The Renaissance of the English Public House

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is print­ed on post-war paper (rough and yel­low­ing) but is crammed with pho­tographs and floor-plans of spe­cif­ic pubs up and down the coun­try.

In his intro­duc­tion, Oliv­er observes that, in the peri­od before World War I, new pub build­ings were rare because of the ‘mis­guid­ed idea… that to improve build­ings was to encour­age drink­ing’. He observes, how­ev­er, that the pro­hi­bi­tion­ist urge actu­al­ly trig­gered a great resur­gence in pub design and build­ing: when the state began to run the brew­ing and pub indus­try in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it per­mit­ted unham­pered exper­i­ments in many direc­tions, but espe­cial­ly in the evo­lu­tion of the pub­lic house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
Coun­ty Arms, Bla­by, near Leices­ter.

An entire chap­ter of the book is giv­en over to the Carlisle State Man­age­ment scheme. Dur­ing WWI, Oliv­er says, improve­ments were lim­it­ed: the removal of hard-to-super­vise snugs and ‘snug­geries’ (small com­part­ments) to cre­ate ‘light and airy cheer­ful­ness’. After the war, new build­ings were com­mis­sioned, includ­ing The Gret­na Tav­ern, which replaced (Oliv­er reck­ons) six ‘snug-type hous­es’. We could not help but think of Wether­spoon’s.

Away from spe­cif­ic pubs, the more gen­er­al detail Oliv­er pro­vides on con­tem­po­rary pub cul­ture offer a use­ful com­pan­ion piece to the Mass Obser­va­tion book The Pub and the Peo­ple. On alter­na­tive names for the ‘pub­lic bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fash­ion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint sug­ges­tion of supe­ri­or­i­ty, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they fre­quent­ly require the inevitable darts-board. Smok­ing Room… is also pop­u­lar.… Pri­vate Bar and Bar Par­lour… are equal­ly indica­tive of their pur­pose – pri­vate trans­ac­tions and inti­mate con­ver­sa­tions – and from being pop­u­lar with the fair sex have vir­tu­al­ly become, in many hous­es, a Wom­en’s Bar.

The last, lin­ger­ing remains of Vic­to­ri­an moral­i­ty can be detect­ed in a coy dis­cus­sion of toi­lets: ladies’ and gen­tle­men’s lava­to­ries, he insists, must be apart from each oth­er, seclud­ed, but also easy to super­vise. (The hor­ri­fy­ing fact that peo­ple of both sex­es piss must be kept secret, but there should be no oppor­tu­ni­ties for han­ky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the eas­i­est way to find the ladies’ toi­let is usu­al­ly to walk as far from the gents’ as pos­si­ble, and vice ver­sa.

As for beer, Oliv­er is quite clear: ‘From the con­sumer’s point of view, the ide­al way of receiv­ing his beer is direct “from the wood”, and – on a hot sum­mer’s day – from a very cool cel­lar.’ Cel­lars, he sug­gests, should be cut off from the out­side world, run­ning with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as pos­si­ble to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ide­al, he con­cedes, is rarely pos­si­ble:

More like­ly is it that new ways of draw­ing draught beer will be invent­ed for con­di­tion­ing draught beer which will elim­i­nate all the com­pli­cat­ed para­pher­na­lia of beer engines, air-pres­sure instal­la­tions, flex­i­ble pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor man­sions’ of Mitchells & But­lers in Birm­ing­ham are also grant­ed a chap­ter of their own, high­light­ing the advan­tages to brew­ers of build­ing on new sites rather than restor­ing old pub build­ings: restau­rants, car parks, gar­dens, and even bowl­ing greens were com­mon. Lon­don gets a chap­ter of its own, too, with the rest of the coun­try, from Liv­er­pool to Devon, wrapped up in two more gen­er­al sur­veys of urban and ‘way­side’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time look­ing up pubs men­tioned on Google Street View. Many are gone alto­geth­er. Oth­ers were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plas­tic ban­ners, ugly sig­nage, and accu­mu­lat­ed grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, fea­tured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pip­pins’, and still a hand­some build­ing.

For a rather spe­cialised, tech­ni­cal book, Oliv­er’s prose is very read­able, with the occa­sion­al amus­ing turn of phrase and impas­sioned dia­tribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great con­di­tion, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depend­ing on how inter­est­ed you are in the detail of pub design and/or this par­tic­u­lar peri­od, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.

