British pubs are struggling to survive as work and leisure habits change

A sign hangs above the bar of a 200-year-old pub in southeast London: “For the people of East Greenwich, by the people of East Greenwich.”

What sounds like a catchy slogan is actually the truth. The Star of Greenwich, which almost closed permanently last year, has been saved by the local community after three residents – who all have full-time jobs – came to the aid of their “local”.

“Once these things are gone, they never come back,” says James Gadsby Peet, who teamed up with two friends to take over the management of the pub. It’s not about the drinks, he says, but about “creating a community space where people can come together.”

Directors and co-founders of the Star of Greenwich community pub are Lisa Donohoe (left), James Gadsby Peet and Kirsty Dunlop.

(Joshua Bright / For The Times)

Had the trio not decided to save the Star, it would have become one of the many taverns in the British capital that closed at a record pace last year. Amid the persistent cost of living crisis and post-pandemic economic woes, 383 London pubs called for final orders in the first six months of 2023, compared to 380 in all of 2022.

Earlier this month, four sister pubs in central London – including one believed to have been frequented by two Jack the Ripper victims – were put up for sale, highlighting the difficulties of an industry synonymous with British life.

The Star (formerly Star and Garter before the new team renamed it) has been serving pints since the early 19th century, with the dark wooden beams inside believed to be from the original construction. But even his long history wasn’t enough to guarantee his future until the community rallied around him.

Pubs across the UK, not just London, are suffering a worse fate. Government figures show that from 2000 to 2019, the last full financial year before the COVID-19 pandemic, 13,600 pubs across the country, or 22% of the total, closed their doors permanently. Last week, the British Beer and Pub Assn. warned that without economic support, another 2,000 could be gone by the end of this year, potentially leading to 25,000 job losses – and 288 million fewer pints served.

Financial pressures aside, pubs – long the social glue of British communities – are increasingly falling victim to changing work and leisure habits. “Old drunks,” as they are affectionately known, struggle to survive in a world where people work in different locations at different times and have endless entertainment options on their phones and computers.

one. Musicians and guests chat at the Star of Greenwich. James Gadsby Peet said he decided to help run the pub to “create a community space where people can come together”. 2. Rolo enjoys a beer at the Star of Greenwich. 3. The Star of Greenwich was on the verge of closure before the community stepped in to save it. (Photos by Joshua Bright / For The Times)

Charo Havermans, a historian at University College London who studies the role of pubs in public life, says such establishments remain important and inclusive meeting places even at a time when religion is in decline and communication is increasingly virtual .

“There is a real sense of community that disappears when pubs disappear,” she says. “You lose your sense of history.”

Given the crucial role pubs have played in local neighborhoods, it is perhaps no surprise that some communities have themselves stepped in to keep the lights on.

When the Step pub in north London closed in 2020, there was an outcry as property developers tried to take it over, prompting Dan Jones, who has lived here for four years, to consider a different solution: “Why are we trying not to buy it?” as a community?

He distributed leaflets and within a few weeks “very quickly realized that there was a great appetite” to implement his plan. The campaign pledged hundreds of people to invest in a fundraiser, and within four weeks it raised $357,000 – well above the $319,000 goal – which was supplemented by a $382,000 government grant .

“We were surprised at how quickly we were able to raise the money and how we exceeded our goal,” Jones said.

He attributes this to the Step being more than just a place to drink. “It was the center of the area … so people really missed that when it was gone,” he says. “And so there was this feeling of bringing it back.”

Border Collie Stanley is a favorite at the Star.

(Joshua Bright / For The Times)

Another bar savings initiative, CityStack, has bar lovers pay $32 for a special beer mat that gives them $13 off place cards of $25 or more at participating locations. The discount is valid for up to 10 visits.

At the Star in East Greenwich, Gadsby Peet admits things are “very tight” financially, even though the council-run pub only has to pay for staff behind the bar, has no management costs and is under no pressure to make a profit. The pub is currently welcoming customers from Thursday to Sunday as the team “can only open”. [at] the hours we can afford to open.”

