Cry into your beer over the strange death of country pubs

First published in the Sunday Times on 9th April 2017.

Sometimes you just have to accept defeat, and move on. So it proved for me recently, in the case of The Red Lion pub. Four years ago, I bought the only pub serving a village called Cradley in Herefordshire, near Malvern. I have a home nearby, and The Red Lion had fallen into the hands of the bank, who were very keen sellers. At £200,000 for the freehold it seemed a bargain — a sizeable property with a decent garden. I thought it would be fun to own the village’s only hostelry, and might help keep a sense of community in the neighbourhood.

On inspection I realised some investment in the building was needed — another £50,000 or so, since it appeared that not much had been done to the premises for some years. Meanwhile, I had to install security measures to protect the structure — thieves stripped lead from the roof, which cost thousands to replace. Council bureaucrats, from planners to environmental health officers, added to the challenges.

A local retired chap who had worked in the licensed trade found me a nice couple to manage it. They moved in and relaunched the place. The management wages were not too onerous since they enjoyed free accommodation upstairs at the pub, and there was no rent for me to pay on the premises. I just about broke even, but trade was slow — only £4,000 of takings a week, or less.

Traditional boozers have suffered because of the decline in beer consumption, and ferocious competition from off-trade sales — retailers marketing alcohol for people to drink at home. Supermarkets sell the same branded drinks for about a third of the pub price — partly because of the heavy burden of tax suffered by pubs. Pubs typically fork out about 40% of their overall takings in tax — VAT, business rates, national insurance, excise duties, corporation tax and so forth. This is an unsustainable burden, and will lead to many more shutting, especially in rural areas.

One might argue that the demise of the country pub is not all bad — times change, a fall in alcohol consumption means citizens are healthier and so forth. But inns are part of the fabric of British society.

In most high streets they represent the one constant. All the other shops change but the tavern has retained its function, often for hundreds of years. Pubs are a venue for people to meet and socialise. They are places for conversation, for laughter, for music, darts or a quiz. They should be convivial, welcoming locations, offering a meal and liquid refreshment to everyone — locals and passers-by.

Pubs are an antidote to a digital universe, where everyone is glued to a screen and has almost forgotten how to chat, gossip, exchange ideas and make jokes.

Herefordshire is one of England’s poorest, most rural counties. Four pubs near The Red Lion have shut over recent years, so it was almost the only traditional licensed house for miles around. Our pub landlord got tired of working seven days a week, and managing an operation that struggled to attract sufficient custom through the dark winter months. He left, and I found it very hard to recruit a replacement.

After six months, another couple agreed to take the job and we refurbished the living quarters for them. I also bought more neighbouring land to expand the car park. But after the closure, business was slow to pick up, and never recovered to previous levels. Finding a chef who could prepare good food was a problem. Meanwhile, it became increasingly difficult to ascertain from the manager a picture of the finances. I had to regularly inject cash to pay the monthly wages.

The manager left suddenly last month, and once more The Red Lion is shut. I have run out of patience. I shall try to sell the building and hope that someone else can make a go of it. I was probably too hands off and did not invest enough.

From toasting a birthday, to celebrating a new job, to commiserating over a failed harvest, pubs still lie at the heart of British culture. For centuries they have provided warmth, sustenance, comradery and sanctuary from the vicissitudes of daily life. City bars will still prosper, with craft beers and high-quality food, but that urban business model does not work in countryside locations. Ever rising tax and regulation, on top of changing tastes, are killing the independent local. It is a shame that somehow we do not value these enduring national symbols a little more.