The Bull's Head in East Sussex is about to serve its last pints
Six pubs a day close in the UK. On Wednesday MPs and brewers hold a crisis summit to find a way to help struggling publicans, but it comes too late for Boreham Street, a one-pub village about to become a no-pub village.
By Simon Hancock
BBC News Magazine
"What's a village without a village pub?" asks one regular. "I wonder what will happen to the ghost?" says another.
There's a funereal atmosphere in the Bull's Head in Boreham Street, East Sussex. None of the regulars know the brewery is about to shut their pub - the only one in the village - until I pitch up to write an article about its final days.
I feel like a doctor breaking bad news to a patient.
They heard rumours a while back, but that's it. As they absorb the news, there's lots of forlorn staring into pints, slow shaking of heads and sharing of stories.
Jo Moon's first thought is for its afterlife, and the fate of the pub's supernatural resident.
"When this used to be a coaching inn, it's said that women were abused in the cellar.
"We had Ghostwatch in here once. A load of psychics and mystics were brought in and found loads of activity there. Dogs refuse to go down to the cellar. There's at least one ghost here."
As well as the obligatory ghost, the Bull's Head has many other hallmarks of a great British pub.
The weather-boarded building has been a hostelry since the agricultural revolution in the early 18th Century.
The cosy wood-panelled interior is lined with illustrations of the pub through the ages, and more recent snaps showing its role in the community.
One is of the clay pigeon shooting team - which includes pub regulars Jo, her husband Tony and friend Dennis White - and which uses the pub as its base.
Dennis points out the pink shirts the team wears in the photo, taken on the yearly memorial to a member who once wore a pink shirt to the pub and was ribbed mercilessly for it.
The lunchtime drink is fast starting to feel like a wake. Behind the bar, assistant manager Karl pulls the odd pint of the local bitter to keep spirits up.
Too many rules
Sadly, closing down is an all too common aspect of pub life in the UK.
This week sees the 2,000th pub closure of the past 12 months with the loss of 20,000 jobs, according to the Campaign for Real Ale.
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In 2005, an average of two or three pubs closed a week. Today that toll has risen to 39. Haunted by these statistics, the pub industry on Wednesday is staging a "crisis summit" with MPs."It's not a question of every pub being sacred, but pubs are closing unnecessarily," says Mark Hastings, of the British Beer and Pub Association.
At a time when the recession means more people drink at home after buying alcohol from supermarkets, brewers are putting their prices up, still feeling the effects of the inflationary rises in cereal last year, which Mr Hastings says we've all forgotten.
On top of this, tax on beer is up 18% since the last budget.
"The cost base of this industry has increased by £520m over the last year - you either pass this on or die, but does anyone want to pass on increased costs at this point? Of course not."
At the summit, the industry will demand a reduction in tax and an easing of the regulation they say throttles pubs across the country.
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The Bull's Head was the first pub brewer Harveys bought when it became a limited company in the 1920s.
Joint managing director Hamish Elder points out that closure is a last resort. He still holds out some hope that someone might buy it at the eleventh hour.
"The pub's been struggling for a few years now," he says.
"We have to decorate every five years, and each time we do, it costs three years income - that's income, not profit."
It is regulation rather than tax which has caused the Bull's Head the most problems, he says.
As an isolated country pub off the main sewerage line, it has had to install ever more sophisticated treatment facilities to meet ever higher demands for the purity of effluent it is permitted to pump to the treatment works.
This only affects country pubs. And there are many other rules the small business has to comply with, all coming at a cost for a pub which only serves a handful of locals.
"So many British institutions will disappear because of all this legislation," he says.
It's not that he disagrees with the principles behind the laws - facilities for the disabled, for instance - but these are applied to small pubs without any thought for the consequences.
"Pubs have been adapting for the past 1,000 years, but to adapt as much as we've had to over the past few years is asking too much of what is, after all, a mini crucible for the local economy."
What would help is to introduce a minimum price for supermarket booze, he says, as it is sold too cheaply for pubs to compete.
However successful the summit, it will be too late for the Bull's Head.
Most likely, the main focal point of Boreham Street's life will be converted into a house.
At the pub, the mourning continues: "It'll be like cutting my right arm off," reflects Dennis.
"I'll have to drive five miles to the nearest pub. I only moved here because of the Bull's Head."
But as the regulars continue to brainstorm ways of saving it, one of the problems is obvious. There are only seven regulars here.
"Everyone says it's a nice pub to drink in, but then they don't turn up," says Dennis.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I spent my toddling years (one to four) in Boreham Street. This utterly fails to mention a key reason for the death of small local pubs - the smoking ban. I can sit at home with a drink (which is cheaper), AND I can smoke without freezing to death. Everyone was warned this would happen... it's a pity no-one listened.
Mark Dollar, Exeter
Our beautiful village pub closed last week due to the bank foreclosing. The couple running it worked very hard to turn it into a great eatery. It is now rumoured to be in the hands of developers. The pub was a hub for the village community, and some of the older members now have nowhere to go to meet others. In 100s of years there will have been no time when Westow did not have a pub serving it - it's a great loss. I hope very much someone takes it on to reopen, and whilst they are at it, restore a post office/village shop service. There is certainly the opportunity.
Tracer Smart, Westow, North Yorkshire
If we are concerned as a nation, then we should do something positive: vote with our feet, and wallets, and spend the money in the pubs instead of at the supermarkets who put people out of business. They did it to the local shops, then the petrol stations and now our pubs. Who is next? Just support the pubs. Eat and drink there, and play live music.
