Once upon a time most country pubs were very simple affairs, often little more than a room in someone's house where beer (or cider in some regions) was sold. There are still a handful left but, sadly, they have been going rapidly over the past few decades. You can experience them at the Sun, Leintwardine, Herefordshire; the Kings Head, Laxfield, Suffolk; the Bridge, Topsham, Devon, the Luppitt Inn, Devon; the Red Lion, Ampney St Peter, Gloucestershire; and the Fiddichside Inn, Craigellachie, Moray (Grampian), for example.
What is saddening, though, is how very few of our pub interiors are the same now, or nearly so, as when built. More often than not, you enter a pub with an unspoilt 'period' facade only to find the interior trashed or compromised. CAMRA is wholly committed to protecting our dwindling stock of truly historic pub interiors. Our Pub Heritage Group is made up of CAMRA members passionate about protecting and promoting these interiors. Some Group members are recognised architectural and pub historians.
Elsewhere you can also find traces of such basic country pubs in premises that have expanded to create viable businesses. The old, small historic core has been carefully preserved at, for instance, the Drewe Arms, Drewsteignton, Devon; the Cross Keys, Selattyn, Shropshire; the Five Mile House, Duntisbourne Abbots, Gloucestershire; the Fox, Ysceifiog, Flintshire (North-East Wales); and the Barley Mow, Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire.
Some of the pubs were country inns that became public houses no longer offering accommodation. The Bridge Inn, Topsham is an example and, due to its long family ownership, is one of the least altered pubs in the whole country. It still has a small bar called the 'Inner Sanctum' that can only be visited by invitation.
Just as country pubs were a focus of rural life, so basic back-street locals often formed the heart of working class urban communities. Typically they have a public bar (where the counter is found) and one or more 'better' rooms where the drink used to cost a little more. Few remain much as they did a century ago but you can still enjoy the original character of such pubs at Circus Tavern, Manchester; the Turf Tavern, Bloxwich, West Midlands; the Vine, Tunstall, Staffordshire; the Oxford Bar, Edinburgh; and the Railway, Altrincham, Greater Manchester.
The 'golden age' of pub building in the UK was around 1900. Pubs were then having to compete as never before for people's disposable cash against attractions like organised sports, varied theatrical entertainments (and soon the cinema), excursions, and the new phenomenon of members of the working class taking holidays by the sea. The temperance movement had been active since the early Victorian period campaigning against the evils of drink and the places where it was consumed: if pubs couldn't all be closed, they ought to be reduced in number and improved. And the brewers were the people to do it! They were busy buying up pubs to tie up the supply and spent huge amounts in making them more attractive places to drink.
The most magnificent pubs from the late Victorian and early Edwardian pub-building boom are the Philharmonic and also the Vines in Liverpool, and the Crown Bar, Belfast. Superb examples can be found in central London at the Princess Louise, Holborn, and the Argyll Arms right by Oxford Circus tube station. Leeds has the Garden Gate; Birmingham the Bartons Arms; Edinburgh the Café Royal; Glasgow the Horseshoe Bar; and Cardiff the Golden Cross.
The campaign to improve pubs that started under the Victorians continued after the First World War. The idea was 'fewer and better' hence massive pubs in the suburbs which served a wide area and offered a range of facilities in addition to drink. There were sports facilities, meeting rooms, even gardens for the kids to play in. Women were welcomed. Good examples are the Bleeding Wolf, Scholar Green, Cheshire; the Margaret Catchpole, Ipswich; the Hand & Heart, Peterborough and the Eastbrook, Dagenham, London.
But there was also a nostalgic streak behind all this and 'Brewers' Tudor' a romantic evocation of the past was popular: grandiose examples can be visited at the Cittie of Yorke, Holborn, London; the King & Queen, Brighton; and the Five Ways, Nottingham.
By way of contrast, a particular pleasure of inter-war pubs is the occasional appearance of the sleek lines of Art Deco architecture and fittings. Fine examples can be found at the Steps Bar, Glasgow; Portland Arms, Shettleston, also Glasgow.
After the devastating economic effects of World War Two, pub-building did not get going again until the mid-1950s. Planning remained traditional in the sense that plans involved multiple rooms but materials were, necessarily, cheap and undistinguished while designs often featured sharp, angular shapes. Most early post-war pubs have been considerably altered in recent decades and only three nationally important historic pub interiors are still intact, see: Laurieston Bar, Glasgow; the Turnpike, Withington, Manchester.
As with most building types, you can find differences in pub styles from region to region. But the most conspicuous differences lie between England and Wales on one hand and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other. As a broad generalisation pubs in the former tend to be more conspicuous visually and were multi-roomed, whereas in the latter they are often almost indistinguishable from ordinary shops, and a single bar was quite common (but sometimes with small sitting rooms or booths leading off). The long spirit-drinking tradition in Scotland and Northern Ireland has ensured the survival of numerous spirit casks in gantries (back-fittings) at the back of many a servery, such as at the Old Toll Bar, Glasgow; Bennet's Bar, Edinburgh in Scotland and Blake's Bar, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh and Central Bar, Irvinestown, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.