- This is the fifth instalment of The Future Of... a new weekly longread series which seeks to examine in depth what the next 5-10 years holds in a variety of different areas. Come back next Thursday at 8am for the next chapter.
Five centuries, 21 kings and queens, 25 prime ministers, two lord protectors, a reformation, a few dozen wars (two World, one Civil, all uncivil), the tail-end of the Black Death, the wind-up of feudalism, 21 solar eclipses, the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of the British Empire, the Spanish flu, foot and mouth, a Little Ice Age, a national population rise of around 3330 per cent, every kind of weather imaginable, and, as the chant goes, one World Cup.
The Duke of Cumberland Arms, a pub overlooking the South Downs in West Sussex, has seen a lot since it opened in 1525. “And you know what?” declares its current landlord, Simon Goodman, “we never closed.” He shakes his head. Until, of course, Friday March 20th 2020. “Bloody coronavirus, eh?”
On that night, as the last orders bell tolled, the drip trays were emptied and the few remaining patrons trickled out, some of the bar staff wept. Goodman, who has run ‘the Duke’ (as it is known to regulars) for 12 years, only had confirmation the government were ordering the closure of pubs at 2.30pm that afternoon. “It was surreal. We just didn’t know what we were going to do. How we’d survive, how long the lockdown would last… What even was the future of pubs?”
It is a good question. Last weekend images of heaving beer gardens and 6am downed-in-one pints at Wetherspoons were balm for an industry that had been in a straitjacket for 14 weeks during lockdown. But nobody in the trade is under the illusion that Britons can simply drink their pubs back to ruddy health, no matter how hard we try.
The hangover from coronavirus will be seething and last far longer than a day. At the moment, while social distancing applies, many landlords will struggle to make a dent on the losses they’ve incurred from being shut since early spring. Rising costs – be it staff, extra cleaning or the installation of protective measures – will be up and footfall will be down. That’s in the establishments that are able to reopen at all. Despite the green light, an estimated third of pubs and bars did not open on July 4.
The Duke did, but it is in a better position than most in every sense. Tucked on the kink of a narrow lane in the hamlet of Henley 20 minutes from Haslemere, it is sickeningly picturesque. The sloped garden, from which you can see for miles across the Downs, covers more than five acres, is filled with flowers (grown and tended to by the pub’s long-term gardener, a man named Hedge, whose father had the position before him) and has a trout stream running through it.
I grew up 40 minutes from here, and spent scores of nights cramming into a designated driver’s Fiat Punto before touring the Haslemere pubs, pushing my brother’s ID to the limit, and drinking enough Old Rosie to put me off cider for life. I never knew The Duke existed. Like many of the best country inns, you wouldn’t unless you were looking for it.
The building is Grade-II listed. The locals are wealthy and thirsty. The food, cooked by Goodman, is award-winning and enough to draw visitors from all over and approving critics from London. Even on the Thursday before reopening when the team were installing one-way systems, plonking hand sanitiser on tables and removing knick-knacks from the walls. Expect those to disappear permanently, post-Covid: deep cleaning rooms stuffed with decades-worth of antiquities is simply not worth the hassle. It is like visiting the set of a particularly twee romantic comedy.
“I’m very glad I don’t own a boozer in the centre of London right now,” Goodman says. It’s overcast and threatening rain, but he has his Ray Bans on, tattoos out, an infectious grin and his phone buzzes incessantly on the table. Perhaps pretending it’s always sunny is essential for the trade. Good for the soul, anyway.
Goodman, 40, lives upstairs with his partner Aimee and turns a good profit. He is often glad he doesn’t own a boozer in the centre of London. But it is a common sentiment among landlords of rural pubs that have managed to limp through lockdown. If outdoor space and reliable, devoted regulars is what’s needed, country pubs may well have the upper hand in the new era.
Goodman knows it. “You look at what we’ve got here,” he says, wafting a regal hand around the garden, “the space, the set-up, the ability to just put some new steps in or have a marquee, or host small weddings and functions, and you think: if we can’t make a success of the future, well, no pub will.”
