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By James McKean
If you asked me this time last year if I thought that trips to the pub would lose their place in my weekly itinerary, I’d have laughed in your face. After spending a large portion of the last 12 months either pulling pints or seeing them away, it feels almost heretical to say that a visit to the local has become a rarity. But since coming to University, the bargain booze on offer at supermarkets and the subsidised prices of the college bar are more attractive than pricey pints in pubs to a student on a budget.
As much as it pains me, it’s all too easy to see why the pub has lost its appeal not just to the student community, but to British society as a whole. For the routine pre-lashing before club nights, a college room will do just fine for us students so long as there’s good company and a flowing supply of value vodka. On a quiet night in, the pub is also spurned in favour of the college bar which, for all intents and purposes, is your local – many even now come with the added bonus of Sky Sports. As a result,we are missing out on Oxford’s rich pub culture.
Whether it’s the snug rooms of The Bear, the heavy-metal hangout that is The Wheatsheaf or the varied selection of ales at the Royal Blenheim, it’s difficult to be disappointed by an Oxford pub. There are some great deals to look out for too – you needn’t look further than The Madding Crowd for a ‘Curry and a Quiz’ on a lazy Sunday. But what always draws me back to the bar is the chance to meet some of the finest characters this country has to offer – the landlords.
Back in my hedonistic gap yah days some friends and I had a session at The Elm Tree in the back streets of Cambridge, run by the light-blues’ equivalent of Al Murray, a man bedecked in a t-shirt emblazoned with five pint glasses forming the Olympic rings above the slogan: “British Olympic Beer Drinking Team”. Conversing with him about the Trinity College ball we’d attended the night before, he proceeded to describe how he “crashed that party back in ‘93” by pretending to be a roadie.
I’ve had similar experiences back home – most notably at The Rising Sun, an isolated gem of a pub up in the hills behind my town. The place is a time-machine which transports customers back to the 1950s, while the landlady nestles on her sofa adjacent to a roaring hearth watching EastEnders between rounds. For good measure, there’s also a 40-year-old parrot to greet you with a cockney “Allo”. We were only able to visit thanks to Google Maps and an incredibly patient cab driver. There appears to be little trade other than from the neighbouring farms and ramblers in the summer. Nevertheless, the landlady was chatty, the locals were extremely friendly and the beer was top notch. While this pub is still going strong, the days are numbered for other far flung outlets. A regular at the quaint, volunteer-run Queen’s Arms near Edenbridge in Kent advised us to enjoy it while it lasts as “it won’t be there forever.” Drink-driving legislation, the smoking ban and the skyrocketing alcohol tax makes up the cocktail of condemnation for many of Britain’s village locals.
Without a shadow of a doubt the closure of pubs is slowly but surely killing off a part of English society. Pubs are tied to our heritage – names such as the Royal Oak commemorate the tree in which Charles II hid from Roundheads during the Civil War, while the Duchess of Cambridge in Windsor was renamed after last year’s Royal Wedding. Village locals remain the hub of communities, while the advent of the food pub has opened up trade to a broader cross-section of society whilst retaining the loyal kernel of regular drinkers. Even Britain’s most famous pub, the fictional Queen Victoria, has made the transition from dedicated watering hole to traditional eatery in the last year. Pubs are still closing at an alarming rate – according to CAMRA 16 per week were shutting up shop in the last half of 2011 – but many are opening up with inventive ideas to capture new customers. Pubs are still the life-blood of British society, and long may they continue.