Each December, I’ve usually produced a summary of the past year’s events as they’ve affected me. This is what I wrote last year. However, from the point of view of pubs and beer, for obvious reasons 2020 has been a uniquely depressing and frustrating year. It started well, with an excellent Proper Day Out in Burton-upon-Trent in March, which I reported on here and here. One of the Burton pubs, either the Devonshire Arms or the Coopers Tavern (left and centre), would qualify as my Best New Pub Visit of the year. I’ve also added a picture of the Elms with its distinctive Bass livery, which wasn’t far behind in terms of pub quality..
There was a small cloud on the horizon, as I remember joking about seeing a Chinese student at Sheffield station wearing a face mask. Little did we know that, just two weeks later, all the pubs in the country would be closed down. They remained shut in England for a further fifteen weeks, and in this area have been closed for the last eight weeks of the year, plus two weeks before that when we were in the then Tier 3, which meant pubs could only serve alcohol to customers who were eating a substantial meal.
I’ve tried not to allow the blog just to become a running commentary on the Covid crisis, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade and my own personal experience it has obviously been impossible to ignore the subject.
Exhortations to use contactless payments led to increased concerns about the possible demise of cash, which is an essential bulwark of freedom from control and surveillance.
When the pubs finally did reopen, it unleashed a surprising wave of rancid snobbery directed at those who had dared to cross the threshold. It seemed that many “beer enthusiasts”, who may in the past have given lip-service ot the idea of supporting pubs, found they quite enjoyed staying at home during lockdown enjoying supplies of draft craft beer takeouts from their local micro bar, absolved of any need to actually go out and visit any pubs and mix with the dreaded hoi polloi.
The dramatic decline of commuting into city centres raised fears that this might mark a long-term shift to remote working, with an inevitable knock-on effect on all the ancillary businesses in those areas, not least pubs.
On the other hand, some pubs really didn’t help themselves with an over-zealous interpretation of the social distancing guidelines. It seems to have brought out the inner jobsworth in some licensees.
The hospitality trade, and pubs in particular, seemed to be unjustly singled out for blame in the spread of the virus, when all the evidence suggested that their role in fact was pretty insignificant.
The new restrictions imposed toward the end of September made that swift, spontaneous pint virtually impossible, and table service was impractical and labour-intensive for wet-led pubs.
And the requirement for pub customers to wear masks except when seated was utterly insane. Even if you accept the rationale behind masks, expecting people to be repeatedly putting them on and taking them off again goes completely against the recommendations for how they should be used. At least we weren’t like some US states, where diners and drinkers were told only to remove the mask when actually having a mouthful.
It was disappointing how many trade bodies and organisations supposedly representing drinkers were happy to demand more financial help for the industry but reluctant to question the fundamental basis of the restrictions, although they have become bolder over the past couple of months. And of course there isn’t a bottomless pit of money to dole out. An honourable exception was Essex licensee Adam Brooks who was prepared to question the rationale and essential unfairness of the lockdown restrictions, especially those in the second half of the year. I’d also give a mention to Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, who has been a strong and outspoken voice for the industry.
In this area, the pubs have been entirely closed for 23 weeks of the year, plus a further two weeks at the end of October where we were placed in the old Tier 3 making them dining only. This, combined with the ongoing travel restrictions and continued closure of many tourist attractions, severely curbed my activities during the year.
During 2019, I visited a total of 207 different pubs, of which 111 were entirely new to me, the latter number boosted by four days out to towns that I had either never been drinking in before, or where I had only ever visited one pub. This year the comparable totals are 60 and 17, and most of those 17 were accounted for by the aforementioned trip to Burton and one very brief holiday in September. It is probably the lowest total of different pubs I have used in any calendar year since I turned 18.
