A busy yet serene pub at the heart of a thriving village community is an image most of us are familiar with. The reality, however, is that there has been a decline in the number and usage of these community hubs. In 2018, the Office for National Statistics found that 23% of pubs across the UK had closed between 2008 and 2018.
The reasons for this are interrelated and varied but include changes in the behaviour of consumers and legislation. Examples of this include the rise of home entertainment, and changing drinking habits towards healthier lifestyles.
As a result, village pubs are having to think about how to remarket themselves and diversify in order to survive. Between 2009 and 2013, I conducted 66 interviews with village residents, pub goers and local service providers across 25 villages in Lincolnshire in the east of England to research how they viewed and experienced the rural pub. This shed light on some ways in which villages can save these institutions.
For many people, the village pub is more than a place to drink. They see their pub as social hubs that carry a lot of history and heritage. One village resident I interviewed said:
What makes our local is not just its locality but its identity, the fact that the beer mats, pictures and trophies tell stories of the village and its residents.
Given that village residents often place high value on the social and cultural value of the local pub, it is unsurprising that some pubs are explicitly turning to these to further sustain both the pub and the local community. Efforts have ranged from setting up community cafes to offering services, such as grocery stores or post offices.
Throughout Lincolnshire, book clubs and libraries in pubs are becoming more familiar. The village of Leasingham is one example. Here the community-owned pub introduced a book corner where residents can donate, swap and read books in a dedicated space.
Facets like this offer residents a space to network, which can help sustain a rural community. As one pub manager from another village noted:
Pubs by their very nature can enhance residents’ social lives and I feel I have a responsibility to adopt some practices such as a book club, which result in a higher social return for residents over an economic return for me.
While this pub manager sees the return as social, there is some evidence that such moves can increase pub business, from the sale of hot drinks in the day, for example, which help to contribute to a pub’s sustainability – the Sun Inn, in West Yorkshire is among several where this has happened.
History and heritage
Other pubs have been trying to draw in more custom with things like beer brewed on the premises. Some pubs have sought to emphasise their importance to the local community by decorating with stories and photos of residents from periods like Armistice Day.
Others have highlighted their connections to popular myths or local figures. One such pub is The Bull in Rippingale, Lincolnshire. Around the premises pictures and newspaper clippings adorn the walls celebrating its connection to the BBC radio drama The Archers. Pub regular and local farmer, Henry Burtt suggested the idea of The Archers to the BBC in 1946.
Through public engagement events and my research, I have shown that this type of diversification is looked upon favourably by residents. Along with case study examples by Pub is the Hub, an online initiative that supports local pubs, this type of diversification can rejuvenate community interest in such drinking houses, leading to wider usage by residents.
The Allan Ramsay Hotel near Edinburgh in Scotland is an example of this. After asking customers what they wanted, the pub owners decided to foreground their connection to the poet Allan Ramsay and his son Allan Junior, the painter. They did so by offering walks featured in the elder’s poetry and filling the pub with Ramsay paraphernalia, including portraits by the younger Ramsay. As a result, there has been increased community usage, with the pub becoming a focal point for local activities, and a destination to visit.
By explicitly diversifying their cultural offering, combined with more traditional methods such as offering good quality food, village pubs and their communities are able to bring their history and heritage to the fore. In doing so, they are able to showcase memories and stories which can act as a magnet to attract new customers while sustaining existing users.