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.