Anne Carpenter, Clevedon, Bristol, UK
Agree with Anne - no good moaning, we have to go to the pubs, drink the (real) ale, eat the food and listen to the music. Smoking is a red herring, if we really cared, we'd go nonetheless. Edward Byard, it's not breweries, it's pubcos - thanks Mrs Thatcher, whose legislation backfired. Pubcos don't give a damn.
Alison Mason, London
I have to disagree with the comments saying vote with your feet and use the local pub. I can't afford to pay £2 for a soft drink or a pint. The ONLY option that is open to me IS the supermarket. The pubs have driven me from them with their prices.
Steve Farndale, Peterborough, Cambs
To those whingeing about the smoking ban, you should be ashamed of yourselves. I have become a more regular pub-goer as a result of the ban because my asthma is no longer an issue. Before, I couldn't go out with my friends as I couldn't breathe. My asthma developed because my parents spent my early years smoking in pubs (with me), giving me a disease for life. Stop being so selfish and try quitting. It's pathetic.
Most of the blame for the demise of the pub can be put at the door of the breweries. They charge astronomical rents, tie the landlord to buy drinks from them at exorbitant costs which they have to pass on and they also don't get much (if any) of the fruit machine takings. The only saviour will be the ending of the tie to the breweries and a limit to supermarket alcohol sales. If this doesn't happen, many more pubs will go out of business - with the loss of many jobs and the devastating impact on communities.
Edward Byard, Oxford
It really is a sad state of affairs when you can't go to a local pub and have a drink with the locals. Instead you are forced (if you drink out) to go to gastro-pubs or wine bars and pay over the odds (I was charged £20.70 for three G&Ts the other day), sit in a sterile environment and shout at your friends over the music. I worked for six years in a village pub and they seem to be the only places where community spirit still exist. It will be a shame for yet another one to close. Bad bad times.
Surely people's changing attitude to drunk driving is also a contributory factor. I recollect country pub carparks being full 40 years ago and "one for the road" being the norm; thankfully this has changed. People now seem to drink at home, or within taxi/walking range, making isolated pubs less attractive. On the other side of the coin it seems to have changed easily accessible High Streets into cheap bar zones and, at kicking-out time, into mini war zones. The world changes... sometimes, but not always, for the better.
Tony C, Aberdeen, Scotland
A possible solution to the pubs closing and underage drinking in the UK, would be to rush through legislation stopping alcohol being sold to under 21s outside a licensed public house. Youngsters will then be drinking in a supervised environment. Prices are higher in a pub so they won't drink as much, and they will be less inclined to binge drink and are sent home when they have had to much. They won't be able to buy the cheap booze from the supermarket and get hammered before they go out just to fight and trash stuff. Everybody wins.
In times gone by, the pub was the second home for the working class man. Men got to know other men and as a consequence, communities were more united. Everyone knew each other because of the local pub. Those times are long gone and with the loss of community comes the anti-social behaviours. When a child was misbehaving, it used to be you knew the parent and could handle the situation accordingly. Now you can't, you're more likely to be abused by the parent.
I find it disappointing that the very people I know who were complaining that smoking in pubs stopped them from going are the same people still sitting at home post-smoking ban. A decent pint of ale from handpump can never be matched by anything found in a bottle or a can so forget the supermarkets, it's time folks reminded themselves what they're missing.
For me it was the smoking ban that killed the local pub. After being a regular pub goer (3-4 nights a week) most of my adult life, I now rarely visit a pub. The smoking ban took all the character, and the characters, out of the British pub. We now have bland identikit gastro pubs, which are basically restaurants with bars, full of pretentious, uptight people who want everyone to be as miserable as them.
Matt Munro, Bristol, UK
Banning smoking means that going to a pub in winter is now an ordeal. My partner and I used to go out EVERY Saturday night to eat and drink for two to three hours. Now we have a take-away (and we can actually smoke afterwards), then perhaps go for a couple of drinks later. Multiply the money I don't spend by the number of couples/groups that also do this, add in the people that now don't go out AT ALL, and there's your answer. Thank you Government for making my life less enjoyable.
Ian McColm, Sittingbourne
We must pay attention to the long list of reasons why this is happening and not concentrate on the smoking ban. A couple of minutes outside is not going to stop you from enjoying your pint with your friends in the same pub you always did. And can we also not forget the public health benefits, and the majority of the population who do not smoke - I now venture into pubs at busy times, when I would not have before without sitting next to a window. In a few year's forcing someone else to sit in cigarette smoke will seem as ludicrous as allowing people to drive their family around with no seatbelts and having drunk half a bottle of wine now seems today. However, why not have a smoking room, or enclose the area outside - the idea is to make the environment safer and more pleasant for all who want to drink and eat in pubs, not to make those who choose to smoke suffer in the cold.
People have far more ways of spending their time now and often prefer to flit between options rather than stay in one place for any length of time, and the nature of communication has changed to such an extent that pub-style conversation is becoming a dying art. In a strange way, people have become more insular and suspicious of others so that they don't value that community feel of a pub. You can see the same effect in the extent to which people no longer know their immediate neighbours - the "me" generation has lost sight of the delights of "me-and-you". A pub, to remain viable, has to be more than a community centre, it needs to sell product in a sufficient volume to cover costs and margins. It seems that people are no longer willing to spend that amount of money in the pub because they don't value the social benefits it can bring them.
Kevin Friery, Portsmouth, UK