Britain’s cultural hubs have faded during the pandemic. From previously thriving tourist attractions to beloved local pubs, the institutions that have sprouted throughout our rich history have been put under threat.
The “oldest pub in England", a tiny toy museum and the home of three of our best-known authors are among the many examples of those taken to the brink during the last 12 months.
Pubs, restaurants and museums will not be allowed to reopen fully until May 17, a full 11 weeks away. Some 6,000 pubs across Britain shut permanently last year. Indeed, the hospitality sector as a whole broke even for only four weeks of 2020.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks dates back more than 1,200 years, when a pub first stood on its site. The squat, octagonal structure that remains today, however, was built in the 11th Century. Its location, in the Roman city of St Albans, adds to its appeal to international tourists. Yet primarily it is a locals’ hub. It was its history that attracted Christo Tofalli to buy the pub almost nine years ago, after it had been shut for nine months.
“Pubs are our heritage; they should be protected,” he says. “I wanted to turn [this] into one of the pubs in the country, and therefore one of the greatest in the world. St Albans loves it now and it [frequently comes up] as a question on TV quiz programmes. I’ve worked really hard to create that brand.”
The pub has been closed to sit-down customers for all but a few weeks since the first lockdown, opening for takeaway only in summer then for indoor drinking and dining for a short period in December. “Set up costs alone were not covered [by takings],” adds Christo. “We had to close as we were [shedding] money to stay open.”
Pre-Covid, the landlord, who is also vice-chair of the Save UK Pubs campaign, was putting his conversion plans into action. More seating, a bigger kitchen and becoming wheelchair-friendly are among his must-have list. With a history of more 1,200 years, this has required the input of archaeology and heritage consultants.
To whet the appetite of future punters with brief snippets of its past: tunnels stretch from its beer cellar to the city's cathedral over the road, thought to have been used by monks and legend goes that Oliver Cromwell spent a night here during the Civil War of 1642-1651. Less illustrious guests were the cock fight organisers (and the birds) who lent the pub its name.
For now, doors remain closed. “I walk through an empty pub and it makes me feel sad, it has had people buzzing through it for hundreds of years,” says Christo.
A local wine shop is allowing Christo’s staff to sell takeaway beer as a fundraising effort, come May 17, visitors will, hopefully, return.
This is also the reopening date set for museums. Those within the sector have called for an earlier restart: museums have more in common with non-essential shops and libraries (which should be able to resume business on April 12) in terms of maintaining social distancing, than the cinemas and theatres with which they have been grouped together in the roadmap.
“It’s really disappointing for museums and for their audience: we know that people are raring to go in terms of [visiting] the cultural institutions they love best,” says Alistair Brow, policy manager at the Museums Association.
“The overall impact of Covid has been stark,” he adds. “We’ve been documenting the impact on jobs and there have been 4,000 redundancies in museums and heritage organisations last March. “The impact on museums and museum finances is pretty dire, lots have burnt through their reserves.”
In those museums that are able to reopen this year, visitors will notice a difference with reduced capacity and shorter opening hours, due to fewer staff, Alistair explains.
The smallest, and some of the most interesting, among the estimated 2,500 museums in Britain and Northern Ireland, are some of the most beleaguered. They include Pollock’s Toy Museum. The family-run organisation in London’s Fitzrovia launched a crowdfunding campaign on February 6 to raise at least £15,000 in emergency funding to enable it to reopen this year.
Pollock’s received some Government support as a small business and has been able to furlough non-freelance staff, but this has not been enough. “As we are an independent museum, we were not eligible for the Arts Council Culture Recovery Fund, so we set up the crowdfunder to fill this gap,” says Jack Fawdry Tatham, who co-runs the museum with his father, supported by the Pollock’s educational trust.
Luckily, the affection with which visitors hold the museum is reflected in the money raising efforts thus far: the campaign has brought in £40,398 and counting.
“Over the 70 years of the museum's history it has gained a wonderful supportive community, nostalgia, childhood and play are important parts of our lives and the museum reflects that. I also think that it represents something that is being eroded on our high streets, we are an example of a small independent and unique business, that brings diversity and character to London,” says Jack.
The institution’s stint as a museum began in 1950 and was led by Jack’s great grandmother Marguerite Fawdry. She bought the stock of Mr Pollock’s toy shop, which was itself founded in the 1850 on Hoxton Street in Hackney. There stood one of the last original Victorian toy theatre manufacturers, a trade that flourished into the 1940s. Toy theatres were paper constructions in which children could use puppets to act out the plays of the time.
Jack says today’s collection reflects toys from all over the world, some dating back 4,000 years. “The cases on display are all small works of art in their own right, brimming with imagination showing artistic character and flair, a far cry from the more clinical of our museum institutions.”
Pollock’s opened briefly last summer, taking bookings for small tours, but visitor numbers were down 90 per cent in 2020. Here’s hoping 2021 will bring a different story.
Among the many treasure troves of British history struggling with Covid restrictions is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, over 200 miles north of Pollock’s in Haworth, Yorkshire. The former home of the Brontë family holds the world’s largest collection of the manuscripts and possessions of the three sisters and brother.
It is looked after by The Brontë Society, a charity and one of the longest-running literary societies. Within its walls, the sisters wrote their classics: surrounding moorland served as inspiration, nowhere as clearly as in Wuthering Heights.
However, the museum has been able to reopen for just two full months since the first lockdown and limited space combined with social distancing meant that only six visitors could enter at one time. It has benefitted from the Arts Council England’s Emergency Fund and Cultural Recovery Fund, as well the job retention scheme. However, this hasn’t been sufficient to keep it going and a crowdfunding campaign was launched, bringing in £50,000.
“A future where our world-class collection could not be shared with our visitors and audiences is unthinkable,” says Rebecca Yorke, from the Brontë Society and museum.
“The Brontës overcame many obstacles in their short lives, and it is with their determination and spirit in mind, that we are reviewing what we do and how we do it, in order to increase our resilience and relevance,” she adds.