The last-chance saloon: Can anyone save the great British boozer?

Fruit machines that never pay out, '9 to 5' on the jukebox, photos of the Queen Mum – you know when you're in a proper pub. Here (with the help of some bar-room veterans), Kate Burt explains why she is campaigning to save this cornerstone of British culture from extinction
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Formidable landladies, sticky carpets, dodgy jukeboxes, personalised tankards hanging behind the bar above an archaically sexist "topless woman" peanut dispenser – just some of the well-worn attributes one could once safely associate with the traditional British boozer. But not any more – because the old-fashioned pub is well on its way to extinction.

They've been slowly vanishing for years – and now, according to a survey by Camra – the Campaign for Real Ale – as many as 57 are closing down each month for demolition or conversion into shops, cafés, restaurants or flats, and those left behind are changing beyond recognition. They're becoming places with expensive drinks and loud music, characterless theme bars and swish gastropubs.

Of the rare authentic boozers that remain untouched, trade is typically far from brisk, as younger drinkers head for more happening spots. A lucky few (depending on your perspective), particularly in London, are cashing in after being adopted by City hipsters attracted to the novelty value and postmodern irony of drinking in shabby dives.

Before it burnt down in February, The Hawley Arms in Camden was never out of the gossip pages after Amy Winehouse and hordes of tight-jeaned musos began hanging out there, while another old-man pub, The Griffin in Shoreditch, boasts more Hoxtonites than gentlemen of a certain age sipping half a mild. The George Tavern, also in east London, has celebrity fans including Kate Moss and Justin Timberlake campaigning to save it from being ruined by developers.

But despite this smattering of high-profile popularity, it is unlikely that boozers will survive rampant modernisation, gentrification and the "new homes"-shaped glint in developers' eyes.

It is not just rose-tinted nostalgia to object to this shift: there are also significant social and cultural ramifications attached to the disappearance of the everyday, down-at-heel corner pub. These are the establishments upon which EastEnders and Coronation Street modelled the Queen Vic and Rovers Return respectively – and there is a reason for that. The grimly authentic old boozer is a vital plot device in British soaps because it brings the demographically sprawling characters together. Where else – apart from, possibly, the Post Office queue – do different ages, classes and cultures combine on equal footing and communicate, sharing a story, gripe or joke?

Old-fashioned pubs are also the type of places one often leaves with a memorable story. It was in a shabby but comfortable corner-pub – complete with a tinsel-draped photographic diptych of the landlady's Alsatians behind the bar – that I was lucky enough to meet the Dancing Raconteur, an immaculately turned-out old black guy in a trilby who revealed his rather salacious life story via the medium of song and dance.

Another time, a gloomy conversation in a grimy urban establishment was brightened immeasurably by an elderly Irish couple, drunk as skunks, waltzing enthusiastically to the strains of Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" coming from the lurid jukebox. You simply don't get that sort of thing in your average gastropub.

Taking away the old-fashioned boozer encourages social polarisation and the sort of fear that is just a small step away from a whole host of horrible "isms". Where, too, will all the lonely old guys who have outlived their wives go for a quiet spot of companionship?

All these reasons and more are why I started "Save the Boozer", an online celebration of old-style pubs to remind people to support and cherish their unglamorous local while they still can. Because when it does disappear, with it will go many of the colourful characters, such as those profiled on the following pages, who make these places special.

The fearsome landlady: Kath Duffy runs The Newcastle Packet

'The first pub round here closed two to three years ago, when the landlady went bankrupt. That was just the beginning. I've been in my pub for 26 years and being on the seafront, there were the fishermen. But now – well, I look out of the window and I can only see a couple of little boats.

Why are pubs closing down? Because of the supermarkets: as a tenant, I have to buy my beer from the brewery but in the supermarket it's nearly three times cheaper. You can get two cases for £16 while I'm paying around £40.

It's not easy for us; all we're doing now is living. The smoking ban was another nail in the coffin.

I think we will lose the traditional pub. Instead it'll all be wine bars and "superpubs" with massive screens selling cheap beer because they're not tied to a brewery. They can afford to sell at £1.50 a pint – how can you compete with that? On top of that, where people used to come out at eight o'clock at night, they now come at 10pm as everything is open so late. We have a licence until 1am – but there's a big bar in town open until 3am and a casino with a bar open until 6am.

We do what we can, though. We have live music, a piano for a proper sing-song. I don't stand for any trouble in the pub either. We had a problem with gangs going to the joke shop round the corner, buying stinkbombs, and throwing them in the pub. We lost trade immediately. So I went around to the joke shop, bought some stinkbombs and stamped on them right there. "You stole my trade," I said, "now I'm going to steal yours." Things are already hard, but when you get a good day and something like that happens, it's ruined.'

The Newcastle Packet, Sandside, Scarborough, North Yorkshire, tel: 01723 373 080

The Regulars: David Rishworth and Hedley Richardson have been drinking in The Sailor for over 20 years

Hedley Richardson: 'My life would completely change if The Sailor closed. I'm at the pub seven nights a week; it becomes part of who you are. As the wife doesn't drink, she doesn't come — fortunately!

I use the pub as a social meeting point; it's a place where you can have a chat — tear the world apart then put it back together — and also talk about what's good for the village, like getting a new scout hut.

