Last orders at the country pub

The village pub used to be as vital to rural life as the shop and church. Not any more.

Every Saturday, a group of old-age pensioners gathers for a chat and a few drinks at the Old Inn in Hawkchurch, Devon. But they're not just here for the beer. The "Saturday Club", as they're dubbed by landlord Alan Pym, may be the only thing standing between him and last orders.

"The village has already seen the pub shut twice before for short periods," he says. "We're lucky in that many villagers are now very supportive, rallying round to keep us open by coming in every week without fail."

Mr Pym is fighting what may be a losing battle. Gone are the people used to come in for cigarettes and have a pint at the same time, and even a pint of the best draught can't compete with four-packs on offer at the supermarket or a car full of cheap imports from France.

As a result he is seriously considering closing from Monday to Thursday during lunchtimes in winter. "What with lighting and refrigeration for the beer, it costs me pounds 12 a session just to open the doors - I may only take pounds 20 throughout the whole lunchtime."

Frances Vincent, landlady of the Bottle Inn in neighbouring Marshwood, has branched into food and bed and breakfast in an attempt to keep afloat. "Trade has gone down a lot because of all this drink-driving stuff. The police have already collared two of my best customers. The skittles team used to buy eight rounds, now it's only a couple - and even then the driver will be drinking Coke.

"In winter I might not see anyone at lunchtime; I end up sitting around and playing cards. The village is full of outsiders who don't support me, lots of retired people. My best customers are from the real farming community, good old Dorset people who come in time and time again. But there's a lot less of them around nowadays."

Other west country villages tell a similar story. Two pubs gone in Uplyme, three in Netherbury, two in Thorncombe, one in Whitchurch Canonicorum, one in Broadwindsor... The growing list of casualties bears testament to the changing nature of rural life. The village pub used to be as vital to rural communities as the shop, church or school, but it is now in danger of extinction.

"There are far fewer traditional country pubs now," laments Tim Hampson of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA). "There are fewer young people about, and most people don't work in villages any more and so aren't around to drink at lunchtime. Many pubs simply can't survive on weekend trade alone."

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), the larger breweries are now closing down tied pubs that are turning over less than 200-250 barrels a year. "It simply becomes uneconomic to run them and so they sell them off for housing," says research manager Iain Loe.

West country pubs, though struggling, may be comparatively better off than others. The worst hit areas, says Mr Loe, are East Anglia, mid-Wales and Lincolnshire - rural pockets where the impact of depopulation and changing lifestyles is not offset by seasonal tourist trade.

"Looking at the figures for some country pubs, it's amazing how they do survive," says Mr Loe. "Some have an income of only pounds 6,000 a year, and many are owned by pub chains that are basically property companies looking for a return on their investment. They keep pushing up the rents to levels that can't be sustained by the turnover. There's no way many village pubs can make the figures work."

Breweries are facing some painful decisions about which of their tied pubs will go. Palmer, based in Bridport, Dorset, owns 61 across the south west. It recently closed down two in Uplyme, Devon: the New Inn because there was no room for expansion, and the Black Dog because the overheads were too high.

"We're now very careful in selecting which pubs to invest in and we're looking for a reasonable rate of return," says sales director Tim Woodrow. "Gone are the days when you could simply open the pub door and make a living. People love to move to the country and tell everyone they're living in a pretty village with a pub and shop, but they tend not to use either. It really is a case of use it or lose it."

The recent government rural white paper offers no more than a faint glimmer of hope. While proposals to provide relief on business rates for many village shops have popular support, there's hardly a mention of the village pub. Councils may be allowed to provide discretionary relief to landlords, but the BLRA and Camra believe few would benefit.

Meanwhile, back at the Old Inn in Hawkchurch, Mr Pym has reason to feel more relieved than despondent about England's defeat on Wednesday. "The football wasn't doing me any good at all," he says. "It may be great for town pubs, but not for us. I tried bringing in Sky once, but no one was interested. Here everyone stays at home to watch the match."

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