For the last twenty years or so the highlight of my week has been a game of cards and a few pints of Boddington's bitter in the Queen's Arms on a Saturday night (yes, I am that sad). Legend has it that it the name of the pub stems from the time Queen Victoria dropped in for a pee when changing trains at Patricroft Station during a royal visit to the North. Anyone travelling through Britain will find plenty of twee hotels boasting that some King or Queen once slept there, however, I think that this claim to fame is unique. What may or may not have been the porcelain bowl that supported the illustrious buttocks is now outside, filled with plants. There isn't a blue plaque in sight.
I have some doubts as to the provenance of the tale about the royal wee, but let's not let facts spoil a good story. It is a lovely pub too, a real family local run by a smashing couple. Last night was the same as ever except for a cloud on the horizon. The pub is to be sold and its licensees can't afford to buy it at the current asking price. Though there is a long way to go before its future is decided, it may be under threat.
The decline of the British pub is one of the sad stories of our times and it has even attracted ministerial concern. Small, traditional pubs are the ones most at risk and the blame is usually laid at the door of cheap supermarket booze and the smoking ban. They haven't helped, but you shouldn't ignore the role of the pub companies and the squeeze they put on their tenants and managers.
It all goes back to the Office of Fair Trading referring the tied house system, where breweries owned the pubs and only allowed them to sell their own beer, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1986 to investigate "the matter of the existence or the possible existence of a monopoly situation in relation to the supply of beer within the United Kingdom for retail sale on licensed premises". The fantasy was that reform would transform publicans into independent and genial hosts dispensing delicious pints of foaming ale to a grateful public. Not in contemporary corporate capitalism. The subsequent Commission report and its implementation in 1989 meant that breweries transferred ownership of their pubs, not to independent licensees, but to monopolistic pub companies.
The new chains were not using them to shift their products so they began to wring as much profit as they could out of the places and perfectly decent pubs suddenly became 'fun' pubs or identikit outlets for crummy food, with precise portion control, called something like Brewer's Fayre. The death warrant for the old fashioned boozer was signed.
Any study of social history reveals the public house as one of the great institutions of British society. Pubs were once the hub of working class radical movements and the social centre of adult communities. They held out against the demands of the moral puritans and maintained their role as meeting places in subsequent years. Many of my best friends have been people that I met through going to pubs as a regular customer. In their own way, they are fine places and an integral part of British life. Nowadays as you pass through a town you will still see plenty of open pubs, with their smokers huddled in a doorway to escape the chill, but they will be interspersed with ones that are closed and boarded up, a tangible sign of decline. It is a sad state of affairs, so it is no wonder we are all becoming so miserable.