Two Chester licensees and an amateur historian have come forward during Proud of Pubs Week to make drinkers aware of the crisis facing the humble local. DAVID HOLMES reports.
THE traditional pub is as British as fish and chips or Wimbledon, yet young drinkers appear to be spurning them in favour of cool bars and restaurants that sell beer.
Andy Robinson, landlord of The Cross Keys in Lower Bridge Street, blames pub companies more than punters for ripping out the interiors of old-style pubs – along with their heart and soul.
He says people are being told they should drink in clinical venues with shiny surfaces and leather sofas, but fears that one day people will turn around and ask where their beloved boozer has gone.
“Most of the pubs in Chester are owned by pub companies and a lot of the blame has to be with them for spending money on turning traditional pubs into wine bars.
“The character goes and once they are lost, they are lost forever.”
Andy, whose city centre pub sells cask ales in a traditional environment, says many of his customers are tourists but he would lament the loss of pubs supported by regulars.
“You get to know your customers personally and by name. If I go into a pub and someone remembers me by name, I’m made up.”
He added: “I get a lot of tourists – Americans, Italians, Germans, French and Spanish – and they love it because it’s a proper traditional pub and they love the cask beers.”
Chester MP Christine Russell, who recently popped into to The Chester Bells in the city centre as a part of Proud of Pubs Week, admits to having an “obsession” against changing the traditional names of pubs, argues they have always had a social value and do a tremendous amount of work raising money for charity.
Amateur historian Len Morgan, describes what is happening to many of Chester’s pubs as “wanton vandalism”. He agrees the personal touch is being lost.
“Often the barman will know that Fred has a whisky and soda or Bill has a brown ale,” said Len, who is also sad about the loss of traditional pub names and signs, even on his own doorstep in Handbridge. The Red Lion has become The Bar and Courtyard and The White Horse is now The Handbridge.
“I was being a bit sarcastic but when I saw the sign for The Handbridge; I said ‘Is there a dentist opening?’ because the sign looks like a set of false teeth. It’s supposed to be the Old Dee bridge but the artist has missed an arch out.
“The old fashioned pubs signs were really quite artistic.”
Len loves The Grosvenor Arms in Handbridge where he recently celebrated his 75th birthday at a surprise party. He describes it as a “community centre” because of the cross section of customers and the friendly atmosphere.
Landlady Pat Wilde is the woman responsible.
“From the moment a person walks in they need to see smiling faces behind the bar,” said Pat. “When a stranger walks in they need to be made to feel just as important.”
Pat got together with fellow licensee Andy after he used to walk across the bridge from his place to hers for a pint and romance blossomed. They are of the same mind when it comes to how to run a decent pub.
Pat believes wine bars have their place but believes the balance is tipping too far.
“How many do we want? How many people still want a pub? Is it fair to be turning them all into wine bars and restaurants? People still want a pub.”
The Grosvenor Arms ticks the boxes for a pub with “old fashioned values” compared with the new bars which Pat reckons is “all about money going in the tills”. She and her customers have raised thousands of pounds for good causes including the breast cancer appeal at the Countess of Chester Hospital.
The latest charity to be supported is The Hospice of The Good Shepherd and locals were upset to be turned away from the door of the upmarket Oddfellows bar and restaurant when asking for donations on a recent fund-raising pub crawl.
“We are not good enough because we are working class,” said Pat.
Customer Amanda, 32, said: “I would rather have a traditional pub. I like the characters I meet. Wine bars are too pretentious. I don’t want to have to worry about what I’m going to wear tonight.”
Her friend Lou added: “You want to have somebody behind the bar who knows you.”
The plight of local pubs has been further aggravated as The British and Beer and Pub Association reports beer sales have plummeted by 10%.
In total, 107 million fewer pints were sold in April to June this year compared with the same quarter in 2007 – a fall of 1.6 million pints a day.
Chief executive, Rob Hayward explained: “With around one million jobs reliant on the trade, the loss of 1.6 million pints a day is having a serious impact, not just on the sector itself, but on the UK economy as a whole.
“Beer sales in pubs are now at their lowest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”