During what the press called the ‘real ale craze’ of the late 1970s everyone got in on the act, including British Rail whose Travellers-Fare catering wing introduced cask-conditioned beer to around 50 station pubs.
We first came across mention of this trawling newspapers while researching Brew Britannia and, in an early draft, quoted this Daily Express report as evidence of how real ale drinkers were perceived at the time:
In the Shires Bar opposite Platform Six at London’s St Pancras Station, yesterday, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assurance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bodied Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter, and murmurs of delight at the nutty flavour of the Ruddles County Beer… [More than] half the customers drinking the five varieties of real ale in the Shires were not train travellers but people from the neighbourhood using the station as their local pub… In one corner sat for young men sipping foaming pints. They were members of CAMRA, the ginger group for beer brewed by natural means and prove their dedication by travelling three nights a week from Fulham in South West London — four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accountant Michael Morris said: ‘This place just beats any of our local pubs.’
Twenty-something beer geeks travelling miles for good beer in a weird novelty bar rather than using their dodgy local boozer — you can file that under ‘nothing changes’.
Estate pubs, as they’re sometimes called though not all are actually on housing estates, are not always terribly attractive — sometimes cheaply built, they were often victim to panicked plastic-Victorian makeovers in the 1970s, and then subject to decades of neglect. Nonetheless, they’re an important part of our landscape which is in real danger of disappearing. (And, remember, Victorian pubs were once considered tasteless disposable crap, too.)
Tim Wilkinson’s short memoir of a year in the life of a new publican is full of details that will interest pub and beer obsessives but there are good reasons why, unlike similar books, it’s never inspired a cosy Sunday night TV programme along the lines of Heartbeat or All Creatures Great and Small.
Wilkinson, as far as we can work out from details in We Ran a Cornish Pub, served in the Army in India during World War II. He is best known for a similarly lightweight 1965 book, Hold on a Minute, which records his life working as a cargo carrier on the English canals after his demob. This book picks up the story in 1949 with both he and his wife recovering from injuries received on the waterways and looking for a new, less strenuous way to make a living.
“There is something more than a nodding acquaintance between the old Painswick folk and the incomers now, but it is a wary relationship… It is to the Falcon on the main street, or to the even more worldly pub a few miles up the road, that the gentlemen repair for their whiskies and sodas; the villagers — or, as they like to call themselves, the working classes — are more likely to be found with a pint of beer or cider in the Royal Oak or the Golden Hart, which are not half so smart.”
In 1965, British mega-brewery Watney Mann opened a pub in Paris — the Sir Winston Churchill.
According to Helga Graham in an article in the Guardian published in 1970 (‘Mild and Bitter Spoken Here’, 27/09, p.15), this started when Watney’s hired Serge Herblot, ‘a very French Frenchman in an English blazer and tie’. He was tasked with driving a Bedford van with a mobile bar in the back around Paris and giving the hard sell to Bistro owners; they thought him ‘seriously affected by English eccentricity’ and weren’t interested. It was he, Ms. Graham says, who came up with the idea of building a pub, for which Watney’s put up 50 per cent of the capital.
The pub sat on the corner of the Rue de Presbourg and the Avenue d’Iéna, near the Arc de Triomphe. It was designed by a Russian, Vyacheslav Vasiliev, AKA ‘Slavik’, who said: ‘It is not a real pub — only a parody of the French bourgeoisie.’ (‘In an Alien Culture’, A MonthlyBulletin, June 1966.)
From the outside, it certainly looked like a Watney’s pub with the familiar Design Research Unit branding, as shown in the photo above. In the Red Barrel in-house magazine for April 1966, there was a short article about its November 1965 opening:
The bars, with their oil lamps and red plush seats are as unmistakably English as the Victorian exterior, and the name… Sir Patrick Reilly, British Ambassador, [opened] the Sir Winston Churchill by drawing the first pint of Red Barrel.
By 1968, Watney’s chairman, D.P. Crossman, was boasting in the company report (Financial Times, 04/01, p.6) that the Churchill was ‘without doubt the most famous pub on the continent’, and that Watney’s beers were ‘selling well’ at similar pubs in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Munich, with Florence in the pipeline.
When in the same report he added that ‘Outside this country the image of the public house has never stood in higher esteem’, he was taking a dig at the government and their ongoing threat to interfere in or even abolish the tied-house system. Exporting the concept of the English pub abroad, opening up new markets for (easy-to-transport kegged and bottled) British beer, was seen as a vital insurance policy. It lay behind numerous instances of what we would now call ‘pop up’ pubs at trade fairs across Europe and around the world, beginning with the Britannia in Brussels in 1958.
A report in the Financial Times (08/02/71, p.14) summarised the extent of the British invasion by the beginning of the next decade:
This afternoon Bass opens its seventh pub in Sweden — the Francis Drake at Uppsala… All the major British brewers are now on the Continent. Allied has its Double Diamond houses in Rotterdam and Brussels, Courage’s golden cockerel swings over the Cockney Tavern and the Pill Box in Paris as well as other pubs in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Whitbread has 17 houses in Paris and, of course, Watney Mann is probably the daddy of them all… In Paris the red barrel hangs over The Clipper, The Sir Winston Churchill, The Golden Hat, The Mayflower, The Ten Gallons (opened only last month under the famous Olympia Music Hall), the Red Lion and the London Tavern. In Bordeaux there is The Drug Store. At La Baule… it has The Kent Arms. And in Northern France the Queen Victoria rules over Lille. Watney has another 25 pubs Belgium, 12 in Germany, five in Italy and one each in Sweden and Switzerland.
The same article also explained that the whole enterprise relied on marketing British beer as a high-quality premium product for connoisseurs, and jacking up the price accordingly:
In the more sophisticated city centres, with their cosmopolitan populations, the cachet of drinking bitter seems to have had some success, particularly in Paris where there is a distinct preference for top-class beers.
A pint of brown ale at the Winston Churchill cost 6s 6d in 1965, according to a writer in the Guardian (01/12/65, p.11) which, as far as we can tell, is about three times the going rate at home.
Even so, the author of the FT piece concluded, most such pubs were not generally profitable and were really exercises in ‘flag-waving’, and intended to hold territory in advance of Britain’s entry into the Common Market when the real fun could begin.
With the demise of the Big Six and their tied pub estates in the UK, their Continental pub chains also seem to have fallen apart, though it’s hard to say for sure as it happened slowly and apparently wasn’t considered newsworthy. Certainly most of those listed above seem to have disappeared or been renamed. We could not find the Kent Arms in La Baule, for example, although there is a pub called The Salisbury which, despite its name and distinctly English design, calls itself a ‘pub Irlandais’ — how many Whitbread and Watney’s pubs reinvented themselves in this way, with a pot of green paint, and a Guinness font where the keg bitter used to be? We’d guess this Irish pub on Rue Lincoln, Paris, is what remains of Whitbread’s King George.
There are still plenty of faux-English pubs — Charles Wells of Bedford has a decent French pub estate, for example — though it our impression that they aren’t as trendy as in 1970, and we’ve certainly seen some tatty-looking examples on our travels.
Much to our surprise, unlike most of the trendily-designed new-build pubs trumpeted in the Red Barrel in the mid-1960s, the original — The Sir Winston — is still there proudly declaring itself ‘Un des plus vieux pubs anglais de Paris‘. We’ll have to pay homage next time we pass through.