Depending on who you talk to, the broad outlook for country pubs in England is either totally unknowable, potentially fairly rosy, or definitely catastrophic. It has ever been thus. A book called ‘The Death of the English Pub’ was published 47 years ago, and the industry’s imminent demise has routinely been declared ever since. ‘Doomsayer’ has become a stereotype for veteran landlords and drinkers.
They have had very good reason to grumble over the years, but like so many British people whose entire belief system can be characterised by “Things were better before, even if they weren’t”, their views are loud, emotive, and easily amplified.
“The doomsayers definitely exist, but you actually find an awful lot of optimism in pubs,” says Paul Newby (Favourite pub: The Bulls Head, Barston, Solihull; Pint: Mad Goose), an industry veteran with 40 years experience in the trade. Most recently he was the inaugural Adjudicator of the Pubs Code, which manages the relationship between pub companies and their tenants. He now mainly visits pubs with his cycling mates, and what he doesn't know about the trade you could scratch on the back of a bar mat.
“There are problems, but the bad and shock news stories get more traction – so do very effective campaigners. In terms of closures, though, other sectors involved in rural communities have been hit just as hard or harder over the years. Local shops, post offices. Often it’s only the pub and the church that are left.”
The statistics around pub closures, historically so depressing that the given unit is “per week”, are muddied by the pandemic. It will be some time before we know how many survived, especially if there is a deep recession, but there was good news before lockdown. After a decade of decline when around 6,000 pubs dried up for good – a rate that, at its peak, would have made pubs extinct by 2040 – the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed a net gain of 320 pubs in the year to March 2019. According to real estate advisor Altus Group, pub closures even “stabilised” in the first half of 2020 compared to the previous year.
We now have just over 40,000 in England and Wales, from bougie rural gastro-inns to high-street All Bar Ones and sticky-carpet alleyway boozers. There is no strict definition, but the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has suggested that a “pub” is open to the public without membership, serve draft beer or cider, have an indoor area where people can drink without needing to order food, and serve drinks at a bar. Other than that, anything goes.
The British pub’s origins can be traced back to the tabernae Romans built along their roads to sell wine to legionary troops after invading in 43AD. Ale was the British tipple, though, and so the first of many evolutions occurred as they became beer-focused. As Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings all occupied various patches of the British Isles, change swept through the land but taverns, alehouses and inns weren't lost, they just did what they have always done and adapted.
Newby, whose daughter is a medieval literature scholar, is quick to add that Geoffrey Chaucer refers to “the Tabard” inn (it burned down in the Great Fire of London, but could have been found just off Borough High Street in Southwark, London) in his Canterbury Tales.
“There are pubs still around from that era, but in a way, those examples are outliers. Most of the pubs we know were built in less than a 200-year window, between the late 18th and early 20th century, when there was a great growth in cities, with factories and industrialisation, right through to the Second World War,” he says.
By 1905 there were 99,000 pubs across the country; 30 years later that number was 77,500. “But times move on, and it was the same in rural areas – there’s far fewer farm hands toiling in the fields and desperate for the pub at the end of the day or week now.” Like all services, then, new pubs and bars will only spring up where new workplaces, residential areas and footfall can be found. Unfortunately for old pubs, unless they find a particularly enterprising owner, the opposite is true as well.
“It reminds me of when I was a young property student 40 years ago, the first thing we were taught was that the three most important characteristics of a property are location, location, location. So the decline in pub numbers is often part of a much larger structural change, because pubs are no longer in the right place. In some ways it can be a natural evolution,” Newby says.
But we love pubs. We really, really love them. During lockdown, videos would emerge every few days that played on the British yearning for our locals to reopen. One TikTok showed a young lad envisioning his first night back in the pub, leading a slowly-building rendition of Savage Garden’s underrated 1997 classic 'Truly Madly Deeply'.
As the crowd get more and more involved, different, instantly identifiable pub characters – the people in the smoking area, the old bloke on his own, the begrudgingly cheerful bar staff, the drunks in the gents’ talking to their reflection in the mirror – appear and join together.
