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Cheers! A round of applause for the country pub

Friday 17 June 2005

During a week of Euro-squabbling, our countryside commentator John Sheard drew solace from one of England's greatest institutions, the country pub.

IT WAS a bitty week for we observers of rural affairs. They were squabbling, as ever, in Brussels; the HSBC bank issued a detailed report of farm finances suggesting that many arable farmers will soon be making a fortune by not tilling the land; and the BBC got the weather forecasts wrong again, despite its brand new, multi-million pound computer.

As I write this on Friday morning, the whole of England is supposed to be wreathed in sunshine apart from the North West coast - or so the Beeb said last night. And here in the middle of the Pennines - which is a fair stretch from the seaside - it is chucking it down.

Your country pub deserves support

Ah well. My wife and I have a fairly relaxed weekend ahead so we will turn for solace, as usual, to one of this land's greatest institutions, one where you can find a welcome, rain or shine, summer or winter: the country pub.

First, let's get a couple of things straight. When we go to the pub, for a couple of pints and a bite of (increasingly good) food, we try if possible to use public transport - or walk.

If this is not possible, which is often in the Dales, we have a strict regime: we take it in turns to drive (a routine rigidly enforced by the lady wife 'cos she enjoys a glass of wine when it is her turn as passenger). And each time we go out, often exploring new pubs, I marvel at the resilience of the landlords and landladies of rural England.

Time was when to run a country pub was the dream of most city folk trapped in the rat race. Not any more, thanks largely to Government interference. In this, I am not including the breathalyser, which I heartily support - there are far too many fatal accidents, often involving young people, in the countryside as it is.

Most of this tinkering is down to simple greed: the last time I counted it, there was 80p worth of excise duty on a pint of beer, plus VAT, and that figure is probably over a £1 by now. So Gordon Brown swallows a half every time we have a pint (and he the son of a strict Presbyterian minister, the naughty boy).

But that is only the half of it (sorry about the pun). EU health and safety regulations, happily ignored by most other members, are enforced here with ferocious enthusiasm by the ever-growing army of well-paid, index-linked professional busy-bodies who we are forced to pay to annoy us. They make running a professional kitchen a nightmare, even for hilltop pub miles from anywhere which only serves the landlady's homemade pies.

And now, just to keep the pen-pushers in paper clips, the Government has introduced yet another set of licensing laws which have already made life a misery for hundreds of village halls, sports clubs, agricultural shows, gymkhanas and the like which apply for an occasional licence to raise a few bob to pay their costs.

These same laws affect the professional publicans, too, and they are so complicated that few understand them, even if they are aware of them. According to today's Craven Herald, just 31 out of 372 pubs in the district have applied. Yet without them, they could be closed down when the new laws come into effect.

Now many of my favourite pubs have closed down in recent years, usually to become housing. The Bridge Inn at Ingleton, for instance, has become virtually a housing estate. If my memory is correct, there used to be four pubs in Gisburn, now there is only one. Many villages have lost their pubs completely and their social life is infinitely poorer for that.

But others are thriving, often under young new management anxious to succeed. These people need our support. So don't get a video and a six-pack this weekend, get on a bus, train or share a taxi with friends and support your local publican. You will miss him when he and his good lady have gone.

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