One freezing grey afternoon in January 2004 I visited the Old House at Home. This was a very large pub on Lordswood Road, Birmingham, a wide suburban A-road lined with very large detached houses. It took 15 or 20 minutes to walk from my house to the pub. And then it seemed to take about the same time again to walk through the pub car park to the front door and finally reach the bar.
Several decades ago the Brummie comedian Jasper Carrott had a gag about the sparse crowds attracted to Birmingham City Football Club. I was at the match the other week, and I turned round and said to the bloke standing next to me – and at this point Carrott would make a megaphone of his hands and bellow: OOOOOYY! This is what the Old House at Home was like.
There were a handful of other drinkers in there with us that afternoon, but none within a hundred yards. It was like a carpeted aircraft hangar. There was a sign at the bar setting out one of those absurd rules against wearing hats. There was a strained, austere feel, like a shop which you’ve realised is too expensive for you to buy anything but it’s deathly quiet and you’re the only customer so you have to look around for a few minutes just for show.
And there was a smell of roasting meat. For, although it was a Saturday, the Old House at Home was very much what I call a Sunday dinner pub. And it exemplified perhaps the biggest single problem common to Sunday dinner pubs: that they are simply too huge and cavernous to have any sort of atmosphere at all.
Suburban Birmingham specialises in these vast former coaching inns, but many places are similarly blighted. Stretched between the great pub cities of Sheffield, Derby and Manchester, you’d expect the Peak District to be blessed bountifully with great places for a pint and a natter. It’s not. There are good pubs out there. But it takes some research to hunt them out amid a surfeit of Sunday dinner pubs.
It isn’t just the size. Another factor is the bland decor. It’s not just ordinary, everyday blandness, the sort of blandness that you don’t notice. It’s a whole new level of bland. It’s assertively bland, aggressively bland, to the point of paradox. This is a blandness that doesn’t merely guide your thoughts towards the dull and banal. It forcefully insists that you abandon any notion of pleasure. It entirely forbids you to entertain, even silently, the existence of art, philosophy or the human soul.
On a trip down south a few months ago, I got along to the Fox on the Hill, in Denmark Hill, south London. I don’t know if a Wetherspoons can ever be quite sombre or restrained enough to qualify outright as a Sunday dinner pub, as the low prices will always attract folk wishing to attain merriment through a few pints. But the sheer size of the place hinted towards it. And the staff of both Wetherspoons pubs and Sunday dinner pubs typically seem to lack in training what they try and make up for in youthful enthusiasm. I asked if they had any pale ales on; the bar person pointed at the Abbot pump and said: “Um, this one’s quite pale?”
But the Fox on the Hill is just about spared the status of Sunday dinner pub by its layout. It’s a big pub but it houses a few smaller rooms around its central bar. The Sunday dinner pub layout is always much less interesting than this. The Sunday dinner pub is large, and it has bland decor, but it is also profoundly dull in terms of internal structure. The snugs, booths, and cosy corners cherished by pub cognoscenti are unknown here.
The next day, however, we hit Sunday dinner pub paydirt. We hit it at the Bunch of Cherries in St Albans. Boring beer; boring decor. Willing young staff; 20 minutes more to get my son’s dinner out after everyone else has got theirs. Zero ambience; zero chance of a random conversation about circuses, unemployment, beer dispense methods, local history or trombones. The Bunch of Cherries is the opposite of everything that a licensed premises is for. It is quite possibly the dullest pub I have ever visited.
Oh, and it has Cask Marque certification. So if you’ve ever thought this ‘independent’ award was meaningless – overseen, as it is, by such friends of the pubgoer as Punch Taverns and Carlsberg UK – then you were absolutely right.
Or were you? All the sickening figures about pub closures that we’ve pored over recently mask a significant fact. They are net figures: old pubs closed minus new pubs opened. And some of the new pubs opened (or reopened) have been great places like the Blake or the Euston Tap (you may have your own local favourite to add to this roll of honour). But the majority, I discovered with horror recently, are Sunday dinner pubs.
(I can’t remember where I read this. Someone blogged it, I think; possibly Phil Mellows. Do comment with a link if you can find one.)
Is a Sunday dinner pub better than no pub at all? Can a Sunday dinner pub ever be enjoyable, or is tolerable the best you can hope for? Are we hopelessly out of step with modern life? Those of us who love and understand pubs cite the successes of our favourite new boozers as a template for the renewal of watering holes the length and breadth of Great Britain. But was my dismal visit to the Old House at Home, all those years ago, a more realistic glimpse into the future? Because it’s no future I’d want a part of.