It’s the last thing an ale drinker wants to hear on a night out in the pub – last orders! It used to happen around 5 to 11 by the pub’s clock – which was often 10 minutes fast to assist the landlord in getting the punters out by the legal closing time. Of course, now we have all day / night drinking and as one door closes another one opens and it’s always possible to find somewhere dispensing alcohol.
However, all is not well in the pub industry both nationally and in Finchley. Cheap beer is available from supermarkets and corner shops, all trying to undercut each other to the extent that there have been complaints that sometimes the product is being sold below cost price – which presumably means that the cheap alcohol is being subsidised by other items in store. Much of what is sold is tinned lager – it is a by-product of the domination of the market (some would say abomination) by the large brewers of the 1960’s and 70’s who sought to make bigger profits by replacing the traditional British ale with European Lagers and some home brewed ones. All chemically dead beers with a longer ‘shelf life’ than the traditional ‘real ale’. They were sold to the market as having a cleaner taste and being stronger than the traditional ales – I’m not sure about the former but the latter was a deception aimed at the vanity of young drinkers. The average strength of the popular Lagers was around 3.4% whilst most bitters were around 4.0% alcohol. More recently, we have seen a growth in premium Eastern European Lagers from Poland and the Czech Republic as the suppliers follow the migration of workers from those countries to the UK. These are superior products to those marketed in the past – both countries have a reputation for producing excellent Lagers. Indeed Plzen – the home of the Pilsner Lager is in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the smaller brewers carried on hoping to survive somehow. Partial salvation appeared in form of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) born out of the desire of ale drinkers for a proper pint of naturally brewed beer. The market for traditional beers grew again though it remained a bit of a niche with micro-breweries starting up and disappearing again within a few years. For most, sales through pubs that now had a clientelle mainlining on fizzy Lager were small and the breweries had to find other ways to market their product. In fact, only those traditional brewers like Fuller’s, Young’s and McMullen with their own tied houses were really able to challenge in the marketplace. In the face of adversity the brewers rediscovered the bottle – and the supermarkets began to carry a stock on their shelves. Thus, the traditional family breweries found a way to survive outside of the tied houses of the major brewers. And the drinkers could now enjoy a pint of ale at home whilst watching the footy (or a film).
All of which did little for the public house. Unlike the supermarkets, the pub landlord has to look after and sell draught beer which has a limited lifespan once the barrel has been tapped. The clients have to be handled in a polite and friendly way and given a comfortable and well-appointed environment in which to enjoy their chosen tipple. So there are big overheads for the publican and the cost of a pint of beer in a pub clearly illustrates that. Pint of lager in a pub – £3-20p… 500ml bottle from a supermarket £1-59p, or roughly half price (these are illustrative prices rather than exact ones but hopefuly you get the point).
Clearly, there are more complex factors at work too. Pubs on busy high streets tend to survive whilst those in declining shopping areas or away from the bright lights struggle. The result overall has been the closure of many traditional pubs at a time when the actual population of an area is greater than it ever was and you would expect demand to be increasing. There have been new pubs created on high streets utilising shop premises that have closed which partially fill the gap left by the traditional pub but they can’t replace the sense of lost history and architecture.
Over the last 20 years in East Finchley I have witnessed Last orders being called on a number of pubs – some of which had names tied to the history of the area… The George and The Duke of Cambridge – recalling Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, who commanded The Middlesex Regiment (and possibly the earlier visit of the 1st Battalion Royal Highlanders to Finchley Common in 1743 for review by King George II also Duke of Cambridge – though in the end the review was carried out by General Wade), The Red Lion, The Green Man.
Most recently last orders has been called on The Dick Turpin in Long Lane, just a few hundred yards from my home. The name recalls the time when Finchley Common used to ring to the Highwayman’s call to “Stand and Deliver” as coaches with the well-to-do travelled to and from the capital along the Great North Road. It was with a degree of sadness, despite never having been a regular of the pub, that I witnessed the delivery of an excavator on Thursday morning to carry out the demolition of the building…
Meanwhile, on The walks, my preferred public house lives on…