It’s a joke, but it bottled part of the reason pubs are so cherished, even if all they offer is average beer and dry roasted peanuts. The spontaneity, the communal gathering of strangers, the egalitarian nature, the potential for an entire room to break out in a word-perfect chorus of a 1990s Australian love song…
It isn’t easily described in words. When I asked the half a dozen people I interviewed for this article why a good pub is quite so appealing, most left a few seconds of silence to simply stew in the idea, as if instructed to reminisce about their first love. Then they'd say something like, “Well, they’re just… special, aren’t they?”
George Orwell had a good go, in his 1943 ode to his fictional, perfect pub Moon Under Water. But even he left some vagueness. “If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house,” he wrote, “the thing that most appeals to me […] is what people call its ‘atmosphere.’” Like atmosphere in the scientific sense, not everybody can explain it, but they can certainly feel it.
And things happen in them. The Gunpowder Plot, the first public railway, The Beatles and the song Rule Britannia were all created (or at least nudged into being) in pubs. Francis Crick and James Watson announced they’d discovered the structure of DNA in a pub. The Mayflower docked at a pub before setting off for the New World.
So did smaller, but no less significant, events. First kisses, last kisses, christenings, wakes, brawls, deeply pointless conversations, nail-bitingly dramatic quizzes, decades-long local passive aggressions, and a lot of growing up.
When “British culture” is mentioned, it’s usually Shakespeare, rock n’ roll, red buses or sarcasm that’s implied. But there is as much that’s quintessentially British in any chockfull pub on a Saturday night – where you could find a bookish septuagenarian sitting quietly with the crossword and half a Guinness sharing a table with a group of 17 year-olds on fake IDs, keeping the doctor away by getting rounds of Apple Sourz shots with Strongbow chasers – as in anything else.
And for the most part we go there responsibly. The stereotype of the UK as a boozy, bingeing society isn’t entirely without foundation. We tend not to trouble the top 20 list of heaviest-drinking nations, but you would be hard-pressed to find a messier sight than a British pub on the last Friday before Christmas anywhere in Europe. They’re also largely safe, welcoming buildings.
They have their own language and customs, which we learn from observation and imitation. As a child, dining with my family, I knew I’d be in with a good shout of getting a lollipop from Bernie and Sharon, the then landlords of the Dorchester Arms in Hook, Hampshire, if I went to the bar and made some vaguely cute comments about how delicious the sausages, chips and beans were that night. I’d probably seen my father, a lifelong pub votary, use a similar trick to get an extra half for the road.
Later, I’d hear my dad say things like, “This won't touch the sides” (I am going to drink this one in two, tops), “Shall we have the one we came for?” (Regardless of how many we’ve had and when we said we’d be back, we’re having one final pint), “Your good health” (Cheers) and “Anon” (See you next time) – all phrases I don’t think I’ve ever heard uttered outside a low-ceilinged bar room, but which my brother and I have (semi-ironically) inherited.
All British people know that texting the single word, “Pint?” at the right time to the right people is akin to sending a sext. We also know that the offer of, "a quick half" is, in fact, the offer of at least two pints. And from a young age we learn how to carry three pint glasses across a busy room without spilling a drop, the dos and don’ts of borrowing chairs and stealing tables, and come to instinctively split bags of crisps in such a way that the packet becomes a foil picnic blanket underneath the contents.
For Samuel Pepys, the pub was “the heart of England.” For politicians on the campaign trail, being photographed pulling a pint of bitter is as essential as remembering to vote for yourself. (On cue, this week Sir Keir Starmer poured himself a pint of Brewdog). For better or worse, all life can be found in the pubs. Usually it’s for the better.
“The pub is the place where all kinds of people come, and they’ll just have a drink and maybe chat to someone they’d never normally come across,” Goodman says of both the Duke and pubs in general. “We get Lord and Lady Cowdray [from the nearby Cowdray Estate] in here, tourists, walkers, commuters, workmen, teenagers, families, wedding parties… Everyone. They mix, and where else do you get that?”