I wouldn't be comfortable in a gastropub surrounded by young people. Although The Sailor does serve food, it has a separate eating area. The bar is still recognisable as an area for guys who need to have a drink and a chat or just a bit of peace.

I've come to know people down here over 20 years; I know their business, what they do, what they don't do, what makes them tick. I know some of them better than I know the wife.'

David Rishworth: 'It's not about drinking for drinking's sake – it's the company. When you've been working all day at home on your own – as I do – and you live alone, which I have done since I got divorced, you just want to go somewhere you can have a chat about life.

Addingham has become much more of a commuter village since people stopped working in local industries, so fewer people have time to go to the pub. Or they might go for a meal, and just eat and go home.

The smoking ban has made a difference. I know a few people who no longer come to The Sailor very often because they smoke. They'd rather stay in with a can on the sofa or a glass of wine. They say it's not worth it – but you go for the camaraderie, don't you?'

The Sailor, Main Street, Addingham, near Ilkley, West Yorkshire, tel: 01943 830 216

The Pub Quiz Caller: Edwin 'Eddie' Todd has run quizzes at The Wenlock Arms for 13 years

'I got into pub quizzes by playing electronic versions. I was determined to beat them – I had all the books at home: encyclopedias, the Guinness World Book of Hit Singles [sic], an atlas. I'd carry a Dictaphone around and record questions too, so I could look up answers I hadn't got. I was obsessed. So this is my dream job.

I'm known as the Fat Controller; when I'm doing a quiz, the people in the pub look at me like I'm a god. But it's important to make them feel like I'm one of them.

I could do this for a big company and earn thousands but I'd rather do it in the pub – I like seeing faces I know.

The Wenlock is a typical backstreet local. You don't find many of them about any more. Money's come in and they've improved the areas – which is good, but they've got rid of the culture, the locals who've lived there all their lives.

We get a good mix of new people too – there's an older clientele, studenty types, the young office ladettes and the odd higher-echelon business person. People love the quiz as it's about participating. There's lots of repartee; I make quips to get people laughing. My favourite questions are silly things: "When a man goes to bed what does it take him seven minutes to do?" (Fall asleep.)

The Wenlock is very seedy, very rundown – especially the toilets – but that is its charm. When people who've moved away return, they walk in and it's always the same. They say: "Thank God it's still here!"

The Wenlock Arms, 26 Wenlock Road, London N1, tel: 020 7608 3406,

The Darts Team: Becky Wilson, team captain, co-runs the Hit or Miss

'Is a ladies' team unusual? Well, there are about eight pubs locally with ladies' teams, whereas the men have about 25. Our team came about after another pub in the area closed down and we inherited theirs.

Lots of pubs near us are closing because of the tax on beer. People can't afford to go out any more, and pubs can't afford to stay open.

Darts is very much a game that goes with traditional pubs and if traditional pubs vanish, pub games will go too. Which would be a shame for the community: local people come out to watch us and they really cheer and clap – they're very supportive. People like that their local is at the top of the league. There's always a bit of a spread after the game for everyone too.

A lot of the people who come along are single or widowed and they come to meet their friends. It might be cheaper to stay in, but you don't get company in your front room with a tin in your hand, do you? My girls are also very competitive. They like to win. That's at the heart of it.

We're fourth from top at the moment, but we came second last year and there's only four points between each position. We came home with 14 trophies in the first season.

What do the men's teams think of us? Some think it's a novelty – one or two insist on calling it "tarts' darts", but they were quite shocked when one of my ladies had the biggest check-out and beat all of the men going. That shut them up.'

The Hit or Miss, Foundry Road, Stamford, Lincolnshire, tel: 01780 762 119,

The Entertainers: 'The Two Petes' are the house band at The Montague Arms

Peter London [singer and keyboards]: 'I started playing here in 1970. When I first used to come down here I could see better. There were striptease artists – I miss being able to see them.'

Peter Hoyle [drummer and owner of the pub]: 'I've been the proprietor for 40 years. My brother-in-law and sister run it now. It's changed a lot over the years. In 1978 we refurbished and now there are moose heads on the walls, a zebra head, skeletons, a penny farthing...With the entertainment, that got the coach parties in. We also used to have comedy – Jim Davidson and Mike Reid began their careers here.'

PL: 'A few years ago Jim came back for a drink, saw we had two coaches in and asked if he could do some jokes. So he got up – and didn't get one laugh. He couldn't understand why. So I told him: "They're Swedish." Ha ha ha... Serves him right for leaving it so long.'

PH: 'But the band has been the mainstay throughout.'

PL: 'We go for stuff people know: the Stones, Beatles, some Ray Charles. We've also dabbled with Oasis, a bit of Ronan Keating. You’ve got to give people what they want. One song that has always gone down well is "Whiter Shade of Pale".'

PH: 'If we weren't here, this pub wouldn't survive. It's in a bad spot, on a busy road. It'd be a shame to see it go. I've made lots of friends here.'

PL: ‘You can't buy atmosphere. In modern pubs, you don't feel welcome. Customers here know they're going to get called "love" when they come in. It's just like home.'

The Montague Arms, 289 Queens Road, London SE15, tel: 020 7639 4923