Sunday, 27 December 2020

Annus horribilis

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.

19 comments:

  1. This was a great read, Mudgie. I was just writing something about the beer enthusiasts being happy to stay inside with their take-outs when pubs re-opened. Wish I'd gone in the Grape Vaults when I stopped in Leominster in June though it may have been before opening time.

    Hope 2021 is far better for you and look forward to a mask-free catch-up in a pub.

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    1. That's what I originally said at the beginning of July.

      I don't think the Grape Vaults actually opened until the beginning of September, but it seemed to be doing OK in the middle of the month. And it had some local old boys sitting near the bar :-)

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  2. "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."

    I share your above fears but optimism the only option want to consider.
    Much as I have enjoyed some great craft beer in cans and bottles from supermarkets and direct from some select brewers, it will never replace the pub experience and I have been in them at every opportunity available to me this year despite the inconvenience of masks and substantial meals, that opportunity has now yet again been removed since moving into tier four as of yesterday so are now clinging to optimism and tins of NEIPA.

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    1. Rishi Sunak has said this morning that it may be possible to remove many restrictions by the end of Febrary if the vaccine roll-out goes well. I hope he's right, but I'm not counting any chickens yet.

      Of course there are plenty of good beers to drink at home, whatever your taste, but you completely miss out on the social experience of being in the pub.

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    2. I hope that's right. My (maybe unpopular) opinion is that once the vulnerable and (say) over 55's have been vaccinated then restrictions should be removed letting us reach herd immunity naturally. Stopping this unnatural lockdown idea which only extends the pandemic. The risk to the under 55s is small (always there but so is getting hit by a bus) - there is no medical reason to vaccinate everyone. So maybe Feb is possible...

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    3. I agree, but given that there have been numerous false dawns I'm naturally inclined to take a pessimistic view.

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    4. Rishi Sunak has to make the optimistic statements as chancellor,because if he pitched a more pessimitic or even slightly realistic tone it would adversely influence the markets, and impact the economy, and we are already facing a double dip recession. How many pubs for instance would stop furloughing their staff right now and make them all redundant if they knew normality for them wasnt expected for another 9 months from now, at least.

      I know pubs who even in tier 3 conditions were considering hibernating & shutting for January, substantial meal or not they were losing money from the restrictions, now in tier 4 some have said basically see you in Easter...maybe.

      So February is a pipe dream in my view, just as much as Christmas was promised to be normal back in the first week of December after our 2nd lockdown, and Id be surprised if we didnt get a 3rd lockdown in January.

      I never thought on that Friday way back in March that would be the last time this year Id set foot in a pub, beer at home doesnt replicate the pub experience,or even the beer for that matter,but neither do pubs with umpteen restrictions about how you can even turn up at them,where you sit,for how long, how you order your beer,how you pay, even going to the toilet ever replicate a normal pub experience of just walking in when you like, up to the bar and ordering a pint then sitting in your favourite corner to relax away from the problems of the world.

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    5. Yes, I have to admit that, after the 24th of September, I've hardly been to pubs as the experience, even when they're open, has been made so joyless and regimented. All the pleasure and spontaneity has been sucked out of it.

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  3. Professor Pie-Tin27 December 2020 at 11:01

    Compliments of the season to you Mudgie and thanks for all the enjoyable posts you've managed to write throughout 2020.
    I like the way you encourage debate in your blog and don't delete comments, particularly political ones, which don't chime with yours.
    In much the same way as the most abusive vitriol on social media seems to come from embittered Remainers those beer bloggers who were opposed to Brexit seem the least tolerant of opposing views on their blogs.
    Goodness knows how they'll react to Boris negotiating the biggest trade deal in history in less than a year and fulfilling his election promise to get Brexit done.
    Anyway, great news on the vaccine front with the Oxford University jab likely to get the go-ahead this week - not only is it cheap but it can also be stored in a GP's surgery fridge so there's a great opportunity for quick and mass vaccination.
    The UK is already well-ahead of the rest of the world with a million vaccinations likely to be delivered by next week.
    I'm hugely optimistic for 2021.
    I can finally see a time when it'll be ok once again to belly up to a bar, call a pint and then look around to see if anyone fancies a natter.
    Happy days.

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    1. I have very occasionally deleted comments, and of course if they're being pre-approved you only see them if I let them through the net. However, this is only if they're abusive, completely irrelevant or repeatedly gnawing away at the same point. But the art of debate is to lead the discussion in a particular direction rather than just disagreeing outright.

