It’s May 1949 and British Rail was showing off its latest idea to please the public – a travelling pub.
Not a buffet car or restaurant, but a “tavern car” – a full on pub on wheels, in a mock-tudor appearance, with fake brick walls on the outside, and even a pub sign on the door.
Eight sets of two carriages were planned and each was given a traditional pub name — The White Horse, The Salutation, The Jolly Tar, The Dolphin, The Bull, The Green Man, The Crown, and Three Plovers.
Mock tudor isn’t cheap, with the eight trains costing £64,000 out of British Rail’s total restaurant car budget for the year of £281,000.
The decoration inside was based on a traditional pub, so they had rough white washed walls and dark oak beams, and high backed dark wood seats (settles). Even the windows in the train carriage were rather small olde style leaded panes, and the floor was designed to look like country pub floor tiles.
It is believed that the engineer who designed them, Oliver Bulleid based the design on The Chequers Inn at Pulborough, Sussex.
First class was as you might expect, more of a Soho cocktail bar effect, so it came with chrome and glass topped tables, and the chairs were upholstered in… get ready for it… pink and silver brocade. Probably just as well that the press photos are all in black & white.
They were first shown off in London in May 1949, and used on the Southern and Eastern Railway lines.
It seems that reception was rather mixed.
The week after they were shown off, a letter to the Times criticizing their faux heritage appearance was signed by a host of critics and designers.
In June, during a Parliamentary debate, Tom Driberg MP declared “Words fail me to express the full horror which I felt when the announcement was made by B.R. of the cars which they described as being ‘mock Tudor style’. Another politician, Skeffington Lodge MP described the idea as “bogus sentimentality”.
However, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, and future Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan defended the mobile pubs, saying that “the use to which these tavern cars has been put has exceeded the wildest expectations in revenue that the Railway Executive ever hoped to get.”
He curtly chided armchair critics noting that “nobody likes them except the public and the public have flocked to them”, adding that “There has been a lot of heat and exaggerated language used by people who have not been within half a mile of them.”
They seemed to be popular for serving drinks, but less so for drinking the drinks.
The beams were complained of as being too low, the small windows made the carriages seem claustrophobic, and there was a lack of ventilation which made them uncomfortable in the summer.
A report for Lord Inman, chairman of the Hotel Executive within the British Transport Executive said that the tavern car interiors was generally acceptable, but that the fake brick effect on the outside was “incredibly bad”.
Within a year, British Rail had admitted defeat and was looking around for more conventional replacement restaurant cars. The exterior brickwork was seemingly removed in early 1950, and by the middle of 1951 they had been remodeled into a slightly more conventional layout and more windows installed. In 1959, some £22,900 was spent refurbishing them into conventional dining cars.
But for a decade, there were travelling pubs on the railways.
Today, the heritage railways do a roaring trade in real ale tours and excursions. Clearly British Rail was just ahead of its time.