Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2004

* Drinking in History *

Historic pubs are some of the most valuable and underrated parts of our heritage

THE FLEECE at Bretforton in Worcestershire must be one of the most photographed pubs in Britain, an impossibly quaint, thatched, half-timbered inn that has appeared on countless calendars and chocolate boxes. It came as something of a shock to hear recently that it had been severely damaged by fire. Fortunately, it will be possible to repair it and restore it to its former glory, but this underlined just how vulnerable much of our pub heritage is.

The Fleece was lucky in being one of a tiny handful of pubs owned by the National Trust, who will ensure it is cared for properly. The National Trust is a very worthwhile organisation that does a fine job in preserving historic houses and unspoilt landscapes, but when it comes to protecting pubs things are not so simple. A non-functioning pub maintained purely as a museum piece would be of no more interest than a stuffed animal, but if a historic pub is going to be kept open as a business there will be an inevitable conflict between the demands of commerce and preservation.

One of the most valuable things that the Campaign for Real Ale has done is to create a National Inventory of historic, unspoilt pub interiors that are worthy of preservation. We are fortunate that the North-West is well represented, with examples ranging from the basic beerhouse such as the Circus Tavern in Manchester to the lavish, exuberant Edwardian decoration of the Philharmonic in Liverpool, but it is a sobering thought that nationwide, out of 60,000 pubs, there are only about 200 deemed worthy of inclusion, with maybe a few hundred more having been substantially altered, but still retaining some important historic features. When in an unfamiliar area, I make a point of visiting any pubs on the National Inventory if they are within striking distance, and I must say as an unabashed lover of pubs I have always been very impressed with what I have found.

Some may say that historic pubs are ultimately rather trivial compared to the glories of Tatton Park and Chatsworth, but they are a part of our heritage that is relevant to ordinary people in a way that stately homes are not, and, particularly at the humbler end of the scale, are often unique survivors of the domestic interiors of a bygone age. When drinking in a National Inventory pub you really are experiencing part of our history in the way it was designed to be used, which cannot be said of gawping at Old Masters on a guided tour.

These are real-life businesses, though, not museum pieces, and there are inevitably pressures to knock a wall through here and install a new counter there to make them more suitable for modern patterns of trade. But their owners should think long and hard, as fashions in pub design can change very quickly, and in the long run preserving an intact historic interior is likely to do much more for a pub’s trade than a few superficially appealing but destructive “improvements”.

Given that the National Trust has more than three million members, perhaps there is scope for further co-operation with CAMRA to set up a joint organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting this very special aspect of our heritage. If only 1% of those National Trust members could be made to part with a tenner a year, it could really make a difference. And its key task must be to persuade pub owners that vandalism in the pursuit of a short-term profit will do nothing for their long-term reputation, and to expose the offenders to public condemnation.

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