Last orders at Britain's dying pubs: Public houses are closing by the thousand in the face of recession, the breathalyser and imports. Cal McCrystal visits a doomed country bar

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The Independent Online
NO ONE in the Oxfordshire village of Stoke Row can recall why, just after the Second World War, The Hope was changed to The Farmers' Inn. But at the pub's closing-down bash last night, no one questioned the wisdom of the name change. Hope had finally tumbled from the beamed ceiling months ago when it became clear that the establishment could not survive forces that are expected to put 10,000 British pubs out of business by the end of the century.

These forces include the recession, fear of being breathalysed, demographic changes which have reduced the numbers of pub-going young, and high prices which have sent drinkers to French Channel ports for cheaper supplies.

According to the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, the country has about 65,000 pubs - 5,000-7,000 fewer than in 1982. The number is falling by 2 per cent a year. Ten years ago, the National Association of Licensed House Managers had 14,000 members; today it has 10,000. Theme pubs (tacos or karaoke, say) have to dream up new ideas to hold customers.

While pubs in south-east England generally are resisting adverse forces, those in central London are doing less well, the brewers say. Installing modern kitchens for serving fancy food has helped the catering and chattering classes converge beneficially in some inner-city neighbourhoods, but in many suburbs custom is thin.

In some small towns and villages, the death of a pub brings an even greater sense of loss. Last night's event in Stoke Row resembled a rural wake, as Alan Mason, who has run The Farmers' Inn for six years, played landlord for the last time to customers such as Fred Slade, 86, a patron since youth. Sonia James, who helped to manage the place, says: 'It was mostly the recession and the drink-driving scare that did for us. What's going to happen now? Well, the pub is to be a dwelling- house, and there's planning permission for two further houses on the car park.'

Stoke Row, a community of about 700, five miles west of Henley- on-Thames, has two other pubs, The Crooked Billet and The Cherry Tree, both owned by the Brakspear brewery and therefore more resilient than The Farmers' Inn, a free house. Like thousands of other pubs seeking a new up-market image, The Crooked Billet has been successfully 'restaurantised'. On the other hand, The Cherry Tree's landlord, Kenneth Stallwood, eschews food in favour of 'atmosphere' and seems content with the results. The Farmers' Inn did expand its ploughman's lunch menu to steaks, scampi and gammon, but could not compete with The Crooked Billet. 'It fell between two stools,' says Mr Stallwood, refilling his glass with bitter 'drawn straight from the wood - or metal, as it now is, unfortunately.'

By sticking to basics (pasties, rolls and ploughman's lunch), 'I have become a rarity: the genuine village pub with no full meals,' he says, at the same time trying to subdue two barking Alsatians behind the bar of the 450-year-old premises. His family has managed The Cherry Tree for three generations. Under the words 'Ken's Club' on a notice- board is a photograph of three sets of naked, female buttocks. What exactly does he mean by atmosphere?

'If you come in and want to sit and read your newspaper, fair enough. But if you look a little bit lost, I'll strike up a conversation with you and maybe bring someone else into it. So you've now got someone to talk to. I've then done my job. That's hospitality - though I do have a reputation for being rude.' Surely not] Mr Stallwood swallows his beer, puts down the glass and shouts: 'OK, fuck off] We're shut]' As the barking Alsatians lunge for the counter, he calms them once more. 'Just joking,' he says.

Mr Stallwood and his wife, Daphne, love jokes. She tells one about a woman who, pre-coitally, confessed that 'beer makes me fart' (laughter). Mr Stallwood recalls one about an eccentric copulation involving a black American singer (sustained laughter). 'I suppose you thought this was a typical sleepy village,' he says. 'Well, it isn't. There's a lot of shaggin' going' on here . . .'

And less drinking, apparently. 'During the summer you used to get families outside in the garden,' he says. 'The children would play and occupy themselves while the parents had their beer. Now they can't afford it. And children don't know how to play any more.' He used to let Daphne run the pub during the day while he followed his other trade, signwriting. 'I gave it up two years ago when I got the shakes and my eyesight went,' he explains. And being a full-time publican? 'I love the trade, but there are easier ways of earning a living. No one with children should do it.' Mrs Stallwood nods: 'It's a total way of life.'

Because theme pubs tend to be ephemeral attractions, breweries try to ensure that at least a third of the pubs they control are 'traditional'. Orwell's idea of a traditional pub was 'grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces . . . it's always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano . . .'

But Mr Stallwood is taking no chances. 'I've a pool table and a juke box, just in case we've a crowd in who want that sort of thing': a mild compromise with urban bars offering 'big-screen entertainment', live gigs, electronic games, fruit machines, and the cut-price war that has accompanied over-production and under-consumption.

Four miles to the east, in the hamlet of Hailey, Brian Penney, landlord of The King's Head, refuses to compromise. 'We've no space invaders or canned music of any kind,' he says. 'We have a dartboard that's used twice a year by the local Women's Institute.' He points across to a field of ripe corn. 'But look, we have our own crop circles.'

Mr Penney claims his 400-year- old establishment is popular with young people such as ramblers who abhor synthetic distractions. Yet he too has had to find a theme, festooning his ceiling with ancient shotguns, pitchforks, shovels and other 'country bygones', as he calls them. 'I suppose some of us are becoming museums,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)