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At the current rate of closures, Britain's last pub will call time in 2037. Is there light at the bottom of the glass?
What makes a perfect pub? For George Orwell, wistfully writing in 1946, there were ten precise criteria - including motherly barmaids, draught stout and tobacco available at the bar. Settled into a tired but comfortable sofa for my first visit to The Bear at Home, a free house in North Moreton, Oxfordshire, I can see a few of my own favourite pub features, including a fire, pork pies, a dog, a plentiful supply of newspapers and, yes, draught stout. My own local, Father Ted's in Kilburn, lacks the dog and the fire - but boasts different charms, including Sid Waddell quotes painted on the wall, Arsenal-on-demand, a 24-hour licence and cheap Guinness. Both pubs share Orwell's prime criterion, atmosphere.
Any attempt to define a perfect pub is, of course, hopelessly subjective. But Orwell's question, "what makes a perfect pub?" may yet become academic. According to startling figures from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released last week, there are now 39 pubs closing in Britain each week. Were the closures to continue at that rate, last orders in Britain's last pub would be called for the final time one evening in June 2037.
The closure rate has been creeping upwards for the past six or seven years. Publicans point to a cluster of factors, including the smoking ban, and the wide availability of cheap beer and wine in supermarkets and corner shops - which makes it far more prudent to get sozzled at home (where you can smoke if you must) instead of down the pub. Delicensing pubs became an increasingly tempting option as house prices soared; why fight gamely on to make an underperforming boozer work, went the logic, when converting the building into flats could bring riches?
More than half of Britain's small villages now have no local and it is a trend, darkly mutters the pub industry, that could get worse. The most recent burden on publicans' shoulders is increased beer tax (up 18 per cent last year, according to the BBPA, at a cost of £520 million). The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) asserts that about 2,000 pubs have closed in the past 12 months, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Added to that, further threatened tax hikes place at risk an estimated 75,000 jobs - and many thousands of pubs. "If anyone thinks this will plateau at six a day, they are wrong," said Shepherd Neame chief executive Jonathan Neame at last week's meeting of the All Party Parliamenty Beer Group: "Twenty five per cent of pub stock could close unless something is done."
Throughout Britain's long love affair with its pubs there have been many peaks - and fewer troughs. The first Licensing Act came into force in 1552, and a government survey 25 years later concluded that there were about 24,000 alehouse keepers in England, one for every 142 citizens. Uncounted were the swisher taverns and inns, which did not fall under regulation until the 18th century - when the term "public house" first entered the national lexicon. The Puritans tried, but failed, to suppress the national pastime and by the beginning of the 19th century, the century of Beer Mania, there were 50,000 pubs for a population of nine million.
All these facts are culled from Fergus Linnane's Drinking For England: The Great English Drinkers and Their Times. It would have made an ideal read for a quiet afternoon in a small, up-against-it village local, marvelling at boozy glories past and ruefully contemplating the imminent death of the British pub. Yet here in the Bear at Home, trade is brisk - and the people-watching too compelling to concentrate on a book. Molly, the pub's plump golden retriever, pants gently by the bar as conversation swirls under the wood-beamed ceiling. Within my earshot the occupants of one table, by the fireplace, are discussing Flaubert's Parrot ("I do quite like Julian Barnes"), another group is agonising over a crossword ("Avatar! It's avatar!") and a third is musing whether to put a trellis over the garage. The lunch service (fully booked) is winding down and a group of four pensioners heads for the door, evading a chocolate-smeared, pink-bibbed toddler and the smoker pacing crunchily outside on the gravel.
In 2007 The Bear At Home was named Oxfordshire's Pub of the Year by Camra. As well as the 400 people of North Moreton, regulars come from Wallingford and Didcot. Only two years earlier the pub was on its last legs, unloved after enduring five tenants in six years, its opening hours frustratingly unpredictable - and a prime candidate for delicensing. Tim Haworth, an antiques dealer, and his wife Alison were among the locals who had lamented the Bear's decline. Most Fridays, after closing, they would take a group of friends to have a drink or two more back at their house. Often, conversation turned to the unsatisfying Bear. Tim says: "You know when you go to a pub and you start dissing it? You say: ‘This isn't right' and you ask: ‘What would you do to fix it?' That's what we did."
