In the last year, thousands of pubs closed their doors for the final time. Photographer Chris Etchells’ new exhibition charts the decline of the Great British public house
‘The heart of England’ to Samuel Pepys and one of our ‘great inventions’ to architectural historian Mark Giraud, the public house has been a cultural mainstay from
Chaucer to Coronation Street. But last year pubs were closing at the rate of more than 50 a week. The Great British boozer is in trouble.
Photographer Chris Etchells has been documenting this decline for the past year. His show, which opens this Saturday at Nottingham’s Surface Gallery, records the
scars left on the built environment by these closures. His images range from ornately tiled art nouveau facades (see Worksop’s French Horn, pictured overleaf) to scruffy 1970s flat-roofed sites.
A third of the pubs that closed down are destined for demolition; the rest for set conversion or a long, empty wait. Etchells snaps them in this intermediate stage, their welcome mats, lace curtains and etched glass shuttered behind metal grilles.
Etchells’ interest in derelict pubs stems from his work as a press photographer. His Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire beat alerted him to the ubiquitous boarded-up pub. ‘Outside town centres they are everywhere. You only need to drive down a high street and you will see one,’ he says.
The pubs in most trouble are those that sprang up with the rapid urbanisation of the mid-19th century, thanks in part to some helpful legislation.
The - fantastically named - Beer Act of 1830 allowed any householder to apply for a license to sell beer in his parlour - one of many rules aimed at encouraging Britain’s drinking away from gin palaces to respectable licensed premises, such as the late-Victorian gem The Shipperies. This helped cement the domestic qualities beloved by Etchells. ‘The old furniture, the carpet: they all contribute to make you feel like you are in someone’s front room,’ he says.
Now the charm of these pubs’ signage and brickwork counts for little in the face of changing work patterns, local unemployment and cheap supermarket booze. Extinct pubs litter once vital, now troubled suburbs, such as Kensington in Liverpool and Holbeck in Leeds.
The process, Etchells laments, is irreversible: ‘Once the pub’s gone then that’s it. It’s a slice of British history that you will never get back.’
Last Orders at the Bar: The Demise of the Great British Pub, Surface Gallery, Nottingham, NG1 1DL, 16-30 January, free,