Other countries have bars, cafes and bier kellers. Only the English have the public house⎯pub for short⎯an institution so unique and indefinable that it can never be faithfully uprooted and transferred elsewhere. But while the English pub is alive and well, the industry is in the middle of change, transformed by social, economic and political factors. Tim Hampson investigates four pubs in the village of Wolvercote, close to the famous university city of Oxford …

The English pub industry is a paradox. It has never been more successful, with sales topping more than $30 billion a year. But as an industry, it has never been under greater pressure.

Every day, one pub closes its doors forever, unable to survive in the highly competitive world of the modern “leisure industry” with fast-food outlets on every corner⎯from pasta and pizza bars, to Chinese, Asian and Thai restaurants, and the ubiquitous McDonald’s.

Just over a decade ago, the pub industry seemed so simple. Brewers owned most pubs. This type of business relationship, in which a brewer can be both wholesaler and retailer, has been long outlawed in the United States, but in Europe, it is legal.

Some Britons believed that this cozy relationship did not work in the best interests of the consumer, so following a review in 1989 by the government’s competition authorities, national brewers were forced to sell 50 percent of the pubs they owned above a 2,000 ceiling.

The implications were dramatic. Overnight, 11,000 pubs went on sale. New giants stepped into the ring. Pub companies funded by City of London money began buying public houses. The pub was no longer owned by the brewer but by financial institutions, and even Japanese banks.

Village Pubs Reflect the Change

Wolvercote is an English village in the embrace of the dreaming spires of Oxford. It has four pubs within easy walking distance, each in its own way reflecting the changes that have taken place. Remarkably, all four pubs have survived the decade, unlike the situation in other parts of urban and rural England. But people still live in Wolvercote, people still work there, and tourists and visitors flock there to enjoy the village’s charms.

The Trout is on the banks of the River Isis, in a part of the village known as Godstow (God’s place). Built originally in 1133 to brew beer for the hospice opposite on Trout Island, it is forever linked with Rosamund the Fair, the tragic heroine of possibly the most romantic historic event of any in English legend. She was the mistress of King Henry II in the 12th century. When the king was in residence at the inn, she would join him via a tunnel leading from the hospice. When Queen Eleanor discovered the affair, she tricked Rosamund into coming to the inn and murdered her.

Rosamund’s ghost haunts the inn.

The Trout is still the quintessential English pub. Flowers border the door, and an open fire crackles to life on cool evenings. Outside, water tumbles over a weir, fish rise to gasp for air, and Inspector Morse and his creator Colin Dexter have been known to drink there. The inn has featured several times in TV versions of the Morse saga.

Ten years ago, the inn was owned by Bass, a brewer that owned pubs. Today, it is still owned by Bass, an international leisure company, owner of Holiday Inns, that has “For Sale” signs all over its breweries.

Inside, the pub shows how English people have changed in the past 10 years. The Trout has been sensitively developed, more than doubling the number of tables for diners. The English now go out to a pub to eat as well as drink, either with friends, colleagues or as part of a family group.

Pub opening hours have changed, too. Until the late 1980s, as many American visitors found to their annoyance, pubs closed in the afternoons. But be it a weekday or a Sunday, all pubs can now open from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, and 12 noon to 10:30 p.m. on Sunday. These hours may change again soon. The government is once again looking at licensing law and suggesting that pubs may be able to open later and even for 24 hours a day.

The Red Lion in Wolvercote has changed, too. A new car park allows visitors to park with ease. An extension makes room for more restaurant tables. The pub now takes credit cards, unheard of 10 years ago and, in common with all the pubs in the village, it now sells more than 140 different drinks, including a wide range of wines and beers. It was once a “free house,” a pub not owned by a brewery⎯run by a man happy to sell just beer.

Times change. The Red Lion is now owned by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, a company that in many ways is bucking the trend. W&D still owns pubs and is buying other breweries and their retail outlets. In the past 10 years, it has moved from being a regional brewer based solely in the Midlands area to what the trade now calls a “super regional” owning four breweries and more than 2,000 pubs.

A Community Pub in Jeopardy

The White Hart stands close by. Industry argot describes this as a “community pub.” Twenty years ago, it was owned by an Oxford brewer, now long since closed. Then for a while, a national brewer owned it, but that company has gone, too. Today, a pub company holds the purse strings. It is the pub for the inhabitants and the workers of the village. Of the four that Wolvercote still supports, its future must be the most precarious.

Behind the White Hart is a paper factory that is due to close. Take away the workers and the customers will be gone. Already the village has what marketing gurus describe as three “destination pubs,” establishments to which people will travel. A fourth, even if it had the space to expand the eating and kitchen areas, might not be viable. Real estate is at a premium in the southeast of England, and a pub can be sold for a small fortune if it can be turned into a private house.

The Plough is a short walk across the end of Port Meadow⎯open land, unplowed and unplanned, where horses and cattle can roam free. A canal runs close by, part of an inland waterway system that used to move goods before the arrival of the railroad in the 19th century. Today, tourists and locals can drink there.

It, too, has changed. The previous owner was the last brewer in Oxford: Morrells, a small family firm that came to see no value in the art and craft of brewing. Stock holders wanted the feel of the pound notes in their back pockets rather than the responsibility of keeping a brewery going.

The economics are hard. The return on investment on a brewery is about 5 percent, while a similar sum invested in a hotel would earn 20 percent a year. In the past three years, at least 20 significant brewing sites that could trace roots back not just to the last century, but to the one before, slammed their gates shut.

A pub retailer now owns the Plough and, unlike a traditional brewer, will milk it hard for profit. The future is bleak for any pub that does not make its return on capital investment.

If you plan to visit England and make the obligatory trek to Oxford, don’t miss the chance to visit Wolvercote and its pubs. But hurry, while they’re all still there.