I've been away for a while, I'm wounded and haven't been able to get out much. I thought I would blog on something I am passionate about though, in the interim and in the hope it would sustain some interest in the blog while I'm awaiting a return to good health.I'm a member of the South Downs Society, formerly the Society of Downsmen. Our primary concern is the protection of the landscape of the South Downs, and has been since formation as the Society of Downsmen in 1923. In my voluntary role as an Area Access Officer I look after a group of parishes on the borders of the new South Downs National Park, regularly walking the footpaths and bridleways and ensuring they are in a useable condition. I also watch planning applications that would impact on these rights of way and report back to the Society on the impact of any development.
The Society is not reactionary, which is part of the attraction for me, as as historian I accept that everything changes, and nothing can be expected to stay the same forever.
However, what bothers me, and increasingly so, is not organic change, but change that sucks out local identity, turning Britain into a patchwork of identikit towns.
Take, for example, another favourite subject of mine - beer. I mean real beer. Not yellow fizzy generic chemical mixtures, but ale.
I grew up in East Anglia. I liked my local ale. It had a taste of where I lived. Now I can buy it where I currently live, some 200 miles away. Of course, it's not the same beer. It doesn't taste quite the same. Ale doesn't travel well, so they apply some chemistry and, while it tastes a bit different, I can drink an approximation of it. I guess that's what the brewer strives for, brand loyalty. They rely on the fact that while I know it's not going to taste quite the same, it's a brand I know, so I'm more likely to buy it than risk something I don't know. Especially as the brewers have now become so big they can churn it out for a couple of quid a pint in a chain pub, run by a PubCo, that offers no alternative in terms of ales. Lagers - pick any one of several from all over the world. Beer? No demand, sir. No demand? Or no choice?
There's safety in globalization. If you spend £7 on a PubCo lunch you get the same meal whether you're in Workington or Worthing. The portions will be the same size, and if you've liked it in Worthing, you'll like it in Workington. Your lamb Sunday lunch will likely have travelled hundreds of miles in the back of a truck, partially made up, ironically passing thousands of local sheep, in local fields, before coming straight to your plate courtesy of a few minutes in the microwave. But it's safe. You're going to get what you expect. There's no danger in handing over your £7 and not really knowing what's coming. It's nice and safe. And they'll never run out, you'll never be disappointed, or forced to choose something different. The freezer is jammed full.
But what if you took a risk with your £7? What happens if you find a free house, or a pub not tied to a PubCo like The Fountain at Ashurst, and try the Sussex smokey? What if they'd run out and you'd have to choose something else? You might not like it. Does that matter? It depends on your point of view. The herbs have come from the back garden, the fish is local, and you can wash it down with a beer brewed just down the road. That £7 might not have filled your belly, but it goes someway to sustaining your wider community. It doesn't disappear into the pockets of an anonymous suit in a glass and brushed aluminum office somewhere hundreds of miles away. You can always try something else next time. If the pub is still there.
One of my favourite pubs in the Lake District is the Woolpack in Eskdale. When I first visited 20 years ago it was a spit and sawdust place, run down, shabby but welcoming. No-one gave a toss about your wet trousers or muddy boots. Why would they? The only customers were walkers and farmers, and as long as you're spending money you're welcome. Even if you only buy a pint and stay a couple of hours, sheltering from the rain. Last year I took a friend to the Lakes. I offered to take her in, but felt the need to warn her it was a bit run down. Imagine my suprise to find the newly painted brushed plaster walls, the big screen TV and the children's play area. Behind the bar though, reassuringly, were beers brewed over the hill, the lamb came from the farm over the road - literally. It could have walked there itself. It might have been tidied up a bit, and the bespoke B&B next door opened up, but the new owner had kept the essence of the place. It was proof that change can be for the better, that change does not need to mean stripping out the heart of a community and shovelling scampi and chips down it's neck and washing it down with a pint of fine American lager, brewed under licence in Wrexham.
A PubCo recently bought two pubs in a local Sussex community. They spruced them up, and lovely they look. Now you have a choice. You can drink the same beer in either of the pubs. They look different, the menus are slightly different, but they're tied to the same PubCo. The landlord is tied to a contract to buy from a certain brewer, and if you like the beer, which has rattled its way to you from 150 miles away, then all well and good. But is that choice? The PubCo will tell you they're reacting to demand. But if you can only chose their beer that's not real choice is it?
There are many good things hidden away in the Downs, you might have to stumble across them, they don't have the budget to sponsor football teams, or take out full page ads to tell you that if you bring your Mum in on Mother's Day she eats for free. What they do is sustain age old local industries like fishing, brewing and farming. They keep local people in work, they preserve the identity of the community, they preserve a national identity. For the pub is the synonymous with being British.
Likewise with coffee shops. I live in a seaside town. On the main drag are a handful of franchise coffee shops. Set a bit further away is one run by a local lady. She works there too, and she employs some local girls. They're at college, or bringing up families. She juggles their hours sympathetically. The coffee is good, the sandwiches tightly packed, and in winter the soup is delicious. The bread and pastries come from a local baker, who also employs local people. My lunch might help half a dozen people work. In the franchise, I can buy a coffee that doesn't taste any different, and a pre-packed panini, trucked a hundred miles or more, and costing the same as my sandwich. The staff are on a salary. They work long hours for little pay, they call them 'baristas', but they're generally from eastern Europe, struggling to make their way here and happy to put up with whatever conditions as long as they have a job.
The panini is dumped limp on the plate, with no accompaniment. The sandwich in the local cafe comes with a bit of salad, and maybe some crisps. But, again, there's a risk. You peep in the door. How big is the coffee? Is it instant? Are the sandwiches good? You can only afford one lunch out a week because your budget is squeezed, so it's safer to spend it on what you know. Something safe. Something that's the same in Workington and Worthing; in Washington and Wisconsin. You buy a brand, and somewhere another brushed aluminum office goes up.
I could rant on about this forever, and you'd wilt away, thinking I'm a Luddite, a reactionary, someone who is anti-change. I'm not, change can be a good thing - the Woolpack opens early in the morning for bacon butties, it's probably been saved from being turned into a holiday lets by the spirit of the new owner with such innovative ideas. The Fountain flourishes, you really should visit, you might have to wait for a table, queue to order, or find they've run out, but does it matter? Just once this month though, don't go for safe... risk your shillings and try something local.
I've borrowed the term PubCo from Paul Kingsnorth's excellent book 'Real England', which, by coincidence, I started to read as I was putting this post together. I hope to get back to writing about the South Downs in the near future. As always, please comment. The blog only improves in response to criticism, so of course, it's welcome.