Wednesday 29 July 2020

Gobsmacked in Coalbrookdale

Reading this lovely post by Retired Martin about one of my favourite pubs in the UK, the Coalbrookdale Inn in, well Coalbrookdale, just up from that wonderful town of Ironbridge, I was reminded of one of the more surprising happenings in my many pub visits.

As you may have read here before, every year, three cronies and I take a couple of nights away in a pubby part of the country. The West Midlands is always a favourite, therefore we have been in the Ironbridge area more than once. I can't remember the exact date, but it was a long time ago - these events do not make recall of detail all that easy, though of course, as we all get older, the amount of beer has become almost sensible and greater clarity is assured. But these were halcyon days.

On this occasion, likely sometime in the 1980's, we had a night - or maybe two - in Coalbrookdale.  We'd all been there before, probably on a CAMRA coach trip or suchlike, but we booked into a pub opposite the Coalbrookdale Inn. It was a decent enough boozer, owned by Marstons I think, and it did rooms at a very reasonable rate.  It was fine for our needs, which essentially are to be clean and comfortable with a breakfast and car parking.  On the appointed evening, after a day no doubt boozing away (we have a designated non-drinking driver)  we had a couple of pints in the Marstons pub, then headed across the road to the bustling Coalbrookdale Inn for a wider choice of beer, before heading down to Ironbridge for more beer and eats.

After a few minutes - the pub has a more or less square bar - the landlord shouted "Phone call for Peter".  We all ignored this. Now to explain to my younger reader, back in those days - pre mobile phone - it wasn't at all unusual to call a pub and ask to speak to "whoever" if he is in.  Now nobody knew we were there we thought and therefore the call out in a busy pub could not possibly be for any of us and could be safely ignored. We carried on supping. Having got no response, the barman returned to the phone, presumably to relate the lack of success to the caller.  A few seconds later he appeared in front of us. "Any of you lads Peter Alexander?" quoth our hero. I stammered "Me" while we all looked on in astonishment. "Phone call for you" he said.

Needless to say, it was the lovely E.  But how had she tracked me down? Well simples really. She had phoned the Marstons pub and the barman there had said words to the effect of "You've just missed them. They've all gone across the road to the Coalbrookdale. Do you want their phone number?"  E then phoned and found me.

Back in these far off days, before mobile phones were widely owned,  somehow we still managed to contact each other. I have been phoned for in many pubs over the years, albeit long ago, but that for me, was a bit of a record.

The Coalbrookdale Inn has, I think been a bit gentrified since those days, but is still a cracker.

I remember that night cramming into a local's car and careering off to Ironbridge. God know how many were in it, but I can still hear the clang as the arse end of the car banged the road from time to time. 

The lost art of the "Is he in the pub?" phone call, is a great subject too from the past.

Thursday 9 July 2020

Sam's One Pound Gamble

It is true. That doyen of the cheap pint, Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has decided to get out of that particular game, with prices rises all round on re-opening. Well as far as we can make out that's the case, but of course, with Sam's, the facts are as murky as a Railway Arch Pint.

So what do we know? Samuel Smith, outside London is pretty cheap for draught beer and lager. In their heartland, pints are often £2 or less.  Rumour now has it that mild and bitter will rise by a pound a pint and lager by up to £1.20.  An entry on Facebook by one of their landlords, which seems to be a re-hashed version of something sent by the brewery to managers (all Sam's pubs are managed) - justifies the price increase.  It reads roughly thus:

"We have had no choice but to raise our prices. For years Sam Smiths pricing has been way below our competitors. Our family run company have been producing excellent value in brewing since 1758. In these uncertain times and let’s face it, no one really knows what the future holds, to open up hundreds of pubs is really risky and costly. We are just raising our prices inline or below of our brewing friends. 

Please bear in mind how really low our prices we’re for years and at some point to sustain stability we have no choice but get inline with everyone. 

When I made a quick visit to the THT on Sunday, our landlord mentioned he had a Sam's manager in, who had mentioned in conversation, the price increase will be in the range I mention above.  Now I can't yet actually confirm it and equally, I have no idea how prices will or won't change in London, or indeed how much we can depend on what we read elsewhere.

