Theyre under threat but theyre fighting back. How famous London pubs are adapting to a changing world
Milky tea, fish and chips, the local pub: these were once the enticing mainstays of British life. Theyre all still there, of course, but outside the home we drink far more coffee than tea, and on the high street the curry house and chicken takeaway long ago supplanted the deep-fried attractions of the fish and chip shop. Of the traditional triumvirate only the public house remains in a primary position, but that too is under threat.
It is estimated that Britain has lost 25% of its pubs in the last 20 years. There were around 60,000 in 2000 and now the figure is about 45,000. Closing time has taken on a new meaning, with on average one pub closing down every 12 hours. Of those that remain, many are unrecognisable from the locals of the past, having been re-themed as chain bars or gastropubs.
Is this a loss to the British way of life? Has some vital part of the social fabric been neglected and left to slowly fall apart? Listen to the doomsayers, like the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), and thats certainly the impression. Last year it describedthe situation as dismal. Almost on cue, Sohos celebrated Coach & Horses closed its doors last week after its freeholder, Fullers Brewery, took back possession from the leaseholder, Alastair Choat. The pub has been a Soho institution for many decades, with the previous landlord, Norman Balon, famed for his rudeness and, paradoxically, the permissive atmosphere he fostered.
It was the scene of Private Eye lunches and the base, as it were, of the notoriously unsober Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard. Choat tried to maintain its idiosyncratic spirit, by turning it into what he called Londons first vegetarian and vegan pub and getting a licence to serve naked guests.
He made a desperate campaign to keep hold of the pub, even staging a shortened version of the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell with Cold Feets Robert Bathurst in the lead role, and organising a 12,000-signature petition to halt Fullers. But all to no avail. Fullers moved back with a promise to restore the pub to its former glory.
Given that its former glory was all about its inimitable ambience, it is not clear how that restoration is going to be achieved. What is significant, though, is that Fullers is appealing to a vanished heyday as the vision of its future. But heydays are accidental or inspired and certainly cant be recaptured through corporate planning.