The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.

When the first, second and third place are all the same

The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.

The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.

Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.

For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:

My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.

It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.

Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.

Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.

New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect.

Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.

Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.

For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.

As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.

Why so many breweries in Waltham Forest, all of a sudden?

I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.

“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.

“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”

And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.

Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.

And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.

And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.

That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.

We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.

The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”

And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:

Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.

Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.

What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.

Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?

You can’t judge a pub on one visit

One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.

We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.

We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.

However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.

When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.

In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.

There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.

This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.

We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.

And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.

The Swan With Two Necks and the gentrification issue

“I’ve been called a cultural terrorist,” said Jamie Ashley, the new landlord of The Swan With Two Necks, seeming offended, amused and confused in equal measure.

In the past few months, he’s found himself at the centre of one of Bristol’s many small dramas of gentrification, as either a pioneer or an intruder depending on your point of view.

Until recently, The Swan With Two Necks was a rare thing – a working class backstreet pub on the edge of Bristol city centre.

St Jude’s will feel familiar to anybody who has ever visited Digbeth in Birmingham or Ancoats in Manchester – a timewarp of red brick industrial buildings, workshops, warehouses and yards, with social housing filling the gaps.

In recent decades, Bristol has lost much of this landscape as the city centre has expanded and developers have moved in. But this pocket, these few streets, feel like a precious if unpretty relic.

Swan With Two Necks interior.

This particular pub also had another distinction, however: permanent Draught Bass, served almost flat from a cask on the back bar, per Bristol tradition.

Then in August this year the landlady left, and the pub closed. Loyal locals were worried – would it be reopening under new management? Yes, they were reassured, it would, and they would still have somewhere to drink.

Meanwhile, those on the Bristol beer scene began to chatter about an exciting rumour: the landlord-manager of The Hillgrove Porter Stores, the aforementioned Jamie Ashley, was taking on The Swan With Two Necks and intended to bring it in to the 21st century with a range of local craft beer.

For many non-local, non-regulars, this felt like good news – a pub saved from closure and yet another addition to the city’s impressive collection of beer-focused venues.

It seemed like good news to local brewers, too, as Kelly Sidgwick of Good Chemistry (who also happens to drink in our local, The Drapers Arms) told us in an email:

We were really excited to hear that Jamie was taking on The Swan With Two Necks. It’s always great when pubs move to buying more of their beer locally – supporting local businesses who are employing people locally and putting money back into the local economy. Jamie’s a well-known local landlord who’s been running a Bristol institution of a pub for a decade, so we’re especially pleased to see him taking on his own place. We really hope the locals of the pub remain its locals and like the beer, because Jamie is buying really good, locally-brewed beer.

When we visited the pub shortly after its reopening, it was clear that all was not quite well, thanks to an A-board on the pavement outside with a message that felt like a falsely cheerful defensive reply to criticism received. It began “Hello lovely humans”, listed the pub’s many great qualities, made a point about the price/quality/value, and concluded “Why not pop in and see if this is true, or am I simply a…. windbag/filthy liar? You decide.”

Inside, we found the pub much the same, only a little tidier and cleaner. It still felt well-worn, cosy and brown, and the corners were still dark. What was most different was the bar: six hand-pumps, a row of keg taps and where the Bass used to be, a set of decks playing indie music from vinyl.

It wasn’t empty but wasn’t exactly busy either and the crowd was clearly both more middle class and a shade whiter than when we’d previously visited.

After our visit, we investigated further and found comments like the following from ‘Martyn-3114’ beneath an article at Bristol247 (lightly edited):

Been drinking in this pub for 20 plus years. Very sad what’s happened in the last week or so. A lot of regulars have lost their local, mainly because of the landlord’s new plans. Proper backstreet pub now becomes very overpriced – £4 cheapest bitter or £5.75 for lager. Good luck, you’ll need it.

(Lager actually costs £4.50 a pint.)

On Facebook, responding to news of a Wiper & True tap takeover, Robin Fynn wrote, more bluntly (again, edited):

Heard of the pub with no beer? It’s now the pub with shit beer. He’s fucked our pub. Me and twenty regulars banned ourselves. Get the Bass back – you might get some customers then.

(We tried to get hold of both for further comment, without success.)

Intrigued, we got in touch with Ashley to arrange an interview which Ray ended up conducting over a pint on a quiet Monday night.

He’s a youthful, blonde-haired 46-year-old who bears a distinct resemblance to Bernard Sumner from New Order. While he spoke, he made a half-pint of beer last an hour and broke off frequently to change the record spinning on the back bar, flipping the discs between fingertips with the telltale skill of a vinyl obsessive.

Having worked behind bars and running pubs for years, he has a natural charm which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have washed with the old locals:

“Maybe I tried a bit hard, I don’t know…” he said while telling an anecdote about a run-in with a gruff drinker angry at the loss of Foster’s from the beer line-up, and those few words seem important.

It’s clear that he hoped the changes he has made would be accepted by at least some of the previous clientele, even as he was determined to stick to his fairly uncontroversial ambitions: to sell beer he liked, produced locally, at a commercially viable price.

“I asked the lady who was running it before I took over what I should keep on from the old product range,” he said. “She said, two things: Natch, and Bass.” He pulled a face. “Now, Natch was pretty high up the list of stuff I wanted to get rid of. And Bass… I’ve never been a huge fan but I thought of it was selling tons, sure, I’ll keep it. But it was two nines a week – about 140 pints.”

Though the way he describes it makes it sound a purely rational decision, it’s clear that some regular read it as something of a “Fuck you”. If you identify as a Bass Drinker, and were travelling miles by bus to get to it, that’s perhaps an understandable reaction.

