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.