Jon Saxon, editor of Doghouse, will be a regular contributor telling us about the best British pubs in the country. In the meantime, we've pulled him up for a chat about ale, pubs, cobs and darts.
1. What's your magazine about?
Doghouse Magazine is all about the traditional British pub and the essence of pub culture. The loose tag-line is: "A love-letter to the British pub: celebrating tales from the bar, mystery of the cellars below, and ghosts that lurk around upstairs."
2. What inspired you to create your own mag?
I had been a features writer since 1994, first working for music magazines then within the motoring sector. One day I popped down my local pub and just sat there thinking what to do next. I knew I wanted to keep doing something for myself, but only in print – but didn't know what. It sounds so romantic now, but I looked up at that moment and noticed sat across the room a man reading the newspaper, with a pint in front of him and a dog fast asleep half across the newspaper, and half in the crook of his arm. And I thought there and then: that's it, I'll be that man and travel around writing about pubs, talking just as much about the history, architecture, people at the bar, the region itself, wildlife, ghosts, and so forth.
3. Why are we getting excited about real ale and independent breweries and micropubs?
It's quite remarkable really. Maybe it's a shift in the mood these days, with people possibly being more in-tune with the underdog, and – more importantly – supporting new and exciting products/produce/ventures from independent companies, some of which operate from a tiny broom cupboard, restored outdoor toilet-block, or in the case of Brew Dog, occasionally at the bottom of the North Sea. It's exciting and people feel connected. It feels real, and well-worth supporting. Whether it's a boom or not, it's being grabbed hold of by an awful lot of people, and that's fantastic – especially if it means more folks are heading down the pub to try new ones out, rather than ordered mainstream nonsense.
4. What's the future of the British pub? Is it a positive one?
I think it has to be positive, else we'll be doomed as a nation. I am asked the same question quite a lot, to which I put on my 'why wouldn't it be positive' face. I think you have to be optimistic. If you don't rally up a smile and confidence, than people will soon stop caring along with you and let a rather important part of the British landscape slip away only to possibly return as themed establishments (carved out of post offices, libraries and butcher shops, which will also be long gone too if we don't start spending more times in them) ultimately showcasing how pubs used to be. For some people, though, traditional pubs are rather terrifying places to enter – for whatever reasons – so I do see why larger, brightly-lit corporate pubs and bars are more popular. For others, there's no value put on the traditional pub – so they don't feel the need to support them – but I guarantee if every back-street boozer disappeared overnight, those same people would be up in arms.
5. What four essential things should a good pub have? And four things they shouldn't?
Now this is a tough one. My idea of a good pub is some people's idea of hell. But if you are talking about a pub just for me, and the like-minded, my should-haves are: real ale and real cider (I hope that stands as one thing), a plate of selected cobs under cellophane, over-sized glasses, good regulars (one at best being as old as life will allow, so you can possibly leave having learned something useful). And I know these will tally up to six, but I think pubs should be difficult to find/give directions for – even if you've been there at least once before. And I rather like dartboards too – there is something attractive and comforting about seeing one, even if you don't personally play or see anyone throw a dart throughout the whole time of your visit.
Not haves: I think lager should be thrown out altogether. There's no place for it these days, with so many ale options – some of which are designed to appeal to the lager-crowd. No music (background is okay but not the foundation of a pub). I think bar staff get nervous of quiet pubs and fill the void with inappropriate sound. No TV at all. But that's just me. There is so many great things to glance your eye over at a pub than needing the news, a soap or reality show on. Of course certain pubs rely on the TV, especially sports-heavy places which is fine. It's clear from the A-frame outside advertising the football and every seat taken what's awaiting for you inside, but to wander into a lovely old pub to be faced with two locals and the TV blaring away pretty much to itself is a big no-no for me. Energetic young children in the public bar shouldn't be allowed as much as they are – more for the sake of the children than the drinkers. They get bored and put people off their pints by making a racket. I don't blame them though; I'd be the same if I had my time again as a youngest I'm sure, but better off in the lounge or anywhere else but the public bar.
6. Favourite pub and why?
I'm very fond of The Cresselly Arms, Cresswell Quay, Pembrokeshire: they serve straight from the barrel into a jug and then into your pint glass. Great in every way. I even talk a lot about the toilets. I'm also head-over-heels for The Dyffryn Arms, Pontfaen (also in Pembrokeshire): straight from the barrel (only Bass available) served through a hatch that is only opened when you rattle an empty pint glass on the hatch-ledge. It's a no-fuss simply-furnished single room in someone's home. A pub-defining establishment: the opposite to anything you'll find on the high-street. I also spend a lot of time in The Three Kings in Hanley Castle, Worcestershire. If you haven't been, I encourage you to do so: it's not too old-world to frighten you off, but untouched and much-loved. Great drink choice and fantastic conversation. It's got stuffed birds and everyone gets a dimpled glass.
7. Favourite ale and why?
Pretty difficult one to answer. At home I drink Banks's Bitter (as I really like the taste at home: why, not sure). At my local I drink Wye Valley Bitter as it's an easy session drink. I'd rather have a couple more at 3.7% than only two 5% for example. Anything that keeps me in the pub longer helps. Around me there are plenty of really good breweries so I do like to mix it up as often as I'm in the mood to do so.
8. If you had your own pub, what would you call it?
The magazine has its own pop-up pub, which travels around any food festival that will have us – which I plan to give a semi-permanent home in the near future. Everyone expects it be called The Doghouse, but I rather like: The Dog End. A couple of my favourite pub names, for reasons unknown, are: The Gate Hangs Well, and The Romping Cat. Also, there is no longer a pub left standing by the name of The Silver Lion, so maybe that should be a firm contender? In short I haven't got a clue.
9. What's on your bedside table?
A pile of books: just finished Fear & Loathing on The Campaign Trail 72, as well as The Cult of the Amateur. I've just started Roger Deakin's Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. I also have a pint glass of water close to hand.
10. Finish the following sentence: "I have never..."
...as my memory serves, drunk a pint in Wetherspoons – which I find both impressive and note-worthy. I've also never been bored, though frustrated maybe from time-to-time, while working for myself on a print magazine all about the British pub.
Jon Saxon is the founder and editor of Doghouse. Ernest readers can purchase four issues at 10% off by entering 'ERNEST' in the discount code field on the Doghouse website.