City pubs struggle as countryside drinkers enjoy relaxed restrictions

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  • August 15, 2020
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Pubs in city centres are struggling to attract customers in the first month of being able to reopen, while locals in the countryside are seeing a good turnout.

While offices have been quieter and people have become more hesitant about travel, or simply not allowed to due to the pandemic, usually buzzing areas have seen a knock-on effect.

Mike Hill tells The Independent he is waiting for workers and tourists to start coming back to his small pub, The Rake, and beer shop in Borough Market, central London.

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“In terms of the commerciality of it, the reality is we’re down 50 per cent on the sites at Borough,” the Utobeer founder says.

Hill says another of his sites in Stratford, east London, is also “missing the people who work in and around the area”.

Greene King, a huge pub chain in the UK, says their city centre pubs are also feeling the absence of office staff, who often head to pubs for after-work pints.

“We continue to see a wide disparity between country pubs where customers are returning and those in central London, which rely on custom from tourists and office workers,” Karen Bosher, a director for the pub retailer, tells The Independent.

“While most pubs are facing challenging trading, it is city centre ones, and in particular central London, which are being hardest hit as offices and theatres remain closed and the streets are quiet.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the English countryside, pub landlords have told The Independent they have seen had a good first month of being able to reopen, after staying shut for months due to the pandemic.

Joe Tansley, who runs a pub in a village in Worcestershire, says he had 90 customers booked in on the day he spoke to The Independent in early August.

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“For a small pub, that is brilliant,” he says, adding he was also almost fully booked up for that weekend.

Joe Tansley, a chef and pub landlord in Worcestershire, says he has renovated the outside of his establishment (Joe Tansley)

Tansley, the chef and landlord, says he has not reopened the inside of The Bell and Cross in Clent yet, but has redone its outside with marquees so customers can sit separately from each other.

His pub has been open since 4 July – when pubs in England were given the green light to welcome back customers after months of closure due to Covid-19.

Tom Ledsham, a landlord further north in the Yorkshire Dales, has also seen customers come flooding back since his doors have been open.

“We have never been busier,” he tells The Independent. “It is crazy.”

The New Inn in Clapham, in the Yorkshire Dales, initially only opened for hotel guests for the first weekend in July, which was a useful way to make sure all the Covid-19 procedures were working as they should, Ledsham says.

“From then, it has just been non-stop,” he adds. “We are out in the sticks, so we weren’t really sure what would happen.”

“I think the big reason for that is people can’t particularly go abroad,” he tells The Independent.

“We’re very lucky we’re situated in the Yorkshire Dales, which is a very desirable place to be, especially when you need to be socially distancing.

“You can walk up the fells and be very far away from everyone else.”

The New Inn has been ‘non-stop’ since reopening, landlord says (Google Maps)

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, has noticed a trend in which city pubs are having a harder time at the moment than country ones.

“They are so quiet, the city centres,” she says, adding the situation was “really, really tough” at the moment.

She suggests “a lack of confidence over transport” during the pandemic may be playing a role, as public transport is a popular way to get into town or city centres, while people may be able to walk home from their local.

McClarkin also senses a feeling of wanting to “support your local” during this time, which people may realise they have not used enough in the past.

“We are seeing far more confidence out in community pubs,” she says, adding this seemed to be the “trend across the country”.

The Rake has been missing office workers and tourists in central London (Google Maps)

Greene King says the “vast majority” of its pubs around the UK have reopened, which has been allowed since 4 July, while 40 per cent in London are still shut “as they are not currently viable”.

“In central London, across the City and West End, our pubs are trading significantly behind the rest of our managed estate,” Bosher, the managing director for premium, urban and venture brands, says.

She adds: “We are confident that once customers see first-hand the pub safe measures we have introduced in our managed pubs, they will feel reassured that the pub is a safe place to visit.”

Like many other pubs, The Rake in London has had to make changes to allow it to reopen safely during the coronavirus outbreak, such as introducing a one-way system and getting customers to write down their name and phone number on a card that is kept for two weeks – in case they need to be traced.

The tiny pub, which sits close to the Thames, has been open since early July, albeit on reduced hours.

Landlord Mike Hill says it has been a good feeling to see customers coming back. “It’s very much business as usual, in reality,” he tells The Independent. “The problem is, there’s just not enough of them.”