On history and pubs

I originally wrote this quick observation in October 2019, not long before the Covid pandemic came along and gave pubs a kicking from which many have still not yet recovered. If it was true then that pubs cannot be complacent, it’s even more so today.

The River Thames east of Tower Bridge is dotted with historical waterfront pubs, with more than a few of them claiming to be the oldest pub in London.

It makes sense, I guess. That was where the docks were, and the thirsty dock workers right along with them. That’s where the sailors were and the merchants and the thieves and the prostitutes.

There are plenty of colourful stories attached to these pubs; hanging judges settling in one pub to watch the executions, or being caught in disguise in another, trying to escape angry mobs. Pirates and captains drinking before setting out to sea. Great stuff to help a pint go down. But is that enough to make a pub good?

I visited two such pubs recently. One of them was good, the other was not. Both traded on their history to draw people in, but one left it at that while the other recognised that it was only really enough to get you through the door.

One had a warm welcome, a cosy interior, good food and some interesting beers. I felt glad to have sought it out, and felt like I might well return some day. The other was functional, certainly, but also soulless. I felt I could have been anywhere. The service was swift — but the place was empty so that’s the least you’d expect. The beer choice was poor and the food menu was uninspiring. Quite simply, it was not an exciting place to be.

A bit of history attached to a pub can be fun, it can add a little layer of interest on top, but the pub underneath has to live up to it. It still has to be a good pub.

I was left feeling a little cheated by the second pub I visited; promises had been made that weren’t delivered upon. I felt like it cheapened the history that had been used to tempt me there in the first place. I won’t be going back.

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