Pubs in our lives

by Steve Renshaw

During October, as part of the Community Pubs campaign, CAMRA is highlighting the part that pubs play in people’s lives. New research shows that many of us use pubs to celebrate landmarks in our lives, from wetting the baby’s head to holding a wake. This got me thinking about how pubs have become family-friendly venues, and I realised that it was linked to the availability of pub food.

When I first started visiting pubs, you might get a sandwich or cold pie at lunchtime. The highlight in the evenings was when the shellfish man came round selling bags of cockles and shrimps. And the first family room I came across was a lean-to at the back of a pub on the Norfolk coast. It had a formica-covered table and a few wobbly, wooden chairs. At that time, pubs were places for men to have a few pints after a hard day’s work, not for women and children. And not for eating meals!

Things began to change in the early 1970s when basket meals appeared. Then, chicken or scampi with chips in a basket felt like the height of sophistication. This was the time when eating out became more popular, with the growth of affordable restaurant chains. Readers of a certain age will remember feasting on prawn cocktail, rump steak and Black Forest gateau in a Berni Inn. In the face of this competition, “pub grub” expanded to include classic meals such as steak and ale pie, fish and chips, and Sunday roasts.

At the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government forced the big brewers to sell off their large pub estates. The pubcos that took over were often part of larger hospitality groups. They recognised that having a restaurant within a pub would widen the appeal and increase trade. As a result, we have seen numerous pub/restaurant chains spring up. The majority of pubs now serve hot food, and they range from budget chains offering two meals for £6 to Michelin-starred gastropubs.

Over the years, changes to the licensing laws have relaxed the restrictions on children in pubs. Each pub now has a unique set of conditions on its licence setting out how it operates. Generally speaking, the licensee can allow children in the pub, unless there is a particular licence condition preventing this. A number of pub chains now target young families by providing children’s menus and play areas.

The recently-refurbished Stags Head on Newport is a typical, modern pub/restaurant. According to its website, it has a “great family atmosphere”. I called in on a Sunday lunchtime and the place was packed. Every table in the restaurant and the extensive bar area was occupied with diners enjoying the carvery. Children are clearly welcome; there is a play area in the beer garden and a plentiful supply of high chairs inside.

I sat at the bar and was pleased to see that, despite the emphasis on food, there were four real ales on offer. As I enjoyed my drink amid the hubbub, I reflected on the way pubs have changed over the last forty years.

And what about the beer? Caledonian Deuchars IPA (3.8% ABV) was CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain in 2002. The brewery was taken over by Scottish & Newcastle in 2004 and is now part of Heineken. It’s a refreshing, pale gold bitter with a slightly floral aroma and a dry finish. A good beer for a lager drinker who wants to try real ale.

Remember, your local is for life, not just for special occasions. Visit CAMRA’s new pub database whatpub.com to find details of pubs in your area.