I can recall a handful of occasions when I was a speccy, geeky 20-something where I was barracked or made fun of in pubs. Generally I just kept quiet, drank my pint and left. Now I’m a speccy, geeky 50-something nobody seems too bothered – I just blur into the generality of older male pub customers.In the early days, the Good Beer Guide would direct you to plenty of distinctly rough back-street pubs that stocked rare brews for the area, but I can’t remember ever having any problems. Indeed one of the pubs in which I was barracked was a Cheshire dining pub, although perhaps a bit less smart back then. I do recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. And the rural pubs resembling the Slaughtered Lamb seem to be a figment of novelists’ and film directors’ imagination. The worst I can think of are a few where it was clear the customers were all a clique of regulars.
I am actually a pretty shy person, and tend to be protective of my own privacy, so you don’t get the blow-by-blow descriptions of pub visits that the bloggers mentioned above specialise in. I have done a handful of write-ups of pub crawls with others, and you may well get another one before too long, but they’re not going to become a regular feature. Where I go, and when, and how, and what I drink, and how much, is my business. There is a private record of Mudgie’s Travels on my hard drive, but you only get to access that when I’m dead. For example, there was the unnamed pub (in the current Good Beer Guide) where some customers ordered food, only to be informed that the baguettes had “gone off”.
I’m certainly not as assiduous in seeking out new pubs as I was in my student days, not least because I’ve visited so many that there’s a law of diminishing returns. But one thing that has occurred to me is that I feel somewhat uncomfortable if there’s no obvious reason for my presence, which raises the question to bar staff and other customers of “what’s he doing here?” In any pub that attracts casual or passing trade, there’s no problem. Any random person could just walk in off the street. That covers pretty much all town and city centre pubs, those in village and rural locations, and any that makes a point of its food offer, even if I’m not eating on that occasion. That probably includes 90% of all pubs I might ever want to visit. But there are some, in inner-city backstreets, on housing estates, or in the suburban backwoods, where there’s no plausible reason for me being there. It’s not remotely threatening, but I know I stand out like a sore thumb, and for that reason I can’t really feel at home.
One thing I have been doing, on and off, is ticking off a few gaps in the National Inventory, and that drew me, a few months ago, to the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach on the southern fringes of St Helens in South Lancs. This is one of the great unsung gems of our inter-wars pub heritage, a deceptively large, although not particularly monumental-looking, pub, with entirely separate lounge and public sides, each with three distinct rooms featuring extensive original panelling, seating, doors and other details. But, as a pub, it’s bit ordinary and down-at-heel, and makes no attempt to attract out-of-area customers. The Heritage Pubs website says “The only detracting factor is the amount of ‘memorabilia collections’/tat that covers most of the walls”. This comes across as a touch sniffy, but you can understand them subtly making the point that this isn’t a pub that makes a big point of celebrating its historic character.
I initially wandered into the lounge side, but apparently that is reserved for diners, so was directed around to the public, which immediately marked me out as an outsider. I sat in the echoing main room, where the only other customer was a bloke deliberately perched on a bar stool to block the view of the handpumps. I had some indifferent and over-chilled Doom Bar, then had a quick peek into the other rooms, called into to the (modernised) gents’, and went on my way. I’d bet back in the day it used to shift massive quantities of electrically-pumped Greenalls’ Mild and Bitter.
A magnificent, and possibly threatened, piece of pub architecture, but in terms of the actual pub “offer” not somewhere you would go much out of your way to visit, and not somewhere I’d be making a regular haunt if I lived more locally.