Rural English pubs are on a life support machine, and the visitors have long stopped coming by. Much like a vegetative patient, there’s understandable pain and anguish at the idea of letting them go. But deep down, we know we hardly visited them when they were alive. So, there comes a point when it’s best to turn off the machine.
Nicki and Oliver Wolfe have run a 13th Century pub in North Devon since the early ’90s when the village pub truly was the beating heart of the community. Those days, Nicki would come through to their adjoining house after her busy shift in the kitchen smelling of chip fat, and Oliver pulled pint after pint while inhaling the second-hand smoke of others.
TripAdvisor was a handwritten guest book by the front door, and picking up a six-pack for drinking at home was a shoddy alternative to the lively conversation one would be guaranteed at the bar. The house always buzzed from the noise of the customers next door. Back then, the financial crash of 2008 was a distant iceberg, unforeseen. Back then, there was money to be made.
Of course, pubs, as we know them, have not existed since time immemorial, and actually, have only operated in a way we would recognise since the 19th Century. There’s no reason to believe they won’t change again. Cultures evolve, and so do the demands of consumers. Nicki and Oliver have watched as the village developed, yet customers have dwindled, their cheap cans glinting guiltily in the sun of their back gardens while the bar stood empty.
Nobody is at fault here. Things have a strange but predictable way of changing. And now, less predictably, Nicki and Oliver struggle to pay the bills with a third of their usual capacity, wearing masks and attempting to handle their new roles as badly-paid COVID enforcement officers.
So, they’re now in the process of changing the usage of this 13th Century building, which thus far has withstood the Great Plague, bloody wars, and Brexit. Now, they’re facing a new battle. There are no cannons or rifles this time, but there is something of a siege. This battle is one of bureaucracy, with the aim of gaining permission to change the use of the building from a pub to residential. This is the last resort, after attempting to sell the business not once, not twice, but three times in the past decade, with the asking price shrinking each time. So, until permission is granted, Nicki and Oliver can’t go anywhere.
Of course, the thick cob walls and thatched roof will survive Covid-19, but will the business? Probably not. Will the village pub industry in general? Unlikely, but possible. It’s easy to glance at the accounts and proclaim, ‘But it’s profitable!’ Yes, it’s profitable. If the landlords worked seven days a week, never took a holiday, and paid themselves in pork scratchings and Mini Cheddars. This lifestyle has evidently been off-putting for potential buyers too. Since being up for sale, you can count the viewings on one hand.
As Boris Johnson makes it easier for commercial buildings to become residential, Nicki and Oliver hope that they’re on the cusp of a reform that is just as generous to village pubs. Or, rather, as generous to the landlords who have propped them up since the palpitations began. In an ideal world, a buyer will come along, invest some well-needed cash and the village can keep its pub. Well, stranger things have happened.
Perhaps one day soon we, and our local councils, can accept that village pubs are a thing of antiquity. We can maybe visit them and pay an entry fee to get a taste of yore — as we do old flour mills, stately homes, and medieval prisons. Who knows, they might even have an on-site bar so we can stop for a pint, just like we used to.