More welcoming than a sterile coffee chain or expensive restaurant, the great British pub is making a comeback, writes Tiffany Jenkins
I have been visiting pubs of my youth, where I ordered my first snakebite and black. It is a disgusting drink, but one that, because of the black – sweet blackcurrant squash – helped you learn how to drink. This time around, I ordered fine wines in different sizes, accompanied by food that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Handmade pork scratchings, too.
Sipping a robust red, I realised something that thousands have worked out long before me: spending time in the pub is preferable to drinking in an expensive restaurant, or at a friend’s house. It is nicer than whiling away the hours in a sterile coffee chain, which shuts early, with its oversized and overpriced lattes that cannot satisfy when you just want a simple pint, a warm fireside and a chat.
As ever, I am late to the party, for I am not the only one to have rediscovered the pub. The public house is trying to make a comeback. This may not be quite what you want to hear this month as you detox, worried about the state of your liver. But the pub is not out the woods yet. Music to the ears of some will be the fact that the boozer desperately needs your support. Your local needs you.
The long-term national trend is that pubs have been shutting down. Having peaked in 1869, the number of public houses in Britain has been steadily falling ever since, recently at an alarming rate. According to the briefing Closing Time: Who’s Killing the British Pub? by Christopher Snowden, the UK has lost 21,000 pubs since 1980. Half of these closures have taken place since 2006. Many more are likely to shut soon. I know a few that look endangered. Cold, unwelcoming places, with dark corners – they can’t have long. You can practically see the tumbleweed blowing through them.
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Snowden suggests taxation, regulation and the decline in disposable income are partly to blame, as is the alcohol duty escalator (scrapped by George Osborne in the last Budget). Then there are the property businesses that pretend to be pub companies but who turn them into flats. Also, cultural changes, such as the increase in choice of leisure activities, as well as changing tastes in alcohol consumption – which is going down. Some point the finger at the smoking ban. I can believe that it has made a difference, contributing to a kill-joy atmosphere. But smoke-free also makes them and your clothes less smelly, a reason to visit more regularly.
How often do you frequent your local? If you are anything like me, the answer is never. I pass it, and the old guys on the pavement puffing outside, walking home. But that’s it. I can tell you little about the clientele or landlord. I drink a little, of course. Every week. But at home. With nice, cheap alcohol from the supermarket. And I am not the only one.
It is most definitely a loss. Pubs are sociable. You drink, together, which helps to regulate consumption. And you do so not only with friends but with people you don’t know – yet. Drinking not only needs practice, so as you don’t quaff too much or get out of hand, it benefits from good – sometimes random – company and nice surroundings.
Many pubs were designed with this in mind. In Scotland, most bars from the 1880s consisted of one large room (English pubs often had several), which meant the barman could watch over his customers. This is also why island counters – an oval or U-shaped counter – were introduced, to sit around. It is thought to be a Glasgow invention, created by the publican Captain John Scouller, in 1885. It first appeared in the hostelry of the captain, a keen equestrian himself – the Horseshoe Bar.
The Horseshoe Bar was well known and imitated in its day. Visitors from all over Scotland came to take measurements. Scouller was famous. He is said to have visited the United States in 1901, and been recognised in a bank in New York State. The cashier remarked: “Oh it’s all right; we know very well who you are all right. We have a Scotchman here ourselves. If we had the drawings of the Horseshoe for a week, we would be inclined to take a holiday ourselves”.
Where did you first go to drink, as, ahem, a teenager? For myself, it was a particular pub, one that everyone knew would serve you and not inquire after your age. There were plenty of adults around who understood we were young and inexperienced, who got what was going on. And they kept a bit of an eye on us. Nothing too obvious, but they helped to set boundaries. I am not advocating getting trashed underage, more saying that slowly introducing yourself to alcohol, publicly – in the company of others – is probably the way to do it.
A number of older establishments have fine interiors. The Old Toll Bar, in Paisley Road West in Glasgow, has gorgeous glasswork with classical-style decorations, floral motifs and mirrors extolling the virtues of various spirits. Many have a gantry with spirit casks, and bar back-fittings with elaborate shelves, and carved and turned wooden decoration. Some have bell pushes to call for service; others have spittoons and match strikers once conveniently placed for smokers; others a ladies’ snug.
The “palace pubs” from the 1880s and 1890s are decorated with wooden panelling, painted and etched glass, plasterwork, lights and tiles. A favourite is The Café Royal in Edinburgh, with its Doulton tiles, including seven panels depicting great inventors. It was hoped they would inspire the clientele.
The pub is a vital and attractive part of our national culture. Many are working at getting our custom back. The food is improving. The drink selection too. Good breweries in Scotland, such as Innis & Gunn, Brewdog and William Bros, are proliferating.
So leave the sofa. Forget Dry January, or get yourself a watered-down orange juice (the soft drinks still need attention). My New Year resolution is to spend more time in the local.
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