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The Elephant in the Snug

Jonathan Schofield, the top 16 regional pubs, and an exclusive chat with Roger Protz, Good Beer Guide editor

Written by . Published on November 1st 2010.

The Elephant in the Snug

CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide 2011 has announced Britain’s Top 16 pubs, based on customer service, decor, clientele mix, value for money, atmosphere and of course, the quality of the beer and cider.

Worse still has been the greed of the pub companies attacking tenants with their company policies but worse again the incredible stupidity of governments.

With over 4,500 pubs listed the UK has, in some respects, rarely had such a good pub scene. Especially when you think how well run many of these places are and the higher quality of the food available in many of them.

In fact there’s a new rule to going to a pub. If it isn’t a real ale pub then it’s rotten at its heart, failing in its first duty to look after its drinkers. Looking at new Manchester bars – especially in the suburbs - you can almost say the same for them.

But there’s an elephant in the snug, a problem in pub land: the boozer scene is gentrifying.

As we all know - as we can all see - basic local pubs in inner urban districts are disappearing at accelerating rates. These used to be the ‘fun’ community centre, the village hall with alcohol and entertainment. Now they are all dying and swathes of our inner cities are going ‘dry’ in terms of proper boozers – if not ‘dry in terms of discount booze stores.

As middling hotspots tool up with bar after bar of real ale watering holes, it’s hard to find an open boozer of any kind in some parts of inner Leeds.

We decided to have a few words with Roger Protz the editor of the Good Beer Guide about this.

“Has ale culture become gentrified?” I asked him.

“Maybe so,” he said. “And there's a real sadness with it. In the eighties hundreds of pubs did good business in the inner areas and people drank real ales from the Leeds brewers. Not that they called it real ale, it was just ‘beer’ to them, nobody saw the distinction. More than that the pub was at the heart of the community.”

“So what changed?”

“Latterly there’s been recession, the loss of skilled work, the loss of all work in some instances. At the same time we’ve had supermarkets charging below cost for lagers to win market share. But deeper than that has been the greed of the pub companies squeezing tenants dry with rents and charges put on beer sales. Worse again has been the incredible stupidity of governments. This means that beer has become far more expensive in pubs than the rubbish you can buy in supermarkets. ”

“Do you ever see the cycle reversing, a return to a more democratic spread of pubs?” I ask.

“It would take a very strong Chancellor to do that, and a very wise one,” says Protz. “One who realised that present policies of sticking excise duty on beer every budget in the end lowers revenues as pubs close and people take to drinking cheap beer – or vodka, or wine - at home. Of course it’s the poorer communities that this hits hardest. Why can’t governments see the social consequences of that? And on a practical level why can’t they see how counter-productive in terms of revenue for government it is?”

Protz is right to wonder why. Rather than encouraging pubs to stay open by allowing pubs to operate in a competitive environment, governments will continue to treat beer duties as an easy target and allow pub companies to asset strip. They will continue to pander to an audience that demands action against binge drinking having read bogus health reports in crappy alarmist newspapers. And the price will be that lovely community resource, the street corner boozer.

So while the picture in much of the country has never been better for boozers and ale, it’s downright dismal in others. It’s unfortunate that something as important as the pub in districts which really need a morale boost is in danger of extinction.

A legacy of New Labour is that we have lots of shiny new health centres in our inner cities, but whatever you say, there’s no fun in even the best designed clinic.

"A good pub remains a true force for good, one of those rare institutions that brings people from all walks of life together and makes them happy," says Protz.

The 16 regional CAMRA winners

These are the actual entries as they appear in the Good Beer Guide.

Yorkshire - Ferryboat, Ferry Lane, Thorganby, YO19 6DD
This warm and welcoming local CAMRA award winning pub is in a beautiful rural setting with a large beer garden running down to the River Derwent. It is popular with birdwatchers, ramblers and cyclists, while the river attracts fishermen and boaters. Run by the same family for more than 60 years, the landlady makes beautiful home-made sandwiches and the landlord gives meticulous attention to his guest beers. Dogs are welcome in the garden.

Greater Manchester -
Knott Bar, 347 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 4LY

A well-established venue with a great mix of customers serving both local and national brewery beers. The excellent public transport links make this an ideal start / end point for a pub crawl. Food is served 12-8pm daily, with monthly themed epicurean nights a speciality. There is always a real cider available from a box, together with an extensive selection of foreign bottled beers. For our review from two years ago click here.

North West
Taps, Henry Street, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, FY8 5LE

This multi award-winning one-roomed pub has six varying guest beers including a cask mild. The pub supports the local lifeboat and rugby team, and much memorabilia is displayed. The landlord is the only person to win Branch Pub of the Year in two different pubs. The venue stocks a regular changing real cider.

Merseyside / Cheshire / North Wales - Brewery Tap, 52 Lower Bridge Street, Chester, Cheshire, CH1 1RU
Situated on the first floor of a former Jacobean banqueting hall, the pub is accessed via steps from the street. The large room has stone floors, high ceilings and tapestries, creating a terrific ambience. A comprehensive, frequently changing list of real ales from micros, many local, complements the Splitting Feathers house beers, giving drinkers a wide, balanced choice. The real cider is usually Westons Traditional scrumpy. Inventive, freshly prepared food is served. An unmissable gem.

Central Southern - The Bell, Bell Lane, Aldworth, Berkshire, RG8 9SE
In the same family for 200 years, this traditional country pub is a real gem. The ageless interior includes a one-handed grandfather clock and unusual glass-walled bar. The pub’s location makes in popular with walkers as well as locals and real ale enthusiasts. Delicious filled rolls and tasty desserts complement the excellent beer and award-winning Upton cider.