Nowhere does the pub matter more than in the middle of nowhere. Without the Duke, Goodman admits, people wouldn’t ever come to Henley – a hamlet of around 10 houses. But it does more than put the area on the map. Without shops or a post office, locals’ parcels are delivered there while they’re at work. He has kept children’s Christmas and birthday presents in his shed for weeks, to give parents a hiding place. He funded a defibrillator that was installed on a wall opposite. He gives free food out on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He hosts the fireworks display. When lockdown began and all 28 staff were furloughed, he turned all leftover food stock into soup for key workers, then sold wine to villagers.
These are generous acts, but they’re also far from extraordinary. It’s just what a country pub does. “We’re the community hub, but in small areas that’s a big part of it. People who don’t have family, or they’re widowed, my staff become their family. We chat to them, check up on them, make sure they’ve got a drink and someone to talk to.”
Almost 20 years ago, the Prince of Wales noticed the importance of pubs to rural communities and what would be lost if they continued to close. He inspired the creation of Pub is the Hub, a non-profit organisation that helps pubs adapt and offer more to their local areas than a pint and pie.
It has since helped pubs give space over to become libraries, convert into shops and cafes during the day, host knitting groups, and operate as a post office in parts of the country where those amenities have dried up. In the future, we’ll likely see that more and more.
“Just look at lockdown,” John Longden (Favourite pub: “I can’t tell you that, I’d get into trouble…”; Pint: Old Peculiar), Pub is the Hub’s chief executive says, “it’s been amazing to see how adaptable and resilient pubs have been in continuing their service to the community. I heard about one that got a farmer’s hay baler to lift an industrial freezer into the carpark, so they could continue to sell food. A lot of pubs have taken this opportunity to think about how they need to change to work in the future.”
Longden’s organisation has had 60 recent enquiries from pubs looking to diversify, and another 40 already under way. They’ve never been busier – a sign, perhaps, of both the desperation in the industry and the willingness of landlords to respond to the needs of their communities.
“Pubs have seen a lot of change and threats – the drink driving laws, the smoking ban, the licensing laws, food habits, beer tax. But rural pubs especially are resilient little businesses, and they need to prove that again. The pub model needs to change again, to diversify to support community needs,” Longden says.
Principally, there are three ways pubs operate. They could be freehold, meaning the publican owns it themselves; they could be a tenancy, meaning the publican pays rent to a landlord or pub company (‘pubco’). Or they could be managed, usually meaning they’re part of a larger chain, like JD Wetherspoons or All Bar One.
Across the country, Longden estimates, around 41 per cent of pubs are tenancies, 37 per cent are freehouses and 22 per cent are managed. But in rural areas tenancies represent 45 per cent, freehouses 41 per cent and managed only 14 per cent.
“So the majority of pubs in the countryside are small family businesses, meaning they both have the freedom to do what’s needed to make money, and have the passion to make it work.”
More broadly, what that might mean for the future is that country pubs become less alike, both in the short and long term. Tom Stainer (Favourite pub: Pomfret Arms, Northampton; Pint: Coffee Porter), Camra’s chief executive, believes offering other services may even protect pubs from closing in the case of a second coronavirus lockdown.
“If you provide a vital service like a post office counter or groceries, it makes a very good argument for keeping the pubs open. Pubs have proven already this year that the benefits they offer is far more than serving pints to people – though there are many benefits from that – and that all helps convince the government it is an industry worth shoring up.”
Stainer, like Newby and Longden, is an optimist. All three also have little sympathy for landlords who refuse to adapt to customers’ needs. “Those people will be quickly replaced by other people who have that willingness and have more inventive ideas. As an industry it is actually very agile, always listening to what people want.”
So then, crystal ball time, because all pub-goers love hypothetical conversation starters: You walk into a country pub in 2030; what does it look like? Stainer laughs.
“That is not easy to answer…” He gives it a moment, as if sipping his porter. “I would like to think many are unchanged, because there’s a charm to them. Like how people go to National Trust properties, I think people will want to drive to the countryside and step into a building that feels time hasn’t changed for several centuries.