Let’s Go Long on 1 March 2014

Once again, we’re planning to post a ‘long read’ about beer, and would love it if other writers and bloggers joined us.

Our post will be going live on Sat­ur­day 1 March 2014.

We’ll post as many reminders as we can get away with with­out annoy­ing peo­ple here, on Face­book and on Twit­ter.

There will be a round-up of every­one else’s posts (like this and this) on Sun­day 2 March.

If you decid­ed to give it a go, as before, there are no rules, but…

  • Do write some­thing longer than your usu­al posts. We aim for 1500 words min­i­mum – about three times as long as usu­al. If you usu­al­ly write 1500 word posts, then shoot for 3000.
  • Try to make it some­thing peo­ple will find it worth­while down­load­ing to read lat­er using Pock­et/Instapa­per or oth­er sim­i­lar apps.
  • Use this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to chal­lenge your­self: do some­thing dif­fer­ent; do some research; step out of your usu­al rou­tine.
  • Pro beer-writ­ers: this is a good chance to revis­it old mate­r­i­al or final­ly air an unpub­lished gem.
  • Will Hawkes is a beer writer and jour­nal­ist who knows what’s what – try not to bore him:

You don’t have to link to us or men­tion us (though of course we appre­ci­ate it when peo­ple do), but you will want to use the Twit­ter hash­tag #beery­lon­greads and/or email us a link if you want to be includ­ed in the round-up.


We have already agreed to review and edit anoth­er cou­ple of writ­ers’ posts, and have some­one lined up to edit ours. If you’d like us to look at your post, give some advice on struc­ture and gen­er­al­ly help you pol­ish it up, we can prob­a­bly han­dle a few more if you can email your draft to us by Fri­day 28 Feb­ru­ary.

What we’re writing about

We’re going to attempt to write a cap­sule his­to­ry of the pub preser­va­tion move­ment. If you’ve had a his­toric involve­ment in pub preser­va­tion, or think there are books and arti­cles we ought to read, drop us a line at, or com­ment below.

Film Review: The World’s End

The fol­low­ing review con­tains spoil­ers.

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s third film together, amidst the giant robots and explosions, has something to say about pubs and their place in British culture.

In 1990, five young men cel­e­brate fin­ish­ing school by attempt and fail the leg­endary ‘Gold­en Mile’ twelve-pub crawl in their home town of New­ton Haven, some­where in the Eng­lish Home Coun­ties. As the years pass, their ‘leader’, Gary King (Pegg), becomes a drug addict, while the oth­ers go on to forge respectable pro­fes­sion­al careers. Then, more than 20 years lat­er, King (who they all now hate) rounds them up with the inten­tion of fin­ish­ing the job. Dur­ing its course, they realise the town has been tak­en over by bodys­natch­ing aliens and do the only sen­si­ble thing: car­ry on drink­ing until the final pub, which is fit­ting­ly named The World’s End.

As a sci­ence-fic­tion com­e­dy action movie, The World’s End is sol­id – bet­ter than Hot Fuzz, but not quite up there with Shaun of the Dead, or the TV series Spaced which threw Pegg and Wright togeth­er fif­teen years ago. As a com­men­tary on pubs and drink­ing, how­ev­er, it is fas­ci­nat­ing.

When the reunit­ed gang arrive at the first pub on their crawl, they are dis­ap­point­ed to find that it has become rather bland and cor­po­rate. An accu­rate obser­va­tion, but the punch­line comes when they enter the sec­ond pub: it is exact­ly the same, down to the last faux-rus­tic chalk­board and cod-Vic­to­ri­an gew­gaw.

Archi­tect Stephen (Pad­dy Con­si­dine) calls this process ‘Star­buck­ing’. There­after through­out the film, a par­al­lel is drawn between the body-snatch­ing aliens’ robot clones and high street chains, both of which take over and improve the shell at the expense of the ‘soul’.

This isn’t small-is-good, shop local, indi­vid­u­al­ist pro­pa­gan­da, though: under the con­trol of the aliens, peo­ple are nicer and less vio­lent, and the town is fun­da­men­tal­ly more func­tion­al. Sim­i­lar­ly, the ide­alised robot land­lord (Mark Heap) the sin­is­ter invaders cre­ate for one pub on the crawl is too good to be true: chat­ty, smil­ing, glass-pol­ish­ing, beer­van­ge­lis­ing per­fec­tion.

…nut­ty, foamy, with a sur­pris­ing­ly fruity note which lingers on the tongue.”

