In Britain, public houses are often presented as a vital part of the landscape – a place where everyone can gather, as equals. Viewed as the centrepiece of our communities, CAMRA go so far as to say “Pubs are the best social networking sites” on the website for their Community Pubs Month, the inaugural running of which happened in April. The phrase ‘Community Pub’ is one that you tend to read quite a lot if you follow CAMRA’s press releases – often used to symbolise all that’s great about Britain.
Recently I’ve started thinking about what that actually means. As a rule, many of the drinking dens I drag my carcass around are modern, IPA-laden bars. Are these the centrepieces of the community? Do they provide the same function? The answer is yes – but, of course, for a different group of people. No group of drinkers are the same, which is the reason why macro-lager still sells, why bitter brings people back, and why some prefer snifters of imperial stout.
However, as much as I enjoy the trappings of the modern British bar scene* these days I rarely visit what I would term a classic, British Community Pub. Yes, somewhere like Edinburgh’s Bow Bar would probably qualify – and there are plenty more in the city – but on our recent trip to London we ended up drinking at the Anchor & Hope in Clapton. Within a few minutes, it became clear that this, truly, was the centre of the local community.
Firstly, everyone was there, sitting outside and enjoying the sun. Whereas other pubs have a resonance with a certain section of the community, at the Anchor & Hope they were all there. It’s a horribly jarring cliché, but all walks of life were getting the beers in. The pub sits on the Lee Navigation, a canal that runs through the Lee Valley between the twin marshes of Walthamstow and Hackney. Dozens of canal boats were there, people vaulting over the railings (with mixed results) to get a drink.
With bowls of water for dogs, tables for families, kids and bicycles everywhere, there was something happening in every direction. Enjoying a couple of pints of Fullers Summer Ale and watching my brother’s Border Terrier scamper about snaffling crisps made for a great afternoon. People came and went, nipping into the tiny boozer from the towpath and then emerging with a pint or two. Everyone seemed to know eachother – and the landlord, shuffling about collecting glasses.
The Anchor & Hope seems to be doing well for itself, if that can be judged on a two-hour visit one random Sunday. Our pubs are threatened by rising costs, and many are closing. But I always think that the well-run pubs flourish (as we have recently seen here in Edinburgh) and those that are popular, that are genuine Community Pubs, also have a future. As long as they provide a reason for people to go, they will always be busy.
* I think as soon as you say something like that, it shows you up for being unbelievably out of touch – but there you go.