Lancaster is a town in the north west of England. It is a town like most in the provincial United Kingdom these days: a bit downtrodden, suffering the effects of austerity; a bit frayed around the edges as local budget cuts bite into things like weeding the streets or fixing potholes.

But there is The Apothecary, a pub in the centre of the town that, while it’s not going to reverse those cuts, offers hope. Hope, in a sense, of a new way of living within the confines of a new, poorer reality.

That people in the UK are relatively poorer than they were a decade ago cannot be disputed: Wages are stagnant, inflation is creeping upward, the value of Sterling is sliding, house prices are at unprecedented highs, and utilities, food and rent all cost more. People, the majority of people, are under pressure financially. What is more, there is no longer the same level of assistance from local government: they, in turn, are being slowly crushed by the most extraordinary change in their finances as the U.K. central government keeps more and more of the tax take.

The Apothecary is run by a man called Mark. He’s had the place for a couple of years. It’s a champion of live music (as all good pubs should be), sells an interesting range of beers and does a good cocktail. But it’s also a community centre, a creche, a food bank. It is not just a pub it is the heart of a community.

The pub had long been the locus of community. Decorated such that they were typically more pleasant places than one’s own home, with fires and comfortable chairs and most importantly, all your neighbours. Whether urban or rural, the pub and community were inseparable. But over the years, this necessary connection has been lost. The pub drifted into being just a place for drinking, latterly of eating, but not an essential part of our lives; less important, more remote. Some of this change can be explained away by an increase in general prosperity, some by the rise of the supermarket and the slide in the price of take-home alcohol. Pubs in the UK continue to close — far more cost effective to turn them into housing given the state of that market…

What Mark has done is think about the pub’s place in the community and what people need from it and how you access it. Typically, you can’t just walk into a pub and sit down; you need a drink. But when you are too poor to afford that luxury, what then? The community of the pub is closed to you. So Mark encourages patrons to buy a ‘suspended drink’ when they buy their own. This ‘drink’ can be had then by anyone who comes into the bar. There is no awkwardness about coming into a cosy bar and standing out because you don’t have a drink. Come in! Join us! Enjoy a drink! No, it’s not on the house, we don’t know who bought it, but it needs using…

Suspended soft drinks.

The suspended drink isn’t a new idea. I first heard about il caffe sospeso, suspended coffee, when I lived in Italy 20 years ago. There it was a southern Italian thing that happened in the bars of Rome and Naples. The idea of buying a coffee for someone you don’t know. It’s such a simple thing really. Such a small act of solidarity with your fellow humans. But at the same time, of such importance to the person who chooses to redeem it. Mark’s suspended drink takes away the barrier to the pub, and it’s sheltering community.

Again, thinking about straightened times, every day over the school summer holidays, The Apothecary offered free lunch and entertainment for children and their parents. On a typical day, 30 or more children would be in there from 12 until 2 enjoying good simple food, video games, board games, each other’s company. And their parents too became friends, and so the community grew.

Free lunch and entertainment for children and parents over the summer holidays.

As we look at the state of things, people poorer, with less time, with less sense of community than perhaps they had, places like The Apothecary, offering the community service it does, will come to be ever more important. There is no silver lining to the current devastating cuts to local government services. But if, even if it’s out of necessity, we as human beings can step in to fill gaps where hitherto we might have relied upon that local government service, perhaps we will ultimately be better for it.🔷

Find out more about The Apothecary