When I first moved to London to work I came with little more than a single suitcase, which contained all life’s essential items including a copy of Nicholson’s London Pub Guide (circa 1985). Outside of working hours this book became my bible for exploring the capital city. I eagerly ticked off the many pubs within its covers and since those days I’ve been able to navigate my way around the sprawling metropolis pub by pub.
At that stage I drank plenty of mass-produced lager because my interest was more about pubs than it was about beer. I still largely maintain this view today – give me a very average beer in a great pub and I will value this so much more than drinking the world’s best beers in a bland pub or at home. Obviously I want both but you can’t always get what you want.
The pub has always been a vital part of my life and so it is no surprise the numerous closures that have taken place across the country over the past couple of decades has been massively disappointing. Every boarded-up pub that I pass I find deeply saddening. When the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) regularly reports the levels of pub closures – they’ve been as high as almost 30 a month – I take a moment to consider those communities that have lost a valuable asset.
It is good these closures command column inches but I find the situation with pubs is not quite as bad as the glass-half-empty scenario that is frequently painted and I’d be inclined to veer towards believing we are entering glass-half-full territory. The reason for my bullish stance is down to the fact there are so many examples of new pubs being opened. Probably the best example is JD Wetherspoon – I’ve long been a big fan of the excellent work the company has done with bringing dilapidated municipal buildings on many high streets back to life as pubs.
It is some time since it was interested in running pubs in existing buildings. Part of this is down to Wetherpoon’s desire to open significant-sized venues – shall we call them “beerodromes” – with one of its recent openings the Mossy Well in north London spanning almost 10,000 square feet compared with nearer 2,000 to 3,000 square feet for the more traditional scale pubs it has recently been offloading. When you net out the openings and closings at Wetherspoon then I reckon it would be in positive territory in terms of new square footage.
It is also at this larger-scale end of things Marston’s continues with its strategy of food-led new-build pubs. Since a rights issue raised £165m in 2009 its objective has been to deliver 60 new pubs each year. Right now it has about 100 in the pipeline. Each site is selected on the basis of having no nearby competition and is located in towns where there are ideally 20,000 people as well as having decent traffic flows because these are pubs that many people will drive to.
It’s not just at the big end and with new-builds where the action is because there is much to be excited about at the other end of the spectrum. Micro-pubs are springing up all over the country and are sometimes located in small towns that could no longer support a traditional-sized pub. However, a mini version that’s rammed if it has a mere 20 customers is a different proposition. Their appearance is therefore welcomed by local communities.
As with Wetherspoon the micro-pubs are formed from the conversions of other real estate – in micro-pubs’ case it is former retail premises that have been forced to close. It is just such a strategy that is now being employed by Sussex-based brewer Dark Star. Its desire to operate free-of-tie has made it tough to take on existing pubs in its preferred locations so it has instead gone down the route of converting a former shoe shop in Horsham, a cocktail bar in Haywards Heath, and it is employing the same strategy as it looks for its next site in Crawley, West Sussex.
Further evidence of this trend for new pubs was found on a recent visit I made to see my family in Doncaster. On the station’s platform 3B I spotted work being undertaken on the long since closed Buffet Rooms that will see it open as the Draughtsman’s Ale House. In a delightful resurrection of this compact room, with superb original glazed tiling, the pub will be a tremendous addition to the station and will certainly warrant a visit from me the next time I head up north. This is hard evidence that the emergence of new pubs is very much a national phenomenon and suggests that the pub industry is far from just being a story of closures.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends