What is the death of the British pub doing to our love lives?

A boarded up pub in Lewisham. Image: Getty.

An ex-boyfriend of mine had the habit of pointing out, every time we went down a certain south London road, that “that pub there” was where he had had his very first pint. I thought it was a funny thing to say, looking as wistfully as he did, because, goodness, he must have had hundreds of pints since. And yet that little pub stayed in his mind, powerfully enough to remind me, someone who had never even been inside it, that something as magical as a first pint had happened there. 

Recently I found myself going down that street once more, and looking at the fated pub. But the pub is no longer there: nothing is. The property is up for a new lease, the front not even looking like the pub that it was. The building has been literally whitewashed. An advert on Right Move from earlier this year suggests that, while the property is a former bar, “the landlord is willing to consider different usages.” Indeed, “its excellent size and prominence on the high street would make the property ideal for a variety of uses, subject to planning”.

Thus died yet another London watering-hole. 

The same ex used to tell me an amusing anecdote about how, in his younger days, a friend confronted him over a pint. In response to my ex’s sullenness the older man allegedly shouted, banging his hand on a table, “What you need is pussy!”, or something along those lines. The pub, once again, was the background to these displays of male affection. 

How many times, one wonders, did the pub play the stage for not just hypothetical cries for pussy, but very literal ones? To late night hook-ups and first dates? To awkward kisses and passionate coming-togethers and Sunday roasts with the missus? The first time that ex and I kissed was in a pub, a few good pints in. We exchanged many others – pints and kisses – in pubs in the subsequent years. I have since shared many more with other exes, but perhaps in fewer pubs. 

And here lies the crux of my worries: as our capital loses its public houses at an unprecedented rate, are we all hooking up a lot less?

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Britain is losing no less than 29 traditional pubs every week. Since 2001, London has lost a total of 25 per cent of its pubs. The boroughs of Newham and Barking & Dagenham alone have seen over half of their taverns disappear. CAMRA figures suggest that the total number of pubs in the capital has gone from nearly 5,000 to just over 3,600 in the last 15 years – an average loss of 81 pubs each year. 

Dating contributes a whopping £5.9bn to the British economy (Match.com, 2017), which raises the question: what is all this doing to the dating scene?

“I'm reluctant to go on dates I'm unsure about if it means blowing cash,” single man-about-town Tom Mellors confesses. He adds that the rise in alcohol costs has affected the frequency with which he dates: first dates only happen once a month now. 


He isn’t alone. South Londoner Simon Kelman too admits that “cost is a factor” when it comes to dating. “Renting and living alone in London isn’t cheap,” he adds.

Changing places

But it isn’t just the high costs of boozing that are pushing the pub out of the dating routine. CAMRA believes that poor regulation has allowed gentrification to obliterate our cities’ pubs. “Holes in the current planning system allow pubs to be sold off, demolished or converted to many other uses,” the group’s head of communications, Tom Stainer said in a statement. 

Local communities often need to come to the rescue of their beloved spots. The Elephant & Castle had thrived in the south London neighbourhood of the same name for 250 years, but closed in early 2015 after a violent incident lead to the loss of the establishment’s license. 

When estate agent Foxtons made a bid to the council to turn the venue into one of its branches, the community went into uproar. A months-long battle, including the temporary squatting of the pub by anti-gentrification activists, had a happy ending, with the venue being listed as a community asset and quirky pub chain Antic Collective taking over. 

A good thing too. I’ve never seen anyone suggest a date at an estate agent, yet.

“I work with a lot of pubs and there's definitely a change in how they operate,” public relations consultant Allie Abgarian tells me. “Due to the power of the internet and social media, people have infinitely more choice and they no longer want to settle. It's all about demand and if the demands aren't met, they can simply choose to go elsewhere.” 

In many parts of town, she notes, there are “plenty of 'hipster' venues – but only a small part of these actually survive past the first few years. They're very niche.”

It’s not just pubs that are at risk of gentrification. “The local underground public toilet closed opposite my flat and re opened as a gin bar,” says Kelman. (I’m pretty sure that offering to meet people in public toilets meant something other than coming across as hip on Tinder once.) 

It’s not that I am afraid that people have stopped drinking before mating. I had someone telling me recently that “coffee dates are for job interviews” – boozing is alive and well in this fine nation. It’s just that while our attitudes towards mass dating have become far more liberal in the age of Tinder, our decision making processes on who to date have turned more thrifty with the collapse of the pub. 

“Despite rising costs of alcohol and eating out there is more competition and new reasonably priced places or ‘deals’ constantly opening up. So I would never use the excuse of not being able to afford to go somewhere to not go on a date,” comments Kelman, who seems nonplussed about such dating dilemmas after five years of singling and mingling in the capital. “There are lots of places I can’t afford to go, I just look harder for the best of the ones I can afford.”

The sad reality seems to be that gentrification is not just murdering a type of establishment that has until now been part and parcel of British identity. The days of dating prolifically and carefree are drawing to a close at the same speed as our much esteemed pub.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.