What Is the Great British Pub and how does it work?
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This week I want to talk about something which is a great part of British culture – and which is sadly in decline. ‘In decline’ means something that is becoming less important or there are fewer of them. In this case, it’s the great British pub that is ‘in decline’. Now just in case you don’t know what a pub is, it stands for ‘public house’. And if you’ve ever been to the UK, you’re quite likely to have visited a pub. You’ll certainly have seen them. They are all over the place – from city centres, to high streets in small villages to right out in the countryside, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. That means there is nothing else around them, no other buildings nearby. Sometimes those are the best kind of pubs! And pubs are places where often you can get a drink, either an alcoholic drink, or a coffee, something to eat, whether that’s a packet of crisps, a bar snack or a full meal of several courses. Pubs open in the morning – and close usually around 11pm, though there are some which have permission, which have licence to open for 24 hours a day. Few pubs do this though. Generally speaking you have to be over 18 in the UK to go into a pub and buy alcohol. You can take children into a pub to have a meal, and as long as it isn’t past 12 midnight, that’s OK, though they can’t drink alcohol. Seems reasonable to me!
Sadly, the number of pubs in the UK is declining year on year. There are currently around 50,000 pubs in the UK, down from 60,000 in 1997. Given that there were 99,000 pubs in 1905 it’s been a slow decline – but it seems to have become a faster decline in recent years.
Pubs closing down is due to all kinds of factors. Apparently because of taxes, pubs are much more expensive to run – and therefore much harder to make a profit from. Tax is the money that governments collect – so in the example of pubs, the government take a part of the price of a drink, in alcohol tax. They also charge VAT on any food that’s sold. VAT stands for Value Added Tax. If you live in Europe, you’ll know all about VAT. I’m not quite sure what value it is that’s added – it’s just the government take money really – but it is added to the cost of almost anything that we buy. Anyway – supermarkets don’t pay VAT on food, but pubs do. So it’s more difficult to make a profit from running a pub. And when I say ‘make a profit’ – that means make money out of a business.
So part of the reason for the decline is that it costs people much more to drink their alcoholic drinks in the pub, than it does to buy alcohol from the supermarket and drink it at home or at their friend’s house. One of the things which young people in the UK do is ‘pre-drinks’. This means going round to someone else’s house and having a few drinks, before you go out – so that the night out is not quite so expensive.
But pubs are fighting back – and it’s unusual to find a pub nowadays which doesn’t also serve food – and there is some really nice food served in pubs today. The quality of food served in pubs has improved over the last few years and you can get quite good food and a very good menu. Pubs also like to rival coffee shops during the day. So instead of sitting in Costa Coffee or Starbucks, you could sit in your local pub as they serve good coffee during the day and provide you with an alternative. There are also some other elements to the pub, which keep it popular – you can play games in pubs – pool or snooker or darts – and of course, there’s always the favourite, the pub quiz. Some pubs have gardens that you can sit in, in the summer – and many in town centres and cities have chairs and tables out on the pavement at the front when it’s warm too. In some pubs, usually the ones in cities, they sometimes have live music – so a band playing to the people in the pub. So the pub is a good British tradition anywhere, but in a small village, it can really be the centre of village life. Pubs need to be preserved – so, if you come to visit the UK, please visit a pub – so that you can experience what it’s like, but also so that you can play a small part in preserving the great British pub. If you don’t drink alcohol – it doesn’t matter, they serve plenty of other food and types of drinks.
One of the slightly strange things about British pubs often is their names – but it is all part of the tradition. A pub must have a name – and though many have traditional names, there are also lots with strange and memorable names too. Often they’re called things like The Kings Head or the Swan or the White Hart. Some of these names are puzzling to people from the UK sometimes – so you may find them strange too. It helps to bear in mind that many pubs are ancient – there are even a few pubs from the 1200s – so sometimes there is a lot of history behind the name. And the names come from a different time in history. The most common name for a pub in the UK is The Red Lion. In fact, there are over 500 pubs in the UK called the Red Lion. Yes, if you are puzzling over that – a lion is the animal that roars and which you’ll find in Africa. There aren’t many lions in the UK then – but the Lion is a common symbol in UK history for various royal families. So a name like the Red Lion or The Crown or the White Hart may reflect the fact that at some point in history, a king of England is meant to have had a drink there – and that was his symbol for his family. You have to bear in mind that many pubs come from a time where most people couldn’t read or write – so it was really useful to have a memorable name – and of course, a lovely pub sign with a picture hanging outside the pub – so people who couldn’t read, knew which pub you were talking about.
Nowadays, we all use satellite navigation or satnav to find our way around, but if ever anyone in the UK gives you directions, if they’re explaining how to get to a place, they may well mention a pub name or two to help you find your way.
So they might say – ‘Drive along the road until you come to a roundabout, then turn right. Then you’ll come to the Black Horse, at which you take a left. Then you’ll pass a garage and a supermarket, and another pub, called the Queen’s Head. After that, turn right by the Fox & Hounds, and you’ll be there’. Well as long as you’ve understood that these are pub names, you should be fine. If you hadn’t realised that, then good luck with finding your way with those directions.
Anyway, maybe we’ll talk more about pubs and pub names another time – it’s such a great part of British culture. Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.