Sam's pubs operate without televisions, with no music - recorded or live; no use of phones, laptops or even Kindles, as well as being liberally emblazoned by signs telling you in no uncertain terms what you can or can't do within. It probably isn't unfair to say that part of the quid pro quo for doing what you are told is low prices.  Having said all that, the actual sentiment of catching up may have some validity. Outside London, for draught products only, Sam's pubs are cheap as chips. In fact, cheaper than chips if you drink mild - but it is a bit of a gamble to pile it all on at once. Given the odd way Humphrey operates, like an East German holiday camp, he attracts a certain kind of customer.

Now if you are paying bottom dollar for your ale, you may well be minded to put up with all this, but if a price rise take your pint to broadly in line with elsewhere and you realise that five pints cost you a fiver more,  I dare say many won't.  After all, why pay £3 a pint to put up with Humphrey's lopsided world, when you can go elsewhere and won't have to?

Whichever way you look at it, this is a gamble and it signposts, the end of a unique business model, but if it backfires, it may also be the last blast of Humph's reign.

Wetherspoon's may be the likely beneficiary of any ex Sam's customers. While the Bailiwick of the opinions of another lopsided eccentric,  you can at leastphone your pals about it, while gently effing and jeffing. And you can get cask ale, which you can't in almost all the 33 Sam's pubs in my area.

Can't see it helping to re-open the many Sam's pubs which are currently closed.  You would have thought that a slow increase might have worked better, rather than a short, sharp shock.  Then again, people have short memories.

Wet Led Pubs Lose Out in Largesse

So, the Chancellor, having discovered the Magic Money Tree, gave it another shake yesterday. I'll pass on some of the stuff, but what did he do for pubs? Well, at first glance, quite a lot.  Quite a lot that is for food led or mixed chains; offering VAT reductions and subsidised dining out. The big companies will be pleased, but what of the rest?  The sort of pubs that just sell beer, got nothing - or to be fair - nothing additional over what had been announced. Is this a surprise? Probably not.

Already the pubs that are most likely to close are the small, traditional, beer forward pubs, that not just us old codgers like, but are favoured by locals. The mid-terrace or street corner small boozer. The sort of pub where if you go, everybody probably knows you. I think the word used most often for them is "community pubs". Yes community.  A word that is, to this writer at least, important.  Many of these haven't yet opened up again despite restrictions being lifted. With social distancing, it just isn't worth it for them. Reduced capacity isn't much good to pubs that already are pretty small indeed, despite the reasons for restrictions being both  understandable and understood.

I could go on and on about this, but I think it is pretty well covered here by the Campaign for Pubs and here by the Campaign for Real Ale, who say much the same thing, but with commendable brevity.

Would it have hurt that much to allow those pubs that  only got the £10,000 grant to have been given a cut in VAT for, say, six months. In the great scheme of things, probably not and it would certainly have saved some community locals which are otherwise doomed to immediate closure or a slow, lingering death.

Now of course, government subsidising pubs is in itself novel, but only to subsidise those that already have the best chance of survival, seems shall we say hard to justify?

Or do you take the view that the shake out in pubs is just a consequence of something beyond everyone's control and just tough? 

Image from - Non Commercial use.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Three Down. No Problems

Well how was it for you? The grand re-opening of pubs I mean. I couldn't go on Saturday as we had a small family function related to E's Mum's passing, but on Sunday I duly reported for a quick one at the Tandle Hill Tavern.

It has always been in my mind that bigger pubs, while not exactly wagging their tails at the reduction in numbers allowed in, would be able to get on with it with some success. What about small pubs though?  My view here is that it may not pay that well to open, especially if staff have to be employed. No such problem at the Tavern though. John, our heroic landlord, has always run it as a one man show and I had little doubt he'd continue to do so. Frankly, it is the only way to make ends meet at such an out of the way, small pub.

I drove up for a quick look at around 12.30 on Sunday. Three months hadn't erased the suspension juddering ride up the lane from memory, but shaken to bits though I was, it was good to be back, though my usual mode of transport - the slow, one mile, uphill trudge - was saved for another day.  The door was open and a sanitising station set up. Inside were a few regulars. All the tables had reserved signs on and the snug was (unusually) open. A sign indicated that a maximum of 15 people were allowed inside at any one time.  More of course can go outside. No standing at the bar and the door open to provide ventilation. "Our" table, being on the way in, was out of use. So a clear compliance with the advice given. I have no idea who booked the tables - or indeed how - phoned John I suppose - which is what I'll be doing this Sunday. Or rather, before this Sunday. I just stayed for one and had a chat with a couple of people and the landlord.  All seemed fine, but I'll wait and see how it works in practice, when the pub has its full complement of 15 punters.  Compliance though is in everyone's interest.

