The National Pub Design Awards 2017
Today the context for the Great British Pub appears, on the face of it, to be irredeemably gloomy. The Economist reported at the end of 2017 that ‘the public house, linchpin of British nightlife, is in decline… The number of hostelries has fallen by 25% since 1982, to 50,800, though Britain's population has risen by 17% [and] the decline has been especially pronounced in London, where the number of pubs and bars fell from 4,835 in 2001 to just 3,615 in 2016.' Rising house prices tempt pub owners to sell their properties for residential conversion for a quick profit, while spiralling business rates have helped to accelerate the pace of closures – nearly 30,000 of Britain's pubs having closed their doors since the mid-1970s. 29 pubs a week, say CAMRA, are now shutting. So how do we stem the tide?
Yet look closer, and in many ways the great British pub – or at least those which are still with us – is in very good health. Those pubs which are surviving are largely doing so because they are paying close attention to the very factors which brought them new and repeat business over the decades: not just to the quality of the beer they offer, nor to the excellence of the food they serve, but to the very environment of the pub itself – an environment in which architecture, layout, furnishings and décor are all designed to reflect the tastes and aspirations of their customers.
As the Pub Design Awards – now in its 30th year – have always preached, pub architecture and decoration is the one key element that can make or break a pub, particularly in today's harsh and competitive economic climate. Significantly, our 2017 winners celebrate an enormously wide variety of building styles and contexts: from a modern newbuild to an historic High Street landmark, from a cinema conversion to an interwar roadhouse. The sheer diversity of these winners, and their evident commercial success, show just how vibrant a pub can be – and what an agent of regeneration it can provide – if treated with respect and sensitivity for both building and clientele.
This year, the Conversion to Pub Use award goes to The Bowland Beer Hall in Clitheroe, Lancashire. This splendid conversion of a former textile mill by local architects Charles Stanton is the centrepiece of a larger regeneration scheme which already includes an impressive food hall, showcasing wonderful regional produce, and will eventually feature a gym and hotel. The pub boasts the longest bar in Britain – 105 feet, they say, which hosts an impressive 42 handpulls – whose design suitably reflects the industrial-aesthetic idiom used throughout the building.
The bar in the machinery room is equally sympathetic, while the new additions combine a sturdy aesthetic with tongue-in-cheek humour typical of this part of Lancashire. Yes, the walls and floors are full of heritage ‘clutter'; but then the original mill's working floors would have been littered with objects and belts, too. Even the bespoke smoking shelter in the car park was praised by one of the judges for ‘getting the industrial aesthetic absolutely spot-on.' A worthy winner and a demonstration of how new pubs can transform a quarter.
Highly Commended in the Conversion to Pub Use category is Wetherspoon's Caley Picture House in Edinburgh. This monumental cinema of 1922-3 by J S Richardson and J R Mackay combines fashionably pompous Edwardian Beaux-Arts detailing with innovative forms which cannily prefigure the Art Deco craze of some years later. The cinema closed in 1984 and was converted into a rock venue, which hosted the likes of Wishbone Ash, Queen and AC/DC. Today, though, the original 1920s interior decorative scheme and plan is still intact, thanks to the sensitive work of Manchester architects Harrison Ince. The glazed oak doors, oak panelled foyer, the sunburst plaster panels, the Art Deco stained-glass fanlights and the cod-Rococo plasterwork are all there, as is the arched, pilastered proscenium which shelters one of the two bars.
The new pub is spread over all three floors, its modern fittings designed to blend with the historic decoration, and the ground-level foyer is appropriately decorated with film photos and a large projector. The main kitchen, situated at the back of what would have been the stalls, is fashionably open to view. But then there always have to be some compromises.
