People gather outside a pub amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London, June 28, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]
"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."
Those words, recorded in James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson in 1776, have aged well, as through all the ups and downs of history and social change, the great British pub has been a constant, reassuring presence.
For many overseas visitors, sampling pub culture is high on their list of things to do. But in recent years, for a variety of social and economic reasons, the significance of the pub as a great meeting place for conversation, argument and entertainment has been on the decline.
According to the British Beer and Pub Association, in 2000 there were 60,800 pubs in the United Kingdom, but by 2018 that figure was 47,600.
The novel coronavirus lockdown has hit the sector hard, and as pubs reopen this weekend, social distancing rules will make the pub experience look and feel very different. So what does the future hold for this cornerstone of the British way of life?
Coming from two generations of pub owners, Adrian Posnett is well steeped in pub culture. He is managing director of Oakham Ales, a brewery based in Peterborough, whose beers have won a string of national awards and can be found in pubs and shops across the country, as well as exported as far afield as Finland, Thailand and Hong Kong. He said he fears how pub culture will adapt to the new era.
"About 75 percent of Oakham's business is through pubs which have been shut, so of course there's a sigh of relief they're opening again, but people's health is more important than having a drink," he said.
Fear of infection
"Some people won't want to come back because they don't want to risk infection in a crowded venue. Then there will be those who'd like to, but who will be turned off by the thought of registering at the door, sitting behind screens, and rules on things like how you use the toilets. Then there will be others who realize it's cheaper to drink at home－will they want to come back at all?"
Offloading a delivery of beer that arrived the day before lockdown was imposed forced Oakham to open an online shop, which has proved a handy financial lifeline, but Posnett said the risk is more than just economic.
"It's been such a kick in the teeth to the sector," he said.
A part of British culture is in real danger of changing. The pub is not just about selling beer, it's about everything that goes around it. Maybe in two years' time things will get back to normal, and all this will be a thing of the past, but at the moment, we don't know.
"People in this country take pubs for granted but people from overseas love pub culture. Other countries have nice bars but they're not unique like our pubs. We must do all we can to keep pubs as they are."
It would be hard to find some more conforming to overseas' visitors of a traditional British pub like the Dog and Pheasant, in the village of Brook in the Surrey hills, in Southeast England.
Reopening a challenge
A 15th century coaching inn with three open fires and low ceilings, it was designed as a snug place to spend time with friends, and owner Dave Hall said that reopening poses many challenges.
"The reason that people come to us is precisely for that intimacy which is the opposite of social distancing," he said. "Until we're out the other side of this thing, that aspect of our pub is lost. Fortunately we have a big garden, so as long as the weather is good we can capitalise on that, but people who do come here have to behave responsibly or before you know it, we'll be closed down again, and this time businesses won't survive. Anything less than 100 percent of the business we were doing previously is going to be a real dagger for us."
Hall said he was concerned at the way the reopening date has been built up in people's minds.
"The problem is that people have had this date in their heads for months－some people are calling it Super Saturday, but it's not a celebration of reopening, and that everyone should pile in, but I worry that this is what will happen.
"Particularly in big towns and town centers, it's going to be so hard to manage. Once you get people drinking, they won't be alert and their inhibitions will go, because they won't think about distancing."
For pub owners, reopening will be a welcome relief, but, Hall said, everyone needs to realize it is not business as usual.
"We've missed so much trade that financially, it's hard to not look a gift horse in the mouth, but people coming expecting it to be a pub as it has been for years－it's not that pub any more, and at the moment, it shouldn't be," he said.
"This isn't 'let's all do the conga' time. This thing hasn't gone away, we're still in it. Reopening is just one step on the road to try and get our lives back."