The Reality of the Village Inn

Two old men in a village pub.

English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?

We’ve been tinkering with a version of this post for months but were prompted to finish and post it by this Tweet from an academic conference on drink and drinking:

The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to mention the decreased centrality of the inn in village life even as its absolute centrality to the idea of the perfect village persists in popular culture. Hopefully we’ll get to read the finished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few observations of our own.

Continue reading “The Reality of the Village Inn”

Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavistock last week we picked up a tatty copy of Exmoor Village, a 1947 book by W.J. Turner ‘based on factual information from Mass Observation’. It features a chapter on pubs and socialising called ‘Gardens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glorious detail on beer and boozers were shattered with the opening line:

There is no inn in Luccombe [in Somerset], nor anywhere on the Acland Estate. The nearest is at Wootton Courtney. There is virtually no social centre in Luccombe beyond the doorstep and the village street.

Some of the men in the village, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in nearby Wootton or Porlock ‘on Saturday or Sunday — seldom both’:

Mr Gould remembers brown ale at threepence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Wootton. To-day, on an old-age pension, his visits are rare. His son is a teetotaller, and Bill Tame is another… Although Somerset is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Partridge is the only Luccombe person who has it. Another farmer, Mr Staddon, prefers beer.

The true Mass Observation touch, more literary than objective in tone despite its scientific pretensions, comes through in a description of the men at their usual haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Wootton Courtney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The public bar like most country bars is small, with two tables, two benches, and not enough chairs… A visitor at about seven o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, looking tired and weather-beaten, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luccombe, sitting in a chair by the window; a man of forty-five not from Luccombe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, standing leaning on his cane. Talk centres on horses. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and conversation round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoniest one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in question is the Dunkery Beacon Hotel which fits the description — ‘a white building with a verandah’ — but it doesn’t seem likely the bar is still there in anything like its original form. The walk from Luccombe to Wootton Courtney (or Courtenay) is about 45 minutes according to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bailey recalls hearing people in Somerset genuinely, un-ironically saying ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger people had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Porlock, the threat of invasion, German airmen and the Home Guard, chocolate rationing and other then hot topics. (The observations on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Americans turn up (GIs, presumably) they dominate the conversation with talk of farming back home.

If the men were only occasional pub-goers, the women of Luccombe hardly ever went, and the young men of the village aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and wasn’t a frequent drinker because he couldn’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clearly in various bits of post-WWII writing on pubs — the idea that men were abandoning the pub not because it was bad but because home, family, gardens and allotments had become so pleasant.

If you’re interested in country life more generally, Somerset in particular, or Mass Observation (this project was controversial), then this book is worth getting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white photos by John Hinde are also lovely to look at, as are the charmingly period charts and illustrations. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Amazon lists a couple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book showing distances from Luccombe to key amenities.

The Village Inn, 1944

In 1944, Faber published, on cheap wartime paper, a short book by local government official C.H. Gardiner entitled Your Village and Mine.

C.H. Gardiner, Your Village and Mine, 1944.A pre-emptive strike in the debate about if and how British society should change in the wake of the experience of World War II, Gardiner devoted quite a bit of space to what he calls the ‘third oldest village institution’ after the church and the manor house — the inn.

Many of his comments show just how little debate has moved on in 70 years, sounding as if they might have come from a recent news article on ‘binge Britain’:

Generally, the village inn thrives, but sometimes in a way that is no good to the village. Instead of being a social meeting-ground for temperate and hard-working village men, it has become a drinking saloon patronized by men and women intent on consuming as much as they can in the shortest possible time before going home or rushing to another alcoholic place of call.

He doesn’t, however, advocate total abstinence — the dignified enjoyment of a ‘pint of cider or bitter beer’ meets his approval — but there is a sense that he sees serious boozing as a distraction from the really important functions of a pub: political debate, gossip and the playing of traditional games. Many village pub landlords, he observes, are teetotal and regulate the drinking of their customers.

The greatest threat to the integrity of this institution — he keeps using that word, and it’s an interesting one — is the influence of outsiders:

In war-time many inns have been temporarily ruined from a local and social angle by an influx of workmen engaged on government contracts and earning high wages. The shortage of beer and considerably reduced opening hours have had a bad effect in those places where the populations greatly increased. Both strangers and natives are inclined to drink more than is usual for fear that there will be none to-morrow. But as an elderly landlady said to me, ‘It’s just a phase’, and, with motor traffic off the roads, the pubs in remote villages have again assumed a leisurely local atmosphere…

He observes a tendency of pubs to separate different sections of the clientele with screens and side rooms, not along class lines, but based on ‘localness’. At one pub, he noted a small room reserved for ultra-locals who could trace family roots in the village back 200 years, and who would get up and walk out grumbling if a stranger insisted on entering. (Stammtisch?)

By this time, women, Gardiner suggests, were increasingly keen to visit the public bar and socialise with friends and neighbours, though many pubs still refused to admit them, which ‘raises questions of accommodation, particularly when a lawn or seats in a garden cannot be used’.

He concludes that ‘drinking in general has increased… [while] drunkenness has declined’, which he puts down largely to improvements in living conditions and the availability of alternative forms of entertainment, e.g. church-organised social events and the wireless.

His final recommendations are, first, that wartime licensing hours be removed in peace time but that early closing on Sunday lunchtime be retained: ‘Nobody appreciates this more than the village housewife who can now be certain of her menfolk returning to their Sunday dinner at a reasonable hour.’ He also suggests that the key to the survival of the village inn as an institution is the segregation of locals from visitors, who arrive by car in search of rural charm and something to eat:

The main bar should be reserved for the village men and facilities provided to enable them to play their innocent games of tippit, shove-halfpenny, crib, and darts.

We’re getting quite a collection of these slightly patronising, oh-so-worthy social observation studies. This one is no The Pub and the People, but it does provide a fascinating snapshot of a very specific point in British history.