Slump casts cloud over the Costa: As the British stay away, pubs suffer pain in Spain. Michael Durham reports Michael Durham finds Fuengirola has more nostalgia than British visitors

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The Independent Online
THERE is a corner of a foreign field - in a shopping precinct, actually, close to a beach in southern Spain - that will not, after all, be forever England.

It is a bar called the Yorkshire Lad, one of hundreds of English pubs in the resort of Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol.

Under the fake wooden beams, Kevin Pyott, 34, the landlord, looks out past pumps that dispense Stone's Best Bitter and Scrumpy Jack Cider, over the packets of cheese-and-onion crisps, the beer mats and brewery ash trays, to a Guinness ad on the opposite wall. But what he can't see are any customers.

The British are not going to southern Spain any more and Mr Pyott, like scores of others, is in danger of going broke. He is a publican whose customers have decided to stay home, 1,400 miles away; or perhaps they have forsaken their costa local for Florida, Turkey or The Gambia.

'Business is bad. I'd say we are doing a quarter of the trade we did a couple of years ago,' said Mr Pyott, opening the Yorkshire Lad on Friday morning for another day of wiping down the bar and polishing the ashtrays. 'The trouble is, there are still as many British pubs as ever in Fuengirola - some say 3,000 - but a lot fewer British people to go round.'

To say there are a lot of British bars in Fuengirola is a very English understatement. It is like saying there is plenty of paella in Seville or a lot of bulls in Pamplona. Not that you would know that either was in the same country.

The resort, half-way between Marbella and Malaga, is the apotheosis of the English pub torn up by the foundations and transplanted, beer-glass and barrel, to a warm climate. Fuengirola is the British pub abroad - the saloon bar, frothy beer, darts, crisps and peanuts. Or, it was.

There are more 'English' pubs per square mile in Fuengirola than in the City of London, according to one holiday guide. They line every street, square, courtyard and alleyway, with aggressively English names like the British Bulldog, the London Pub and Big Ben's Bar.

Some are more British than the real thing: so much so that only an English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish tourist could seriously be expected to look in, hungry for home, a glass of beer with a head on it and perhaps a plate of cottage pie, beans and chips.

Mr Pyott, a former Rotherham schoolteacher, looked at his menu of English breakfast and Sunday roast. 'Ninety-eight per cent of my customers are British,' he said. 'People on holiday like English food and drink. They want to feel at home. Some come in and say, 'Thank God, here's someone who speaks English'. Don't ask me why. They might as well stay at home.'

So what happens when that is exactly what they do? Round the corner in the Calle Lamo de Espinosa, Howard Evans, another expatriate Yorkshireman, has run the Paradise Bar for eight years. In all that time he has not learned a great deal of Spanish since most of his customers are English.

He used to play professional rugby league for Halifax. Now he plays for time in the hope that the crowds will come back. Not counting the Independent on Sunday, there were two other customers in for lunch on Friday.

Mr Evans, 39, viewed his empty pub, its walls decorated with English tribal insignia - rugby league team photos, a picture of Leeds football club, signed publicity stills of Queen ('Brian May is from my part of the world') and a map of Yorkshire. 'Two or three years ago you couldn't get a seat in this street at eight o'clock at night,' he said. 'People were queuing up to get in. Now we're lucky to get 10 or 12 customers. Yesterday evening we had six.

'Last month I took pounds 2,000 less than I did in June a year ago. It's not just that there are fewer Brits abroad. They are spending less. In the past the British used to come out with pounds 500 and they weren't happy until they'd spent the lot. Now they ask the price of a drink. They sit on the balcony in their hotel for a couple of hours before they come out to play.

'Personally, I think the Costa del Sol will come bouncing back when the recession is over. But some bar owners are going to have an awful time this year. Half the bars are for sale.'

In the pub next door was a small Scotsman with a very long face. Dave Mann, a 51-year old Glaswegian, has run the Wee Mann's Bar for seven years ('I've always been called the Wee Mann because I'm short.') The bar is up for sale. At present there are no takers.

The place is as uncompromisingly Scottish as its next-door neighbour is Yorkshire. There are flags of St Andrew on the front, tartan trimmings inside, prints of Glasgow on the walls.

Haggis is brought in from Gibraltar for special occasions like Burns Night. A wall next to the toilets is covered in fading snapshots showing the Wee Mann's Bar full of happy smiling faces. 'At one time, we used to take them down and put new ones up. We don't do that any more,' lamented Mr Mann.

Eric Ferriman, 62, a former policeman who runs an estate agency in Fuengirola, is the man charged with trying to sell the Wee Man's Bar, just one of dozens of English pubs on the books at Las Palmeras Real Estate.

'It's a big crisis for English bar owners,' he said. 'People who were coming down for their holidays two or three times a year only come out once, or not at all.'

Fuengirola, as judged on a crawl of the British pubs, resembles a ghost town. But the resort is by no means empty. As the British have deserted southern Spain for other watering holes, so the Dutch, the Italians and the Germans have begun to move in.

The Spaniards themselves have taken advantage of the rock- bottom prices to buy holiday homes in their own back yard. At night, most Spanish bars are busy, while the English pub next door can look like a housewarming party on the Marie Celeste.

Even so, hopeful British expats are still opening up. John Moore, an ex-Rhodesian Army officer, and Miles Lovering, once a London bus driver, opened the doors of the Mersey Bar four weeks ago. Its location, in a backstreet opposite the theatre (closed for the summer) was not promising. When the Independent on Sunday called, the owners were playing scrabble and a solitary Spaniard stood sipping beer.

'Do have a drink. We don't see a lot of customers in here,' said Mr Moore enthusiastically. 'But we're not unduly worried. It takes time to build up a business. We're just counting on the tourists coming back.'

And a few - a happy few - English pubs insist they are doing as well as ever. They are the ones with the pool tables, jukeboxes, videos, satellite TV and live entertainment. On the newly competitive Costa, they are creaming off the customers.

At the Happy Wanderers' Pub, down an alleyway off the esplanade, 40 English tourists in family groups were giving a rousing reception to an Elvis lookalike until midnight. At the Posers' Bar in Calla Moncayo, BBC television's satellite cricket coverage was pulling the customers in. 'We're doing all right,' said Mark O'Moore, 32, from Croydon, who runs the bar with his parents.

And at the London Pub, the most garishly prominent English bar on a crossroads at the centre of the town, you could be forgiven for imagining that the British had never retreated from their invasion of the Costa del Sol.

'No, we're not really worried,' said Tony, the owner for 10 years. At two o'clock in the morning, every seat in the bar was taken, the music was turned up high and the disco was in full swing. But just up the seafront, the Yorkshire Lad was firmly locked and Kevin Pyott had already gone to bed.

(Photograph omitted)