Monday, 21 January 2013

No change at the pub

The snow came to our village on Friday and has been here ever since. Every horizontal surface is highlighted by a remarkably even, plump whiteness, bringing into relief every tree branch, roof top and fence post. 

This is the third year in a row that we have had substantial snow falls, following years of merely watery winters, and perhaps to some this time it’s not so much of a novelty. Schools finished early, and we’ve had a whole weekend since, but sadly, I’ve yet to encounter a snowball fight in full swing, or so much as a mishapen snowman.

When Tramp and I returned home from our trudge through the thick of it on Friday – slowed by his insistence on stopping at regular intervals to eat as much snow as he possibly could, several text messages and emails were waiting for me. The call had already gone out: who was going to the pub that night? It is reassuring to find that the centuries old pub in our village is still a meeting place that brings locals together – if only because adverse weather prevents people driving elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or just of our pub, that a virtual, electronic meeting is required beforehand to check if anyone’s going.

Our pub attracts little or no passing trade, and if you don’t have a roll call of potential attendees you can find yourself the only soul sat in the bar all night. The landlady is even likely to stay out the back if there’s something gripping on TV, or if she has family staying, leaving you to serve yourself – that is, if she hears you knocking and lets you in, in the first place. Anyone new to the village who ventures inside has to be prepared to persevere, by attending regularly for several weeks, before their silent vigil at the corner table may be broken, and they are finally rewarded by the welcome behind the words, ‘Are you local?’ Understandably, not everyone lasts the distance.

Our pub landlady certainly has her own approach to running a business, and it is not one that is driven by the profit motive. This of course absolves her of any sense of responsibility to provide a consistent, reliable service, since she would just as soon not attract customers, or not too many. She has kept numbers (and income) down by banning a good many people over the years, and by turning away summer cycling groups and the odd passing A-list celebrity – the former if they arrive en masse without warning, expecting a roast lunch, and the latter for looking scruffy. This customer-facing attitude keeps us locals on our toes of course, and it is with something of a misplaced sense of privilege that regulars like me are left feeling grateful that we are allowed in.

When it comes to food, our village pub has not gone the way of so many in the countryside that strive to become ‘gastro pubs’. No ‘bed of cous cous’, or ‘jus’ of anything, grace the menu, and the food comes on ordinary plates and not the oh so fashionable, old-fashioned, chopping boards. We do have a ‘backboard menu’, but usually only main courses are available. Even then the description is not always indicative of what might actually be served up – for ‘ham, eggs and chips’, for instance, read ‘ham, boiled potatoes and possibly an egg;’ for we all know the landlady rarely cooks chips, and egg frequency depends on whether the hens are laying. A local shoot predicts pheasant on the menu that week, since the landlady cooks the ‘shoot dinner’ and is paid in kind… and we’ve learned to watch our teeth on the lead shot.

On Friday we all congregated in the small bar, as always. There is another, much larger bar, but no local uses it, and if you sit out there your only companion is likely to be the landlady’s washing, drying on the clothes horse. The small bar is almost engulfed by the inglenook fireplace, which has logs the size of a small child burning winter and summer. When it's wet, stand too close and if you don't get soaked by the rain falling down the chimney, you'll find yourself jumping every time the fire spits and splutters.

Coming in from freezing temperatures outside, as we did on Friday, everyone is initially drawn to, and then circulates around, the fire -- or, imperceptibly, the fire circulates us regulars like convected air, for it burns far too hot for anyone to stand nearby for more than a few minutes at a time. Our numbers slowly thin, and the flames reduce, so those remaining draw up stools in the glow of the embers. With the landlady out the back, but in hushed tones nevertheless, the usual question arises, ‘What will happen to the pub if she retires? What if she really can’t afford to run it any more?’

We run through the usual list of villagers’ complaints. Because of the landlady’s whimsical attitude to opening hours, everyone has a story to tell of the time they were turned away, or found the pub closed by 9.00 p.m. For the more service-oriented people in our village, though, these are reasons enough to stop them going to the pub ever again.

With the prospect of venturing out into the icy cold to make our way home, we reluctantly we push back our stools, just as the usual consensus is reached. But as is often the case after a few glasses of wine with friends by a fire, it seems like an entirely fresh and historic conclusion: the pub should stay just the way it is!

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