Highs and lows of pub trade

The Park Hotel.  Picture: Malcolm Billingham
The Park Hotel. Picture: Malcolm Billingham

Whatever your age, whatever your tipple, its likely the humble British boozer has played a part in your family’s lives.

From that first, possibly illegal sip of alcohol, nights out with pals, coming of age moments, birthday celebrations to wedding receptions to funeral wakes, many key moments of our lives have been spent commeroating of comiserating within the confines of a traditional public house.

Rob Hudson, manager of the Mayflower, Austerfield. Picture: Marie Caley D2297MC

Rob Hudson, manager of the Mayflower, Austerfield. Picture: Marie Caley D2297MC

But in Doncaster and in Britain as a whole, those days are rapidly in danger of becoming a thing of the past. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, says pubs are closing in the UK at a rate of 18 a week - and you don’t have to wander very far from your own doorstep to witness the evidence for yourself.

In recent months, this paper has reported on plans to demolish Armthorpe’s landmark Tadcaster Arms, with proposals to replace it with shops and flats. The Benbow at Intake has been razed to the ground and is now just an eyesore patch of wasteland.

The Park Hotel, always a favourite watering hole for Doncaster Rovers fans ahead of games at Belle Vue, now stands boarded up and desolate while The Rockingham Arms at least lives on as an apartment block, even if the beer has now run dry.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Moon at Carcroft, The Red Lion at Braithwell, The Cecil at Warmsworth, The Fox and Hounds at Wadworth, The Harvester at Stainforth, White Hart at Thorne, Buffalo in Moorends have all called last orders in recent years. Some live on in new incarnations, while others are gradually falling to pieces, awaiting the wrecking ball.

Its a sad state of affairs and one which local members of CAMRA are bidding to reverse.

Bob Kiddle, chairman of the Doncaster branch said: “CAMRA watches the demise of so many pubs with dismay.

“But it is noticeable that a disproportionate number of the pubs that close are those that don’t try, or can’t sustain, a market for real ale.

“Many landlords report that real ale is an important part of their business that is actually growing. CAMRA encourages all pubs to include real ale as part of their offer.”

For many years, pubs were seen as the lifeblood of community. Huge, sprawling estate pubs such as The Lonsdale in Intake and the Wheatley Hotel live on - but many of Doncaster pub;s have been forced to keep coming up with ideas to keep the punters happy. Quiz nights, live music, games and sports and of course food, have all helped keep customer numbers up.

And while the number of watering holes meeting their fate far outweighs brand new pubs, in recent years, the Doncaster scene has welcomed venues such as The House Martin in Wheatley, popular family carvery venue Woodfield Farm and real ale enthusiasts’ mecca Cask Corner in the town centre to its roster.

Added Mr Kiddle: “CAMRA and the Good Beer Guide have a clear aim - to save pubs and help them thrive. We welcome the new Localism Act that enables pubgoers to save pubs threatened with closure, get them listed by local authorities and protected as community assets. 100 such pubs around the country are now listed in this manner and several are run as cooperatives by local people.

“Pubs are an important focus and hub of their communities and should be encouraged and nurtured.”

One such success story is The Angel Inn at Misson where owner Simone Fallon has transformed a quiet country pub into a thriving hub, with customers coming from miles around to try out a mouthwatering a la carte menu.

Providing top class service will still pull in the punters

While Doncaster has seen many once much-lover hostelries call last orders for good, it’s not all doom and gloom for the borough’s licensed trade.

Several once traditional boozers have changed with the times and diversified and now boast a different more modern offer to customers.

One of the success stories of Doncaster’s pub scene is The Angel Inn in Misson where owner Simone Fallon has transformed a quiet country pub into a thriving hub, with customers coming from miles around to try out a mouthwatering a la carte menu.

She said: “It is about looking after people in the village as well as drawing in people from further afield and paying attention to detail.

“It is a small village so we are more than just a pub. We do cash back for people and serve takeaway fish and chips. And we have a little shop too selling every day essentials such as milk and bread.”

Since it re-opened following an overhaul the pub has been named Best Community Pub in the Scottish and Newcastle Pub Company Warm Welcome Awards. It has also won prestigious awards from Visit England for its accommodation and breakfasts and has chalked up full marks on travel website Trip Advisor.

Added Simone: “We are showing that there is still life in pubs after all. We are always very busy and full at the weekends - and we are pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Things are going great.”

The story is the same at The Mayflower in Austerfield where owner Rob Hudson has invested £350,000 of his own money transforming the venue from a struggling village local into a flourishing boutique hotel and fine dining venue.

He said: “The traditional village pub is a dying trade. We’ve gone the other way and become more food orientated - the drinking trade is now really only a small part of what we are about.

“We’ve been here for three years and if pubs want to survive, then they have to diversify. In an industry like ours, you don’t get any leeway from the customer - you have to get it spot on every time and stay one step ahead of the game.

“Trying to get people in with a game of bingo is a thing of the past, but there are many pubs out there who don’t realise that and they are the ones that are suffering.”

Supermarkets and chain pubs to blame

One Doncaster area landlord has watched the closure of the area’s hostelries with increasing sadness - and has laid the blame squarely at the door of chain pubs and supermarkets.

Colin Wilmot, president of Doncaster Licensed Victuallers’ Association and landlord of free house Willa Spoons in Thorne, says that a deadly double assault by huge national corporations is helping to hammer nails into the coffins of countless bars.

“It is absolutely terrible,” he said.

“Pubs can’t compete on a level playing field with the supermarkets and big pub companies.

“The pub chains charge too much rent for landlords and too much for their beer and its forcing people out of business.”

Mr Wilmot said recent years had seen the closure of three pubs in Thorne alone - and fears more may follow unless a concerted fightback gets under way.

He said: “I am lucky. I was able to buy my own pub and that means I can search out the best deal on beer prices and not be tied in to being squeezed by what the pub chains want people to pay. But not everyone is in the same boat and its those pubs that are going to the wall.”

He also said home drinking was helping to dent trade for landlords, with many choosing to buy cheap alcohol from chainstores and sup it in the comfort of their own homes rather than down their local.

“That’s becoming more and more common,” he said.

“You get people stocking up on beer, wine, cheap vodka and the like and getting fuelled up on it at home to save money. Then, if you are lucky, you might get them coming out for a last few drinks in the pub.

“There is massive ill feeling in the licensed trade towards the supermarkets,” added Mr Wilmot.

“Locally and nationally, the LVA is striving for everything to be fair to give people a chance. A lot of the blame on the binge drinking culture is laid squarely at the door of publicans, but we think the problem lies with the shops selling booze at knockdown prices.

“Even garages and petrol stations sell alcohol these days. How is that responsible retailing? You are encouraging drivers to buy drink and are surely placing temptation in their way.

“As pubs and landlords, we are all doing our best to hang on on there but every day, we hear news of another pub in Doncaster struggling or closing.”

Added Mr Wilmot: “No one is sure what the answer is to safeguard the pubs left, but people need to realise they need to use their local rather than complaining about its demise after it has gone.

“Because then it will be too late.”