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Pub games, food, music and other entertainment.

In this article Victoria Wells discuss what you can do in the pub, as well as, or as an alterative to drinking.
Photo of musicians in a pub.
© Victoria Wells/University of York

So far we’ve highlighted the social aspects of pubs and have concentrated, mostly, on beer and alcohol being part of this. But an important part of the pubs for many people is also other forms of entertainment and games, and increasingly food offerings.

We can see that pub entertainment and games have been part of pubs for many years. In “The Pub and the People” the authors note that pub customers smoked, played darts, dominos (“still the most popular game in Worktown”), sing, and listen to music.

By 1976 little had changed and Michael Jackson in his book “The English Pub” details a range of sports and contests that took place in and around the pub. This ranges from traditional pub games like Bat-and-Trap (a bat and ball game played between two teams of eight players), quoits (throwing of metal, rope or rubber rings, to lane over or near a spike), rhubarb-thrashing (two blindfolded players stand in dustbins, thrash each other with sticks of rhubarb until one is driven from their bin), darts, dominos, draughts, backgammon, skittles and bowls.

Many of the more unusual ‘pub sports’ don’t exist widely, if they ever did as there was always a very regional nature to them. Some now only get played on special occasions making them even more of an entertaining spectacle. Some sports like pool have reduced simply because they take up valuable trading space. A Mintel report in 2023 highlights that competitive socialising is increasingly important stemming from a heightened desire from consumers for in-person experiences following the Covid pandemic so perhaps we may see a number of these sports returning to pubs.

As well as games that were played at or in the pub, the pub has always had a broader connection with sports and Michael Jackson states that:

“No sport has more active links with the English pub than boxing. The relationship stretch back more than 800 years from the days when inns staged bare-knuckle prize fights in their backyard” (pages 113-114).
While fights no longer take place, boxing, alongside other sports like cricket, football and rugby are often watched on pub screens and are a key part of pub conversations. As Mike Weed highlights in his work on sport spectator experience:
“It would seem that sports spectators’ need for proximity is not for proximity to the event, but to others sharing in the experience of watching the event” making the pub a perfect place to watch sport.
Pubs have also always been connected with music and singing.The sound of pubs is a key part of the atmosphere and Michael Jackson states:
“There are pubs enough where the best-projected sound is that of the local bore… but there are also country pubs where fine voices are a part of the folk-culture.”
Sing-songs were common in pubs with, as Michael Smith notes, a number of pubs containing a singing saloon for this very reason. Singalongs are rare in pubs nowadays but may pubs either play music or have bands and artists playing.
Food has also become a more important part of pub going with the rise of the Gastropub. While many pubs have been saved by a switch to food, there are often worries that with a focus on food this means that these pubs may not be as much of a place for local social interaction and as Christel Lane notes:
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some villages, inhabitants feel that the arrival of a gastropub has robbed them of a community centre… a small number of publicans indicate that their own objectives are not always congruent with the wishes of many villagers” (page 201).
Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey as well as Peter Lugosi and colleagues note that the increasing move to food and dining as a key feature of pubs has been to attract more women and families to pubs and essentially to take the focus away from alcohol.
On the role of food in pubs I personally tend to agree with Michael Jackson when he stated:
“Food is fine… .but it must not be allowed to blemish the drinking”.

Over to you

  • If you’re a pub visitor what do you do, apart from drinking, when you’re in the pub?
  • Do you eat?
  • Do you play or watch sports?
  • Does your local have a pool table or a dart board or do you take part in one of the more unusual pub sports?

Add to the discussion as usual please!

Personally one of my favoured activities in the pub is people watching. I could happily spend a few hours with a pint observing the comings and goings in a pub. I’m also partial to a game of pool, darts or dominos when the opportunity arises.

References

Boak, J and Bailey, R. (2019) Balmy Nectar: The Best of Boak & Bailey, boakandbailey.com

Jackson, M. (1976) The English Pub: A unique social phenomenon, Chartwell Books Inc

Lane, C. (2018) The Future of the Pub: Are Gastropubs the Saviour or the Nemesis of the Traditional Pub? In: Lane, C. (eds) From Taverns to Gastropubs: Food, Drink and Sociality in England, OUP Oxford, pp 195-210.

Lugosi, P., Golubovskaya, M., Robinson, R.N.S., Quinton, S and Konz, J. (2020) Creating family-friendly pub experiences: A composite data study, International Journal of Hospitality Management, 91, 102690.

Smith, M.A. (1983) Social Usages of the Public Drinking House: Changing Aspects of Class and Leisure, The British Journal of Sociology, 34(3), 367-385

Weed, M (2008) Exploring the sport spectator experience: virtual football spectatorship in the pub, Soccer & Society, Vol 9(Issue 2), pages 189-197.

© Victoria Wells/University of York
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Pubs: History, Consumers, Management, and Protection

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