I have only spent two nights away from home not in my own bed, which is the lowest number since infancy. I had to cancel two holidays and never got round to booking another. I have travelled less far certainly than since 2001, when circumstances conspired to prevent me having a proper holiday, although I did briefly venture across the Welsh border before they closed it. And I haven’t seen the sea at all. (I know I could easily have done so if I’d really wanted to, but I didn’t in the normal course of my travels).
The restrictions on pub visiting have also curtailed my encounters with pub cats, although I did manage to spot Felix in the Boar’s Head in Stockport, who I was told is now sixteen years old. I have been following the exploits of Artemis aka Arty of the Olde Cottage in Chester, who had turned up as a stray in the Autumn of 2019. We had planned a trip out to Chester in April which would have included calling in there, but obviously this had to be cancelled. He established himself as a firm favourite with the regulars, and was puzzled when they all abruptly disappeared. Earlier this month, he suffered some kind of injury when out exploring which necessitated an operation at the vets’ costing over £1000, although this was fortunately covered by insurance. So far he seems to be well on the mend, although still wandering round an empty pub.
Including this one, I have done 81 posts on the blog this year, compared with 93 last year, the difference being almost entirely accounted for by having had only one Proper Day Out to write up, as opposed to six.
Last year, I celebrated passing the 5,000 followers mark on Twitter. This year it has edged up further to just over 5,600, but I suspect it has now reached something of a plateau. On the other hand, Toady, who has been much more outspoken about the Covid crisis, has gone up from 3,000 to over 3,800.
I’ve recorded the highest number of posts on my Closed Pubs blog since the early days when finding new ones was like shooting fish in a barrel. For this I’m mainly indebted to Yorkshire resident Kyle Reed, who has sent me a substantial number of suggestions in West and South Yorkshire. I also spotted a fair number myself on trips out once the lockdown travel restrictions were lifted.
Tourist attractions were often very slow to reopen, but I did manage to visit one new National Trust property, Newark Park in Gloucestershire, a converted hunting lodge set in a spectacular position on a ridge of the south Cotswolds. However, even here you were only allowed to walk round the grounds. Returning from this trip, I called in to the Grape Vaults in Leominster, a pub of which I have fond memories, and was pleased to find it just as good as ever, which is often not the case. Here I had my only Ploughman’s Lunch of the year, which was also a pretty good one. This was undoubtedly, from a limited field, my Best Pub Revisit of the year.
It’s easy to imagine that lockdown would free up time to read all those books you never got round to, but in practice it doesn’t seem to work out that way, However, one book that made an impression on me was Ghostland by Edward Parnell, subtitled “In Search of a Haunted Country”, which I hadn't heard of before, but came up in a Twitter conversation. It's a fascinating and moving memoir of family tragedy woven into an in-depth analysis of British ghost stories and an evocation of British landscapes, with a fair bit of bird-watching thrown in. I'd strongly recommend it, although it helps if you're familiar with the likes of M. R. James and Alan Garner and have seen “The Wicker Man”.
Last year, I expressed satisfaction at the decisive result of the December General Election which finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of the following month. The transition period expires at the end of this month, and at the last minute we were able to conclude a trade agreement on Christmas Eve that will allow tariff-free trade to continue while restoring our status as a fully independent, sovereign nation. Amidst all the Covid-related gloom, this gives grounds for some optimism about the future.
As I said in one of the posts I linked to above, “It’s all very well saying that people should support pubs, but if the experience has been turned from something pleasurable to a grim rigmarole it becomes increasingly hard to see the attraction. And most ordinary people go to pubs because they enjoy it, not out of a sense of duty.” At present I can’t visit local pubs at all and, until the restrictions introduced in September are lifted, I really can’t look forward to much appetite for, or pleasure in, pubgoing during the coming year.
Despite the optimism surrounding the roll-out of vaccines, I expect I will still have a long wait before I am once again able to enter a pub unchallenged, walk up to the bar to order a drink, and choose to sit wherever, and with whom, I want. And I fear that much of the pub trade will never recover.