Why are all the pubs going grey?

We visited a pub at the weekend which had got a lot greyer since we first saw it and realised this might be a trend.

The Langton, formerly the Langton Court Hotel, is an Edwardian suburban pub which was refurbished a couple of years ago. As can be seen from the pictures, the colourful exterior has been toned down considerably.

The Langton Court, pre-refurb.
And as The Langton in 2021.

Inside it’s a similar story, with a variety of shades ranging from salt to slate to ghost’s breath.

We probably wouldn’t have remarked on it other than the fact we happened to notice another pub in town, of a similar vintage, that has also had a grey makeover.

The Fox & Hounds in shades of grey.

And we realised, hold on – this isn’t the only example we’ve seen lately, either.

The Queen’s Head, Easton.
The White Harte, Warmley.

Our assumption is that this is about trying to attract a newer, more aspirational crowd – or, at least, not to put them off. This preference for would-be classy neutralness mirrors recent trends in home décor sometimes referred to disparagingly as ‘the grey plague’.

There’s nothing new under the sun, of course. One of the key touchpoints for interwar pub design was suburban ordinariness, the idea being that the pub should blend into suburban settings rather than announcing itself with garish paintwork and advertising signs.

Speaking personally, the grey thing doesn’t really do it for us and we’d certainly be worried if all pubs began to look exactly the same.

Having said that, a new external paint job seems like one of the least harmful ways a pub can send a signal to potential new customers without alienating the old ones: things have changed here; it’s safe.

That seems to be what’s going on with the Langton, which was formerly fairly tatty and a bit forbidding – although Ray found it perfectly decent when he visited pre-refurb. The Langton still has its skittle alley and tellies showing football, attempting to balance its identity as a community local with a more upmarket food offer. Successfully, we think.

If a bit of grey paint is the price to pay, we’ll deal with it.


Wiggets, greebling, useless shelves and the texture of pubs

Pubs are anti-minimalist by nature and texture sometimes matters more than function.

In the 1960s, special effects technicians working on spaceships for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation shows realised that they could make them more realistic by covering their surfaces in small, functionless details taken from plastic model kits. They called them ‘wiggets’.

When a similar approach was taken during the making of Star Wars a decade later, however, the term ‘greebles’ was adopted, and stuck, and the process came to be known as ‘greebling’.

In pub decor there’s a form of greebling, too.

When Ray worked as a teenage waiter at a Brewer’s Fayre pub in Somerset in the early 1990s, he got roped into pre-launch preparations and was on site the day the truck turned up with boxes of books and antiques to go on the walls.

“Where do you want this scythe?”

“Top shelf, out of reach, and make sure you anchor it with a couple of cable ties.”

If you stop and look at the books on the shelves, or investigate the artefacts, you’ll find they rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Collections of Reader’s Digest abridged novels are popular because they were designed to look ‘classy’ – leather-effect, gilt-style yellow metal embossing, and so on. You might also find 1970s doorstop novels with their dust jackets missing, or faux-luxury editions from the Marshall Cavendish Great Writers Library part-work.

It doesn’t matter, though – not really. They absorb light, break up expanses of plaster and, crucially, soak up sound.

And it goes on.

That old carpenter’s plane is just… an old carpenter’s plane. Back of the garage, car boot sale, any-item-one-pound rusty crap. Those ‘vintage’ biscuit tins around the ceiling are 1990s reissues. The Edwardian-style enamel signs on the walls include rust printed on at the factory. The nicotine vignetting has been painted onto the walls.

The ceiling at the Poechenellekelder in Brussels.

In the 1980s, such was the demand for greebling for Irish pubs that the supply ran dry and an entire industry arose to supply brand new Gaelic-themed gubbins by the kilo or by the metre.

Again, it doesn’t matter: as long as these items cast shadows, provide splashes of colour and suggest, in the periphery, depth and detail, they’re doing their job.

What this kind of greebling aspires to, of course, is the genuine, accidental clutter of really old pubs.
The Bridge Inn at Topsham, The Blue Anchor in Helston or Brasserie Verschueren in Brussels can’t help but have texture and their surface details aren’t glued on.

Unless they are, of course. The great thing about contrived greebling is that it only takes a decade or two to look as if it’s been there forever, and for fake greebling to attract the real thing as regulars present offerings as tokens of love.

Perhaps the value of greebling is that it suggests continuity – that a pub has been under the same ownership for more than a year or two, at least.