The ditching of big-brand lagers was similarly controversial and Ashley’s attitude reveals the gulf between traditional attitudes and those of the modernisers. There is still lager on offer but it’s from Moor and Lost & Grounded. Though you might think these would appeal to Bristolian drinkers, there’s a weird loyalty to international brands brewed under licence, and these sometimes hazy, fruity, characterful beers bear little practical resemblance to Foster’s or Stella, despite the shared family tree.

Then there’s the question of price.

“A couple of people have accused me of charging London prices and I just think, have you actually been to London?” said Ashley with a laugh. “I’m just not charging 1960’s prices, that’s all. One old regular told me I needed ‘real drinkers’ in to make money but my view is that if I have a hard core of people drinking ten pints each a night, but I’m only making 10p on each pint, then that’s a lot of work for £10 profit. Whereas if I make 50p per pint, I can bring in £30 for the same effort. And that’s still not a lot of money.”

That sounds reasonable – of course it does – but if you’ve got a limited income, you might well interpret it as a passive-aggressive ‘Go away’. And if the previous management could sell lager at less than £3 a pint, why can’t the new lot? (Answer: the old lot couldn’t; the business wasn’t viable.)

Ashley says he’s faced anger and, at times, even aggression – fists banged on the counter, handshakes that turn into arm-wrestling matches. He’s stopped opening on Sunday lunchtimes because he felt vulnerable in the empty pub as one embittered ex after another popped in to growl at him, or deliver an angry lecture.

This story is part of a wider debate about gentrification in Bristol which, with faster trains and the arrival of TV production companies, can sometimes feel like a commuter satellite for London.

In 2018, posters appeared across the city with the slogan MAKE BRISTOL SHIT AGAIN – a protest against the bourgeois invasion of previously characterful, edgy neighbourhoods like St Paul’s.

Since our arrival in 2017 (yes, we know, we’re part of the problem) we’ve been paying particular attention to pubs and have noticed that those which close for good or get demolished tend to be in the areas least likely to gentrify. Lockleaze, the big council estate on a windswept hillside in north Bristol, no longer has any pubs after the closure of The Golden Bottle earlier this year.

But in neighbourhoods with attractive Victorian houses, within walking distance of the centre of the city, pubs seem to be transforming one after the other.

In St Pauls, The Star & Garter was closed and boarded up for a long time after the death of legendary landlord Dutty Ken. It reopened earlier this year with a hipsterish vibe and decor that feels like an homage to its past identity rather than a continuation of it. We liked it, and it’s surely better than conversion to flats, but it’s undeniably a symptom of gentrification.

In St Anne’s, The Langton Court Hotel has been reinvented as The Langton. Formerly a down-to-earth, barebones local where people played darts and drank lager and Natch, it has been smartened up and now has what we can only describe as a mildly aspirational menu – risotto and falafel burgers.

People we know who live nearby are delighted to have somewhere to go for a pint after years without and, as it happens, The Langton does still sells Natch and mainstream draught brands. Nonetheless, it feels like a fundamentally different place, with a fundamentally different crowd.

We asked our Twitter followers whether they thought gentrification of pubs was a problem.

The replies were interesting.

Tania said: “I guess may depend on each individual case; near me are 3 pubs I would never go in because they have a rep for unpleasant violent regulars (and landlord in one case) & don’t serve anything at all I would like to drink… So I tend to think of my area as ‘having no pubs at all’. If just one of those places became ‘gentrified’ it would create a new community hub where I could actually hang out and get to know people in my neighbourhood.”

“It’s a societal issue and pubs are often the ‘canary’ tell-tale sign that your rent’s about to go up” said Peter McKerry.

And Nathaniel Southwood made a point about brands that chimed with us: “I’d never say it’s a big problem but I think every pub should stock say a beer and spirit from a brand that’s recognisable to the general public as to not scare away less adventurous drinkers.”

In our view, the problem isn’t with individual reborn pubs, or the motives of those behind those rebirths – it’s to do with balance in a given town, city or neighbourhood.

A decade or so ago, Bristol had lots of earthy, ‘normal’ pubs. Pubs that felt welcoming to younger people and women, with craft beer and contemporary decor, were relatively rare. You had to know where to go and perhaps be prepared to make a journey.

Nowadays, they feel like the norm and it’s drinkers who prefer a more traditional, unpretentious atmosphere who have to schlep or catch the bus.

As it happens, though, there is another pub near The Swan With Two Necks – perhaps a three-minute walk – that remains stubbornly authentic and which also happens to sell Draught Bass.

The Crown Tavern has frosted windows behind which the curtains are usually drawn. There’s generally a smoker or two in the doorway and the clientele tends to the elderly. Inside, it’s sparse and run-down.

When the Bass is £1.50 a pint, half the punters are drinking lager from cans, and with talk of the neighbourhood becoming a ‘quarter’, how long can this last?

And it’s not just the culture that feels as if its days are numbered: the back room has a leaky roof and a floor covered in newspapers.

If you want to see it while you can, we’d suggest making part of a crawl: Elmer’s, The Crown, The Swan With Two Necks, the Volunteer and The Phoenix make a good run.

Not only are there pubs on that list that we suspect would welcome the custom but also you’ll get a snapshot of where Bristol’s pub culture is at in 2019.

This post, which took us several days to research and write up, was made feasible by the support of Patreon subscribers like Joe Gorecki and Chris Gooch. If you’d like more of this kind of thing, do consider signing up, or maybe just buy us a Ko-Fi.