I watched a genuinely fascinating programme about the oak tree recently. It reminded me of some things I’d forgotten and also taught me other things I did not know. Some of what I learned is bit too off-topic for this column, but what it reminded me of connects directly to pubs, British history and the present day.
Oak trees are an irrefutable part of our history in the same way the pub is. They are threaded through countless events, from personal moments to the truly momentous. Their wood, like the trees themselves, has great strength and longevity. You will find centuries’ old oak wood, still hard at work, in many buildings throughout the land. From the inside of Salisbury Cathedral’s famous spire all the way down to the humblest of historic pubs.
The oak is also famous for being used to build many of the ships that made us a great seafaring nation. Which reminded me of a pub called the Hearts of Oak, now known simply as the Oaks, but briefly having endured the oddly random moniker of ‘Rudy’s’ – after Rudolph Valentino whom I’m almost certain had zero connection to the pub.
To my mind, the renaming was part of the same ‘corporate vandalism’ referenced by Greg Mulholland in his criticism of the Heineken owned Star Pubs & Bars’ plans to modernise the Black Bull and White Swan pubs in Otley, Yorkshire. According to The Otley Pub Club, of which Mr Mulholland is president, Star proposes to inappropriately alter both of these Grade II-listed buildings. Plans for the former include removing traditional pub signage and replacing it with ‘steakhouse’ wall stencilling, while the latter is to be given a ‘trendy, city centre feel’ with the help of ‘industrial-style furniture’.
All of which sounds, at best, a very peculiar plan for two old market town pubs. I’d say it’s more like cultural vandalism with the added effect of erasing parts of our history.
Before you start thinking I’ve come over completely Orwellian, let’s turn back to oak for a minute – by way of explaining the above. I had forgotten about the role of oak wood in the history of Britain. I have visited HMS Victory (Nelson’s ship at the Battle of Trafalgar) and read about Sir Francis Drake, but even the most significant or important things can be forgotten if there is no reminder of them. What might have reminded me was the full size prow of a ship that used to protrude from the front of the pub I mention above, when it was still known as the Hearts of Oak (presumably after the part of the tree used for shipbuilding).
No one I asked can recall when it was removed, but everyone spoke of it fondly and mourned its loss. This odd example is just that, an unusual pub feature removed; the why and when not easily discoverable and its ultimate impact hard to discern. But when it comes to the Otley pubs – and countless others that have suffered similar the brutal ‘so-called’ refurbishments – it is easier to see the damage done.
There’s the immediate loss of character and charm that comes from a drive to make pubs look modern. You can witness this in almost any pub that has been made open plan.
This knocking through goes beyond the cosmetic, it also removes the possibility of a little privacy within a public space – making pubs less attractive places to meet and talk over anything sensitive. Then there’s the identikit decor that destroys individuality and means pubs throughout the country could be anywhere rather than connected to their location in a meaningful way.
On top of this comes the erasure of history – in many ways. There are fewer examples of traditional pubs, so people no longer understand, or value, what their role has been in British life through the ages. Then there’s the removal of unique historic features that deprives people of knowledge of the past, be it architecture, interior design or reminders and lessons about events that have shaped the present.
In an era that seems dominated by the superficial, providing a real connection – to other people and to our history – is a revolutionary act. Pubs need to be part of this revolution, because soulless buildings are far too easy to overlook, forget and ultimately close down.
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