There are many things that make Britain just so British. Some we celebrate more than others, but one thing that many tourists say they love about Britain is our traditional public house. Whether the meeting place in a large town or the walker weary stop-off in the heart of our countryside, pubs are special – and they’re in our DNA… or are they?
Eighteen months ago, I moved out of my flat in London to a more rural area and, since then, four pubs have shut within a five-mile radius of my home. The ones that remain (thankfully there are still a few) make a fair trade but, despite the considerable reduction in competition from the aforementioned closures and the assumed absorption of that custom, it is still a rarity to see one of them busy.
This is not a situation specific to my pocket of the South East. Data released in the past fortnight confirmed what I’m seeing locally is happening on a national scale and showing no sign of slowing. Back in 1969, Britain boasted 75,000 public houses, today that number is around 50,000, and an average of 21 pubs are calling last orders to shut up for good each week according to statistics from the Campaign for Real Ale.
In their place, we are told coffee shops are keeping Britain from getting thirsty – with 23,000 coffee shops already, and more than three more opening up every day, the growth of this industry is an almost perfect counter-balance to the rate of pub closures. Coffee shops are something that, twenty years ago, we associated with America or the continent but, if the current rates of growth and decline continue, they will outnumber pubs within around twelve years.
There is certainly a nostalgic sadness to that – it’s globalisation of sorts; taking what we like of other cultures and assuming it for our own. However, it is also a side effect of bigger generational change that we are hearing more of every week; younger generations choosing to drink less alcohol as a life choice and, when they are drinking, doing so at home to save cash as mortgages and rents eat up ever more of their income. Combine that with a shift towards more flexible working environments and the insatiable rise of the coffee shop “office” and the flat white really is reigning supreme.
But will tourists of the future speak of their love for the traditional British coffee shop? Somehow, I can’t imagine it!