A kick-back country lunch yesterday led me to ruminate (on the long, traffic-choked drive back to London) on the current demise of the Great British Pub. Recent figures state that 12 of them are closing per week, yes, per WEEK. Now that’s a lot, even in our austerity-stricken times though an improvement on a few months previously, when it was 50. So if 4500 pubs have closed their doors in the last four years, how can treasures like this one survive?
The relentless cull is a national tragedy, as for me at least, a pub is the mainstay of English communities, whether rural or city. I love pubs as much as I love Spanish tapas bars and French pavement cafés: they epitomise a culture and way of life. Anyone who’s seen a central London pub in summer with office-workers boozing and gossiping while squeezed onto a slip of pavement, knows exactly what I mean. Or sat by a toasty pub fire in winter sipping real ale in a warm glow. So, how to preserve them? With cigarettes banned, smokers (though they’re fast disappearing) stay at home – EXCEPT when there’s outside space. Popular ones (i.e. with most cars outside) always have outside tables and / or a beer garden. Is this the very simple key? But what about winter? Could it be — Sky Sports?! Ouch.
There’s a good example near my London home. A funny little place of Irish ancestry, The Bank of Friendship (great name), boasts a spacious beer garden – and, of course, TV sports. It’s not exactly smart or well maintained, but the back garden adds a happy extension to the cosy, welcoming interior. And it certainly lures more punters than another pub nearby that shall remain nameless – one of those soulless ‘Thai food’ pubs that possibly make up the majority of closures.
Down in Sussex, my lunch was at the Lamb Inn in Wartling, low 16th century beamed ceilings, wooden floors and all. It has quite a pedigree – as well as a faithful local following. But after a devastating gas explosion and fire (oops, no insurance cover), its fate was saved in extremis at auction. New (townie?) owners snapped it up, did a quick makeover, hired a chef and threw open the doors a couple of months ago. Hey presto, their survival solution was to go gastro.
Now the overused term gastro-pub is not just about food, it also implies a verneer of laid-back middle-classness. In fact a total absence of the personal knick-knacks and cheer of classic pubs of old. I’d enjoyed the Lamb over the years when it was somewhat fly-blown, dogs slobbering under tables, well-worn in appearance and with decent though unimaginative food (lamb maybe?) – but above all had an unpretentious local feel and sense of history.
Now it has that ‘tasteful’ look of Islington gastro-pubs: woodwork painted a muddy turquoise, bare brick walls, scrubbed tables, distressed leather chairs and milk churns with sheep fleeces for bar-stools. The back courtyard redesign includes espalier trained fruit-trees while giant napkins are actually tea-towels. All very chic and groovy.
And the menu? Pronouncing itself roughly ‘locally sourced, organic’ (buzz-phrases which are fast becoming the new ‘Thai’), it bows to current trends, and tastewise certainly didn’t disappoint. I demolished a generous portion of beer-battered (Harvey’s of Lewes) haddock and chips then moved onto an absolute delight: posset of gooseberry creme brulée. Deliciously creamy and crunchy with an acid bite from the plump gooseberries lurking inside. Now you don’t see them, now you do.
After knocking back more local cider beneath the gentle summer sun, we headed on. The pub’s young staff had been chilled and affable, but it lacked real character, its deep Sussex roots lost to a kind of generic gastro style, a bit like a 21st century Marie Antoinette playing at being peasant, milk churns and all. But maybe the solution for pub survival?
On the way home I indulged in a different mainstay of the English countryside: roadside tables piled high with fresh produce beside a rusty old tin for money. Free range eggs (note the label above – ‘tiny’) and fruit were my aim. My second stop was at a farm-shed where several tables groaned with homegrown potatoes, onions, tomatoes, three types of apples, pears, plums and local honey. Heaven. But what I loved above all was the sign: ‘If no one’s about, please weigh and pay for your produce yourself’. Three open tins glittered with vast amounts of change – and not a soul in sight. So at least the countryside still exudes human trust – a fine virtue and ultimately far more important than a pub, gastro or otherwise.
p.s. back home, my two types of egg: Bantam (i.e. ‘tiny’) v. large hen