I have been known to visit a pub or two during my 10 years in England. It’s no secret to me that if I had my way….and lots of money….I’d buy a pub to run and nurture (not sure which comes first). I have neither business acumen nor do I possess staying power but the dream lives on. One thing, though, that shall never fade is my visiting any and all pubs encountered along my life journey. Some, thus far, have impressed and every so often you come across a pub that looks great from the outside but delivers little within.
The trend these days in England (and I’m sure all over the UK) seems to be to turn old watering holes into family dining restaurants. Big chains grab up failing pubs in prime locations and turn them into cheap eating places. The local is becoming a relic of bygone days. My folks are from Deptford, southeast London, and attended The Rose of Kent, their local. On family visits across the pond, we’d all make our way down Trundleys Road from my nan’s to The Rose to drink, sing, play darts and generally gossip. It fell on hard times in the early part of 2000 and was sold and turned into flats (apartments).
One statistic has between 29-31 pubs a week closing their doors to the public. There were some 48,000 pubs as of the 2nd of January this new year with 4 closing each day. So far, we’ve lost over 30,000 pubs. Some of the reasons have been given already. One other reason may be the ever-changing trends among a diverse population and a youth culture that prefers trendy wine bars to traditional local pubs. So many reasons for the loss of great pubs. The only stat that matters is that once gone, few reopen. Funny that. In North American cities and towns, traditional English pubs are opening because it’s trendy. People want nostalgia and class, not wine and glass.
Although that may not be the last word on what is trendy, you generally find that fads change like the wind. The local pub (or Inn) may have been a staple for centuries in England, but since the 1960s everything has changed often and exponentially. New technologies dictate much of these variations, while a fast-paced life that stands still for no one.
The pubs I have frequented do not all meet the high standards I would impose on them. One of my favourites for the first few years was the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden. The likes of Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens raised pints there. But it has become another place that employs eastern European servers (Please do not cry racist here. It’s cultural) who have no clue as to the difference between a regular ale and a bitter ale and everything else that makes an English pub….well, English. The language barrier alone can frustrate even the most patient patron. And they let the place go. The toilets don’t work. The bar is filthy, the prices have gone up and any semblance of local has long left the building.
My next target is The Volunteer on Church Road in Bexleyheath. I walked by the place quite often, admiring the white gleam of its rendered walls and green trim on the old, paned windows. The sign above the door was of a British soldier from the age of Wellington and Napoleon. One day, my best friend and I decided to go in for a pint. Typical of many local pubs in the country (except this one is in the burbs), we were politely served and then ignored. The female proprietor huddled with some of the locals at the other end of the bar, probably gossiping about the newbies who dared say the place was quaint. It was the furtive glances our way as they laughed that gave all that away.
Of all the pubs in England, my favourite has been a little place in a small village near York, England. The Bay Horse is situated in Murton where an uncle of mine lives. My first taste of the Bay Horse was on my first visit to England in 1973. I came up to York with a cousin and Uncle Leo and Aunt Pam took us to their local. Back then, the pub was smaller and at the end of a lane lined with high bushes. That’s how I remembered it. A fire roared in one part of the pub, the furniture was old leather comfortable and the food was incredibly good.
Though I have visited York and Murton several times since, I never got back to The Bay Horse until a few years ago. The place had changed and was nothing like the memory I had of it. The pub had expanded and the village had grown, with new homes leading up too and around the pub. But the inside still held its charm. It was under new management again. Apparently, the pub had changed hands a number of times over the years and had been poorly run. Sad really.
The Bay Horse has been around since 1804 when a John Newbald was the ‘aledraper’. Murton was the centre for training racehorses back then and in the 1820s, the pub was named ‘The Jerry’ after a racehorse that won a big race in York. In 1840 the new landlord changed the name of the pub to ‘The Horse and Jockey’ and in 1872 he gave it its present name. No one seems to know why.
On this most recent visit, a big For Sale poster sat on the lawn under the Bay Horse sign that stands by the side of the road. The last owner ran off with a local man, leaving the pub high if not dry. Now it’s in the hands of a company that looks after pubs until it decides to either buy it or sell it on. In the case of The Bay Horse, the interim proprietor told me the place was not viable and would probably end up as flats or a shop.
I knew none of this as I walked from my uncle’s house to the pub to find out why the For Sale sign stood on the premises. I entered through the side door and was greeted by a barking, golden lab who was startled by someone actually entering the pub. His name, I discovered, was Sam. It was 2:30pm and not a soul had been in since the place opened at noon. Sam walked over to me, tail wagging, practically begging me to stay. I found a comfortable chair, sat down and Sam took the chair beside me.
Sam stayed with me for the entire 3 hours that I imbibed, writing in my journal and talking to Sam’s man Matt, the present proprietor. In all those 3 hours, not another soul came in. The outlook is bleak. I found the whole experience very depressing….except for Sam’s company.
The Bay Horse is up for £425,000. So, I went out and bought a lottery ticket worth £50,000,000. My plan is to kidnap Sam, buy the pub, moor our boat in York and find a good chef and barkeeper to run the place. I’ll call it The Lucky Star….not traditional, but catchy. Wot ya fink?