Scary pubs

Scary Pubs in Britain and Why I Love Them

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In this article I will attempt to achieve the impossible, I will convince you that drinking in scary pubs is a right of passage that should be celebrated rather than feared.

I love beer, this is probably obvious. I write on a blog that references beer quite clearly and most of my leisure time is spent either drinking or thinking about times where I have drunk. In my opinion, the difference between an alcoholic and a beer enthusiast is that the alcoholic is always thinking about where their next drink is coming from. While the beer enthusiast is always thinking about their last beer.

Loving beer means that I have tried (and enjoyed) many different forms of beer, and it also means that I can enjoy a quality of beer that many beer enthusiasts would look down their noses on. See that’s my main issue with social media beer enthusiasm, it’s all about finding the most unique beers, but doesn’t feel like it’s about enjoying beer in all its forms.

American Beer Culture vs UK Beer Culture

scary pubs

The type of beer you would NEVER find in a scary pub

American beer enthusiasts on Instagram are definitely the worst examples of this “Look an Earl Gray IPA mixed with Lychee”. But young English beer enthusiasts affect me more personally because I actually have to experience them in the flesh.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy while drinking a stunning Belgian beer served in the correct glass. And if I have easy access to information regarding the history of the particular brewery, I am even happier. But then I am also extremely happy drinking a nice cold can of Stella or ordering a pint of Carlsberg in a pub.

Because of this, I am equally happy in a Hipster bar stocked with the young and the beautiful as I am when drinking in scary pubs. In fact, there is something about scary pubs that appeals to me even more.

Scary Pubs Philosophy

I am of the opinion that who you are is based entirely upon who you want to be. Up to a certain point. If you are long-term unemployed then you can’t easily decide that you want to be a member of a private club in Baker Street. But if you are a normal, middle-class person with an honest income then you have the ability to become whoever you want to be.

You can save your money carefully and only visit the fanciest bars and restaurants, or you can inhabit the scariest pub in your area and become part of the furniture. Five years of doing this and you will have truly become the type of person who inhabits either establishment.

Isn’t that quite a freeing thought? That tomorrow you could walk into any pub in your area, go regularly, become accepted, and then have that pub affect how you are viewed, how you view yourself, and the people that you meet.

This also opens up bigger philosophical questions. Is anywhere really authentic if people are self-aware about how they are supposed to act? Are our personalities conscious constructs or genetic? If you come from a family of millionaires but spend all your time drinking in a traditional working-class pub which side of you is real? How you were brought up or how you are currently living?

None of these thoughts have ever occurred to me when sitting in a scary pub, because scary pubs don’t really allow for this form of meditation.

What Makes a Scary Pub?

Before continuing, I think it is important to identify what a scary pub really is, because a lot of people may be on the wrong track.

Firstly, a scary pub is not a haunted pub. Nor is it a pub that is so far up its own arse that it has become sort of intimidating. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel in a Fuller’s pub near West Hampstead, you are not in the presence of a scary pub.

Nor are scary pubs necessarily dives. Just because a pub is filthy and has threadbare carpets it doesn’t mean that the pub qualifies as scary. Student bars are a great example of this, many student bars are absolutely horrific, with bad beer, broken furniture, and poorly maintained pool tables. But a student bar can never be a scary pub for several reasons:

  • Students are rarely terrifying, as a former-student, I do not mean this as an insult. I’m sure that many students are capable of beating me up, but I would have to insult them personally before they would start a fight with me.
  • Student bars have a shifting customer base. Nobody who has left university will continue to frequent student bars, because why would you? This means that there are no “locals”
  • Many student bars have bouncers, now scary pubs can still have bouncers, but they cannot also have young, privileged, customers who are studying Art History and drinking snakebite.

Eight Signs of a Scary Pub

Scary pubs need to have the following criteria to be truly scary in my opinion:

