Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Is it now too late to save our beloved British pub culture?

Pubs in days gone by

Pubs in days gone by - Credit: Dave Kindred

The new owners of a historic Suffolk pub recently sold by a celebrity chef, have vowed to turn it back into a traditional village hostelry.” It was a heartwarming moment when I read those words in this paper last week.

The celebrity chef in question had painted the 15th Century building a sugary pink and stopped selling some draught drinks because, he said, it attracted “the wrong kind of clientele”.

I do sometimes wonder about the downfall of the British pub. Up until a few years ago, I was a daily regular. I’d down tools, grab keys and jacket, walk to the pub, have a couple of drinks and then go home. Weekends usually meant a lunchtime one because you don’t want to be out on youth club nights, do you?

Then, on Sunday evening, again, out for a quiet one. At weekends, I’ll rarely bother at all nowadays. Thanks to the purgatorial twinning of all-day opening and the ubiquitous Sunday roast, many former pubs have become screaming crêches full of badly-supervised children: “Please daen’t dee that, Dahling? We’ll be gaying haeme, seen. Pwomise?”

You can’t blame the pubs of course. Many have been forced down the dreaded food route. The best of them must strive for that delicate balance between the real ale pub serving meals and the stealth restaurant incorporating a “pub feature”. While many pubs have become restaurants in all but name, still more have been forced to close.

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There may be better times coming, we hear. Last week came news that MPs have vowed to overturn the ‘Beer Tie-in’. Briefly, this means that in the near future, the pub giants will not be able to force their tenants to buy only that beer which is supplied by them.

Landlords may soon be able to supply cheaper beer and have more of a say in which beers they do sell. This news has been taken sufficiently seriously that Pubco shares have dropped in recent weeks. My own fear is that it may be too little, too late.

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I spoke recently with an old friend who lives in Brighton. She told me: “Lots of people I know don’t go to the pub much any more. We can’t afford it. It’s ten pounds for a couple of drinks, these days.”

How is it, though, that many of our town centre late-night drinking venues are still able to offer vodka and sugar-based coloured children’s drinks, for only a few pounds?

I really have to tax my brains to recall what pubs were like before all this ruination occurred. Here’s what I remember. On Sundays when the pubs opened, it was a tradition that they provided on their counters, little bowls of peanuts, cubes of mild cheddar, small cheese biscuits and quartered pickle onions.

After an all too brief and cosy drink, at 1.50pm sharp, the landlord rang last orders. At 2pm glasses were collected. The pub then closed until 7pm. Off-licences also adhered to these hours. Most people went home for Sunday lunch. This was unless the pub itself served lunch, a thing which wasn’t then that common. In this case they still closed by about 2.30pm. Oddly enough, you never met anyone back then who was due to have a gastric band operation.

What, incidentally, is this obsession, this…fetish almost, with food, self-important rich cooks and their daft books? Did we not live, eat and generally thrive before they all arrived?

The pub, before the arrival of that repellant urban fool, the “Foodie”, was a meeting place for ordinary people, where they could chat, celebrate, commiserate or conspire. We didn’t have responsibly-sourced organic potato snacks, drizzled in balsamic vinegar and garnished with sea-salt crystals. They were called salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps.

Eating out, until recent years, was regarded as a treat, not a regular routine. The lines need to be redrawn. A pub serving more than two dishes – one to include some sort of semi-edible cold meat pie – should be classed as a restaurant and made to describe itself as such.

A good example of a pub is Colchester’s own multi award-winning The Odd One Out. There, by way of sustenance, John the landlord keeps a single cheese roll in a glass case on the counter. He calls it The Nourishing Cheese Roll. If a drinker finds himself flagging, he can buy the roll in question. The roll is soon afterwards replaced by an identical one. If all pubs were run like this, Britain could probably wave goodbye to both the pub crêche and the gastric band.

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