Is it last orders for rural pubs?

The future's uncertain for our familiar ‘local’ - but is it important it survives?
October 23, 2022

These are difficult times for rural pubs. Barely recovered from the enforced closures of the Pandemic, they’re now facing multiple challenges – from soaring energy bills to supply chain price hikes, labour shortages for kitchen and waiting staff through to the inevitable belt-tightening from customers as the cost of living crisis bites.

And then there are those pubs that haven’t re-opened at all after lockdown. Even before the Pandemic, when the rate of closure was showing signs of slowing, an average of 40 pubs were disappearing every month; but by early 2022 the number of pubs open for business in England and Wales dropped below 40,000 for the first time ever, which is a fall of more than 7,000 compared with a decade ago.

Pub closures are due to many things, of course, including societal changes in leisure choices and alcohol consumption, but at the end of the day they are businesses and for the so-called pubcos that own over half of our public houses it’s about profit and loss on a balance sheet and not sentiment or nostalgia. Converting a once-loved local into luxury apartments or executive homes can mean big bucks, but once a pub has gone it will never come back.

Writer and Journalist Andrew McCloy - is not averse to a plastic 'glass'

In 2020 I brought out an updated second edition of my book charting the social history of pubs of the Peak District, not so much a visitor guide but more a lively bar-room chat about the ups and downs of my local boozers over the last couple of centuries. And what’s very clear is that pubs have always come and gone. In the heyday of Derbyshire’s lead mining industry even small villages like Winster and Eyam had two dozen pubs and alehouses each, and the market town of Wirksworth at least 50 inns and taverns. Today Winster and Eyam have just one apiece and Wirksworth is in single figures. Latterly it seems to have been all about downs, with few ups.

These dramatic changes in Derbyshire are echoed in countryside locations all across northern England. Once upon a time a village was considered complete and thriving if it had the four Ps: a post office, pub, police station and parish church. It was reckoned that they worked well together, as a resident could cash their wages at the post office, get drunk at the pub, get arrested at the police station and visit the church for forgiveness!

The four Ps idea might raise a chuckle today, but it’s a serious issue for many places when the key building blocks that hold the community together start to disappear, including the humble village pub. Indeed, the social and economic role that pubs have played over the years is highly significant, especially in rural locations where they allow people to come together and help combat issues like loneliness and isolation that is often hidden away in the countryside. As author Pete Brown notes in his excellent book Man Walks into a Pub, a pub offers "a curious combination of the security of the home and the excitement and freedom of being out".

The Black Swan back in 2009

Pubs are often important employers and responsible for key local supply chains, especially in places like the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales where catering and accommodation is a major part of the visitor offer. CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale) estimate that pubs contribute over 900,000 jobs and £23.6bn to the UK economy each year. 

For some years a national initiative called Pub is the Hub has helped rural pubs diversify their services and reach out to communities, typically helping them to also take on the local post office or village shop that might otherwise close. Other pubs have gone down the route of opening microbreweries and just in the Peak District and South Pennines alone there’s the Riverhead Brewery Tapat Marsden, Bollington Brewery (Cheshire), Bradfield Brewery (South Yorkshire), Ashover, Thornbridge and Buxton breweries (Derbyshire) – the tasty list of pub/brewery combinations goes on and on.

Both the Pub is the Hub and the Plunkett Foundation, a national charity, have also helped rural communities save their much-loved local pub from closure by acquiring it themselves. There are now over 150 community owned and run village pubs throughout the UK, the very first being the Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket in the northern Lake District. Others in Cumbria include the Mardale Inn at Bampton and the Lowther Arms at Mawbray near Maryport. Then there’s the Trawden Arms near Colne in Lancashire; in Yorkshire you can find the White Horse at Church Fenton and the Kings Head at Gunnerside in Swaledale; and also the Gun Inn at Ridsdale in Northumberland, the Anglers Rest at Bamford (in the appropriately named Hope Valley) was the first community pub to open in the Peak District in 2013.

Happy Drinkers. (Fruit Shoots are also available - but do not guarantee happiness)

For many of us, the public house is simply part of our identity and culture, who we are as a nation, and are an assuring landmark in many senses. Some well known locations are now synonymous with the pubs themselves, like the Cat and Fiddle on the Buxton-Macclesfield road in the Peak District, or the Tan Hill Inn high on the Pennine Way in North Yorkshire. 

The British pub as we know it today might have only been around for a few hundred years, but you can trace it all the way back to the Romans when the roadside taverna provided refreshment for weary travellers. As the saying goes, fermentation and civilisation went hand in hand. So whether it’s a village local, traditional roadhouse or historic coaching inn or tavern so familiar in our market town centres, we need to hang on to our pubs and do everything we can to support them through these turbulent times. Cheers!