A Pub By Any Other Name...

draught beer being drawn in British pub AP

The Goat and Compasses is fine, but the Goose and Granite is definitely not.

The debate over British pub names is foaming up again: The Goat and Compasses is a centuries-old moniker, while the latter is a newly minted corporate label.

Traditional English pub names often are patriotic or royal - The Crown, The King's Head, The Red Lion. Others are resolutely local, paying tribute to the lord of the manor or reflecting a region's landmarks, flora and fauna, industry or sporting heroes.

But today's British beer drinkers are increasingly likely to head down to the Rat and Parrot chain or the Slug and Lettuce. And some feel it has all gone a Dog and Doughnut too far.

In the House of Commons this week, Britain's culture minister, Chris Smith, lamented "a growing fashion for rebranding pubs with names like the Dog and Doughnut or the Goose and Granite which, I have to say, would appear to have little relevance to the history of any area."

"We are surely in danger here of losing an important part of local history and local folk memory," he told lawmakers.

Many British pub names have deep and sometimes mysterious historical roots, originating in preliterate days when ale houses had to sport large, memorable and easily identifiable signs.

Alan Rose, secretary of the Inn Sign Society, cites his local pub, the Bull and Spectacles - a reference to a former landlord's prize bull or to Anne Boleyn (Bull-inn), depending on which legend you believe.

That kind of individuality, pub aficionados argue, is now in danger.

A third of Britain's 60,000 pubs are controlled by breweries that dictate what beer is sold there. Another third are now owned by non-brewing chains - and it is these standardized corporate "theme" pubs that traditionalists object to most.

Some call it the "McDonald-ization" of British pubs.

"You can go into a Rat and Parrot in the Southeast or the Northwest and they're exactly the same," said Ian Woolverton of the consumer group Campaign for Real Ale. "That can't be good for our pub heritage."

It is not the name changes in themselves that vex campaigners. Pubs have long rechristened themselves to commemorate historic events: The Royal Oak, a name borne by more than 600 British pubs, emerged in the 17th century to mark King Charles II's escape from Oliver Cromwell's forces.

"Almost every pub has had a name change," said Rose of the Inn Sign Society. "If they didn't, we wouldn't have a hobby, would we?"

Rose noted that changing social mores - from the demise of cockfighting to the present-day proposed ban on fox hunting - could drive pubs to rename themselves.

"You've got pubs called the Fox and Hounds. Will that change when the anti-hunting law comes in? What we don't like is that we're losing the historic ones," he said.

The chain-pub operators counter that tey are pumping new life into a flagging industry, renovating once-dingy boozers and attracting young people to big, bright watering holes. Many traditional rural pubs, meanwhile, are closing as their aging clientele drinks less.

"Our bars are big and they're busy, so we're giving people what they want," said Clive Eplett, finance director of SFI Group PLC, which owns the Litten Tree and Bar Med chains and is in the process of acquiring the 33-bar Slug and Lettuce group, a pioneer of the up-market, stripped-wood-and-focaccia formula.

He said most of SFI's pubs are former shops and banks, rather than existing pubs. And he is not nostalgic for the pubs of yesteryear, arguing that chains like his, selling beer from several breweries, offer customers more choice.

"I was born in a small village in Cornwall, and all the pubs were owned by one brewery," he said. "You drank their beer or you didn't drink at all."

No one is arguing the government should legislate pub names. But campaigners want to see names included as part of a pub's license, so change would require planning permission and local consultation.

That argument sits well with Smith, the government minister.

"Certainly, consulting a pub's regulars and the wider local community before renaming it would not seem too much to ask," he told the Commons.


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