The good Christmas business has meant that “everything is bearable at the moment,” he says, although “you never know exactly what will happen.”

The Saturday night crowd is a mix of friends, a few solo drinkers and a young couple on a date debating whether to hit the jukebox or the dartboard. The bar staff know the regulars by name and are ready to chat in a part of London best known for its role in maritime history and as the birthplace of important Tudors, including Henry VIII.

The pub was open until 2021 when its license was revoked following an outdoor stabbing. After it was announced that the building was to be sold, Gadsby Peet and Kirsty Dunlop were chatting outside the gates of their children’s school and, together with another friend, Lisa Donohoe, decided to put together a proposal to save the building.

one. A sign above the bar at the Star of Greenwich pub. 2. Pete Ribers throws a dart at an old board that still has the former name “Star of Greenwich” on it. 3. Alan Campbell (left) and Rob Calnan play the ring and hook game. (Photos by Joshua Bright / For The Times)

The building’s owners “were sold on the vision,” Gadsby Peet recalls. “They saw this as a great opportunity to use some of their wealth to benefit the community.”

The team must still ensure that the rent for the premises is paid each month. Gadsby Peet admits juggling stardom, his job running a web design agency and his young family was harder than he imagined.

“At first you don’t realize how much [work] That’s how it’s going to be, so the first thing is simple: ‘We’ll send a few emails,’” he says. “And before you know it, you have a lot of people interested in it.”

His biggest indicator of success is at the end of the week, when he appears in the Star “See[s] People who work on the railway… next to people who work in Canary Wharf [a business district] …alongside people who have been drinking here since the 50s. To me, that’s where the really great things happen.”

Pat Murray, 86, has been a loyal customer since his early 20s. He remembers coming into the pub as he and his wife were “courting each other”. Since then I have taken my children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren to the pub. “It’s a family tradition for us.”

By keeping prices low – a pint of beer starts at $6, compared to $9 in many London pubs – and making the space free for community groups and activities such as children’s clubs, Italian classes and local folk musicians, there are concerns in terms of gentrification and promotes new connections, says Gadsby Peet.

James Gadsby Peet admits the star is “very tight” financially. Behind him are co-founders Lisa Donohoe and Kirsty Dunlop.

(Joshua Bright / For The Times)

He adds that opening the Star’s doors to a larger group has allowed locals to “meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.” “We think the more that happens, the more closed the community becomes and the It’s nicer to live there.”

A September report from Co-operatives UK, an organization representing co-operative businesses, showed they play “a significant role in community development” and that the number of council-owned pubs has increased by 62.6% in the last five years .

But some pubs in London’s commercial centers are finding it harder to weather the current storms. The increasing prevalence of telecommuting, with many employees only going to the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, has led to a significant decline in customer traffic at neighboring restaurants. At the end of last year, figures showed that office occupancy in central London had reached an average of 50.9%, its highest level since the pandemic – but that is still 10 to 30% lower than before the coronavirus outbreak.

When the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020, “everyone thought it would just be an incident,” says Lorraine Crawford, who took over the Center Page tavern near St. Louis. Paul’s Cathedral in London’s historic financial district in 2005. But their business “just took a nosedive overnight.”…It never really picked up again.”

Crawford and her husband, who had been in the industry for four decades at that point, “tried everything” to keep the business afloat, she says, but paying $127,000 a year in rent and $45,000 dollars in business taxes were “terrible.” We kept getting into debt.”

People walk past the illuminated Star pub. “There is a real sense of community that disappears when pubs disappear,” says Charo Havermans, a historian at University College London who studies the role of pubs in public life. “You lose your sense of history.”

(Joshua Bright / For The Times)

Add in alcoholic beverage inflation, which reached 9.9% late last year, the highest since the early 1990s, and the only option left was “to get out of the crisis gracefully, which was so sad,” Crawford says . “We were more of a family because we were just a small company.”

The Center Page closed more than a year ago.

“Nothing in our industry is the same anymore,” laments Crawford. “And I don’t think it will ever happen.”

Lytton is a special correspondent.

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