At midday, on one of the first days to feel like spring, I walked up to the nearby supermarket for a loaf of bread and a newspaper. Next to the supermarket is a pub that has been there for all the forty years we have lived here, and which I have visited perhaps twice in that time. Don’t get me wrong. I have loved beer ever since I was eighteen, and pubs for some of that time, though finding the right pub has never been easy. My love of beer is undiminished. My love of pubs is all but dead. This particular pub is probably the least inviting of all those in the leafy suburb in which I have the good fortune to live. But the competition for ‘least inviting’ is strong: the others aren’t giving up without a fight. It is, however, the nearest to me, and it has been recently revamped under one of those glib pubco brands, ‘Meet and Eat’. Anyway, all I wanted was a refuge for a quiet pint and a look at my newspaper.
I must have been mad. On entry I was greeted by loud pop music not to my liking. Some of the tables were trendily high with stools that looked awkward and uncomfortable. The only proper draught beers on offer were Greene King IPA (possibly the nastiest draught beer in England) and something called Trooper, once you could decipher the trendy typeface of the pump clip, but at 4.9% ABV not my idea of a midday pint. My presence at the bar did not disturb any staff, as none were in evidence. It took me only moments to realise that there was not one good reason for giving the place my custom and that I’d be much happier drinking a decent bottled beer in peace and quiet in the comfort of my own home.
Is this experience in any way revealing? I’m afraid not. It is par for the course. In my view, about 80% of all English pubs now bear no resemblance to what I call a pub. They have become restaurants that sell beer but like to think they are pubs. And the remaining ‘proper’ pubs, mainly back-street urban locals, are all too often scruffy places that few would choose to visit.
I live in southern Hampshire, and I know of only two local pubs that I enjoy visiting: the Flower Pots in Cheriton, and the Guide Dog in Southampton. It would be difficult to imagine two more different pubs.
The Flower Pots, Cheriton
I have been a customer of the Flower Pots for thirteen years, despite it being a 26-mile round trip from home. Why? Because it is in many ways reminiscent of the pubs of my youth. It is generally quiet – no machines, no music, no screens. The Public Bar is a meandering room with a huge open fireplace, basic furniture and a well, covered by a steel grille. The tiny Lounge Bar is quaint and delightful, more like a private sitting room than a bar. The pub brews its own range of draught beers in a rustic looking brewery across the car park. The beers are sold at competitive prices (typically £2.70 a pint), and though it serves a limited menu of home-cooked food, the place feels like a pub not a restaurant. A caution for intending visitors: the lunchtime food service generally ceases at 1.45 pm. Children under 13 are not admitted to the pub itself, only to a marquee in the garden, while dogs are welcome in the bars! I know many modern children are awful, but I’m not mad about boisterous dogs either. I prefer cats, who know how to behave with a bit of dignity.
The Guide Dog, Southampton
The Guide Dog in the Bevois Valley area of Southampton could hardly be more different in character. It is unashamedly a back-street local. One quite small, room, no food apart from filled rolls at the incredible price of £1.10. But usually at least seven real ales from local micro-breweries, invariably in good condition, and a mere £2.90 a pint, regardless of ABV. At midday, this is exactly the pub for the man on his own who wants a refuge from a mad world. Hosts Paul and Margaret are generally around, and when they are not, friendly long-term bar staff will look after you. The only downside for me is that it is a city pub, so parking is not always easy; and who wants to drive into a city to drink? It really is a locals’ pub – one to walk to.
Back to where I came in. The words of the poet Hilaire Belloc (written in the 1930s) have long since become famous, but I don’t think they have lost any of their resonance:
When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.
I fear we got there some time ago.
Stop press: The Southern Hampshire Branch of CAMRA has just announced that the Guide Dog is its Pub of the Year 2014. This is the sixth time in the last eight years that the pub has won the award. Well done Paul and Margaret for running such a great pub.
The Guide Dog has since changed hands and inevitably to some extent character, so I can no longer vouch for it.