Last orders for the great British pub as gastropubs and restaurants move in

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 10:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 6:32pm

I first flew into Hong Kong from London in January 1982, expecting instant culture shock.

Instead I was whisked from Kai Tak straight to The Bull and Bear, an ersatz English pub in the space in Hutchison House now occupied by Il Milione.

The mock Tudor interior felt familiar, yet not quite right. You could see what the intended effect was, but the point had somehow been missed.

Over the years dozens of attempts at creating an English pub atmosphere in this city have come and gone - mostly mock Tudor or mock Victorian - but none has really come close to the real thing.

There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most fundamental is that a copy of an old building simply won't do the job - the character can't be created overnight. A proper pub or inn - a pub offering overnight accommodation as most originally did - needs not just a building with a history, but also to have been a pub or inn for several generations. The character seeps into the walls.

Pubs are a big part of the country's history - one now being squandered.

The English pub is one of the country's defining institutions, and its present state is therefore a serious cause for concern.

According to The Good Pub Guide the number of pubs in the UK - which of course includes Wales, Northern Ireland and, at least for the time being, Scotland - was around 49,500 in 2013. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) says around 26 of them are closing every week and the figure is probably rising.

We shouldn't be surprised. For years many publicans have taken their regulars for granted, assuming they would simply put up with dreadful service, barely edible food, and poorly maintained amenities.

This has been going on over a period in which drinkers have been drifting away, even from better run establishments. Many of the people for whom regular visits to pubs were once an essential element in social life now drink at home.

Smoking bans have made pubs less attractive to some of their core clientele, and more rigorous enforcement of drink driving laws, with poor public transport and expensive taxis, have made journeys to country pubs impractical for many people living in rural areas.

At the same time rising property prices, particularly in London and other major cities, have made pubs targets for repurposing or redevelopment.

Fortunately there is a means of discouraging would be buyers of pubs who do not intend to maintain them, and a fight to preserve them has begun.

According to CAMRA 300 pubs are officially listed as Assets of Community Value, which means that they cannot simply be bought, closed, and converted for other uses.

The organisation's next target is 400, and increasing numbers of the regulars of those threatened pubs which do still have a loyal clientele are lobbying for that designation.

A more insidious development though is the repurposing of pubs as restaurants, which subverts "Assets of Community Value", by altering the nature of their service past the point at which a customer can simply walk in and order a pint.

Many fine old pubs, some more than 500 years old, have gone down this road and no longer welcome customers without lunch or dinner bookings. The fixtures and fittings remain, but the soul has fled. You walk into these places and a waiter intercepts you at the door to see you to a table. There are still hand-pumps at the bar, but not as many as there were, and certainly no bar stools. They still call themselves pubs, or gastropubs, but they are really just restaurants.

I had an undistinguished Sunday lunch in one of these recently. The landlady, as I considered her, or the patronne, as she considered herself, came over at the end of the meal in search of compliments.

"We don't think of this place as a pub," she confided, adding that she found serving draught beer troublesome.

I refrained, with some difficulty, from pointing out that there was a sign outside with the word "Inn" on it, and a clipping from The Sunday Times, Sellotaped to a window, praising the establishment as a purveyor of pub food. Or that serving draught beer in good condition was the minimum requirement of the business she was in.

Of course, grouses about English pubs are nothing new.

Perhaps the most eloquent cri de coeur on the subject though can be found in a 1925 essay, On Inns, by Hilaire Belloc.

"When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England," he wrote. Inns. Not gastropubs. I fear for the future.