In praise of rough pubs

Around three quarters of the way through the 1970s, I made regular trips to the North West of England to see my then-girlfriend at Liverpool University. Occasionally we would visit Manchester, which could (and still can) boast a range of old-established family brewers superior to anywhere else in Britain.

Supported by a copy of the local Camra guide, I’d try to fit in beers in places owned by as many of these small operators as I could in a single trip. It meant visiting pubs for their proximity to each other, rather than the quality of the establishment/the beer.  This is not always a good idea.

One day I found a place listed in the city centre that served the beers of a brewer from much further out that I hadn’t then tried, and told the willing Kathy R we had to visit it. The outside looked as if the brewery estates department had last paid it any attention at least 20 years earlier: undeterred, we went in, got beers at the bar, sat down, and realised that the walls were covered in porn: not even the polite, airbrushed Penthouse/Playboy sort, but pages torn from magazines at the “readers’ wives” end of the spectrum.

Unsurprisingly, my girlfriend was the only female customer in the place, and every one of the customers looked like their only income was from acting as a copper’s nark. There was probably a stripper on later. We didn’t wait to find out. I might be alone here, but I find naked women too distracting when I’m drinking beer. Still, the experience gave me a marker: “roughest pub I’ve ever been in”.

I’ve found myself in a few actual strippers’ pubs, and I’ve been in pubs where fights have exploded, though these generally looked perfectly respectable before it all kicked off. There was a bar in Glasgow where a table started brawling among themselves at 5.30 in the afternoon, for example: wonderful, I thought, someone’s putting on the Glasgow pub experience for us without us having to stay out late and drink too much ourselves. The barman was given a fist in the face for going over and trying to calm it down, and I saw him later being given the classic folk-remedy of a raw steak applied to his blackening eye. Doubtless, this being Glasgow, the steak was later recycled onto someone’s plate: well-done, I hope.

The only other place I’ve seen bar staff assaulted was in a pub in the back streets of Weymouth, normally a quiet seaside town with the nearest whiff of danger being the prison a couple of miles down the coast on Portland Bill. This time the barman had his shirt ripped off his back. As his attacker was carried out of the pub, the barman turned and glared at us: perhaps he felt we should have been more than spectators. Or at least paid for our entertainment by offering to replace his shirt.

Rough pubs don’t have to be a bad experience, of course. Around the same time as my visit to the Manchester porn pub, I used to travel out to a little rural beerhouse called the Goose, in the hamlet of Moor Green, part of the lost East Hertfordshire landscape of fields, woods and farms that seems 300 miles, rather than 30 miles, from London, and 50 years in the past.

The Goose, an isolated building of indeterminate age, had been selling beer for more than a century but was still about as close to being a private house as it could be while performing the functions of premises with a magistrates’ on-licence. The pub sign was as rough as the pub: a painted sheet-metal goose, neck outstretched, perched on a 10ft wooden post. There was no bar: the beer, brewed down the road by McMullen’s of Hertford, appeared through a hatch in the wall of one of the two rooms open to the public.

The furniture was junk-shop, the gents was outside, and open to the sky: a luminous green fungus grew on the black walls of the urinals, looking as if it was about to release its spores and conquer the planet. The Goose was utterly basic and utterly marvellous, and the local Camra branch loved it, sticking it in the Good Beer Guide and travelling out regularly by the minibus-load to take on, and lose to, the cloth-capped locals at darts and dominoes. Even with Camra’s help, though, the Goose could only have been doing minimal business, and it closed around 1979.

roughpubguidepicNow Paul Moody, a music journalist, and Robin Turner, who works in the music business, have produced The Rough Pub Guide a celebration of 50 British boozers from Glasgow to Cornwall all 180 degrees round the circle from chalkboard menus and four different house whites.

Inevitably this is a list to argue about endlessly over pints down your own local rough boozer, both about pubs that have been left out and pubs that have been included. The Lewes Arms, for example, number 6 on Moody and Turner’s list, gave Greene King a black eye in the row over stocking Harvey’s beer and it’s a great pub, but I don’t think it’s “rough” in any way. And what is the Green Man, the extremely expensive bar in the basement of Harrods, doing in a list of “rough” pubs?

But it’s still good to see the “rough pub” experience being hymned. Yes, the toilets probably whiff a bit, and the beer isn’t that great, but there’s something about being in a basic boozer at 3.30 in the afternoon with the racing on the telly high up the wall and only a Polish barmaid, a half-eaten packet of salt’n’vinegar and five or six other sad, silent losers for company that is as British as Trooping the Colour or the Last Night of the Proms …

12 thoughts on “In praise of rough pubs

  1. Way back in the 70’s my local was the Pig & Whistle in the little village of Aston, Herts – what I’d call a typical rough pub : no wallpaper (or maybe it had aged so much you couldn’t se it), minimal furniture, too small to swing a hamster, let alone a cat. You had to be careful how far out you raised your elbow when drinking or you’d be in your neighbour’s face. Lovely place !