  1. A loyal customer base who have been turning up for decades. This automatically disqualifies new pubs, unless the new pub has somehow maintained the clientele of a previous pub
  2. Rubbish toilets with anti-drug signs above the urinal. If you haven’t seen two men walk into a toilet stall together and blow their noses (I presume that’s what they are doing) then you’re not really in a scary pub!
  3. A sparse selection of beers. I have been to scary pubs that did have an eclectic mix of beers. But they need to be dusty and untouched. If several men are nursing citrus pale ales or Tuscan craft beers then you’re in the wrong (or right?) pub.
  4. Scary pubs need to be busy. You could be in the scariest pub in Britain, but if there are only four other customers then you are not currently in a scary pub. This can change if you notice that any of the other customers is mental.
  5. Conversely, the pub cannot be too busy either. If you can’t even swing your arms then what do you have to fear? I was once in a pub in Cardiff after a Wales v England game. I was wearing an England rugby shirt and England had just lost 30-3. Everywhere I looked were Welsh fans. Definition of a scary pub. However, because the pub was so packed nobody could really do anything about it. I was perfectly safe. NOT a scary pub.
  6. There needs to be an underlying feeling of menace, a creeping feeling, the hairs need to prick up on the back of your neck when somebody stands a little too close to you at the bar. You need to subconsciously alter your choice of words, lessen (or strengthen) your accent, review your drinks order (I once ordered a Baileys on the rocks in a scary pub and immediately regretted it). If you get this feeling then you are definitely in a scary pub.
  7. A damaged pool table. Okay, there are plenty of scary pubs without pool tables, but the majority have at least one. Almost without fail there will be a scratch on the table, the pool cues will be damaged, and the white ball will be absolutely covered in blue chalk marks. Extra points if the pool table is so close to the wall that most shots are almost impossible to play.
  8. A larger than life barman/barwoman. They can be surly, friendly, terrifying, moody, funny it doesn’t matter. They just have to be there all the time, and feel like part of the furniture. Most of the scary pubs I have been to have had fantastic bar staff. Lifers, who own the pub themselves or have worked there for 5+ years. Not uni students or Australians who change every month.

Why I love Scary Pubs

After reading this list you may wonder why I enjoy drinking in scary pubs? Firstly, I love the atmosphere. Sipping a Belgian beer in the correct glass in Brussels is a great atmosphere that I have enjoyed. Drinking a stein of Spartan lager at Oktoberfest is a great atmosphere that I have enjoyed. Necking a bottle of Grolsch while watching two young blokes having a blazing row in the Laurels pub in Harrow is also a great atmosphere … to me.

I have also found scary pubs to be surprisingly welcoming. As I write this there are two scary pubs (tick all the boxes) within walking distance from me. The Fairham pub and the Peacock. They are rough, I’ve seen actual drug deals going on, the beer selection is sparse, and there are more neck tattoos than you can count. A sea of neck tattoos. Large neck tattoos, small neck tattoos, neck tattoos that continue down the arm and onto the hand. Neck tattoos that …. I’m rambling here. The pubs are dodgy.

Have I experienced any aggro in either pub? Not at all! Friendly bar staff, friendly punters, friendly conversations, you name it. I have brought many friends to these pubs, and some of them even have posh London accents. Any issues? Nope.

Scary Pubs vs Fancy Pubs

While I have had plenty of nice exchanges in fancy pubs across the land, it’s never the same. It’s not better or worse, just different. Sometimes I like to experience the former, sometimes the latter. It’ll change each time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had lots of bad experiences in scary pubs. I was once in a pub in Harrow on a quiet Thursday night when somebody threw a can of tear gas into the middle of the room. To this day I have no idea why. I’ve also narrowly avoided getting beaten up on numerous occasions. But that’s more down to my magnetic personality than anything else.

But the truth is that scary pubs are a great place to have a pint and experience mild danger surrounding you. I have never been in a pub that has refused to serve me based on not being a local. Provided I behave myself; I am perfectly safe. You can be anonymous.

It’s like going to a football match but being in the home supporters’ section. Sure, there are certain steps you could take to ensure you got your head kicked in, but they are easy enough to avoid, and that added sense of danger makes everything a little more exciting.

Nobody would watch football in an empty stadium and really enjoy themselves. But even the most anti-football person would appreciate the atmosphere during an Old Firm derby with the score at 2-2 and a last-minute penalty being awarded.

Two Pints and an Adrenaline Rush Please!

It’s the same with scary pubs. For some people, and I absolutely admit that I am very much in the minority here. Spending time in a scary pub gives drinking an added sense of occasion. One that you don’t get in a Yates’ or Wetherspoons. Unless either is also a scary pub – for example the Wetherspoons on Holloway Road. Becoming a local can improve this sensation. But it often removes the fear and suddenly that scary pub becomes just a regular pub.

I don’t really spend much of my time in scary pubs any more. If I fancy a really good beer, I’ll look up the fanciest most middle-class pub I can think of “Oak matured pork scratchings with fennel? Yes, please barkeep”. But every once in a while, like some kind of violence tourist. I will walk into a scary pub. Order a pint of Guinness (one of the few beers you can almost always trust) and start people-watching.

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