I’ve been thinking lots about pubs while they’ve been closed for the past 11 weeks. Admittedly that’s partly because my role is dependent on them, but it’s more than that. I love pubs, I always have and I miss them enormously right now. It’s not just about beer, pubs are often at the heart of their communities, they’re social hubs, they help bring people together. Pubs are places where friendships are cemented, they’re where we celebrate, commiserate and comfort each other. Pubs host charity events, sports teams, music, film and theatre. They’re integral to British culture, and, if I may be so bold, integral to my well-being. I wrote a potted history of the pubs I’ve worked in a few weeks ago which was extremely cathartic, below I’ve expanded on a couple of the early ones while sharing some of my earlier memories of pubs, before I ever got paid to be there…
The first pub I really remember is the The Railwayman’s Arms on the station platform in Bridgenorth on the Severn Valley Railway. We lived a short walk away when I was 5 years old. On weekends we’d often take a walk with my best friend William and his dad Geoff to the station. The dads would head into the pub and we’d be given some pocket money for the sweet shop next door.
We’d also get a packet of crisps and the obligatory glass of lemonade or coke ‘for the boys‘. Most of the time we’d be outside, or in the sweet shop, while our dads enjoyed a quiet pint, but if the weather wasn’t great I remember sitting quietly at the back of the pub. Pubs don’t smell like that anymore – it was a comforting smell, despite the times, I don’t recall smoke being an overwhelming aroma. Having since run pubs I know that much of that distinct perfume was beer (both fresh and stale), people (almost certainly also fresh and stale!), and the unmistakable aerosol of that ‘just opened’ packet of cheese and onion.
My dad recalls lots of steam gathering under the bridge with each train arrival and departure. A few years ago I returned with my sister and her children to that same station. The steam was still billowing under the bridge and the sweet shop was still there, as was the pub… the aroma had changed a little, but not much else, although I’d finally moved on from a glass of coke!
I’m not sure what is was that fascinated me about pubs growing up. I often drew plans of the house I was going to build myself when I was an architect (that plan quickly faded when I discovered how many more years I would need to stay in education). There was always a basement ‘pub’ with a bar and a pool table amongst other ‘pubby’ attributes. I collected breweriana with quite the selection of bar towels and beer mats for a ten year old! I remember on trips to London I’d look forward to a visit to Covent Garden’s Jubilee Market Hall to find new branded bar towel.
Often after meals out Dad would end up chatting to the owner about his own romantic notion of owning a pub. On one occasion in a pub we were staying at, after a few beers and probably a few wines he accidentally gave one landlord the impression he wanted to make an offer… Breakfast was a little awkward as the landlord and landlady gleefully entertained us with their retirement plans ‘post sale’ before they were gently ‘let down’. Of course that pub dream did come to fruition several years later… you’d have to ask Dad if it was all he had hoped 😉.
Whilst at school in Stourbridge, West Midlands, my fascination with pubs continued. In the past, before grey hair, I was always lucky enough to look young so I’m not quite sure how I ever got served, especially when we went in school uniform during lunch break or after school! I was sneaking out from the age of 16 I guess… whether it be a few bottles of Holsten Pils at the The Bridge on New Street Station on a Sunday night with my housemates, or a pint of Mild for little more than £1.50 at The Seven Stars in Old Swinford village, I always felt comfortable in the pub, like I belonged.
It’s no surprise then that my first job (aside from washing dad’s car) was in a pub. I was kitchen porter at The ‘Blue’ Red Lion, so called because until the mid-eighties the pub had been painted a striking shade of cobalt blue. I recall my teachers being a little upset one primary school nativity after the pub exterior had a winter makeover and the exterior was re-painted a more soothing shade of off-white only after rehearsals had started including The Blue Red Lion by name as The Inn. I was sixteen when I started working there during the holidays, and 10 years after that Nativity it was still affectionately known as The Blue Red Lion. It was an early gastro pub with great steaks, mixed grills and hand-cut skin on chips. The salads were renowned and boasted around 50 ingredients at the height of summer. From several varieties of lettuce and the usual salad suspects to sliced melon, pickled onion, sweetcorn, strawberries and even cold baked beans. Forgive me, I knew the beans were wrong back then, but I did what I was told and dutifully put the salad ‘garnishes’ (beans and all) together during service. I seem to remember not doing much washing up or chipping of potatoes, I’d have been a poor KP by my current standards! I also recall the gravy pot always sat on the side of the plancha grill, regularly topped up with a mix of stock, Guinness and Kilkenny, but never washed. The landlady Anne had striking red hair and was a real character, my favourite part of that job was sitting down after work with Anne and all the staff, for a couple of halves of Kilkenny and a chat. In every pub I ever worked in, that was an essential part of pub life and something I miss dearly now I’m no longer working behind a bar.
Anne was a brilliant host and life and soul of any party, she was still running the pub a few years later when I started working behind the bar at the pub across the village green, The Shoulder of Mutton. Anne joined us on Christmas Day 1998 for an almighty Christmas party with all of our locals. Whilst three sheets to the wind Anne was sat on the bar, the landlord of The Shoulder who was serving behind the bar, accidentally set her hair on fire while lighting his fag [different times!]. Anne was merry enough that she didn’t notice, despite the smell of burnt hair, and was put to bed in the flat upstairs shortly after to be woken early the next morning with a start as we all realised we needed to get both pubs open in a matter of minutes for Boxing Day opening (8am as I recall!).
I continued to work in pubs for twenty years following my first shift as a KP. Even now they’re still ingrained in my daily life. These few months without them have been tough and I can’t wait to be able to return to enjoy a pint of cask ale with friends to create more memories.