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What is a nice old pub... if it must be new? (part 1)

June 2018


One of the pleasures of working as an architect is that it allows you to become involved in a wide variety of personal and social lives and stories as you grapple with the nuances of design on a particular project. It is even more of a pleasure when the focus of attention is the Pub.

Our practice has been commissioned to build a number of new pubs and this work has taken us on a journey of research which we have found both absorbing and revealing. This essay gathers together our insights and reflections and we are delighted to share them with a wider audience.

The Pub is much cherished in our society and we join the growing throng keen to conserve and modernise the Pub’s place in our communities. We welcome feedback and would be delighted to discuss any elements with you ...  see you down the local for a jar?

Rupert Wheeler 

The Nice Old Pub

We all have a picture in our minds of that perfect old pub. We don’t all have the same picture but, collectively, they compose a remarkably similar vision of what an old pub should look like. But how do we build that ‘nice old pub’ if we build it now. How do we make a brand new ‘old pub’? 

It’s a very real question while the country sets about tackling its housing shortage. New communities are being built across the country and they are going to need new pubs - new Community Pubs.

Community Pubs

So, what is a community pub? It is a pub - so it serves drinks. Drinks help social interaction as people’s inhibitions are eased. But community pubs do more. They provide a public indoor/outdoor space that is neither work nor home. A necessary space where people can unwind, relax and share news and gossip. They are a place to meet neighbours from different backgrounds and across the generations. A place of informal chance meetings as well as pre-arranged gatherings. A place for noisy political debate and for quieter more intimate discussions. Places to find romance, friendship, advice, comfort and help, as well as the opportunity to comfort and help others.

A community pub is of course at the heart of the community. 

To be clear, we are not talking about bars or restaurants, or restaurants posing as pubs, but pubs that serve their local communities in a wide variety of ways, in urban, sub-urban and rural settings.

In seeking to answer the question “what is a nice old pub?” we have drawn on the work of others who have previously attempted to answer this question before us.

The Moon Under Water

George Orwell, writing in The Evening Standard in 1946, described his ideal pub. Its architecture and fittings were uncompromisingly Victorian. There were regulars who sat in the same chair and were there for the conversation as much as the beer. There was a large garden, where in the summer families held parties under the shade of the large plane trees.

He also wanted liver sausage sandwiches, and barmaids who called everyone ‘dear’ – Orwell was decidedly against bars were the barmaids called you ‘ducky’. George’s ideal pub doesn’t exist now, but it didn’t exist then either. He made up “The Moon Under Water”. As an imaginative exercise it’s a good one, and it’s surprising so few since have endeavoured to update his fictional Shangri-la. 

Orwell’s ideal pub was very much to his taste and time. We need to understand today’s criteria for our ‘nice old pub’ that is brand new. One crucial element he described which is as true today as it was then: a perfect pub must have atmosphere.

George Orwell’s “ten qualities that the perfect pub should have”

  1. Architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian.
  2. A good fire burning in at least two of the bars.
  3. Quiet enough to talk.
  4. The barmaids know most of their customers by name.
  5. Sells tobacco, cigarettes, aspirins and stamps and allows you to use the telephone.
  6. Liver-sausage sandwiches.
  7. A good solid lunch.
  8. Serves draught stout.
  9. Beer served in china mugs.
  10. A nice large garden for family parties.

Health & Happiness

Community pubs have a vital role in today’s society. The public house is one of this country’s most valued and enduring institutions, but it has suffered enormously in recent decades from a lack of investment, lack of care, and lack of imagination. Since 1980 Britain has lost over 21,000 pubs - over half of those since 2006.

The State is finally recognising the value of well-run community pubs, both to society as well as to the economy. A report produced in 2012 by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) assessed the social value of community pubs, and investigated the multiple causes of their declining numbers. It quantified their true value to social cohesion, health and well-being and calculated their very significant contribution both to local economies and the national exchequer through tax revenues.

A new development in official policy is that the local community can provide a degree of protection to their local pub by listing it as an Asset of Community Value. This goes some way towards slowing the rate of closure of community pubs and demonstrates to Councils and developers that pubs should be prized elements within a local area, not threats to be contained. Across the country 1250 pubs have been listed as Assets of Community value. In addition, a Department of Communities and Local Government programme was set up in 2013 to help 80 communities take control and local ownership of their own pubs.

One example is the Anglers Rest in Bamford, Derbyshire, which was purchased in 2013 by over 300 people from the local area and is now run for community benefit. It not only houses the pub itself, but also a cafe and the local Post Office, and offers a much-needed community meeting venue, too, providing social glue and helping the regeneration of the village. Any profits generated by the Anglers Rest are reinvested back into the local community. The pub was awarded the Sheffield CAMRA “pub of the year” in 2017.

Finally, a study by Oxford Psychology Professor, Robin Dunbar, commissioned by CAMRA, showed the social and health benefits of both beer and pubs.  “Friends on Tap” published in January 2016 argues that well run community pubs provide a natural environment for face to face interaction which is the basis of friendship. These pubs act as a focal point where friends are sure to meet regularly without prior appointment, new friends are made, and healthy social networks and collaborations are formed, contributing to a stronger community spirit. 

