In 1946 George Orwell wrote an article for the Evening Standard in which he details his perfect public house; a fictitious utopia he called The Moon Under Water. Since writing his homily to the publican a number of mutated namesakes of Orwell's perfect free-house have appeared, often under the spectre of J. D. Wetherspoon (a quick google will tell you that much). The physical Moon Under Water's are, put lightly, a mutation of the Orwellian original. Gone are the cast-iron fire places and "comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century", gone are the barmaids with hair of "surprising shades" calling you dear. Instead we are left with pre-fab pubs with the same menu, the same clunky modernism and the same commercial lagers the country over.
Reflecting on this over a poorly poured pint of Carlsberg in my local Wetherspoon's, I began to think it may be time to revisit the idea of the perfect pub. Orwell said, even though the place he was describing was fictitious, that he knew pubs with seven or eight of the characteristics he listed, and imagined that a place existed where all of them were present. Maybe by working out what I deem the perfect drinking establishment I'll become more discerning about my choice of boozery in the future. Or maybe it's just a good way to waste the half an hour I have before my train.
Firstly, location. Orwell opted for a pub near a bus stop. Mine would be near a train station. Train stations generally have a wonderful habit of being near enough the centre of towns or cities that you can get to them without too much trouble, but far enough away from the middle that you avoid the rowdy foot-fall of the drunkard. My Moon Under Water would be tucked away out of the straight line between train station and nearest club / bar to avoid the Saturday night bingers. The clientele would be an eclectic mix of regulars, those exploring a little way off the beaten track, and those seeking out a nice place to spend some time before moving on.
This is a tough decision as some of my favourite tangible establishments are country pubs, but my perfect pub would be in a city. I believe a great pub envelops you for the time you're a patron, removing you from the bustle of daily life for the duration of a pint or two. My Moon Under Water would give me the solace and tranquility of a great country pub whilst tucked away in the corner of a major city.
The furnishing would be understated, light woods and soft colours, with plenty of natural light in the day and un-intrusive and warm artificial lighting for the evenings. There would be at least two rooms; a lounge and a snug are a bare minimum. I don't understand, nor do I want to understand, the contemporary obsession with the open plan pub. An old-fashioned, heavy fireplace will have a wood and coal fire burning throughout the day, which is far enough away from any seating that the room is warm but not unpleasant. The value of a fireplace in a pub is as important today as it was in Orwell's day. A room bathed in the iridescent light and warmth from a good fire is endlessly nicer than that of purely artificial light.
There would be no television, and if the bartenders would like to play music, it will be quiet enough to cover the sounds of the cellar and the tills and no more. The overbearing sound should be conversation, and people should be focused on other people, not the sky news reel. There would be stools at the bar, so anyone could walk in and sit down into a conversation. The bartenders would have time for you, engaging you in conversation whether you're a regular they know by name or this is their first time meeting you. Walking into my Moon Under Water would feel comfortable and welcoming whether you were with 5 best friends or by yourself. The pub will serve quality food, but it will be unassuming and not the main focus of the place. Cutlery and sauces will only be out on the table if you've already placed an order.
I've always believed that a pub which can offer me a quality beer that I've never heard of is onto a good start, and anywhere I can walk in and see something on draught that surprises me is doing even better. Anywhere offering a combination of Carlsberg, Carling and Strongbow and not much else is simply not going to cut it. The beer will be well kept, served in precisely the right glasses, and the selection will find the perfect balance between house regulars and rotated guest beers and ciders. The bartenders will be knowledgeable about the drinks they are serving, and tell you about them with enthusiasm. If you're not familiar with the selection the bar staff will be able to recommend you something that's an actual recommendation, not just what their manager has told them to push that week.
What I've detailed here is a fairly simple formula for the ideal pub - one with an equal focus on providing good beer and a good atmosphere, something which far too many places don't even seem to consider. I could quite happily go on describing the particulars of my Moon Under Water, but my intention was to keep this around the same length as Orwell's essay.
Places like Wetherspoon's will probably always have their place, but for me their purpose is mostly to ensure the people who consider lukewarm pints of Carling chased with bottles of VK before moving onto the club down the road don't come near my Moon Under Water, unless of course I'm stuck waiting for a train with time to kill (hey, it's still better than McDonalds).