Paul Vallely's Britain: Raise a glass to the English pub

Fleet Street: It was a dirty job but someone had to do it - investigati ng the changing face of the nation's hostelries proved to be thirsty, and tiring, work
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THE THINGS I do in pursuit of truth. I have been on a pub crawl on your behalf. This is part of an intensive in-depth research programme. However, I have to report an early hitch. Your two-man team began at Charing Cross, the traditional starting point for journeys around the kingdom, but eight pubs later we had progressed no further than Southwark where our journey was brought to a halt by, well, shall we say, the onset of fatigue.

My companion was Ted Bruning, an affable cove whose girth testifies to a lifelong dedication to the subject of our inquiry. Ted is the deputy editor of What's Brewing and author of numerous guides by the Campaign for Real Ale. Our purpose was to consider the changing face of the English pub and, since later this month sees the publication of his new book, Historic Pubs of London, the capital seemed as good a place as any to begin, though our theme was national, and, indeed, as the drink took hold, became positively universal.

We began with a swift mid-morning half of Sam Smith's mild in the obvious rendezvous, The Chandos, by the corner of Trafalgar Square. But its interior was completely done out by the brewery in 1984. We needed something more Victorian - for that is the period in which the story of the English public house as a forum for unmitigated drinking really begins. So, we set off up St Martin's Lane for The Salisbury with its extravagance of dark wood, etched glass and splendid art nouveau standing lamps so typical of the gin palaces which spread like a rash all over England during the 1890s. They were the Firkins of their day - and they tell a cautionary tale for the modern brewing industry.

Over a pint of Marston's Pedigree, Ted told the story of Frank Crocker, an enterprising Victorian who saw the railway approaching from the North and estimated it would terminate at Maida Vale. There he built a palace of marble and mahogany with a magnificent Jacobean-style coffered ceiling and yards of gleaming woodwork.

Alas for Crocker, the line turned a few degrees at St John's Wood to terminate not at his door but about a mile away in Marylebone. Cocker went bust and killed himself by jumping out of an upstairs window. His pub, The Crown, was subsequently renamed Crocker's Folly. This was the grandest foolishness, but it was only one of many.

It had all begun, said Ted as we made our way down The Strand, in 1830 with the passing of the Beer Act, when Queen Victoria's ministers decided that ale, a virtuous drink, was to be encouraged to undercut the sellers of gin which was reckoned the nation's ruin. The Act allowed anyone to set up a beerhouse on payment of a token fee. The pub was born - before that hostelries had been ancient inns and taverns which also provided accommodation and food. Indeed, the very term public house is Victorian. But it also meant undesirables could open low dives throughout the capital's slums. They became havens for thieves and robbers.

By 1869, said Ted over a pint of Sam Smith's mild (again) in the Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street, the politicians had seen the error of their ways and the act was repealed. As magistrates tried to reduce the number of licences, landlords tried to make their premises more respectable, creating opulent temples of imperial mahogany and plate-glass glittering in the new-fangled gaslight. But they spent too much. The returns did not cover the cost and there was an almighty crash in which even the big brewers went for five years without any profits.

"I hope this lot go the same way," said Ted in an amiable tone as we entered Scruffy Murphy's. I had been in this pub before. It had then been the King and Keys, the local of the Daily Telegraph next door. That was in the days before all the national press moved out of London to remote places like Canary Wharf. The pub had not been Irishised in those days, though I do remember having a distinctly dodgy encounter with an Ulster printer who had accused me of mimicking his accent.

No danger of that now. "There are no strangers here just friends who have never met," said the yucky legend by the door, along with all the Oscar Wilde quotes about work being the curse of the drinking classes, and so forth. The place was replete with cod Oirishness: the fittings of a fake small town hardware store, framed legends about Scruffy Murphy and a donkey, and bogus hints about "the crack". "Crack is Irish for `a pleasant association of people' - and that's the one thing which Allied Domecq [the owners] can't guarantee," said Ted, darkly.

Still, its days may be numbered. Theme pubs tend to have a life of around four years before the novelty-hungry punters get bored. This Scruffy Murphy's had a French waiter who knew nothing about Guinness, nachos at the top of the lunch-menu and piped Bob Marley instead of the expected diddly-i-di music. But don't rejoice prematurely, the brewers are now running experiments on Czech bars and Australian backpacker pubs, Ted announced. Even now someone somewhere is manufacturing hats with dangling corks in industrial quantities.

Ted is distinctly unimpressed with the corporate approach to selling beer. "They segment the market - with young people's pubs, family pubs, gay pubs. They even have a category of pubs for dissidents like me." Allied Domecq (clearly not Ted's favourite people) are just about to launch a brand of old people's Saga-market pubs, called Golden Oaks. "They call it increasing choice - and in cash-over-the-till terms it makes sense. But pubs were once about community, which is being destroyed. Market segmentation is dangerous because it tells people they have nothing to say to each other."

Yet despite the pounds 12m a week the industry spends on pub conversions it is a declining trade: down from 37m barrels in 1991 to 34m in 1996. At present, 80 per cent of beer is drunk in pubs but, on present trends, by 2007 half of it will be drunk at home. "The death of the English pub has been much trailed but it is happening slowly. The returns just don't justify the capital tied up."

But aren't his protests just fighting a losing battle, I asked as we entered The Old Bell, a 17th- century inn built by Wren for workers on St Paul's. It had been bought by developers in 1897, but they went bust before it could be turned into a gin palace. It is, thankfully, too small to attract the attention of the Firkin people today. "A losing battle?" said Ted, who thought he'd have a short this time. "Yes, it's like bailing with a sieve."

But a sighting of a rare example of Shropshire's Three Tuns Bitter in The Blackfriar cheered him up, as did the pub itself, with its layers of marble in browns and ochres, its mosaic ceilings and its bas-reliefs in bronze and brass. "The owner was a big wheel in the Arts & Crafts movement and the place was completely reworked by Henry Poole RA, around 1902," said Ted. "It's one of the most extraordinary pubs in the country, and all because of the taste of one man. It's a perfect example of something which doesn't happen in a corporate structure. Modern corporations don't have any moral or aesthetic values. They are driven only by money."

Undoubtedly, I said, and we moved on to the Badge and Coat across the river. We have to resist these people, he said. As soon as this pub closes the revolution starts, I said. But first I thought I'd go and have a little lie down.

`Historic Pubs of London', by Ted Bruning, (Prion Books, pounds 14.99) is published on 16 April.