.

The celebrity connection

The presence in the film clip above of actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles shows that celebrities were connected with this almost from the beginning.

There are accounts of publicans inviting the Queen to knock down their towers (she didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh sent a cheque) and no shortage of photos like this absolute corker:

Or films like this in which former Goon Show star Harry Secombe does the honours:

In fact, go and spend a few minutes lost in this carefully calibrated Google Image search.

When did it stop?

The short answer is, it hasn’t. When we asked on Twitter, people told us they’ve seen this happen in recent years and here’s an account of a penny-pile pushover event from 2018.

But it’s fair to say its heyday was the 1950s to the 1970s and that its popularity began to tail off after that, perhaps as pubs became more corporate and less characterful.

Or maybe it just began to seem a bit naff with fruit machines and jukeboxes competing for that loose change.

There’s also the fact that on at least one occasion, the vast weight of one of these towers caused material damage to the pub, as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 16 December 1966:

A pile of pennies – £90-worth of them, collected for charity at the Old Mill Inn, Baginton, was so heavy that the stout oak bar counter cracked under the weight. When two members of Coventry City football team ceremoniously pushed the pile over, it was found there were 2,160 pennies, weighing over three hundredweight. The manager of the inn, Mr. Harold Smith, said today: “Towards the end, we noticed a dip in the counter. Then we could see a crack.”

When you think about it, a precarious tower of metal covered in sticky stale beer doesn’t seem entirely safe or hygienic, does it?

Categories
Beer history pubs

What is the oldest pub in England?

This is an interesting question with all kinds of philosophical implications: is a pub a building, or an entity?

When people ask this, we think they want to know about the oldest historic pub they can go for a drink in – not an old building that was converted to a pub in 1983, or a building that used to be a pub but is now a private home.

The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”

In their book Licensed to Sell, published in 2005 and revised in 2011, pub historians Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter dedicate a chapter to the myth of ‘Ye Olde Englishe Pube’. They dismiss waspishly claims to great antiquity from several of the best-known contenders, which arguments we’ve drawn on below.

It’s a great book – do buy a copy.

Some contenders for oldest pub

(Ye Olde) Fighting Cocks, St Albans | Claim: 8th century | Brandwood et al are very snarky about this one: the building dates from the 17th century, the licence from the early 19th, and the claim to antiquity is a 20th century development.

Eagle & Child, Stow on the Wold | Claim: 10th century | Not recorded as a pub until the 18th century, the building is from c.1500.

Bingley Arms, Bardsey | Claim: 10th century | Brandwood et al confidently state that this is an 18th century building with no evidence to suggest an earlier founding.

(Ye Olde) Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham | Claim: 1189 | The famous cellars may have been used for brewing at around this date but the pub building dates to the late 17th century.

(Ye Olde) Man and Scythe, Bolton | Claim: 1251 | Supposedly mentioned by name in the town’s market charter of 1251, except… it isn’t, according to this 1892 history of Bolton. The present building is mostly from the 17th century.

The George Inn, Norton St Philip | Claim: 14th century | “Believed to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built inn, it was erected in the late 14th century… [and] refronted about 1475-1500.” – Brandwood et al.

So, the oldest pub is…

The George Inn seems to have a pretty convincing case, only strengthened by the fact that it isn’t called Ye Olde George Inn. If it’s good enough for Big Geoff B, it’s good enough for us.

If you know of other contenders, and can point to evidence to support the claim from a source other than a board inside the pub or a souvenir booklet, we’d be interested to hear more – comment below!