How many times do we see this in Britain:
Shabby, traditional, but very run-down boozer struggles to keep the doors open – the victim of underinvestment over many years. Then, all of a sudden, just as the pub looks like it’s on its last legs, the brewer or pub company comes to the rescue with a nice shiny new refurb.
Good news right?
Well, in theory, yes. Public houses get used and abused, and subsequently they require constant revitalisation to remain fresh. Sadly though, and I’m sure at least some readers out there will agree, the word ‘refurbishment’ can strike fear into the heart of many a traditional pub enthusiast.
While there are examples of very tasteful refurbishments out there, all too often it means the pub is about the get gutted; the historic traditional British pub feel removed, only to be replaced by cheap, contemporary furniture and fittings more typical of a modern show-home.
By this point in the article, you’re probably thinking ‘wow, what a grumpy old man – I suppose you’d have us trapped in some sort of twee Victorian time-warp, or something?’
First of all, I’m not old (29), and secondly, I’m not suggesting we don’t bring pubs up to modern standards, which brings me neatly back to this article’s title:
The line between old and charming, and old and shabby is extremely fine. There are far too many examples of poorly maintained pubs up and down the land, but when it comes around to refurb time it’s important to remember what the building is actually supposed to be.
All too often, when a pub looks tired, the automatic response is to modernise and modernise hard! It’s almost as if the designers step in with the notion that the problem was not how worn out the interior was, but instead down to the pubs traditional feel. In extreme cases, I’ve seen once charming and rustic pubs brutally destroyed, with little or no regard to history at all. Without naming any names: one pub local to me turned a thatched cottage pub into an American style ‘Surf & Turf Grill’; savagely painting all the old beams and internal brickwork in the process. If slaphappy paint jobs weren’t enough, they even put astroturf on the ceiling. Just thinking about it makes me cringe, it’s as though we have no regard for our history whatsoever, and in many cases – it’s just outright vandalism.
The above stands in stark contrast to North America, where in many cases I’ve seen pubs spend thousands of pounds trying to emulate the old world pub feel. For example, an Irish pub close to where I lived out in Canada spent thousands of Dollars painstakingly recreating old-fashioned wood frame booths, stained glass windows – the works. In other examples, I’ve seen many drinking establishments in Downtown Vancouver use what little amount of history they have to their advantage, exposing old bricks, and even serving cask ale. The Alibi Room just outside Gas Town is a good example.
It’s somehow ironic, that countries like Canada, with such a short history are spending so much time meticulously creating ‘authentic environments’, while a country like the UK – with history in abundance – is literally throwing it out the window. Somewhere, there has to be a balance.
To emphasise just how important historic pubs are, take a look at any visitors guide to London; almost without fail, pubs are listed as an attraction for their unique British history. For example, visitlondon.com lists dozens of pubs – all historic – as one of the key attractions in our capital. I mean come on, you’re hardly going to recommend a chain bar or Weatherspoons, are you?
Alas, however, it would appear from our actions that we’re somehow blind to how special and unique our historic pubs are. Perhaps it’s a case of the grass is greener, or maybe we just take it for granted?
Either way, the fresh, brand new feel of a recently refurbed pub doesn’t last long, and once the cracks inevitably begin to appear, all you’re left with is the same scruffy scenario we started with, only this time it can’t even pretend it’s going for the Faulty Tower’s shabby charm. With all the history removed, this time it’s just plain crap.
But it doesn’t have to be this way
It IS possible to refurb a pub, bring it into the 21st century, and maintain the old world charm. Blending old with new is a real skill, but when done correctly – it ages better, and it’s far more timeless.
Fairly local to me, the King’s Arms in Cardington (pictured below) is one example of a contemporary pub refurbishment blending old with new very successfully. The Kings Arms get’s so many things right; the exposed sanded down wood top tables, the accompanying copper-topped tables and their cast iron legs, the exposed wooden beams and panels – even the glass entranceway works perfectly to add stylish modern sophistication. In essence, the refurbishment works so well because they’ve managed to bring it up to standard without resorting to chrome fittings, laminated wood, or plastic. Instead, they’ve stuck to real, raw materials that age well and compliment the pubs history.
After all, it is important that our pubs continue to evolve, but I would argue that to stray too far from the buildings roots is detrimental to the long-term success of a pub. Once you have removed a pubs unique selling point – often its history – it becomes just like any other bar or restaurant. If a modernised pub is no more historic than your average Pizza Express restaurant chain, for example, it losses its appeal somewhat.
By deviating from the classic and timeless look and feel of a historic, well-maintained pub, the establishment has opted to ride the wave of fashion – a game that most pubs just can’t afford to play.
Keeping up to date with the latest interior design requires more regular and more drastic refurbishment. In my view, it makes much more sense to differentiate by playing into the pubs history than to try and be something it’s not. More often, by over modernising, the place just ends up feeling stuck in the middle; it no longer feels like a pub, but somehow it’s not quite at the level of the slick chain restaurant down the road either. In a way, the pub just ends up going the way of Woolworths: it goes out of business because nobody quite knows what or who it’s for anymore.
To summarise, we must save our pubs by bringing them up to the high standard expected by modern consumers, but to ignore their history is to remove their ability to compete in an age where competition in their market is fiercer than ever.