There have been repeated attempts to test the idea that the identity of the pub need not be tied to alcohol. The Milestone, which opened in Exeter in 1985, was one such experiment.
On the bookshelf at the Drapers lurks a yellowing copy of the Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names, a cheap 1990s reprint of a book by Leslie Dunkling and Gordon Wright first published in 1987. The naming of pubs is an area of study requiring more pinches of salt than most, and the book is not without its inaccuracies, but flipping through it over our Sunday night pints, we often find some nugget or other, and that’s how we first heard of the Milestone:
The pub sells only soft drinks, non-alcoholic beers and wines. It was set up in 1985 by the Devon Council on Alcoholism and the Exeter Community Alcohol team to help people with a drink problem. It is in the basement of an office block, and those who named it clearly see it as a highly significant step.
A contemporary report from the Liverpool Echo (20/11/1985) offers more information:
Mr Murray French, chairman of Exeter District Health Authority, will pull the first pint – or rather pour the first soft drink – at noon [today].
The pub, complete with pool table, dart board and the usual bar fittings, is the brain child of Exeter Community Alcohol Team.
Mr Stan Ford, executive director of Devon Council on Alcoholism, said: “The main aim is to provide an environment where people can get the atmosphere of a pub without alcohol.
“A lot of my clients have asked where they could go if they stopped drinking. There was nowhere. Now there is.”
Laudable as this might sound, it’s hard to imagine anyone convincing friends who are still drinking (possibly heavily) to come to a teetotal pub, and however convincing the facsimile, there’s no denying that an air of merriness is an essential part of the pleasure of the pub.
Without booze, it will just feel like a youth club, won’t it?
There’s a certain inevitability to the next mention we can find in the newspaper archives, from the same newspaper for 25 October 1988:
Britain’s first alcohol-free pub, the Milestone in Exeter, Devon, is to close next month after three years. It failed to attract enough custom.
This feels like the kind of thing that might have generated the odd academic paper or official study but, if so, we can’t find them online, on this side of a paywall.
It would certainly be interesting to see pictures of the Milestone, or to hear from anyone who remembers (not) drinking there.