So when the licence came up, yet again, friends urged Tim and Alison to take it. "As someone pointed out," says Tim, "it would be an extension of what we were already doing at our house after closing time - and we could charge them." So they bought the licence but almost immediately had to decide whether to take a long-booked Christmas holiday in New Zealand, or to stay and start serving their new customers. They decided to go - but left the pub open, in the charge of the villagers. "One family would say: ‘We'll do the Friday night,' and between them they would come in and do it. The doors stayed open, the locals were running the pub and it created a momentum of goodwill. In retrospect asking the locals to run the pub was a masterstroke, although it was something forced on us by circumstances."
Since their return from New Zealand, the Haworths have transformed the Bear's fortunes. It is open seven days a week. The food is good, but not ridiculously expensive (the special today is Cornish mussels; I have a fine burger). Last summer the pub held a beer festival to help to celebrate Moreton Cricket Club's 150th anniversary. The cricketers play next to the pub, yet before the Haworths' arrival the Bear had closed when the club played. "Beer and cricket - it's a good match," says Tim. The festival will run again this year, as do the regular ladies' nights (a village man is press-ganged to cook supper for the village's women in the Bear's kitchen). Traditionalists can play Aunt Sally in the beer garden, while neophytes can log on to the pub wi-fi and spare themselves the effort of walking to the bar by reading its real ale updates via Twitter. Victoria Picken, a 23-year-old PA from Wantage, has dropped in for a pint with her friend Paul Spurret, a trainee art teacher from Didcot. "This was quite a pretentious pub before, all lobster lunches, and the village didn't need that. They wanted a homely boozer, and now it is; good for family, dogs, hikers, bikers, whoever."
As co-editor of The Good Pub Guide, Fiona Stapley has seen a fair few bad pubs along the way. Asked for her ultimate criterion for a good pub, she's with Orwell. "It's the atmosphere. I've walked into many pubs where there are lots of candles, beams and flagstones, and it should be fantastic. But it's dead. You can tell once the heart has gone out of a pub. Either the landlord is bored, or tired, or fed-up because it's not making enough money - and that's it." She believes that the pubs best placed to survive are those that diversify: "A lot of pubs are starting to open for breakfast, as well as offering internet facilities or running shops. These are the pubs that are going to survive: pubs with hard-working, flexible landlords who really care about their pubs and really care about their customers."
For rural pubs, diversification often means broadening the business far beyond the traditional parameters of selling beer and packets of prawn cocktail crisps. Pub is the Hub, a scheme designed to help publicans to incorporate threatened local services into their business, has helped nearly 360 landlords so far. In Rothwell, Lincolnshire, for instance, the kitchens of The Blacksmith's Arms provide 300 meals a day for local schools, while in Ravenstonedale, Cumbria, there was no local shop for seven years - until the landlords of The Black Swan recently opened one in their pub. And in Down Thomas, Devon, there is now a post office again, in what was a disused garage in the Mussel Inn's car park.
In The Bear, preparations are under way in the function room for the annual North Moreton Safari Supper. This involves 114 locals in fancy dress - last year's theme was Toga, this year is Bond - meeting at 7pm before heading off into the night to eat their starters, main course and desserts in different houses in the village. It's £20 in, with all proceeds to the village church. I'm invited along and have my first course (delicious soup) at the house of Spencer, a headhunter, and Philippa. Next up is lasagne, courtesy of Anthony (chief executive of a property fund) and Alison, who observes: "This is a cross between Come Dine With Me and Through the Keyhole, isn't it?" After delicious dessert involving hazelnuts at Muir and Maggie's B&B, we totter back to The Bear for more carousing. One couple are wearing wetsuits, another Moonraker suits.
Tim is still behind the bar. He looks a little tired. "How many times," he had asked me earlier, "have you heard someone say: ‘I'm going to retire and take over a pub'? What a joke that is. It will kill you! If you think you're going to retire, then don't bother. But seeing people having a good time at your establishment is incredibly rewarding."
The Moon Under Water, the pub in Orwell's article, is that particular drinker's Utopia; a pub fashioned to his own particular predelictions, open to men, women and children. A place to talk, brood, eat or drink. The British pub is up against it as never before, assailed by beer tax, soaring utility rates and financially-stricken brewers and pub companies passing that pain on to their tenants. So if you have a good local, a local with atmosphere, don't forget to use it once in a while.