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Dubious duo threat to village pubs

Friday 08 August 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, connoisseur of the country pub, fears for the future of this gem of Olde England – but believes it can be saved despite the fears of the Campaign for Real Ale

AN ORGANISATION which I have supported for many years, the Campaign for Real Ale, has reported that beer sales in Britain have dropped to the lowest level since the great slump of the 1930s, which makes me sad.

But much worse is their estimate that less than half our rural villages now have a pub which, says CAMRA, leaves them “soulless, with nowhere left for people to meet and have fun. It is the death of a British institution.”

poer lines
Angel Inn: took the quality route

Now I have written about this before because it is a matter close to my heart. My wife and I once moved house because the one and only pub in our village was a sad old place serving bad beer at hefty prices in an atmosphere that can only be described as soulless. But that was because it was run by people who were not cut out to be “mine host.”

This was 20 years ago and that particular pub has improved under new management. But many other Yorkshire Dales villages have lost their pubs and with it some of the cement that binds rural social life together. Now, the pressure on the pub has reached critical mass, as a drop in beer sales of more than 1.5 million pints a day proves.

This is a gloomy picture and, quite frankly, I do not accept it. I know of country pubs which are alive and well and doing very nice business indeed, thank you very much. But they are run by astute people who have a good eye for business but also that difficult asset to define, good taste.

And, boy, do they need it for there is a dreadful duo of threats at work which need fighting if this vital institution is to prosper. One is the yobbo threat – the tide of young drunks who have turned many pubs, particularly in market towns, into virtual battle grounds – and the chattering classes in the Westminster village of North London.

the choice is pretty stark: a pub which is kept in business by its food trade. Or no pub at all.

The former can be easily tackled by a good landlord. Simply take out the juke box, the pool table, and enforce a ban on foul language. The yobbos will soon find another local in which to vent their communal spleen, leaving well run establishments to decent folk.

The latter, the politically correct metropolitans in various parts of the political spectrum and NGOs – Non Government Organisations – are much harder to tackle because they are close to the levers of power: particularly the levers held by a dour Prime Minister brought up in the teetotal environment of a Scottish manse.

They want to tackle the binge-drinking culture by imposing a swingeing increase in alcohol taxes – and that threatens the death knell for village pubs which don’t get their act together. More and more middleclass people are forsaking the pub altogether in favour of a bottle of wine at home – it’s much cheaper and there is no chance of getting assaulted, physically or mentally, by drunken yobs.

Faced with such a conundrum, forward-thinking publicans should follow the quality route pioneered in the Yorkshire Dales by places like the Angel Inn at Hetton, near Skipton, which 20 years ago was in the hands of the liquidators when it was taken over by catering trade professional, the late Denis Watkins.

He introduced award winning food long before the tag “gastro pub” had been invented and the Angel is now booked to capacity most nights. But there is a small bar, too, for the locals who just want a pint and a chat without rap music blasting in their ears.

Thankfully, there are similar places sprouting in villages throughout England – and it is good food, sold at reasonable prices, which keeps them going. There are old timers who moan “This is not a pub any more – it’s a cafe” but the choice is pretty stark: a pub which is kept in business by its food trade. Or no pub at all.

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