The research reveals that people with a local pub have more close friends, are happier, more trusting of others and feel more engaged with their wider community.

The social benefits of a community pub are clear. So how do we create a brand-new community pub for a new community? As with many things we build on the traditions of the past and adapt them for today.

CAMRA has also been campaigning effectively and today’s youth are rediscovering the taste for real ale. New small breweries are being set up throughout the country, bringing innovation and energy to the industry. Although many valued regional breweries have expired over the last century, the business is no longer wholly dominated by a few national companies.

The smoking ban of 2007, the dramatic increase in eating out and the subsequent demise of the male “boozer” has encouraged a greater female use of pubs. Pubs that recognised the opportunity to almost double their customer base have adapted and embraced this trend, and those that haven’t have often closed. The changes include a greater emphasis on cleanliness, a polite welcome, attractive toilets, a greater choice of soft drinks, teas and coffees and more comfortable seating … women, unlike men, prefer to sit down.


Origins of the Pub

We can learn much from the pub’s complex history. Pubs grew out of three main distinct licensed entities, The Alehouse, the Tavern and the Inn. In the earliest alehouses, ale (rather than beer) was both brewed and sold from the home, the fact advertised with a pole garlanded with foliage outside the door. 

Taverns sold wine for richer folk, while the Inn served the traveller and was often purpose built with bedrooms and stabling for horses. Licensing laws, fashions, changing social attitudes to drinking, the relentless march of economics, changing work patterns and changing lifestyles have influenced the style of the operation and architectural fabric of pubs over centuries.

But by studying the historical evolution of pubs, we have sought to identify some of the enduring and essential features of the pub which should be absorbed into pub design today. Here are some threads that we believe guide the evolution of the pub and its design.

Houses for the Public

The secret is in the name, “the public house”. With its roots in the domestic alehouse, it has always been a part of local neighbourhood and an extension of the living room. Although the built form has evolved, this concept has endured. Even the more up market inns were often the squire’s manor house repurposed while the owner was away.

A Warm Welcome

The pub’s place in the tapestry of life is that it serves as a place of welcome to people from all walks of life. Inns and Taverns, which form an important part of the historic pub landscape, were built to provide hospitality for the traveller. The inclusive nature of a resting spot gives rise to many stories in the UK’s oldest and most enduring pubs that tell of knights and kings who drank within their walls, alongside men and women from all other social ranks.

Telling Historical Stories

Pubs are deeply embedded within British culture because so much history has been enacted with their walls. They should provide the space for personal histories and shared histories to grow, be nurtured and retold.

Beneficial for Society

Pubs have always been socially beneficial. The earliest alehouses helped the poorest in society as a means of generating an income.  Later, during times of increased secularisation, the pub took over from the church in providing a centre to the community along with a physical space for gatherings. This civic role of the pub is now recognised in current government policy.

Ability to adapt


The pub as a typology has always been heavily influenced by changing politics, technology, and fashion but it is a resilient institution which has shown the ability to change and adapt. This flexibility responds to local needs as well as commercial competition. Pubs have suffered during times when they tend towards monopolies.

Moving forward

The opportunity to relaunch the pub for the next generation is here, and we have established some principles for their purpose. But, what should they to look like?

We know of no other building type that is so trapped in its historic sense of style as the British pub. Even the most diehard modernist struggles to escape the stranglehold that the Victorian era seems to have over the building type. Those arch modernists that visited the Architectural Press in Queen’s Gate many years ago all revelled in the dingy Victorian splendour of the Bride of Denmark, its basement pub, without the slightest sense of irony. Here is Frank Lloyd Wright looking quite at home propping up the bar at the Bride moments after delivering a lecture on his vision for the future of architecture to his learned colleagues.

“I believe the so-called modern style to be the only genuine architectural expression of this century …. but what should the modern Pub look like then? Well the trouble is that I don’t know. All I know is that there are plenty of young architects about who like the old pubs and would love to have a chance to build new ones, with the same English feeling about them as the old pubs have.” Nicholas Pevsner

The only design criteria Pevsner could suggest was that “the Pub is a beery place and, in our climate, it must be sheltered, low, cosy - for people to stand together. The function of the pub is company, human nearness, full relaxation, snugness, not smugness”.

We want to do what Pevsner couldn’t - to put forward design criteria for a successful new build community pub. Before we do so, we have one caveat that is: a well-designed building alone does not equate to the perfect pub; it is the people that make a place, not the building. You need people, you need the function - the sale of beer and other drinks - then you need the space. 

What architecture and design can do is: 

  • create the best environment for a community pub to establish; 
  • encourage interaction by providing the space for people - young and old, male and female - to meet and relax with their friends, neighbours and local community;
  • form spaces that function well for the sale of alcohol (and many other drinks) and food and accommodation. 



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