Lack of guide books means people are not finding pubs

By Tim Bird, owner of Cheshire Cat Pubs & Inns

- Last updated on GMT

Out of print: Great British Pub Awards Pub of the Year owner Tim Bird says restaurants are above pubs when it comes to guide books
Out of print: Great British Pub Awards Pub of the Year owner Tim Bird says restaurants are above pubs when it comes to guide books

Related tags Pubco + head office Tim Bird Cheshire cat pubs

Where have all the guides gone? That is my question and I am not referring to the helpful folk who talk us around a stately home or indeed the younger version who help the community, collect badges and, in my experience, bake rather nice cakes for charity.

I am, of course, talking about pub guides, books that used to fly off the shelves of Waterstones and other independent book shops and, dare I say, out of Amazon in a van to an excited audience of readers, adventurers and pub lovers. Our public, our fans, real pub people that couldn’t wait to be guided to trusted pubs around our sacred land.

I know immediately there will be shouts from some editors – what about us? But, actually, when you operate a quintessentially English pub company with village and rural pubs like we do, you soon realise quite quickly the guides have dried up and if they haven’t, they certainly aren’t guiding people to pubs like they used to.

Prior to the dreaded pandemic, the shelves were awash with pub guides but, sadly, not now. A trip to my local Waterstones found me ranting with a very helpful assistant about the apparent lack of published support for pubs now versus 2019 and before.

Let’s start with the ones that have given up on pub guides altogether.

The AA used to do a very attractive Pub Guide​, Britain’s Best Pubs for Beer and Food​ was its strapline. Within the ‘mock wood floor’ effect cover were more than 2,000 pubs, broken naturally into counties with the AA’s very own ‘Pick of the Pubs’, which gave the best pubs in the country a page to themselves.

Restaurants ahead of pubs?

Before you shout “it’s all online now” – it isn’t. People think the AA now does everything online but it actually still produces a book. It is called The Restaurant Guide​ and the strapline is written by Jason Atherton, the Michelin-starred chef. So goodbye printed pub guide and hello Michelin man... restaurants ahead of pubs apparently.

When searching for great pubs via the AA online, the most horrific website arrives, when you search out Cheshire Pubs it first brings up a pub which actually sits in Derbyshire. Horrid pub photos and, frankly, one would lose the will to live before finding the pub of their dreams.

The Good Pub Guide​ is up next. Written for an amazing 35 years by Fiona Stapley with the top 5,000 pubs inside. There has been no guide printed (following Fiona’s retirement) by the new owners since 2021. This was the best-selling guide of them all and very well connected with thousands and thousands of pub fans. I know ”it’s online now” I hear you shout. Oh no it isn’t because the website hasn’t even been updated since 2021. No longer doing the book or it’s well regarded Pub Awards.

Now on to Michelin, which no longer does its Eating Out in Pubs​ book. It kicked pubs into touch in 2018 with its last publication. Yes, of course, they still have their Michelin Guide Book​ but so few great pubs feature and most of the ones that do have exhausted themselves chasing stars.

So, sadly there is a trend beginning to reveal itself, which brings me nicely on to the Good Beer Guide​.

Beer, not pubs

Yes they still print a book, which is commendable. This year’s cover would scare most people who aren’t Iron Maiden fans but it is original if nothing else. The problem with the Good Beer Guide​ is that it is a CAMRA publication and therefore written by and large by CAMRA members only. A cricket clubhouse can get in the guide as well as a working men’s club because it’s all about the beer not the pub, after all it is a ‘beer’ guide.

For many years now, if you become a CAMRA member, you are rewarded with ‘beer vouchers’ to use in JD Wetherspoon and other ‘national’ pub companies. Why does CAMRA not do vouchers that can be used in all pubs? On the ground, CAMRA did a great magazine out our way called Out Inn Cheshire​. It was excellent, written by the most passionate ale enthusiast one could ever meet. He hung up his pen in 2019 and we have never seen the publication since.

Even Alastair Sawday’s​, probably the best of a disappearing bunch, has given up printing, dropped its app and while it has a decent website and is well respected by the national press, it no longer recognises the best of the best annually like it used to and is focused more on pubs with rooms rather than great pubs without rooms.

It is clear so many guide publishers have either turned their backs on the business of guiding people to pubs or have simply become complacent and lacklustre in their support of pubs and celebrating the vital role pubs play in the lives of so many. There seems to be a real lack of enthusiasm for pub guides in favour of ‘rosette-covered’ restaurant guides.

As recession bites and the belts tighten around the country this winter, the restaurant guides could become a very short read compared to a cracking pub guide. Take note publishers.

Related topics Rebuilding the Pub Sector

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