Swift Half

England has single-handedly turned around my reluctance to visit pubs.

For one thing, I love being able to suggest to The BB that we “slip out for a swift half.”  As regular readers will know, I don’t even like beer, except as reading material, but that phrase, garnered from British TV shows, is too evocative to pass by. I use it to convey a desire for a chilled beverage of any persuasion, ingested from a container of any dimension.

The fact that the pubs are so sweet, often labyrinthine and even skewed to within a hair’s breadth of collapse, is the final scale-tipper for me. With their multitude of oddly shaped rooms and cosy nooks; their fireplaces, some with seating inside; their litany of quaintly-named local beers and ciders; their flowery gardens and tasty food, I am drawn to them as a Rottweiler to a dog pampering parlour  – initial aversion giving way to an appreciation of what’s on offer.

These folk have been downing beer, or its equivalent, since the Bronze Age (2100 – 750 BC in Great Britain). With the help of the network of Roman roads, ale drinking became formalised in roadside inns called tabernae. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons made alehouses and breweries of their own houses. In 1830, The Beer Act allowed anyone to sell beer or cider from home with a licence. (Some of these beer houses still exist.) Responsible adults fed even their young children beer. It was low-alcohol and deemed a healthy alternative to the local water.

Here is one of my favourite English pubs: The Maltings in York.  It’s the building in black. The building behind and to the left, constructed in the Ugly Brick Box period of architecture, gives a surprising twist to the notion of windows, with the use of bricks instead of glass.

We lucked in with The Maltings, choosing it on a night when a lone singer had set up with his guitar and microphone near the fireplace. Wooden furniture, including low, padded stools, set close together; sturdy poles slung with old signs; a wood-panelled ceiling and a small curved bar behind which the staff joke with all, make the place seem more like a gathering of friends than random folk having their own versions of a swift half.

We decided to maximise our pleasure by spending the after-dinner hours snuggled in The Maltings another night. I nearly swooned with delight when we entered: one section of the room was occupied by a band playing traditional instruments! Mesmerising stuff from a number of musicians strumming, plucking, swishing, banging and tootling an even larger number of instruments.

As The Maltings sign states, it is a free house, meaning it is not tied to selling beer from only one brewery. Of the approximately 54 000 pubs in England, about one-third are free houses.

But, one brewery or more, pubs are losing sales. From July to September 2011, pub beer sales fell by 4.3% compared with the same period last year. That’s 488,000 fewer pints per day. Meanwhile, total beer sales rose 1.6%. and supermarkets and off-licences reported improved sales. In 2007, twenty-seven pubs closed per week. By 2009 that number had risen to fifty-two. In March 2011, it had slowed to twenty-five.

If the happy faces of customers, performers and staff are anything to go by, I’m betting The Maltings will be adding a few more years of service yet to its 169 years.

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4 responses to “Swift Half

  1. I have a book on English Country Pubs by Derry Brabbs, published in 1986. I wonder how many of those charming pubs are gone. So do the statistics tell us that more people are drinking alone now?

    • worldismycuttlefish

      Unfortunately, it’s possible that quite a few of those pubs will have closed although I didn’t find any data detailing the rates of rural versus urban pubs. I can see reasons why both groups would be the most affected. It seems a terrible shame to lose what amounts to part of the culture of the UK. No statistics either on where and with whom people drink but the rise in supermarket and off-licence sales would suggest an increasing share of at-home drinkers.

  2. Oh I loved the english pubs as well.. so OLD some of them.. sometimes I had to duck to walk under the beams that cross the ceilings.. gorgeous and thank you for the history too.. good stuff… Bottoms Up! c

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