Mark Ridett in the Newport Ale House. Picture by Laura Holme.
WIGHT LIVING NATIONALLY, the collective pub glass is, pessimistically, more than half empty — and draining fast.
Dwindling custom, caused by the expense of drinking out, has led to the closure of an estimated 10,000 pubs throughout the land in just a decade — and the trend is expected to accelerate if nothing is done.
But on the Island, although many pubs are finding times tough and some extremely so, the glass is viewed, optimistically, as being more than half full by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
"With pubs closing, nationally, at an horrific rate, the IW seems to be bucking the national trend," said IW CAMRA chairman John Nicholson, who is keen to keep it that way.
"Just in the last year, we have seen some new and really popular pubs open on the Island: Berties, a wonderful and very civilised conception, in Cowes; the popular Cowes Ale House, for from-the-cask enthusiasts; the Wren’s Nest in Holyrood Street, dedicated to real ale, taking the nearby Newport Ale House idea.
"Now, there is the Valentine Gray, in Newport, one of a growing chain of excellent pubs opened by the master publican, supporter and enthusiast of real ale, Jay Chapman, and his business group."
Real ale and small scale appear to be at the vanguard of the new locally owned pub movement but, at the other end of the scale, the giant Wetherspoon chain has committed to a second pub in Newport and announced it is looking at the closed police station in the centre of Cowes too.
That would make a total of four 'supertanker’ pubs on the Island, hoovering up customers for its inexpensive food and drink.
It is Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin who has built his fortune on shaving prices through bulk purchase and sales, who led the national campaign to persuade government to cut VAT on pub food and drink to give them a level playing field with supermarkets.
He points to the fact that each £3 pint sold in a pub at present generates £1 for the exchequer.
It is the burden of national tax collection, business rates, wages and utility bills, but most especially rents from the big chains who own most of the pubs on the Island, that are big shackles to rented houses.
It is the independents who have bucked the trend because, in the main, they do not have to pay rent to the big groups. That can amount to almost £1,000 a week. That is an awful lot of beer.
It was Newport Ale House founder Mark Ridett, who was at the vanguard of the new, small, independent pub movement, converting a hairdressing salon in Holyrood Street, Newport.
He followed that with Cowes Ale House in Shooters Hill with the same intimate, friendly, cask ale, simple food ethos.
Made redundant as a civil engineer after 30 years, he had been casting round for what to do and realised there was a living to be made for small independents that took pubs back to what they used to be.
His reasoning is supported by John Nicholson, who, unsurprisingly, sees pubs as social hubs, not just purveyors of pints.
"Pubs are a valuable core to any community; somewhere people can go to relax, exchange ideas, meet friends and family and celebrate.
"Historically, pubs have been a centre for business transactions, a meeting room for all sorts — Freemasons, natural philosophers, scientists, artists, radicals, focus groups, you name it — as well as being a safe place of hostelry for the traveller, and clues to that remain in many pub names."
IW Council member, John, who persuaded the council to back the campaign to support local food and drink, said: "The closures of old establishments, like the Manor House at Lake, is more than balanced by the construction of the new Merrie Gardens.
"With the promise of new Wetherspoons in Newport town centre and Cowes, the Island really does seem to be gaining, on balance.
"This goes to show what a sociable lot us Islanders are."