Seven days, yet worlds apart
I think it was Harold Wilson who quipped, “A week is a long time in politics”. He didn’t mention pubs, but back in the present, a week, and its effect on pubs, was what was interesting me. Our idiot Prime Minister’s announcement of the so-called “freedom” day (and I use the term throughout this article very loosely) on 19 July led me to undertake two pub crawls. Or, more accurately, the same pub crawl, twice. One week apart.
The plan was simple: to visit a select group of city-centre pubs on the Friday afternoon before “freedom” day, and again the following Friday to see what – if anything – had changed.
The first pub on each crawl was a favourite of mine, the White Rabbit. On the first visit, the routine was on we had all grown used to: wait at the door to be admitted, wear a mask, scan the NHS app, sanitise your hands, get shown to a table of the pub’s choice, order from the QR code app and wait for your drink to be delivered to you. The beer took six minutes to arrive from walking through the door, by no means the slowest of the day, and not intended as any sort of criticism: I was just intrigued to compare the before and after service times, as getting people served more quickly and more efficiently will surely be better for takings?
My spirits were raised considerably by the second visit. Gone were the NHS app, the masks and the QR code, or at least all three were now optional. I walked to the bar, was served in around sixty seconds, and could pick the table of my choice. No standing or congregating at the bar, but everything else was what you would hope and expect.
The White Rabbit stood out on both visits for the choice of beers available, XT Duck on my first visit and Turpin Golden Citrus on the second. As with all the pubs visited, the staff were impeccably cheerful, far more so than I would have been given the restrictions they were having to work with.
The second pub, The Grapes, improved imaginably on the second crawl by the virtue of being open: on the first visit, so many staff had been pinged by the Covid app that the pub was shut. Second time around, the experience was much like that at the White Rabbit: walk in, order a beer, sit down, drink. A chance too to try a new West Berks beer, Gold Star (4.1%).
To my delight, this experience was pretty much the norm everywhere we went. I had feared that the pre-freedom rules enforced in law by the Government would be far more uniformly applied that post-freedom, where the choice was placed upon the individual licensee to set the rules how they saw fit. Whilst most of the apps and sanitiser still lurked in the background, the sense of normal service prevailed.
The Kings Arms was woefully quiet on my first visit; a sunny July Friday afternoon would in happier times have been rammed, fighting for a space at the bar. Thankfully it was a bit busier second time around, though the price of a pint of beer tipping over the fiver mark (£5.05 for Proper Job) might well put some people off.
The Turf Tavern was by far the busiest on the first crawl, with the only seat available to me the small table in the front bar, which coincidentally, I was very happy with. The Turf has been refurbished recently, which on the surface seems to have comprised covering everything that doesn’t move with grey paint. I’ve never understood why pubs do this, and it seems to be getting common: big-up the history of the building in their publicity and then obliterate it under two coats of grey emulsion. Why? And why grey? The Turf also annoyed me – if you hadn’t guessed – with a blackboard displaying beers which they didn’t have, whilst also displaying pump clips of beers that they also didn’t have. I’m sure the staff will soon get sick of saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t have that” and the board will either be given a dose of reality or scrapped altogether. What they did have was a White Horse Oxford Blue, and it was good, and on the second visit a Butcombe Gold, though the blackboard still displayed the same list of unavailable beers. Handle glasses, though: I like that.
The Bear is a tiny pub and has benefitted in the past eighteen months from a huge marquee to the rear which pre-freedom comprised all of its seating and post-freedom just most of its seating. On the second visit we ordered at the bar (in the “office”, the small room to the side), though all our drinking was done in the tent as there are still very few tables inside. Another pub where thankfully the app ordering system has now been superseded with humans.
The second crawl took us via the excellent Teardrop bar in the Covered Market for a shot of the Czar Bomba (first time around we didn’t think we could cram six people in when having to sit and distance), and then onto the Chequers. I kind of miss the red rope barrier across the entrance and Kerry admitting people as if to the VIP area at an exclusive club. But the feeling of walking down the alleyway and straight into the bar was a welcome return. We sat outside, but only because the weather encouraged it. Still awaiting the return of Jaipur, but hopefully this will happen one day.
The St Aldates Tavern was a similar tale: it’s amazing how exhilarating it feels to walk into a pub and up to the bar. As with a lot of pubs, the beer range here is yet to return to its pre-pandemic levels but given time I’m sure it will.
The St Aldates marked the end of the second crawl, as the intended final pub had suffered from the pingdemic and was temporarily shut. Which is a shame, as The Royal Blenheim is one of the city’s finest beer pubs, as demonstrated first time around with Steve and his team’s warm welcome and an array of beers, mainly from White Horse and Titanic, including the fruity duo Plum Porter and Raspberry Pale Ale.
So ended two crawls, in some ways very similar, and in others very different. It only strikes home how alien the pre-freedom restrictions and rules are to a pub-goer when you return to the (almost) pre-pandemic arrangements. Pubs are social places, designed to bring people together and not keep people apart. We don’t deal in table service in this country. It’s a very rare if not unique feature, the USP, of British pubs to order at, and be able to stand at, the bar. The day we can do this again will be the day to celebrate; that will be the true freedom day.