This time last year, pubs had been spared the Covid restrictions that had been reimposed on large sections of the economy due to concerns about the Omicron variant. However, this led to a wave of cancellations of Christmas bookings, meaning that the trade had a dismal festive season for the second year in a row. As many of us had predicted, the fears of Omicron proved to be greatly overstated, and the general restrictions were all lifted at the end of January, perhaps accelerated by the embattled government wishing to avoid a backbench rebellion. The abhorrent plans to impose vaccine mandates on NHS workers lingered on into the Spring, but they were eventually scrapped too. The lockdown narrative has steadily crumbled as the sheer scale of the economic, social, educational and medical harms it caused have become increasingly clear, and many politicians have rushed to dissociate themselves from it.
There were, however, one or two pockets of the pub trade that, like Japanese soldiers in the jungle after 1945, continued to cling stubbornly to the old religion. The Bailey Head in Oswestry, run by a chap called Duncan Borrowman, was insisting on the ludicrous and oppressive rule of requiring masks unless seated well into this year, even though this had been officially lifted in July 2021. I assume it has now been dropped, but that’s certainly one to add to the list of pubs to avoid, at least under their current management.
This cleared the way for a year of unrestricted trading for pubs, which was helped by some hot summer weather. Although it certainly hasn’t been uniform, many have reported sales figures approaching those of 2019 or even, in some cases, exceeding it. However, they have then been hit by a wave of inflation which has increased their costs, especially energy prices, while at the same time reducing their customers’ disposable income. This leaves many pubs in a very precarious financial situation going into the New Year, and has already led to a number of closures which have spread to breweries too. To a a large extent, this inflation was the inevitable consequence of the borrowing and money-printing to finance the Covid bailouts and furlough, although the Bank of England seemed remarkably myopic in failing to foresee it. The Ukraine conflict has exacerbated it to some degree, but it’s really no more than the icing on the cake. The situation of pubs in town and city centres has been further worsened by the wave of rail strikes in the run-up to Christmas.
During the year, I have visited 128 different pubs, of which 40 were new to me. This compares with 79/18 in 2021 and a mere 60/17 in 2020. Obviously I could have visited more new pubs if I’d really set my mind to it, but I didn’t really do more than take the opportunities that were available to me in the course of my travels. A couple of highlights were a day out in Burton-on-Trent for the first celebration of National Bass Day that was actually able to take place, and being kindly taken on a tour of rural pubs in West Berkshire by Tim Thomas of the local CAMRA branch.
My best new pub was the North Star in Steventon, Berkshire, one of the most unspoilt pubs on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with no bar counter as such and a snug formed by a high-backed settles.
Runner-up was the Magazine in New Brighton, with its spectacular views over the Mersey estuary towards Liverpool. This is one of those classic pubs that is in my general part of the world, but I’d never been near enough in recent years to think, “oh, let’s go there”. Although known as a Bass shrine, unfortunately due to the supply difficulties that have plagued Bass this year there was none available when I called. I’ll also give honourable mentions to the Boat and Horses in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the Heatons Bridge at Scarisbrick in West Lancashire, both of which have a canal connection.
On the other hand, there were one or two horror stories, the most memorable being one pub, which shall remain nameless, where my experience was completely spoilt by what appeared to be the landlord and his cronies engaging in bout of Chubby Brown-level swearing in one of the rooms. This was a pity as otherwise it was a very appealing place that came across as more genteel than rough, which made the crudity even more incongruous.
My best revisit was undoubtedly the Bell at Aldworth, again in Berkshire, another classic unspoilt pub that has won CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year on two widely-separated occasions. I had been there once in the early 80s, but never since. This was on the aforementioned tour with Tim Thomas. I was also able to renew my acquaintance with a number of pubs not visited since before Covid, such as the “symphony in brown” Cross Foxes in Shrewsbury, and the Red Lion at Dayhills in Staffordshire, a simple rural pub attached to a working farm.
Amongst all those pubs, sadly I haven’t encountered a single pub cat, although I have continued to follow the activities of Arty at the Olde Cottage in Chester, and Fiddle Pub Cat, whose pub has now closed down, but who seems to be enjoying a comfortable retirement with plenty of rodent-hunting opportunities.
To be continued...