    Nowadays, I wouldn’t go near it – much too upmarket.

  2. The roughest pubs I’ve been have been mostly outside the UK. Mostly.

    There was the aptly-named Whip in Leeds. With what my mate Harry called the “industrial accident” bar. The Blind Beggar, when I visited in the late 1970’s, was horrible in every single way, including the beer. The Whip had a decent pint of Tetley’s.

    U Rotundy in Prague is a perennial favourite. I even forgive them the fag smoke. U Fleku could be a bit scummy in the old days. U Zpevacku, not far away, used to be pretty crazy. I once sat opposite a couple of ZZ Top lookalikes investigating a stolen doctor’s bag.

    Then there’s the DDR. The place opposite my mother-in-law’s where we bought a bucket of beer. My brother-in-law’s local, where everyone had a tattoe above shoulder level and you had to order a shot with every pint. Or the station buffet in Leipzig. Sour Pils and drunks trying to make political speeches with wee stains on their kecks. Happy days.

    Hebendanz in Forchheim merits a mention. Rough, but unthreatening. Patrons drinking litre measures before breakfast. And scowling. Talking incomprehensibly. That’s another rough pub favourite. Preferably in some weird regional accent.

    That reminds me of the place I stumbled across in Salzburg. While I was waiting for Augustiner to open. Where I so impressed the locals by drinking schnapps for breakfast, that they bought me a couple more. I’d thought I could understand Austrian accents until I went there.

    But I reckon U Dobreho Kata in Brno has to be the roughest of the lot. There were few nights in my month at Czech summer school when I was the soberest in the pub. In Kata, I was the sensible one. And I came home without a shirt. I gave my “DR & Quinch say nuke your parents” T-shirt to some Czech youth changing trains on his way to the Balkans.

  3. “as British as Trooping the Colour or the Last Night of the Proms …”

    How very true Zyth, and perhaps the nub of the matter when it comes to the current treatment of the pub industry: it may not be pretty, it may not be healthy, but we choose it, we pay for it, so sod off and leave us to fester!

    I love a proper down-to-earth boozer…..

  4. You are dead right about the Goose, a lovely place, just like a real pub. But how did you get there? You couldn’t drive in those days. The McMullens of the time AK a light mild and country bitter, nono of that new fangled Gladstone!

    1. Nice to hear from you, Steve, long time no chat – actually, the first time I went to the Goose your dad drove us out there, which probably meant one or both of us wasn’t old enough to drink, let alone drive …

  5. Botchergate in Carlisle must have one of the highest ratios of rough pubs per sq mile in Britain.

    If you’re ever in Carlisle and fancy a decent pint of real ale followed by a painful kick in the groin try The Griffin which is by the station, it’s like the Wild West on match days.

  6. “Hebendanz in Forchheim merits a mention” – indeed it does. The last time I was in there, one of the local old boys was actually yellow, presumably because his liver was about to shuffle off this mortal coil. He was (disgustedly) drinking some kind of lemonade, and when a crony came in and asked in astonishment what (presumably on doctor’s orders) he was drinking, he replied “Gift” ie “poison……

    Faessla, in Bamberg, is also a favourite – one of its endearing features is that on Sunday, it closes at midday. What’s the effing point in that, you may ask, as I did. I discovered the point when I came down to the bar for my breakfast (staying in spartan rooms above the pub) – the locals were well into their stride, with the bar opaque with fag smoke, before 8 o’clock………

    Some of the small bars in the Marolles in Brussels are good, too. There was an occasion when my wife and I took shelter from the rain in a bar on the Rue Haute (Hoogstraat) – after bringing us a couple of Duvels, the owner sat down to his dinner, and informed us that if we wanted another beer we should go behind the bar and serve ourselves.

    My personal favourite, and Greenwich’s best-kept secret, is the Star and Garter, where they still (usually) have Theakston’s Mild – it’s the only pub local to me that still puts roast potatoes, seafood, cheese and biscuits etc on the bar for free on Sunday lunchtimes. They nearly all used to…..

  7. “Preferably in some weird regional accent. ”
    That’ll be the “pissed” variant of the notoriously difficult Frankish dialect – I’ve had some very one-sided conversations in Franken. A bloke in Faessla, hearing that I wasn’t local, once said to me, “Kommen Sie aus Hessen?”
    Nice guess….

  8. I was doing a search for info on U Zpevacku, where I used to go as a student living in Prague ten years ago. Now, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and have had to push my way out of a fair share of hairy dives, but that place…. Holy hell! I’ve never been privy to so many smack deals. Unfortunately, I believe it recently became an Italian restaurant.

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