Goodbye Rose and Crown, hello village educational resource centre

Once, country pubs were where you drank. Now, as Mark Rowe reports, they are having to adapt to survive
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The Independent Online
COUNTRY pubs are playing host to nursery schools, Bible classes and adult education classes in an effort to combat a drastic slump in their traditional trade.

More than 400 village pubs have closed since 1994, and increasing numbers are hiring out back rooms and the bar area to provide extra income.

Policies of big brewers and ashift in drinking culture are blamed for the demise of village pubs. Their plight will be familiar to fans of The Archers: Ambridgewatering hole The Bull resorted to fancy dress evenings and fought with the Cat and Fiddle over hosting line dancing.

The Rural Development Commission, which says a third of villages do not have a public house, is encouraging pubs to take on other pivotal village roles. It has found that 42 per cent of parishes have no permanent shop; 43 per cent have no post office; 93 per cent have no nursery facilities and 99 per cent have no job centre. These are gaps, the RDC believes, that pubs could fill.

"Pubs can operate as village shops or post offices," says RDC spokeswoman Elaine Graham. "They can hold community meetings, set up business rooms and hold weight-watchers classes and continue to be the focus of village life. A lot of pubs do have function rooms that aren't used."

In the Cotswolds, the idea has already been taken to heart. Pubs provide the region with 1,023 jobs and 16 per cent offer meeting or function rooms.

One pub which decided to diversify is the Five Alls at Filkins, an Oxfordshire village of some 500 people. In addition to providing wedding receptions and conferences, proprietor Julian Heber-Smith opens his doors to Bible classes, hosts an adult day centre for pensioners, and may open a fitness studio.

"Pubs have to move with the times. An ale house can't just pull ale anymore," he said. "The reason we do it is financial. There is no question if we did not do these extra things we would not survive.

"The police in the Thames Valley are very hot on drink-driving, and that has scared a lot of people away from using their cars. To keep them coming we had to drop food prices so that they could afford to come in a taxi and have a drink."

In North Yorkshire, several pubs host adult education classes organised by the national voluntary body, the Workers' Educational Association. The WEA's Yorkshire North branch development officer Teresa de Saram has taken classes in computer literacy and Spanish to village pubs in Hemingbrough, Helmsley and Masham.

"They are extremely popular. Many people want to attend courses but are unable to travel to towns, so we thought we should take the technology to them," she says. "Many people have bad memories of their school days. The pub is as far away as you can get from that environment and can encourage people to come along."

Mike Breakell, senior lecturer in comparative planning at Oxford Brookes University, supports the idea that pubs should play host to activities within their villages and even become the focal point of the community, ahead of the church or the village hall.

"Where a parish does not have a village hall, pubs can look at laying on the events and facilities that might take place within a hall," he says. "Clubs can hold meetings in the bar area and in function rooms in the afternoon when the pub is closed."

The consequences of villages losing their pubs are not just sentimental, according to Mr Breakell. "They have a vital socio-economic function. Pubs create more employment in a village than anything else, including small industries, giving work to six people.

"Pubs are one of the key parts of life in the village. It's essential to have pub, otherwise there is a danger that a village becomes a collection of isolated and lonely people. More and more people are living in single households, so having a meeting place becomes even more important," he said.

However, the rural pub is fighting a dramatic swing in drinking behaviour, according to Mr Breakell. More and more of us are buying our beer cheaply in French supermarkets and staying at home to drink it.

Younger people who live in villages increasingly prefer to drive to the local town for entertainment. "We don't go out in groups in the same way. Young people go to town because that is where they see their entertainment rather than their own village," said Mr Breakell.

"Big brewers have noticed this and try to make town pubs even more attractive to them. The big brewers are not interested in small rural pubs because they can't achieve the same returns and if that is their view there is nothing you can do."

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