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How to Know If You’re in a Legit English Pub

By Will McGough

May 17, 2016

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Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in England's Lake District.
Photo by Mark Salisbury/Flickr

Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in England's Lake District.

There’s more to a traditional English pub than a perfect pint.

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Want to know if you’re in a legit British pub? The easiest way is to look around. From the decor to the brews to the customers at the tables, old-style countryside pubs have an unwavering–and undeniably charming–way of doing business. To learn what makes one legit, we asked the staff of three pubs in the Lake District, England’s largest National Park.

Physical Appearance
While many modern and city pubs are striving to become more comfortable with carpets and armchairs, traditional countryside pubs stick to basic furniture, usually wooden tables and chairs. At the Old Dungeon Ghyll’s Hikers’ Bar the seating is sectioned off by the walls of cow stalls that remain from when the pub was a barn. The Hikers’ Bar staff told us that pubs also should have hardwood or stone floors and a roaring, wood-burning fire: The bare floor is meant to accommodate wet jackets and muddy dogs coming in off the mountain. The fire combats England’s notoriously damp weather, stirs conversation, and, when necessary, dries clothes.

Customers and Staff
Although he agrees that stone floors, open fires, and dog-friendly policies are nice complements, Alan Piper of The Sun Coniston said the heart and soul of the pub is, without question, its clientele. “I think the true heart of a pub is the ability to have a decent conversation with a complete stranger,” said Piper. “Have a couple of convivial beers, drink more beers than you should, talk rubbish, and forget about it in the morning.”

New friends at the Sun Pub in Coniston
Many factors influence who walks through the door. Piper said that his pub’s location, in the mountains along a popular walking route, ensures that the place is full of like-minded people. John Lockley of the pub The Golden Rule agrees and says that he refuses to have distractions like pool tables or jukeboxes. “It’s all about people coming together, sitting down, and starting to talk,” he said. “Once they engage with the staff as well, you get all this conversation going on throughout the pub.”

That last part hints at another piece of the puzzle, which rewards both first timers and frequent visitors alike. Lockley said the most important thing is for a pub to have a stable staff that gets to know the customers. At the best pubs, he said, everyone gets to know everyone, customers and staff alike.

“Most of my staff has been with me for 10 years, and people who come through expect to see the same faces,” said Lockley, who has worked at The Golden Rule since the 1980s. “High staff turnover is a big thing now at other places. A lot of pubs employ students who work for a few months and disappear. But it doesn’t work very well because they have no interest. All my staff has a real interest in the place. They all feel part of it. They are helping to make the place what it is.” 

Food and Brew
Traditional pubs will, of course, have a range of local beers available. They should all be brewed nearby and come from small microbreweries. There should be a range of ales on tap (or pumps, as the Brits call them), from dark to light and preferably something in between, too. A range of options is important.

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The way modern pubs handle food is changing. Years ago, many began expanding their menus to attract a broader range of customers. “Many establishments are now classed as gastro pubs and concentrate more on restaurant-style food and presentation, which then moves away from homemade food,” the Hikers’ Bar staff said.

Today, that school of thought is being challenged, and there’s a separate trend for pubs to avoid food altogether. But a truly traditional pub will have a simple, focused food menu. Lockley said that while gastronomy is a hot topic with newer pubs, The Golden Rule sticks to its hearty fare.

“We’ve got a butcher in the backyard, and he makes pork pies, scotch eggs, and black pudding,” Lockley said. “That’s all we do.”

>>Next: 6 Craft Beers to Drink in Hong Kong

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