A good local pub,’ William Blake once said, ‘has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer, and there’s more conversation.’ You can see what he was getting at there: every truly good pub has that in-built sense of communality and shared experience, and of being the setting for celebrating and commiserating over all of the major plot points in your life. That bad break-up, your 18th birthday, that lazy Sunday afternoon that accidentally turned into the best session you ever had: in short, pubs are where much of the actual business of living – the fun bits, the human bits – happen.
But more and more pubs are dying every day in Britain. Between 2006 and 2016, we lost a fifth of all the pubs in this country – more than 20,000 – and last year more than 1,200 shut their doors for good. Many blame the influence of big pub companies (PubCos, as they’re known) for buying up pubs, charging wildly overinflated rents and underinvesting in the pubs themselves. Others blame beer duties and the rise of the coffee shop. Whatever it is, the upshot is that we’re losing a chunk of the nation’s soul every day.
Now, though, more and more groups of ordinary people are taking matters into their own hands, and returning pubs to their original purpose as the original social network. The Brown Bear in Berwick is a case in point. It was ‘really rundown,’ says Mark Dodds, the man who’s has taken the project on. The pub had been empty for two years when he arrived, and even before then it hadn’t been particularly handsome. Mark, who grew up in Newcastle and Morpeth, sees good pubs not just as the heart of the community but as the brain too, forging connections and sharing knowledge. ‘Without decent local pubs communities have nowhere to express themselves, exchange local information – they lose the glue to their community.’
After a quick ‘Changing Rooms-style’ refit and refurb, Mark and his team reopened the Brown Bear in December. Initially, the reaction was surprisingly hostile. While Mark points out The Curfew micropub and The Barrels as pubs doing things properly in Berwick, he thinks the PubCos’ influence runs deep.
‘It’s become pretty clear to me that the PubCos have had such a huge impact on this area for such a long time that all the pubs are so bad, and have been so bad for so long – bar the few small places I mentioned earlier – that people have grown up using pubs differently to the way I expect people to use pubs. They go to pubs to get slaughtered, they expect there to be very cheap lager, they’re not particularly interested in ale or anything of quality, just sessionable stuff. And they expect the pubs to be unattractive. It’s bizarre. It’s dystopian. In all honesty, it’s frightening.’
Mark knows he’s up against it. ’Berwick has lost, as a community, the memory of what it means to socialise in pubs for the reasons that we culturally understand pubs have value for,’ he says. The vision for the new Brown Bear is to be a multi-stakeholder co-operative that’s woven deeply into the fabric of the community, a sustainable social enterprise that can support satisfying long-term careers for staff. They’ve got support from Thistly Cross, Hadrian Border and Cross Borders breweries, 12 founder investors have put in about £60,000 so far, and local professionals are providing pro bono services. Fundamentally, it’s all about ‘doing what the people who use the pub want’.
They’ve got to feel ‘a sense of ownership of the pub’, Mark says, ‘that they’ve got an investment in something that is important, that does have cultural and traditional significance.’ From there, you get a virtuous circle of loyalty, emotional investment, and a renewal of a social hub that lasts.
By way of an example, Mark remembers a Sunday morning on the bar at a community pub he ran in Camberwell. His friend, a regular called Jes, came up to the bar looking grave. ‘I was in your beer garden last night, and I met my bloody next-door neighbour,’ he told Mark. Slightly taken aback, Mark asked him what he was on about. ‘We’ve lived next door to each other for seven years, and we’d never met before,’ Jes replied. ‘That’s what your pub has done for this community.’
That’s what Mark wants the Brown Bear to do too, so the front room of the flat above the bar has been turned into a free meeting space for community groups. Some of the first tenants were the organisers of the Riding of the Bounds, the traditional horse-ride which mark the boundaries of England and Scotland which goes back nearly 600 years, which Mark sees as pretty apt.
‘I think that, metaphorically, is what pubs are all about: history, richness of culture and tradition,’ he says. ‘Pubs are a great place to let that be expressed.’
Long-term, the plan is to keep doing up the Brown Bear, put on events to showcase the area’s food producers in the yard behind the pub, and start putting together a pseudo-chain of community pubs like the Brown Bear – a co-operative of co-operatives – which can support each other and their staff. But can it really work? After all, while the co-operative model is a noble and exciting idea, only 10 opened last year. That’s still a net loss of about 1,190.
‘It is idealistic,’ Mark admits. ‘It’s also feasible. It’s been done, around the country and around the world.’