Jane Bradley: Last orders for the pubs of old?

The latest stats from the Campaign for Real Ale show that pubs are still closing at a rate of 18 a week. Picture: PA
The latest stats from the Campaign for Real Ale show that pubs are still closing at a rate of 18 a week. Picture: PA
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There’s a new pub not far from my house which is packed every night. It has exposed brick walls, battered chairs which look like they’ve been rescued from a 1970s primary school and a range of obscure – mainly microbrewed – beers.

Directly across the road is another. This one has an equal amount of exposed brick and as an added bonus, boasts tall, glass-plated windows which opened up onto the pavement during the summer: perfect for posing. It, like its neighbour, sells dishes such as fancy burgers and posh fish and chips. It also offers gourmet hot dogs, a product which has, apparently, already taken the gastro world by storm across the Atlantic.

Both bars are full of young, trendy people: many wearing vintage dresses and scruffy beards – albeit not usually together. And both re-opened within days of one another after a major makeover.

For just a few months ago, there was no exposed brick or chipped metal furniture anywhere near this little corner of publand. Oh no. These were old men’s establishments. They showed football matches and served pints – not bottles – of beer.

What the decor looked like, I have no real idea, as I was always terrified I would be swallowed in a tsunami of testosterone, should I dare to set foot inside, but I imagine it was a tasteful blend of spit and sawdust.

Within a just a couple of weeks, the old men were turfed out – and the pubs gentrified.

What perplexes me is not just where the exiled old men have gone. Though I do worry that they are all still wandering the mean streets of Edinburgh’s Stockbridge district in search of a pint of Caley 80 and a pickled egg. More likely, they are sitting, quite justified, at home, complaining to their wives about Broken Britain.

But the burning question for me is where all of these shiny new patrons have come from. Less than a ten-minute walk away from these establishments is a clone pub. Or rather, more accurately, these new pubs are clones of it. It sells unusual beers and flavoured ciders. It has cheekily patterned wallpaper and 1980s board games in the corner. It’s been there for quite a while.
I had assumed that this original pub would be struggling as a result of the new openings. Pubs generally, we have been told since the start of the recession, have been shutting down on a weekly basis. The latest stats from the Campaign for Real Ale show that pubs are still closing at a rate of 18 a week.

However, on a recent visit, I found it as busy as ever – impossible to get a seat and thronging with beards.

The phenomenon is happening across Edinburgh – and other Scottish cities. At the bottom end of the Royal Mile, previously a mecca for tourists in search of some authentic Scottish craic, as well as stalwart locals – there are no fewer than four pubs which in recent years have been done over in the modern style – and their spit and sawdust past forgotten.

Even more puzzlingly, a recent study from YouGov found that 81 per cent of people said they prefer country, or traditional, pubs while 15 per cent opt for gastropubs and just six per cent said they like to frequent “trendy pubs”.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of those surveyed said they cared that the pub industry was in decline and 13 per cent – presumably those who count Scrooge among their closest friends – actually admitted they were happy to see them go.

So, let me get this right. If this study is to be believed, most people don’t care that pubs are shutting down. Of those who do care, who presumably are the mainstay of the pub-going population, the vast majority do not want to go to gastro pubs – or “trendy pubs”, whatever they may be. The Venn diagram is ever decreasing in its overlap.

Why, in that case, are traditional pubs being replaced by gastropubs at a rate of knots if there are no punters who say they want to go to them? I can only come up with one theory. It is not just the pubs themselves, but the trendy pubgoers who inhabit them who are being cloned by the Pubcos. I reckon if you actually speak to someone sitting at the same table two nights in a row, you would get a Truman Show-style identical response.

I’m going to try it tonight.