      I do have to be careful with the comments as you may remember when I was assailed by a clever and persistent troll two or three years ago.

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  4. A good write-up Mudge, of a year that certainly didn't turn out as any of us expected, let alone liked. I honestly thought, when we met up in Burton, back in March, that this whole Covid affair would blow over pretty quickly, and suspect I was not alone in thinking this.

    Holidays cancelled and plans put on hold, all of which pale into insignificance when one looks at the hand dealt to the licensed trade by a government that doesn't really understand pubs and is backed by a panel of public health zealots, oblivious to the damage their policies have done to the economy, and to the nation's health in other areas, apart from Covid.

    For once I thanked my lucky stars that I was able to continue working, right through the pandemic, as it provided the social contact with other members of the human race that I'm sure was missed by those less fortunate than myself.

    This year I managed four trips that entailed six nights away from home, but with one for business, another for a family funeral and a third to visit my father, who is incarcerated in a care home where I could only speak to him through a partially window, it was only the couple of days walking during October, that could count as holiday!

    No plans, so far, for 2021, although according to the online calculator, the over 65 age group, that I now fall into, should receive their inoculations late February – early March. It will be a logistical nightmare rolling out a vaccination programme of this magnitude, so let’s trust HMG have learned from the mistakes of the past nine months and everything runs smoothly.

    Finally, as I wrote in my most recent post, it is excellent news that, against the odds, a free-trade agreement has finally been agreed between the UK and the European Union, and we can now all move on now and put the past four and a half years of uncertainty and division behind us.

    I therefore intend to approach 2021 with a degree of guarded optimism!

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    1. I would imagine continuing to work, and having to actually go into the workplace, would be a great help in coping.

      On Brexit, I know this issue has violently divided opinions, but we did have a democratic vote in favour of the principle, and I sincerely hope this agreement will help defuse the antagonism going forward.

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    2. I'm sure it will help Mudge, as the agreement represents closure for many people, including me. It's a shame it took so long to get where we are now, but it's time to put it all behind us, and move on.

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  5. Nice round up.

    I closed my blog mainly because after two weeks into lockdown, with nothing much to write about I couldn't be bothered and so it is full marks to those that kept on it and put out content.

    With regards Brexit, given what David Frost has said gives me what I'd hoped for I too meet that with half-full optimism.

    One holiday in early March to Scotland for the pubs of Glasgow was lovely, one holiday 6 months later to North Norfolk was greeted with only 2 pubs open but rather fortunately the hotel bar did kept their two offerings of cask Adnams very well.

    Who'd have thought the only other bright pub spot would be a meeting of reprobates in Stockport one July (or was it August? All the days and months run together).

    The things I hope to see in 2021 are the useless campaigns for beer and independent brewers that have shown to be completely ineffective to be completely killed off but I suspect they'll hang around like the malignant cancers they are.

    All the best.

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    1. Our little wander round Stockport on Monday August 3rd was one of only two pub crawls worthy of the name I've done since Burton. An excellent afternoon - great to meet you at last.

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  6. Thanks for your incisive and entertaining posts over the last year. Have a great New Year

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  7. Professor Pie-Tin11 January 2021 at 20:12

    Here's a thing.
    Ireland's pubs have been shut far longer than any other country in Europe - open less than a month since last March.
    Its lockdown has been tougher than just about any country you'd care to mention.
    Ireland now has the world’s highest Covid-19 infection rate.
    It's knocking at my front door - half my staff have it as well as my GP.My local hospital has started storing bodies in temporary morgues.
    Still,mustn't complain.
    I'm off to Barbados in April.
    Possibly.

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    1. This is old news. The high numbers from last week were partially due to a backlog of test results from Christmas and New Year. The daily new case numbers have halved this week and are trending down. However, There will be a couple of weeks of high mortality figures from now until the end of January.

      That said, the Christmas socialising indoors has evidently caused a major surge whatever.

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    2. Professor Pie-Tin13 January 2021 at 18:04

      It's not old news over here old sport.
      Particularly as we don't have the luxury of enjoying the UK's super-charged vaccine programme thanks to the excellent foresight of Boris last summer.
      The EU's vaccine procurement programme has been dogged by incompetence and while the UK might be planning on 15 million doses by the middle of next month Ireland will be lucky to have everyone over 65 jabbed by late summer.

      Delete

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