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Is the English pub at death's door?

As the pub goes, so goes rural life.

A model displays a design by Antoni and Alison during a fashion show in a traditional British pub during London Fashion Week, Feb. 15, 2007. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

LONDON — Nothing can stay the same forever although Britain is one country where they try like the Dickens to fight that basic truth. The lyric of an old World War I song said it best:

There'll always be an England
While there's a country lane,
Wherever there's a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.

And down the lane from that cottage beside the field of grain there will always be a pub serving imperial pints (20 ounces) of beer. Well, that is changing rapidly. (Although you can still find some authentic pubs.)

Rural life is unrecognizable from 20 years ago and British drinking habits have undergone a sea change, as well. Both of these factors have led to a crisis for British pubs. Thirty-nine a week are going out of business forever.

And the bad news is accelerating. The numbers were awful before the recession kicked in, but now they are brutal. In the last quarter of 2008 sales of beer were off by almost 10 percent in pubs, according to figures from the British Beer and Pub Association. Now politicians are becoming alarmed about the future of an industry that employs upwards of half a million people.

In Parliament, the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group has 400-plus members — only the British-American Parliamentary Group is bigger — and lobbies the government on behalf of the pub trade. It was set up in 1992, according to Vice Chairman Nigel Evans, "to recognize the iconic status of real British ale."

Little did the founders realize that a group whose main purpose was playing the heritage card, a no-brainer in British politics, would have to actively lobby for preservation of a major industry. According to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) 2,000 pubs closed last year with a loss of 20,000 jobs. A further 75,000 are at risk over the next five years if current trends continue.

Evans' greatest concern is the impact of pub closures on rural life. The majority of pubs going out of business are in country villages. "The local pub is more than a watering hole, it is the center of community life," the MP explained. That is true. A good pub at its heart is an open living room for a village. It is not just a place to have a beer, but it is the place to organize activities, everything from outings for teenagers to the schedule of the local cricket team.

In many places, Evans pointed out, the pub is the last meeting place left for rural communities. Post offices are closing, rural bus networks never survived privatization, churches are closing for lack of worshipers, and schools are consolidating. Once the pub goes that's the end for most communities.