22 May 2011

Australian pubs

It’s now two weeks since I arrived in Newcastle. Known for its wines and its mining industry, this region has a lot to offer and I’m looking forward to exploring it. So far, I’ve spent most of my time in Hamilton, a busy and cosmopolitan area, with a main street not too dissimilar to the ones you could come across in London. I love how lively it is and the fact that is full of cafes, restaurants and small shops. It of course also has a few pubs.

Australian pubs are way bigger pubs than any I had ever seen in Spain and they have a unique architecture. Many of them remind me of the saloons that appeared in old Western movies.  For instance, check out this picture of the William Wallace Hotel, in Balmain, Sydney:

Both in the “wild West” and in most parts of Australia, high temperatures make the awnings and verandas useful, something that never took off in Spanish cities but that city planners should probably make a note of. The second floor tends to be used for accommodation, which is why people refer to these pubs as hotels.

According to Wikipedia, licensing laws often required the provision of a minimum level of accommodation, differentiating hotels from bars, which came under pressure from de-licensing legislation from the late 1890s onwards. Until the late 20th century, a significant proportion of tourists, commercial travellers, business people and touring performers in Australia regularly relied on pub accommodation. For single people, pubs also offered an alternative to boarding houses or rental housing, with many pubs renting rooms to long-term tenants.

Both the verandas and balconies of these pubs/hotels are often fitted with beautiful iron lace facings and cast-iron columns, creating a style I had only seen before in houses in some parts of Sydney. 

Apparently at the time many of these pubs were built (second half of 19th century), these facings and columns were mass-produced, highly fashionably, relatively cheap and easy to transport. Near where I live in Newcastle some houses also have these beautiful balconies.

There are other examples of interesting design and architecture in Australian pubs. I've learnt that back in 19th century, Australian cedar was plentiful and pubs often had impressive bars carved from it and other native woods. They were often also embellished with decorative ceramic tiles and marble and/or brass fittings.

There were also some interesting Art Deco examples built in the 1930s and 1940s but I think this style might not have been replicated as much in new pubs.

Pubs here have a surface space around five times bigger than your average Spanish pub, with several inter-connected bar-rooms, usually clustered around a large central bar area. I’ve read that until the 1970s women were only allowed to drink in the area at the back of the pub. Many pubs also have an outdoor or semi-enclosed beer garden, where food and drink is served and where families with children are able to eat. However children are not allowed in any other area of the pub, which is a very different way of doing things to the Spanish style, where families gather together everywhere. I recently told an English friend I liked the idea of limiting a bit the presence of children in Spanish pubs and she suggested I may have been too influenced by Anglo-Saxon culture. I may have but anyone that has had to endure a bunch of bratty kids running around, screaming and crawling under tables while their parents enjoy their beer will know what I mean.

So far, some of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen in this country have been pubs. A heritage website (http://www.heritagetourism.com.au) recommends visiting the Desert Cave Underground Hotel in Coober Pedy in South Australia.  They describe it as a “quiet, cool, dark and airy sandstone hotel,  built in a dug-out style underground as an escape from the extreme heat of that opal-mining area. “ Maybe it would be a good start for my list of pubs to visit.