A Pie & Pint
Going for a pint’ is about the most British thing anyone can do. Settling into an authentic pub with a freshly-drawn ale, engaging in semi-informed discussions with whoever happens to be nearby is a ritual that’s been at the heart of British culture since Roman times.
But the drink element – whether it’s a pint, a Pinot or a piña colada – is only a fraction of the experience. The bricks and mahogany of a drinking establishment hold far more sway than mere liquid attractions for most people. In fact, a recent survey by the Social Issues Research Centre found that just one in four regular pub-goers would make a decision on which pub to go to based on its drink selection.
Tradition is and always has been the byword in pub design: from the almost religious grandeur of Victorian public houses in the UK’s great cities to the rustic charms of a village local, a successfully-designed pub feels familiar and welcoming – a home-from-home – even on a first visit.
Which isn’t to say that nothing changes. Notwithstanding a brief lapse of collective judgement involving bleached pine in the 1990s, many of Britain’s finest publicans are constantly raising the bar when it comes to their venues’ architecture and interior design, crafting spaces that celebrate the art of drinking, foster community, and facilitate everything that ‘going for a pint’ entails.
Yorkshire-based independent brewery Samuel Smith, which operates over 200 pubs across the country, including around 30 in London, evangelises George Orwell’s vision of the perfect pub, which he conjured with a 10-point manifesto in a 1946 essay for the Evening Standard called ‘The Moon Under Water’. The firm is currently in the midst of a year-long renovation of one of Orwell’s favourite real-life pubs, The Fitzroy Tavern on London’s Charlotte Street, which originally opened in 1897. This historical refurbishment should result in the building being returned to its original Victorian state, complete with polished mahogany shopfronts, acid-etched glass panes, wrought-iron pub signs, and a traditional glass lantern on the corner of the building. Inside, the space will be divided in the traditional way into separate snug, saloon and public bar areas (the bar for drinking, the saloon for entertaining, and snugs for naughtiness), with a strict no-music policy that Orwell would surely drink to.
Country pubs are an altogether different matter. Here there’s a preference for a more ‘olde’ style – Elizabethan, Tudor or even medieval – with open fires and assorted wellies on display; blackened oak beams in place of urban polished mahogany; diamond-pane leaded windows rather than etched glass; low ceilings, not high. The George Inn in the ultra-picturesque Wiltshire village of Lacock (which has been used as filming locations for Pride & Prejudice, Cranford, Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter franchise and more), dates back to 1361 and proudly maintains its authentically Olde English paraphernalia; a medieval dog wheel – used to turn a spit on which meat would be cooked over an open fire – is still in its original place after 800 years.
A savvy new breed of pubpreneur is, however, playing fast and loose with these entrenched town-and-country tropes. Geronimo Inns, one of the fastest-growing pub groups in London, has developed a blueprint that puts some of the best elements of country pubs – after a bit of hose down – into affluent city-centre locations.
The Builders Arms in Chelsea and The Elgin in Notting Hill still feature high ceilings and etched-glass windows, but also go big on comfy chairs, sharing tables and artfully mismatched furniture. Major-league London art dealer Ivor Braka has taken a similar approach in Norfolk, delivering The Gunton Arms, which nestles on the edge of a deer park, from rural dereliction to high society by drafting in some of the capital’s top talent – including the Prince of Wales’ interior designer Robert Kime and the former head chef of Hix Oyster and Chop House Stuart Tattersall – to create an exceptionally luxurious version of the traditional English country pub that captures its owner’s sense of style and exacting standards. One thing is for sure, whatever your interpretation of a homely interior is, you can count on Britain’s pubs to provide a perfect watering hole to suit your preference.
From the almost religious grandeur of Victorian public houses to the rustic charms of a village local, a successfully-designed pub feels familiar and welcoming
George Orwell’s 10 features of the perfect London pub
1 // The architecture and fittings must be uncompromisingly Victorian.
2 // Games, such as darts, are only played in the public bar “so that in the other bars you can walk about without the worry of flying darts”.
3 // The pub is quiet enough to talk, with the house possessing neither a radio nor a piano.
4 // The barmaids know the customers by name and take an interest in everyone.
5 // It sells tobacco and cigarettes, aspirins and stamps, and “is obliging about letting you use the telephone”.
6 // “There is a snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and…large biscuits with caraway seeds.”
7 // “Upstairs, six days a week, you
can get a good, solid lunch – for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll – for about three shillings.”
8 // “A creamy sort of draught stout… and it goes better in a pewter pot.”
9 // “They are particular about their drinking vessels at The Moon Under Water and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones… but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.”
10 // “You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden…Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while dad goes out alone.”