“But the way we’re heading, and what Covid will I think push forward, is that pubs really need to offer an experience, because we’ll all be more discerning if we have to book, or have some hassle involved. It’ll take more than some old oak beams to get us off our sofas in future, so I think in 10 years you’ll be going to the pub to post a letter, buy some groceries, support other local suppliers, drink some really good, proper local beers you can’t find down the road, talk to interesting people, and have a full, rounded experience.”
They will serve pints, of course, but the range of drinks will likely increase as well – especially if they offer a cafe-like experience. We keep hearing that millennials are giving up drinking and living more healthily. This may or may not continue but you need only look at the number of beers offered in a standard London pub to know that young people are certainly keen on choice. Dozens of craft beers, 8,000 gins, a cocktail menu and non-alcoholic options. Only selling beer, house wine, standard spirits and some J20s for the kids or drivers won’t cut it anymore.
We may find a little more technology in the pub of the future, but not much. On-table dispense taps, popularised in Europe but now found in some city pubs, don’t seem to be catching on but might if germ-conscious customers decide to cut out the middleman between ordering a pint and drinking it. Apps are helpful for social distancing, but anything that encourages phone use isn’t going to be popular with traditional pub crowds. Robot bartenders? Don’t rule it out.
“We’ll see, we’ll see," Goodman says. "I remember a few years ago when we were all ordering using iPads on the table. That didn’t last, did it? And imagine it now – everyone sharing a screen..."
Still, there is chatter that UV lights currently used in China to disinfect public buses could be introduced to quickly disinfect bar areas. Depending on how long social distancing measures are in place other changes brought in by Covid-19 may be here for a while, especially if patrons are uncomfortable in busy places
“Part of the pleasure of pubs is knowing there are people around you, whether you’re sitting quietly or not. You can go as an individual and still feel in company, that’s important,” Stainer says. The idea, then, of standing shoulder to shoulder in a packed pub, everyone at the front deploying their own personal, well-honed technique for getting the bar staff’s attention – is that gone?
“Funny the things you miss, isn’t it? I have to be optimistic. I have huge confidence in the inventiveness of pubs and humankind as a whole. We will get a vaccine, we will get back to that real sense of a pub, jostling around. It’ll feel alien at first, but that is what we mean by ‘atmosphere.’”
Whether there will be more or less of them in 10 years is another unknown. Newby concedes that some will close this year, or in the coming recession, but many of those might have anyway. “The analogy is a bit like the effect Covid’s had on the older population: they had underlying health conditions, Covid’s just finished them off. But the great majority, in my opinion, will pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and bounce back.”
Over 40 years, he has seen thousands of pubs shut, but many others open, and the industry reinvent itself countless times. So he is not prone to panic. “The industry has a responsibility to evolve, and I think it will. Pubs will carry on; they will be successful. I firmly believe that.”
At the Duke, I ask the same question of Goodman. He doesn’t want to think about how he’ll make a profit this winter, let alone in 2030. In the pub trade it can be prudent to think long term, but not exactly comforting.
The reopening went well. The restaurant was full, the one-way system was largely respected, and the regulars were as happy as ever. But that’s day one. It will be a long road back. I turn to happier topics. In five years, he'll have a 500th birthday party to organise.
“Jesus, we will. I hadn’t realised,” Goodman says, with endearing panic. He intends to be here for that, just as he intends to open every day. “I fully plan to retire here. It's not easy, but it's the best job in the world.”
He looks out over the Downs. “You know, since we’ve become known for food over the last few years, people go, ‘What are you then, a restaurant or a pub?’ And I say it doesn’t matter. We’re just a place in the countryside that serves a cold pint, a great plate of food, and where people like to spend their time. So we’ll always be open as usual.” His voice quietens a little. The Ray Bans come off. “I hope so, anyway.”
- The previous four instalments covered the future of Portsmouth FC, the future of female friendship, the future of the fried chicken shop, and the future of the Queen.
- What's your favourite country pub, and drink of choice? When will you be making your return? What's your happiest ever memory of drinking in a country pub? Let us know in the comments section below.