December 2011

Drinking in the Atmosphere

Preserving traditional pubs is just as important as preserving real ale

ONE OF THE best things CAMRA has ever done is to produce the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which lists just under 300 pubs across the country which have interiors that are still largely as built, or as remodelled before 1939. It is disappointing that less than 1% of all the pubs remaining in Britain fall into this category. Visiting one these pubs is always something special, and it is good to see a place with such a sense of history still functioning as a modern business, as opposed to being preserved in aspic by the National Trust. While it is perfectly possible to have a dismal pub operation in a superb building – and I have come across one or two that left me distinctly underwhelmed – in general the unspoilt historic interiors add to the atmosphere and stick in the mind.

Over and above these, around the country there are still maybe a few thousand pubs that, while changed over the years, still present very much a traditional layout and atmosphere. A few examples from the local area would be the Griffin in Heaton Mersey, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. Some may dismiss this as having an affection for outmoded “old men’s pubs” that have no place in the modern world except as museum pieces, but in reality pubs were designed like this because they worked, and still usually provide a far better pubgoing experience than their more modern counterparts.

Until relatively recently, when new pubs were built they still generally conformed to the established norms of layout. For example, Holts’ Sidings in Levenshulme is still recognisably a “proper” pub in the traditional mould. However, over the past couple of decades an entirely new design vocabulary has evolved for pubs and bars that throws all the traditional design concepts out of the window. The key features of this are:

  • Very long bar counters dominating the space in which they are installed
  • Wide circulatory spaces around the bar
  • An interior comprising a sequence of free-form interconnecting areas rather than defined “rooms”
  • Free-standing chairs and tables rather than fixed seating
  • High ceilings
  • A deliberate avoidance of warm textures and colours
While the success of their business model cannot be denied, Wetherspoons must be the single biggest offender in this regard. With few exceptions, their pubs are soulless, impersonal drinking barns largely devoid of pub “feel”. In my view this is a conscious policy to make their establishments look as little as possible like old-style pubs. They have often been praised for their sensitive conversions of impressive buildings, but in general it’s still just the standard Spoons layout and ambience and doesn’t really gel with the surroundings. If you put a works canteen on the floor of a cathedral, it’s still a works canteen.

This new design language removes any feeling of cosiness or intimacy and produces an atmosphere more akin to an airport lounge than a conventional pub. Unlike a shop, a pub is a place where, as well as buying goods, you are in effect buying time in a particular environment. No matter how good the food and drink on offer, if you don’t feel “at home” you’re not really going to enjoy yourself. And, even if the choice of beer is a bit limited, give me a proper pub any day with bench seating, geezers standing at the bar and one or two handpumps, over drinking some new-wave brew with an overpowering taste of tropical fruit while perched on a high, uncomfortable stool in somewhere resembling the interior of a warehouse.

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