Raising a glass to pub tradition

Drink: As more English public houses fall prey to homogenization, some have vowed to retain their centuries-old ways.

October 05, 1999|By BILL GLAUBER | BILL GLAUBER,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ALDWORTH, England -- The Bell Inn is a bar, two rooms and adjoining cricket field. It's worn wooden benches, sweet amber beer and warm winter soup. It's Ian Macaulay, a pipe-smoking, 73-year-old pub patriarch who presides over a family-run business handed down through five generations of the same family.

And it's among the hardy survivors of a cherished tradition -- the British country pub.

"I suppose with the patrons, in the back of their minds, this is what a pub should be," Macaulay says. "It's sheer nostalgia."

Britain's pub industry may be changing, but not the Bell Inn. While the trade grows increasingly corporate and upscale, the Bell remains fiercely independent and true to its 14th-century roots.

In a village of 200 people, an hour's drive west of London, there remains a place where a community comes together for pints, darts and laughs.

This is where the village cricket team gathers and plays, where hikers have a bite to eat before heading to the hills, where commuters grab a drink on the way home and where city folk flock on sunny summer weekends.

The Macaulays live upstairs. The drinkers are downstairs.

"A lot of our customers say, `For God's sake, don't change a thing. We like the pub the way it is,' " Macaulay says.

Marketers and government ministers may be trying to sell the world on the notion of Britain as a modern, fashionable nation. Yet for many here, the country's defining characteristic can be found in the pub, which is short for public house.

"Pubs have been around for 1,000 years," says Peter Haydon, a pub historian who is the general secretary for the Society of Independent Brewers, a trade association. "We've gone without the church, monarchy and Parliament, but not without the pub. If you're English, sooner or later, you go to a pub."

Thousands of choices

The country seems to be spoiled for choices, with nearly 61,000 pubs catering to the needs of the six in 10 adult Britons who count themselves pub-goers. From the plush Victorian-style drinking parlors of Liverpool to the simple village pubs that dot the landscape, there is a place to suit the most discriminating of drinkers.

Pubs are a multibillion-dollar industry. The key players are big breweries and pub companies that oversee two-thirds of the country's pubs and set the nation's drinking trends.

The sheer size of the pub trade was illustrated during the summer when a boardroom beer fight erupted as Allied Domecq PLC shed its 3,500-pub chain. Whitbread PLC, a brewing and leisure company, and Punch Taverns engaged in a takeover battle that eventually topped $4 billion. Punch won.

Critics of Britain's corporate pub culture claim that big business dominance is pushing out the small-fry independents, limiting the choice of beers on tap, and causing a "McDonaldization" of the industry. The chains counter that they've poured millions into sprucing up pubs, making them cleaner, friendlier and more accessible for families.

In a country where value for money is a national mantra, cheap and cheerful sells. So do gimmicks. Over the years, cold lager beers have pushed out the more traditional bitters and ales. Theme venues have also sprouted up, from Irish pubs with stout on tap and traditional bands on stage, to Australian bars overflowing with cold beer and sporting paraphernalia from Down Under.

There are even pub-discos.

No gimmicks at the Bell

But at the Bell Inn, they serve up beer, soup, sandwiches and nostalgia in equal portions.

Step inside the red brick building that was once a manor hall. Belly up to the small bar. Watch strong-armed, 31-year-old Jane Macaulay literally pull the beer up from the basement as she yanks the tap that is nearly as old as the century. One pull for a half-pint. Two pulls for a pint. Like her mother, Heather, whose family links with the pub go back 200 years, Jane Macaulay has never known any other business. She started as an 8-year-old running sandwiches from the kitchen to the customers.

"I was bred into this," she says.

On the left side of the pub is a small timbered room, with three tables, benches, an enormous fireplace and a dart board. On the right side is another room where patrons sit in brick-walled nooks that once housed bread ovens.

There's one indoor toilet for women. The men go outdoors, under the skies, to what is called "The Planetarium."

Nobody complains.

"This place never changes," says Steve Freeman, a 65-year-old who has been coming here since 1954, when as a member of Oxford University's cycling club he was served Sunday tea by Jane Macaulay's grandmother.

"With pubs, there are a few good ones, lots of bad ones, and in between, some awful ones," Freeman says. "They're all going to a standard format."

Reflection of another time

With standardization, a little history is lost. But the Bell Inn goes back to another time, before paved roads and motor cars, when commuting meant farmers driving sheep and cattle to market. Pubs served the passing trade, with drink, food and a place to sleep for man and beast.

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