This is one of the few films we have seen where the pro­tag­o­nists are improved by drunk­en­ness. They become more open and hon­est with each oth­er and only when leg­less are they able to resolve the decades’ worth of ten­sions between them and become real friends again. Beer gives them back their lost youth. It also makes them stronger, and Nick Frost’s char­ac­ter in par­tic­u­lar is a kind of Incred­i­ble Hulk fig­ure whose super-pow­ers are only unleashed when he final­ly downs a pint of lager. Lots of peo­ple think they are skilled mar­tial artists when drunk, but these ordi­nary men real­ly do become butt-kick­ing action heroes under the influ­ence of booze.

The film’s final mes­sage is that we, as a cul­ture, have the choice between authen­ti­cal­ly human (unre­li­able, chaot­ic, dirty, stum­bling drunk) or effi­cient­ly cor­po­rate (bland, dead-eyed, ‘per­fect’, and sober). Whether you think the film has a hap­py end­ing or not will depend on your pref­er­ence.

The World’s End was released on DVD in Novem­ber last year.

Chocolate Fondant with Tomato Ketchup

Our experiences of the past few days in Bristol have led us to ponder the rights of the consumer when a beer is not technically ‘off’ but just plain unpleasant.

In a restau­rant, we’d feel rea­son­ably hap­py com­plain­ing about a dish if it was, e.g. burnt, cold or mouldy. (Well, not hap­py, exact­ly – we are British, after all.)

If, how­ev­er, we ordered some­thing adver­tised as ‘super hot’, would we com­plain if it was either too mild or too spicy? Prob­a­bly not. What if the sauce was too salty for our taste? In a cheap and cheer­ful cur­ry house, no; at a ‘posh’ restau­rant, maybe.

What if we ordered some­thing ‘wacky’ – choco­late fon­dant with ketchup, say – and then did­n’t like it? We would prob­a­bly blame our­selves for mak­ing a bad choice, or not ‘get­ting it’.

So what about pubs and bars?

If you choose some­thing that is tech­ni­cal­ly in good con­di­tion but sim­ply tastes dread­ful, do you take it back?

I’d like this pint chang­ing: the pump clip says it’s real­ly hop­py, but it’s actu­al­ly quite bland.”

It’s not the done thing, so we don’t do it. We are, how­ev­er, like­ly to become wary of the brew­ery, and think less of the bar for fail­ing to ‘edit’ or ‘curate’.

With beer, it’s not always clear that you’re order­ing some­thing ‘weird’, espe­cial­ly if you’re not a beer geek. It can also be hard to tell where inten­tion­al weird­ness ends and ‘off­ness’ begins, espe­cial­ly as sour beers become more com­mon.

We’ve yet to see a tast­ing note on a behind-the-bar black­board that says some­thing like ‘smells like anti­sep­tic and tastes like mud, but meant to be like that’. (Because no-one would order that beer?)

Some bars very wise­ly do give warn­ings – ‘You’ve had this before, yeah?’ Tasters are also help­ful. After Russ­ian roulette at one bar in Bris­tol, we appre­ci­at­ed all the more that at Brew­dog, it was almost impos­si­ble to order a beer with­out being giv­en sam­ples and advice.

While some pub­li­cans might get hacked off at peo­ple who try taster after taster, sure­ly in the long run it is the best way to achieve a sat­is­fac­to­ry con­sumer expe­ri­ence if qual­i­ty beer is at the heart of your offer.

Pho­to: The Sound of the Sea at Hes­ton Blu­men­thal’s Fat Duck restau­rant, by Jes­si­ca Spen­gler. (Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons.)

Southwark Pub Walk: a potted history

As luck would have it, quite a few key sites in the story of ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ happen to be clustered together in the Southwark area of London, making for a perfect history walk with added boozing.

UPDATE 20/09/2014: It had­n’t occured to us back in Decem­ber last year, but under­tak­ing this crawl while read­ing Brew Bri­tan­nia would be a good way to spend an after­noon. We’ve added notes on which chap­ters in the book ref­er­ence which pubs.

The walk­ing route we have sug­gest­ed below will take you past the fol­low­ing loca­tions:

1. Ye Olde Watling – City of Lon­don head­quar­ters of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood, now a cosy Nichol­son’s chain pub. (Chap­ter 1)

2. The Rake – the first real­ly notable ‘craft beer’ bar in Lon­don, and still a great place to find good, or at least inter­est­ing, beer. (Chap­ter 12)

Read the rest of this entry and see the map after the jump →