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Home > The Brit behind the pub signs


English pubs are a must visit for most tourists in the Olympic host country.

"Everything revolves around the pub," said Gary Turner who works at the Turk's Head in Penzance.

"They're communal meeting places. They're social places. They're what drives the whole community, especially in small little villages. In days gone past, it was even more so. You would have had courts held in pubs, you would have had people married in pubs, you would have had sales in pubs, everything would have been done in pubs."

Despite the history and uniqueness of the English pubs, the industry is facing challening times.

"It should be a thriving business but the government has put all these taxes up so much on the drinks. It doesn't relate to the wage. Your average pint is 3 pound, 20 a pint now. And some of your farm labors and quarry workers would make 6 pound 50 an hour. So technically, they're working. They come out at nighttime, have 4 four pints and they've worked two hours for nothing," said Derek Croker who operates the Miner's Arm in Shipham. "It's just a dying trade which is a shame really."

"There's a lot of pubs that have actually closed down in this country and still a lot closing down," said Gordon Kinnear who owns the Linden Tree in Gloucester.

An industry once dependant almost entirely on quenching a thirst is now staying afloat by whetting a customer's appetite.

"25-30 years ago, we would have sold a few sandwiches and snacks. Now, we're more like a full on restaurant at times. That's the only real way to go," said Turner.

"A lot of the pubs now, they're more like a restaurant with a bar than a drinking pub. They used to be very male environments where you would get a lot of people serious drinking and maybe having a basket of chips, but now the emphasis is on the food, simply because there's no profit in beer," said Andrew Grundon.

There is one other way of capturing customers. A good first impression. A memorable pub sign.

"They'll see the sign and think 'oh, that's the pub, that's the name of it'. They'll remember it, come back or stop," said Kinnear.

So if pub signs are important, then Andrew Grundon and his work in southwest England is invaluable.

"If you look at a picture of England, and you look down at the foot on the bottom left, that's Cornwall. That's where we are. This is definitely where I feel at home. This is the place for me," said Grundon.

Andrew Grundon operates Signature Designs. He creates and paints nearly 200 pub signs for St. Austell Brewery Company.

"It's the first thing that welcomes you into a pub when you get there. It gives you a sort of a feel of what you're going to get once you go inside," said Grundon. "If you've got a traditional pub sign in front of the building, you know you're going to get a traditional pub inside, probably a warm welcome and a good pint."

"There's always lots of Red Lions and Golden Lions and Kings Arms and Queens Heads. There's a Napoleon Inn, London Inn, Ship Rights, Bucket of Blood," said Grundon. "The name of the pub could have been established a long time before the pub became as it is now. The name, could to a certain degree, detached from how it is these days. If you have an interesting name on a pub, or something that's got some historical reference on it, then obviously that's the root that you follow. That's what you research. And, research it carefully. If it's a name for example, like the Earl of Chatham, or the Earl of St. Vincent, you research where that actual name comes from. You find out who that historical figure was, you find some decent pictorial reference to base your picture signs from and try and capture a little bit of what the title is about," said Grundon.

Grundon says the industry has changed over the years.

"It's gone quite digital. It went very digital around the 80's. People were starting to think they wanted everything to be printed. They wanted it to be cut out of vinyl. They wanted it to be computerized. Very shiny. The traditional sign writing skills were starting to get lost at that point. Even traditional sign writers were thinking, just to keep up with current trends, we have to get computers in, we've got to get plotters in to cut vinyl, we have to do everything printed. So, it's changed quite a lot," said Grundon.

"But having said that it's changed a lot over the years I think now there is a little bit of a backlash. From everybody having everything so sterilized and so plastic, so quick fix, I think now people are looking for something with a little bit more integrity. Something with a little bit more of a hand crafted feel about it. And, I can see from the inquiries that are coming through to me, and some of my associates can see the same thing, there is an upsurge in people wanting traditional hand painted signs. There's nothing that shines like gold leaf. You can have all of the gold vinyl and gold plastics, the gold paints in the world. But gold leaf will always shine so much better," said Grundon.

His garage studio looks out onto the English countryside.

"Looking at fields, trees, and all those beautiful things that just make your heart soar. You can't help but create. You can't help but write things, paint things, it just makes your spirit soar so much that you've got to do something to capture it. The only thing I can hear is the wind and the leaves and the birds singing," said Grundon.

But those open windows also invite an occasional pest.

"You just get your top coat of gloss on a nice big sign that you've been working on for weeks, and it's as smooth as glass, and you can see your face in it, it's a beautiful thing, and a fly will come in through the window and drop straight into the middle of your sign and start break dancing in there and flicking legs and wings off itself. There's nothing you can do about that at all," said Grundon.

Grundon says traditional hand painted signs are making a comeback in England.

"There are still people who want the signs with the integrity and want something that is hand painted and who wants something a little bit special and realize that does say something about their business," said Grundon.

For many people, the English pub still represents an important part of British culture.

"People come for a decent beer and can sit down and have a nice chat," said Kinnear.

The pub sign no longer just provides direction.

"People use to navigate by pubs. Down the road until you come to the white lion, turn left at the Swan and you could see the signs. They were there for anyone to see. They were for everyone to see. You didn't have to be able to read and write. That was the whole idea of the pub sign. You could tell what it was even though you were illiterate, which 150 years ago, a lot of people were," said Turner.

In a struggling economy and in the face of industry challenges there may be nothing more important than a pub sign and the artist behind it.

"It pulls people in. Whether it's on a pub or whether it's on a shop, the landlords understand that's their very first point of contact with most of their customers. That's what's going to make the difference between walking on by and walking into the next pub or going into their pub," said Grundon.

"If you're not particularly looking for that pub and you're walking past and you see a nice attractive sign, you might think yeah, I'll try that. I'll go in there for a pint," said Grundon.