Feature: St Albans pubs bucking the trend
PUBLISHED: 07:09 24 February 2013
COULD you imagine a community without a pub? For many, to even imagine the death of the public house would be blasphemy.
As part of the British landscape and a symbol of our nation’s culture, the large majority of us have probably spent just as much time in the pub as in our own homes. Whether you like whiskey or water, are a vegetarian or meat eater, on your tod or with family and friends – the pub has a place for you.
But worryingly we, as a county, are under risk of not having a place for the pub.
The amount of beloved boozers vanishing is on the rise, and the St Albans district is no exception to this unfortunate demise.
In the past decade around a dozen pubs have been lost in the area. Some have been replaced by restaurants, turned into housing, or changed to a hairdressers in the case of the Saracen’s Head in Redbourn.
As tax and business rates rocket, more and more pubs and companies are struggling to keep up. It’s a tough Catch 22 situation; you have to make more profit to keep up with the increasing rates but the rates make trading incredibly difficult.
Rufus Hall, Redbourn resident and chief executive of the Park Street-based national pub operator the Orchid Group, said: “It is a tough time for small boozers reliant on beer sales as the Government duty and tax policies are making it increasingly difficult to run a profitable wet-led business.
“However, in our experience large well-located pubs like The George in Harpenden are getting stronger as they have a broader offer based around fresh food, sport, Wi-Fi and coffee in addition to traditional pub drinks.”
In comparison, the self-proclaimed “quaint, old-fashioned, friendly pub” The Farriers Arms, the location of the first Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) meeting, has recently been put up for sale by McMullens brewery.
The Lower Dagnall Street pub’s freehold is reportedly on the market due to oppressive and increasing tax and business rates.
The landlords refused to comment on the situation, but managing director of McMullens, Peter Furness-Smith, said: “We have stood by these pubs, in some cases for over 100 years, but feel it is now time for others to craft an opportunity from them.
“The challenge will be, as with all pubs, to try and develop a sustainable business providing employment and a valuable service to the community while at the same time being burdened with oppressive and increasing levels of taxation and business rates.”
Hopefully, as McMullens explained, potential purchasers will see past the “Government’s highly ‘anti-pub’ policies” and maintain the public houses.
There is the threat the building will be discontinued as a pub and go the same way as the Bell and the Vintry.
But Roger Protz, the Herts Advertiser’s beer expert, said St Albans has been spared from the mass pub cull that has been sweeping the nation: “We are in a bit of a bubble in St Albans.”
He marvelled: “It’s remarkable that in this day and age we have 50 pubs.”
And what a selection we have. From one of the oldest pubs in England, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, to some of the most haunted, such as The Boot and the White Hart Inn, we truly are spoilt for choice.
Roger, an award-winning beer writer, also conjured up the familiar anecdote of our small city reputedly possessing the most pubs per square mile in the country. Even if this statement is not true, it’s great we can claim this, rather than boasting boarded-up pub doors.
But, as he explained, not everywhere has been so lucky: “I think Bricket Wood is suffering quite a bit; at least one pub is closed there. One that was just outside Bricket Wood suffered as it relied on its trade through the back garden in the summer. A series of very bad summers meant it never really traded.”
The pub is integral to the community in his eyes: “Closing a pub is like ripping the heart out of the local community.
“You can go to a restaurant but you don’t go for the same reasons. At a pub you see friends, have a chat – it’s a totally different experience. The pub is where the community gets together.
“The reason businesses are closing is because of totally unfortunate competition from supermarkets”, adding: “They can’t compete. It’s really sad.”
On top of this, he noted the dismal fact that the country has the most heavily taxed beer in Europe, adding to a whole host of other obstacles that seem almost designed to punish the humble local pub.
“Brewing beer and buying the barley and the hops is not expensive. Beer is not expensive to make but just nearly half goes to the chancellor.”
John Bishop, from CAMRA’s South Herts branch, said the Government had a responsibility to offer businesses discount rate relief, particularly to pubs in villages, as well as a duty to scrap the beer duty escalator.
He added: “Councils do have a responsibility if the pub is below a certain turnover to give discount there, as mandatory rate relief, if it’s the only pub in a community or less than a certain cost, or the rateable value is below a certain amount.”
But ‘higher powers’ aren’t just threatening our watering holes according to Mr Bishop: “There’s also a duty on the local residents. It’s all very well moaning that their local pub is closing, but if they don’t use it they have only got themselves to blame if that pub closes.”
CAMRA compiled data on pub closures last year, which revealed on average 3.9 pubs were closing per week in the South East and London.
Claire Cain, CAMRA’s campaigns officer said: “Pubs play a vital role in the social lives of individuals and whole communities suffer when pubs are lost.”
She also provided a take on why the amount of pub goers has dropped: “Pub going has become substantially less affordable as a result of falling disposable incomes coupled with the beer duty escalator raising prices at an alarming rate.”
She added the pressure on pubs was heightened when supermarkets are able to sell alcohol at extremely cheap prices, drawing more people at home away from the sociable pub environment.
One of the many virtues of pubs for John Bishop is that they are part of our heritage, and in the case of St Albans have been here for “hundreds of years”.
He added: “They are also popular with tourists. People coming to St Albans to visit the abbey come to visit the pubs as well. They are probably as old as the abbey is.”
Our pubs have influenced a whole host of defining moments over the years; the Zombies first met at the Blacksmith’s Arms, Dickens’ Pickwick Papers was apparently inspired by a woman’s untimely end at the White Hart Hotel, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks famously housed Oliver Cromwell for a night.
With this in mind, it may be time to take a look at your local pub with fresh eyes.
It was only when it was announced HMV was to close the nation realised just how much they loved the store, and couldn’t imagine living without the familiar image of a music-loving hound.
So if you don’t want our second homes to disappear, do what you can by pulling up a bar stool, buying a drink, and relishing the wonderful British tradition that is the public house – established circa 965. How many countries can brag about that?