In the spirit of finding things to be happy about – especially when the world feels topsy-turvy – I want to talk today about the joy of British pubs.
It was this life pleasure which I was reminded of a few nights ago when I went into a pub for the first time since March.
You may think it seems strange; me, a non-drinker, extolling the virtues of a pub but here’s the thing: I love pubs for what tell us about our social heritage as well as what they provide in terms of bringing us closer to each other.
For me, it was never just a place to get drunk and then avoid when I quit booze.
Some of my earliest memories are of being in a pub. My aunty (who, in that typically British idiosyncratic way, wasn’t actually my aunty but my nan’s sister) ran a village pub.
I remember red upholstered bar-stools, dark mahogany bars and separate doors announcing the ‘lounge’ and ‘bar’.
It was thrilling and mysterious: this was where grown-ups hung out without children. This was where regulars, huddled in their favourite corner, murmured to each other and cast furtive glances to unfamiliar faces. This was where people asked for ‘the usual’ and bar staff immediately knew what that meant.
And of course, as I got older they were where I drank. Not just that but, in my teenage years, they were places I worked. I love meeting people and when you work in a pub you get to hear and see some interesting goings-on.
What makes them so special is everything from their architecture to their furniture, their history to their place in our culture.
We walk into a pub and see history in its name. We glimpse a community’s industrial past (the Claycutter’s Arms) or their sporting ties (the Hare and Hounds); we learn of royalty (the Crown) and heraldry (the Golden Lion).
We are told of legends; that of a fire which never goes out at the Warren House Inn on the wild expanse of Dartmoor or of the mysterious man who appears occasionally in the Old Church House Inn in rural Torbryan.
It’s in these places we build social connections. We chat, we laugh, and we interact. You can strike up a conversation with a total stranger or get involved in some heavy debates (if heavy debates are your thing).
They are where you meet strangers who become friends, hear stories or idle gossip, meet first dates and celebrate anniversaries. They are where you drink, eat, dance, talk, listen, think or simply… sit.
As well as hazy memories of my drinking days, I have lots of fond memories of great times in British pubs.
After finishing my bar shift one night we wound down with post-work 2am cheesy chips as door security staff debated the existence of heaven.
While out walking one early spring day I was caught in a ferocious snow storm which, later, brought the country to a grinding halt. Frozen to the bone I headed for the nearest pub and as the clock ticked, more people sought refuge there. We thawed out and bonded over hot mugs of chocolate and a roaring fire.
Another time, me and a friend ate doorstep sandwiches and spent hours yapping while soaking up the sun at a riverside pub.
And so our first visit in this weird twilight zone of life during Covid-19 was to the Cott Inn, a beautiful 13th Century thatched pub in Dartington, South Devon, built during the reign of Edward II and which has been licensed since 1320.
It’s one of those places which is consistent in everything: food, friendliness and service. With a convivial hubbub forming the aural backdrop, we devoured Brixham fish and chips with mushy peas. It was pretty darn wonderful, actually.
It isn’t just these places I’ve missed; it’s the comfort of being among others.
As Samuel Johnson said: “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as a good tavern or inn.”