The Conservation award goes this year to J D Wetherspoon's imposing suburban landmark The Greenwood in Northolt, Middlesex. This vast neo-Georgian roadhouse of the late 1930s, originally built for Courage by their in-house architects as one of their flagship ‘improved houses', is rightly listed Grade II. Outside, the butterfly plan maximises the natural light able to permeate the building, while the original entrance to the off-sales shop (a concept which only older listeners will now recall) is, surprisingly, also still there. Inside, the original fireplaces, bar and panelling are still in evidence, as is the large ‘Assembly Hall' function room and billiard room. Even the 1930s light fittings and brass door handles are still to be found – a rare survival in this age of overnight obsolescence. As the listing details state, the architecture of The Greenwood ‘epitomises the restrained respectability of the suburbs in their interwar heyday'. Still a hub for the local community today as it was in 1939, the fine, sympathetic conservation work executed here shows how subtlety and respect can often achieve more than big-budget transformation.
The Refurbishment award goes this year to Samuel Smith's the The Fitzroy Tavern in London's Fitzrovia. Originally built as The Fitzroy Coffee House in 1883, the structure was converted into a pub in 1897, at the height of the late Victorian pub-building boom. (The pub's first name was ‘The Hundred Marks', in reference to the large number of German immigrants living locally, and only earned its current title in 1919.) Samuel Smith's refurbishment was aimed at returning the pub as close as possible to its 1897 guise; to that end, as at the same owners' ‘Princess Louise' in Holborn, they have restored the late-Victorian room plan.
The new partitions have been adapted from sustainably-sourced mahogany timber shopfronts, and the wrought-iron pub signs and new glass lantern at the corner of the building are particularly welcome. The surviving tiling has been sensitively restored, the ceiling's heavy-duty ‘lincrusta' covering is now in pristine condition, the new, etched- and cut-class window panes highly appropriate, and the new wallpapers are well-chosen. Upstairs the repro carpets work well, the panelling is nicely done, and again the complex room plan of the 1890s has been revived. Not everything is ideal: the clumsily-stained contemporary board-panelling in the north-western bar, for example, jars horribly when compared to the more authentically Victorianised areas. But most of the other interiors have been handled with style and sympathy, resulting in a pub which, once again, can serve a variety of audiences and purposes with ease.
Highly Commended in the Refurbishment category is the The Board Inn in Bridlington in Yorkshire's East Riding. This seventeenth-century pub is a major landmark on the town's High Street, and indeed its refurbishment – by local entrepreneurs Joanne and Paul Wheeler – was a key component in East Riding Council's regeneration of the whole of the historic Old Town. The pub's interior has been carefully treated, with historically-sensitive wooden floors repaired and much painted wooden panelling restored. Pictures and decorations are kept to a minimum, although some walled areas feature naked brickwork stripped of plaster – a hideous cliché of the mid-2010s which we thought had gone for good.
The other rooms are nicely distinguished from each other in terms of decor and comfort and constitute; in the words of one judge, ‘some of the best ‘traditional' pub rooms I have been in in a long time.' The pleasingly low light levels throughout (why are so many pub interiors illuminated as if they were a football pitch?) illuminate a bizarre taxidermied menagerie, ranging from an impala head to a massive wild pike ‘caught [in] 1928 in Louth, Lincolnshire by Dr Watts.' Both Dr Watts and his pike would, we think, have been extremely pleased with the pub's fine restoration.
This year the rarely-given New Build award is being presented – to the The Sail Loft in Greenwich, south-east London. This pub – which has been shoehorned into the ground floor of a nondescript new housing block – has a coherence and attractive ambience rare in modern commercial architecture, with floor-to-ceiling glazing, finishes of decent quality, a well-crafted island servery and very pleasant seating all around. Promising new build pubs are short in supply: the Sail Loft, as a tasteful and enterprising piece of modern design by architects Gardner Stewart, is a welcome example of how to do it well. As a sharp contrast, not far inland are two derelict, long-dead old pubs which highlight what can happen when pub design does not move with the times.
This year, the Pub Design Awards judges have celebrated six markedly different pubs and locations. Diverse they may be, but they all point to a bright and profitable future for the concept of the traditional British pub – at least if the owner looks to design and customers rather than short-term property profits.
All of this year's winners demonstrate what can be done to stem the tide of closure and decline if you choose common sense and visual flair over cynical opportunism and short-sighted greed. And they show how the pub can be as relevant to the Britons of 2018 as it was to our forebears of 1918.
Professor Steven Parissien
Chief Executive, Compton Verney