Sometimes one can’t help being filled with wonder. The occasion…
In the words of that Bob Dylan song, times they are a changin’. A part of that change is the nature of our pubs. In the not too distant past, pubs were essentially social centres. Places to go and chill out and meet people.
To some extent they were melting pots, the one place where the classes mixed freely. No more so than a particular London pub I used to frequent in the late sixties and early seventies. The Duke of Wellington in Eton Terrace, Belgravia played host to the likes of the late Lady Rothermere and her daughter Sarah, The late Sarah Churchill and various other notables from show business such as Rod Stewart and the Hollywood actor Martin Landau. They mixed freely and happily with the general hoi polloi. No doubt, alcohol helped to untie people’s inhibitions and eased the flow of conversation.
Now, with so many pubs being glorified eateries, the social interaction is not so easy. People sit at separate tables and concentrate on their food interacting only with the person or people sharing their table. The amount of time spent at the bar is relatively fleeting. In days gone past, there were of course pubs to be avoided. Some were known to attract the type of people who, after an ample quantity of drinks, wanted nothing more than to fight! Mostly though, the pubs were full of laughter. There seemed to be an ample flow of new jokes at each visit. I remember one London pub where I encountered a man who apparently worked for MI5 in Mayfair. I have never forgotten what he claimed. He said that all jokes started on the stock exchange! He told me to notice when there was a recession how the jokes dry up. Well, certainly, I’ve noticed how a recession has its effect on people’s humour but I can’t quite buy the idea of the stock exchange being the source of jokes!
In my youth, I was introduced very gently to alcohol consumption by my parents. They used to take me and my sister to the Cat & Fiddle at Clyst St. Mary. A small pub in those days often with a pianist tinkling the keys of an old piano in one corner. My father always drank a half pint of Watneys Red Barrel which, even at my young age, made me laugh. He would cringe when I ordered a pint of Mackeson. The Cat & Fiddle has grown in size over the years but one can still discern the original pub by the pitched roof line. The additions all have flat rooves.
We’d all stand at one end of the bar smoking and chatting and telling jokes, a pall of smoke hanging over us!
My next step into adulthood was smoking. Once again, my dear father had a disciplined approach only smoking a modest amount of cigarettes each week. I, on the other hand, smoked a pipe. A pipe and a pint was my idea of heaven. If this took place in front of a roaring inglenook fire, it was sheer bliss. I guess, pubs used to be smoke filled places but one never really noticed. If anything, the smoke added to the atmosphere with wall lights glowing rather than shining. Nowadays, pubs seem somewhat sanitised. ‘ealth and safety’ I expect. But, what a shame. It’s all very well being politically correct but it’s a lot more fun being a little naughty!
People will tell you that women didn’t like smoke filled pubs but, in those days, a lot of women smoked cigarettes. Nowadays, cigarettes seem to leave a smell on one’s clothes that is very noticeable. I can only say that I never noticed any such smell on my clothes in those days. My sense of smell was sharper then too. So, my pipe and I explored many a good hostelry not the least of which was the Diggers Rest in Woodbury Salterton. What a great pub that was. It was the Sunday night haunt of a group of friends I used to hang out with. Many of them smoked pipes too. We’d all stand at one end of the bar smoking and chatting and telling jokes. A pall of smoke hung over us. I can even remember what I used to drink in those days, Youngers number three (one shilling and nine pence a pint). Another lovely dark ale. I’m amazed to find upon my return from London all these years later, the good old Diggers Rest is unspoiled. Yes, it’s an eatery and the old skittle alley has been turned into a dining area. But, it’s still possible to simply go there and drink and have conversations with other drinkers in a nice atmosphere.
A pub which hasn’t altered in any way, is the Bridge Inn at Topsham. It is a pub pure and simple. The real ales are delightful with plenty of choice and a changing range of guest beers. To say the bar is snug is an understatement but there is a further room where one can stretch his legs. At the back of the Inn is a barn-like room which used to be hired out for parties. Perhaps, it still is. I went to various parties here mainly held by members of the Exeter Little Theatre Company of which I was a member. Even my sister and my girlfriend, at that time, hired it between them for a party.
Another haunt was The Ship in Martins Lane, Exeter. It was the Wednesday, Thursday or Friday night pub. It has changed now with the bar being shoved up one end. In the old days, if memory serves me, the bar was in the middle of the pub and probably horseshoe shaped. I remember there were two distinct sides to it. My best friend and I would smoke our pipes there and look at the women. Looking was all we did then! It was an innocent age.
The crowd that frequented the Diggers Rest and the Ship had another haunt on Saturday lunchtimes, the bar in the Royal Clarence Hotel in Cathedral Close. We’d stand around here feeling very sophisticated albeit we were just teenagers. The barmaid was called Rita and knew many of our parents who drank in there on various evenings. Rita called our Saturday lunchtime drinking session, ‘children’s hour’. It was here that we heard about the various parties on Saturday nights and were invited to some. If we didn’t receive a direct invite, we’d gate crash one if we thought we could get away with it. We always did. Gate crashing was an accepted habit at that time provided at least some of the party goers knew one.
When I was first in London, I frequented a pub that was just around the corner from Chesterfield Street, Mayfair where the 18th. Century gentleman of leisure and close friend of the Price Regent lived. Beau Brummell resided at number four; later, the home of Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden. The Red Lion was a super pub full of character with four lovely girls behind the bar. What always amazed me about these girls was their ability to hold conversations with the customers without keeping anyone waiting to be served. The pub was full on every night of the week with a crowd chatting excitedly. No doubt, the barmaids were part of the attraction. My memory of their faces makes me feel warm even today. In particular, I remember Ushi a bubbly German girl.
What makes a good pub? Certainly, atmosphere, friendly and efficient bar staff are essential, good beer well looked after. By this, I mean well vented beer with pipes kept clean and a steady turnover of that beer. It has to be a place to relax and reflect on one’s day over a good pint of beer or, if one is a woman, over a gin and tonic perhaps or a glass of wine. It has to be a place where one can strike up a good conversation with a stranger or visit with friends. It needs to be comfy. It needs to be the sort of place one can spend the whole of Saturday evening in.
We know that the necessary drink drive laws reinforced by breathalysers and CCTV cameras are killing off the country pubs. These are being forced to turn into eateries if they are to have any chance of survival. Many town pubs are going the same way in search of bigger profits. We know that smoking in pubs is not politically correct especially with people eating there. But, the death of the old style pub is not doing the populous any favours. People need to be able to socialise casually without joining clubs or playing cards or taking up sport. People need to be able to interact with their fellow men (and women) in a spontaneous, casual and carefree way. If this interaction is helped along by a good pint of beer or a glass of wine all the better!
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