In response to my recent post about the problem of not knowing exactly when pubs stopped serving, one commenter writes:
I think they should have kept the Sunday hours, out at 12 -12:30, home for 3 for Sunday dinner, a kip on the couch for an hour or so, a shit, shower and shave for the 7:00 start and out the door at 11:00 and bright eyed and bushy tailed for work next morning. The pubs have the same amount of people out on a Sundays, but they're all staggered at different times now. Christmas Day lunchtime is about the nearest you get to how it was these days.He makes a very valid point about what the Sunday lunchtime session used to be like in many pubs, so I thought it would be worth reflecting on how it had changed over the years in my local pub.
I won’t name the pub as the aim is to describe changing times in general terms rather than comment on that particular establishment, although anyone who knows me will recognise which one I’m referring to. I have now been going in this pub regularly for 28 years, at least once a month, often considerably more, and as often as not at Sunday lunchtime.
It’s a fair-sized, but not huge, 1930s pub hidden away in a suburban area which is pleasant but not posh. The interior comprises three rooms – a traditional vault, a large wood-panelled lounge and a slightly plainer but still comfortable “smoke room” at the rear overlooking the bowling green. At first I thought, while nice enough, it was nothing particularly special, as there were quite a number of other pubs around in broadly the same style. But, as they have all been progressively remodelled, closed or sold off, its unique architectural qualities have come to be more apparent.
The two-hour Sunday lunchtime session must have been one of the busiest of the week, and if you weren’t there by 12.30 you probably wouldn’t get a seat. It was noticeable that people tended to meet up in regular groups, but many of the groups knew each other and exchanged banter. There was no food (although it did serve food on other days), no piped music and just Hydes Mild and Bitter on electric meters. All the keg beers (which in those days was probably just Harp, Stella, Strongbow and Guinness) were on meters too and served into oversize glasses. Yes, even Guinness. In the very early days they may even have still had Hydes’ own Amboss lager.
Most people seemed to drink ale and, as the next round was often got in before all had finished, you would see the small round tables virtually covered with pint glasses in various stages of fullness. Nobody got drunk or visibly the worse for wear; they would have three, four or five pints and then head home at maybe around 2.30 for their Sunday lunch, a fairly relaxed view being taken of the statutory ten minutes’ drinking-up time. This was the epitome of a lively, buzzing pub with a strong feeling of camaraderie and community spirit.
In 1988, closing time was moved back to 3.00 pm, which had the effect of spreading the trade out a bit more. Few would want to go for the full session, and most would tend to go a bit later so they were still there at last orders, although some continued to get in just after noon and leave before the end because they thought 3.30 was really too late for their lunch. It wasn’t a dramatic change, but you started to lose the feeling of everyone being in the pub together.
All-day opening came in perhaps around 1993, and around that time the pub also started to serve set Sunday lunches, with the rear smoke room in effect being used as a dining room. Another change in the 1990s was the 1994 Sunday Trading Act which meant people had other options on Sundays beyond going to the pub. Again, nothing drastic, just a steady, scarcely perceptible, thinning and spreading out of the available trade.
The pub gained something of a reputation for its Sunday lunches – even, apparently, being seen as a popular destination to top off Saturday night’s clubbing – and the diners started to encroach from the smoke room into the lounge. Eventually this was recognised by the layout being swapped around, with the lounge becoming the dining room, and the drinkers being banished to the back. I don’t know whether this actually put anyone off, but it was certainly a shock to the system on the day I walked in and encountered the new arrangement and it contributed to a feeling that drinkers were being treated as second-class citizens. The pub had started to serve Hydes’ seasonal ales on handpump and not too long afterwards the metered dispense for Mild and Bitter was replaced with handpumps and brim measure glasses.
By this time, the remaining band of Sunday lunchtime drinkers was much diminished, and getting a seat was rarely a problem, although it would fill up on occasions like Remembrance Sunday. With food also came children, whose presence would have been unheard of, and illegal, in 1985. Another change came with the introduction of Sunday lunchtime football matches on Sky. While most matches would just be shown in the vault, if United or City were playing they would also be shown in the smoke room using a specially-installed screen and projector, meaning that in effect anyone who just wanted a drink had nowhere to go. While undoubtedly the pub had more punters when a match was on than when one wasn’t, it must have had a knock-on effect at other times when unsuspecting customers turned up and found the curtains drawn and a group of raucous fans in their usual seat. You don’t really want to have to check the fixtures before venturing out to the pub.
This wasn’t the kind of pub that was going to be knocked for six by the 2007 smoking ban, but it was noticeable that one or two faces stopped appearing and a few others still came in for a while and popped outside for a fag every now and then but eventually, probably during the winter months, reached the conclusion of “sod this for a game of soldiers!” It is a dog-friendly pub and relatively recently a couple who I recognise as long-standing customers have been in for a drink with their well-behaved dog, although I haven’t spotted them in the past few months.
In recent years the pub has introduced non-Hydes guest beers and has even staged the occasional beer festival. However, although it is a pub that makes an effort to keep its beer well, with the best will in the world the lack of turnover means that on Sunday lunchtime you risk getting a slightly tired pint, which is another reason not to go and creates something of a vicious circle. The food trade also seems to have dropped off somewhat, and often the front dining room is far from full now. Maybe the traditional roast lunch no longer has the appeal it once did.
To be fair, the pub is often still fairly busy in the last two hours of the evening. But the heaving, wet-only, smoky Sunday lunchtime session of the mid-80s has now given way to a sanitised, smoke-free environment virtually devoid of drinking customers thirty years later. Such is moving with the times, if we are to believe the Good Pub Guide. And, while I wouldn’t seek to argue against flexible opening hours, allowing just a limited window in which to have a drink undoubtedly had the effect of bringing everyone into the pub at the same time and creating a feeling of togetherness which is now sadly absent.