January 2011

Roadhouse Blues

Why have purpose-built 20th century pubs been hit so hard by the recent wave of closures?

UNTIL RECENTLY, Stockport, outside the fringes of the town centre, had escaped fairly lightly from the tide of pub closures sweeping the country. However, in the past few months we have seen a surge of pubs going to the wall – the Bromale and the Greyhound in Adswood demolished, the Smithy in Cheadle Hulme in the process of conversion to who knows what, and the George on Mersey Square closing its doors “indefinitely”. Added to this, Hydes have put the Gateway just over the border in East Didsbury up for sale, claiming that they don’t see it as viable as a pub in the long-term. One factor that all of these have in common is that they were large, purpose built pubs from the 20th century, built between about 1930 and 1970.

This has raised eyebrows amongst some people, saying “but it was the only nearby pub for a large area of housing!” However, in reality, the idea that the typical pattern of pubgoing is that people come home from work, have their tea and then go out has always been somewhat wide of the mark, and applies even less now than it once did. It is noticeable that pubs in Manchester city centre, and on surburban drinking circuits like Chorlton and Didsbury, are doing much better than those in residential areas. Lots of nearby chimneypots is no guarantee of success for a pub.

Pubs like this have also fallen victim to social changes, with middle-aged and elderly people much less likely to go out to the local for a drink than they were twenty or thirty years ago, and new residents from ethnic minorities moving in who for cultural reasons are not going to be attracted to pubs. A further factor is that, compared with those that are part of a row of other buildings, pubs on large free-standing sites are much more attractive to developers looking to build new houses, flats or care homes.

The middle years of the last century were the great era of Planning, when it was believed that a scientifically designed environment could do much to advance human happiness. It was only later on that the downsides of this approach in terms of bleak and soulless places devoid of an individual human touch became apparent. This applied just as much to pubs as to other aspects of development. On paper, these new purpose-built pubs may have offered all the facilities customers wanted, but in practice they were often echoing, characterless barns. Even at the time, people often complained that the new, “improved” pubs were not a patch on the smaller, haphazard, homely ones they supplanted.

It is possible for inter-wars pubs built on a more modest scale to gain a more intimate and characterful feel – the Nursery in Heaton Norris is a good example – but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. With hindsight, it might have been better to allow smaller pubs to grow organically in areas of new housing, but that very much went against the spirit of the times. Some of these pubs have found a niche for themselves by using part of their surrounding land to add the increasingly popular lodge-type accommodation and concentrate on food – the Heald Green Hotel being a good example. But that isn’t a course open to all, especially those not situated on main roads.

Never greatly loved even at the best of times, the 20th century roadhouse and estate pubs have proved disproportionately vulnerable to the downturn in the pub trade in the past few years. As you travel around the country, it’s a depressingly common sign of the times to see these pubs, often impressive buildings in their own right on prominent corner sites, standing in a forlorn and derelict condition. And, sadly, the odds have to be that we’ll be seeing more of them in the coming years.

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