Published on September 3rd, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
The issue with pubs
We love our pubs and, as with all endangered species, we can’t bear to live without them. Luckily there are people who are gradually turning the tide by – in their own way – giving customers what they want. Alastair Gilmour (AG) takes his seat at the bar
The headlines couldn’t be more stark. “Pubs closing down at a rate of one every 12 hours.” “Pubs closing at a rate of 18 a week as people stay at home.” “Pub closures are making us all poorer.” “More than 25% of UK pubs have closed since 2001.”
These figures send out a clear message – we must do more to save the unique entity that is The Great British Pub. Pub closures across the UK are a major concern with more than 3,000 shutting their doors for the last time in the last three years. That’s three a day, according to Long Live The Local, a campaign backed by a collective of pubs, brewers and industry bodies who form Britain’s Beer Alliance.
The reasons for pubs heading for decline are many and varied – shifting populations, economic and social trends, industrial and agricultural challenges, health warnings, absentee landlords, property valuations, business rates, sheer bad management. Feel free to do your own permutations.
On the following pages we’re looking at the people with the nous to get on with the job and make the pub what it ought to be; a vibrant social centre brimming with positivity and crammed with creativity.
It’s about every age group
More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap. His ideas for how a pub should look, how it should welcome guests, and how it should function might appear offbeat to some, but it’s safe to say brewing giant Heineken wouldn’t be investing the thick end of a million in the transformation of The Punch Bowl Hotel in Jesmond, Newcastle, if they had any doubts about his approach. He also operates the Brandling Villa in South Gosforth, Newcastle, with what some might term an out-of kilter approach.
“The Punch Bowl is like those Spanish and Italian bars where young and old gather happily,” says Dave. “The Brandling Villa grew organically and we’ve learnt from that.”
He calls The Punch Bowl “a Saturday afternoon bar” and without analysing the phrase, we kind of get it. It’s busy yet relaxing with Friday’s weekend buzz still in our veins with Sunday still to come before Monday and work.
Commanding what old-scholars would call the bar is assistant manager Roy Varty – brown coated and ready for service, whether it’s one of seven cask ales or a glass of vermouth. He shares the Carr vision of customer service then runs with it.
“The brown coat is a symbol of the northern boozer; it’s a glass-collector’s coat,” says Roy. “People think it’s a Ronnie Barker Open All Hours coat but it’s more of a Monty Python Dead Parrot one. I was going to wear a white jacket like those Italian waiters, but sometimes they can look wrong and cheap. This works.”
Roy has worked in cocktail bars in Newcastle city centre such as Bierex and DatBar for the past 15 years and though will occasionally continue to show off that skill, he is much more impressed with the keeping and serving of beer. Anyway he reckons he doesn’t want to serve any drink that takes longer than two pulls of a pint.
It’s what the customer deserves, fast and friendly service with a dash of knowhow. The vermouth bar is also his domain (Vermouth & Patter, says the sign) and there’s very little anybody can tell him about the continental aromatic fortified wine.
He says: “You need to appeal to every age group. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by not doing cocktails and this is a proper boozer, not a craft beer bar one with really good cask ale.
“The place has gone mental since we opened in late July. We sold 150 litres of vermouth on the first weekend which was incredible – any other bar I’ve worked in you’d sell about two bottles a week.
“Pubs are so important to people; it’s where memories are made. I’ve got friends who met, got married and had kids from pubs. You never know who you’re going to serve and it’s memories you’re making for people. Having two drinks can mean an hour’s wage to someone, so it’s very important that we serve them properly.
“We had a brother and sister come in and they said ‘we were born here’. We’ve got photographs of them on the stairs with their family. They were almost in tears.”
So, what else makes The Punch Bowl that little bit different? A small train set loops above head height, the 60-seater cinema and live performance room upstairs is called Bobicks – named after a Russian space dog that ran away instead. Two record players play vinyl LPs that people of certain musical tastes prefer to digital recordings. At any time it could be Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Van Morrison, Etta James or Blind Willie McTell. Rows of books that range through Love Your Leftovers, Lonely Planet travel guides, novels, and well-thumbed copies of Soviet Bus Stops Volumes 1 and 2. One end of a bookshelf is supported by a small white bust. Dymo-taped to it is the quote: “I love owt like that me. Franz Kafka.”
It’s the sort of pub where little things are going on all the time to keep the interest. The beer is great, the food as terrific, and Roy Varty will make you feel important.