Wessex - Guide Dog, 38 Earl’s Road, Bevois Valley, Southampton, Hampshire, SO14 6SF
Closed in 1981, it reopened in 1984 as the Guide Dog after the previous landlady had raised £14,000 for the charity. Eight handpumps serve a wide range of ales, mainly from small breweries. Beer can be served in four-pint carry-out containers and jugs. Within walking distance of St Mary’s football stadium, it gets busy on match days. It hosts a variety of charity events, has a weekly meat draw on Friday, and an annual autumn beer festival.

South / Mid Wales - Ship & Castle, 1 High Street, Aberystwyth, SY23 1JG
The best just got better. A total refit has given this flagship real ale pub improved facilities while retaining its original character. A Mecca for townsfolk, students and visitors of all ages. Five draught beers are usually available, mainly from micros, alongside Westons Old Rosie and Perry. Bottled offerings include Gwynt y Ddraig cider and a small European range including Duval. Beers festivals are held in spring and autumn, and CAMRA runs occasional quiz nights.

South West - Salutation, Ham Green, Berkeley, Ham, Gloucestershire, GL13
Rural free house situated in the Severn Valley within walking distance of the Jenner Museum, Berkeley Castle and Deer Park. This friendly local sources its beers from nearby breweries and is popular with walkers and cyclists. The pub has two cosy bars, with a log fire and a skittle alley / function room. Food is served lunchtimes and early evening. There is a child-friendly garden at the front of the pub.

East Anglia - Dove, 68 Hospital Road, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP33 3JU
A traditional ale house dating back to 1837, situated just outside the town centre. There are six handpumps with some additional beers served direct from the cellar. The main bar is rustic with scrubbed floorboards, and there is a separate parlour area. No music, TV or gambling machines. The landlord and staff are knowledgeable about the beers they sell and offer a warm and friendly welcome. A high percentage of the ales are from East Anglian breweries.

Kent - Flower Pot, 98 Sandling Road, Maidstone, Kent, ME14 2RJ
Filling a gap in Maidstone’s portfolio, this genuine street-corner free house has much to offer real ale enthusiasts. The landlord is an evangelist for real ale and offers a diverse range of four guest ales to complement the two regular beers. The pub’s top bar has panelling reputed to be from HMS Victory. Home-cooked pub food is available 12-6pm daily. Frequent live music and jam nights feature, as well as occasional beer festivals. A short walk from the railway station.

Greater London - Harp, 47 Chandos Place, Covent Garden, London, WC2N 4HS
This small, friendly, independent free house has become a haven for beer choice, generally including a mild or porter, Dark Star and London micro-brewery seasonal. Real ciders, perries and malt whiskies also feature strongly. The narrow bar is adorned with mirrors, theatrical memorabilia and portraits. There is no intrusive music or TV and a cosy upstairs room provides a refuge from the busy throng to eat there are award-winning real sausages in baps.

Surrey / Sussex - Royal Oak, Friday Street, West Sussex, RH12 4QA
An isolated but welcoming low-beamed free house featuring seven real ales, which vary from local micro-brewery beers to several from a long-established relationship with brewers from Devon. There is a strong emphasis on the community and the locals, with annual events including a pantomime horse race, snail race and weed show. Food is home-cooked using produce from nearby. National Pub of the Year runner-up in 2009 and 2010.

Scotland / Northern Ireland - Albert Tavern, 2 High Street, Freuchie, Kingdom of Fife, KY15 7EX
Friendly village local, reputedly a coaching inn when nearby Falkland Palace was a royal residence. Wainscot panelling and two old brewery mirrors adorn the walls of the bar, and both bar and lounge have beamed ceilings. A TV in the lounge screens sports. Four handpumps offer weekly-changing guest beers, usually including a dark mild. Outside is a small patio area. Scottish CAMRA Pub of the Year 2002, 2009 and runner-up 2008. National Pub of the Year runner-up 2002.

North East - Surtees Arms, Chilton Lane, Ferryhill, Durham, D17 0DH
Large multi-roomed traditional pub owned by CAMRA members. Guest beers are sourced from local and national breweries and the real cider also changes regularly. Annual beer festivals are held in the summer and at Halloween. Live music and charity nights are regular events. A function room is available for private gatherings. Lunches are served on Sunday only. The pub is also home to the Yard of Ale micro-brewery, established in 2008, and its beers are permanent in the pub.

East Midlands - Crown, Church Street, Beeston, NG9 1FY
This former Hardys & Hansons house has been transformed into a cask-drinking emporium by Everards with a genuine warm welcome. A multi-roomed pub with low-beam ceilings, it has a 'confessional' snug that was once used as a hideaway for the vicar next door after a service. The four regular beers and many guests are complemented by four cask ciders and perries from breweries both local and national, with an emphasis on micros. Basic snacks and rolls are provided.

West Midlands - Beacon Hotel, 129 Bilton Street, Sedgley, DY3 1JE
This beautifully-restored Victorian tap house and tower brewery is the home of Sarah Hughes ales. The heart of this popular pub is the small island servery with hatches serving the central corridor, a small, cosy snug, and the large main room. It also has a benched tap room and a family room leading to a garden. Cobs are available. Local CAMRA Pub of the Year 2008, 2009 and 2010. The strong barley wine Snowflake is on sale during the Christmas period.

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