The Nag’s Head, The Grenadier and The Star Tavern in London’s smart Belgravia area have comprised my favourite concise pub crawl since I first came to the capital to work in the late 1980s. Every now and again I feel compelled to retrace my steps along the compact mews properties on Kinnerton Street and the enormous mansions on Belgrave Square and enjoy a few pints in these quintessentially London boozers.
It was fitting that The Star Tavern was the chosen venue for the recent launch of the 50th edition of the Good Beer Guide (GBG), because it is one of only five pubs throughout the UK to have appeared in all 50 publications since this annual CAMRA guide first appeared back in 1974. In that first edition, it sat alongside 114 other pubs selected from the capital’s thousands of outlets, and rather impressively, a very healthy 77% are still open – and 12 of them feature in the 50th edition, having been in and out over the intervening years.
This is truly heart-warming stuff when set against the current backdrop of difficulties facing the pub industry. Staff shortages, interest rate rises, tax increases, utility bills skyrocketing, cash-strapped consumers and rampant inflation comprise a tough menu for pub operators and owners to swallow. It has contributed to as many as 12 pubs closing permanently each week, according to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), while the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has reported that the number of pubs that have closed as a result of business failure or have an uncertain future has doubled in the first half of 2022 versus the last six months of 2021.
The near-term future does not look too bright either, because as many as 50 pubs per month are set to disappear from around England and Wales, according to data from Altus Group, which it says represents a soaring of closure levels. These depressing statistics have contributed to a long-standing contraction in the pub industry that has seen the total number of venues, including those vacant and being offered to let, fall below 40,000 for the first time, to 39,973 at the end of June, compared with 40,173 at the end of 2021.
There is no set course of action to take in order to ensure a pub survives and thrives – the secret sauce, you might say. But there is one factor that is consistent in those businesses that have endured in the GBG over the decades – consistency of ownership and long-term managers. Of the five pubs that have impressively been in all 50 GBG guides, the Fuller’s-owned The Star Tavern has typically enjoyed an average tenure of its managers of six years – well above its portfolio average, according to Fuller’s chief executive Simon Emeny – while the other London boozer featuring in all the guides is The Buckingham Arms, which has benefited from the long-standing stewardship of Young’s.
Outside the capital, the Queen’s Head in Cambridgeshire has changed little since 1974 and has had only 18 landlords since 1729, and in Dorset, the Square & Compass has been in the same family since 1907. Meanwhile, the glorious Roscoe Head in Liverpool has been in the same family for more than 30 years, and they recently acquired the freehold after a long battle with its pub company owners. They wanted to secure its long-term future, and since it seems the consistency of the people in charge is massively important to the longevity of a pub, so the Roscoe Head will, thankfully, be with us for many years to come – and looks set to grace the pages of future editions of the GBG with its pristinely kept four compact rooms.
It’s this very consistency that keeps me going back to my Belgravia pub crawl. Along with long-standing familiarity of The Star Tavern, it is a similar story at The Nag’s Head, where the irascible Kevin Moran has kept his free-house in eccentric order in all the years I’ve been visiting, and at The Grenadier, owners Greene King have sensibly sought to make zero noticeable changes to the pretty mews pub. Nobody wants to preserve things in aspic, but the careful management, with only subtle changes being made, has undoubtedly been the secret behind why these pubs have continued to remain incredibly popular over the decades, and they keep dragging me back to south west London.
Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.