On Monday I went to the Rose of Lancaster, also a JW Lees house, but in this case, a managed one.  This was a slick operation with the same basic arrangements, table service and visored staff. It went smoothly, though a Monday is hardly a test. I've booked a table there for Friday night for a bite to eat with E and her sister, who is visiting from Hong Kong (and will be quarantined on her return next week.) Friday should be a better test of atmosphere, as well as service. Both of these current Good Beer Guide pubs had beer in Good Beer Guide condition.  It was a pleasure to drink cask again.

My third visit, this morning, was to JDW Harbord Harbord in Middleton.  I was greeted at the door, sanitised my hands, was given a slip to fill in for track and trace and shown to a seat. A one way system was in operation and being obeyed. A Duty Manager of my acquaintance confirmed that capacity had been reduced from around 300, to a maximum of 130.  The pub was separated by partitions and all seemed well. I didn't have a drink, but contented myself with breakfast and coffee. Clean cups for refill and order at the bar - proper queuing system - or by the app.  My seat by the open door was at least 3 metres from other customers, so all good.

Quiet times don't tell you everything, but from what I can see, the precautions that are needed are being taken seriously. I might have a better idea though when I go at a busy time and people have had a few.  But I feel confident. If you don't - stay at home - or go when the pubs are likely to be empty. 

I think our table would be a bit depleted anyway. We have a couple of people who need to take more care. That's fine and sensible. Nobody should feel obliged.

JDW had beers from Brightside ,as well as the usual suspects. (I only really went, as I fancied a breakfast cooked by some other bugger than me!  Lees had Bitter in the THT and Bitter and MPA in the Rose. That will build up as we go along.

Saturday 4 July 2020

The Trade Trades Again

As I write this, the clock is ticking. The day has come. After 104 days, pubs are free to open again, albeit with many restrictions to limit the possible effect of the dreaded Covid-19.

It is a day that has divided opinions.  Some feel it is too soon, some too late, some pointless as the experience won't be exactly the same as it was. Some still sceptical about going out and mixing with others - even under controlled circumstances -either because they have underlying conditions - or put starkly - because they are feart.  And that isn't a criticism. The virus isn't going away yet. It doesn't have to do anything really. It just has to be. This isn't an imagined spectre in the night, a fear of the unknown. It is all too real. People have seen the effect it has had on many and wonder, not unreasonably,  if that could be their fate. Fear is a reasonable response.

Well that's the background, but the reality is that sooner or later, the risk has to be transferred to the individual. The economy can't go on as it is - people can't go on as it is -  so today or very soon, is the day you have to piss or get off the pot.  It doesn't just apply to pubs of course. Restaurants, hairdressers - oh yes - hairdressers - are in the same boat, but you don't have to sail in that boat. You can just stay at home and wait this out in comparative safety. But it will likely be a long wait and it will transform your life from living it, to remaining alive. Your choice and the knowledge that you are more likely to die on the way to the pub, than in it of Covid-19, is an equation that we all must work out for ourselves.

Pubs are aware of this. The Government is aware of this.   Guidance has been issued and while not having the force of law, it is something that really should be followed. It will minimise risk and make that decision much easier. There is little evidence that this will be ignored by pubs. It would be irresponsible and would reflect badly on them at licence renewal. It will vary of course and there will many pubs and many people, who while philosophically inclined to open, or to be there as customers, will just be a tad cautious and wait and see. The middle course if you will.

Last night a local licensee and friend invited me to see the preparations being made. It is a medium-sized managed house and the changes are mostly in distancing and the installation of rather unobtrusive perspex screens to separate areas. Some tables have been removed and table service of course will apply, as will collection of customer data. You'll pay at table wherever possible and of course, order from there. Staff will wear visors. One way systems, separate in and out and plenty of sanitising stations, as well as free flow of air, will make it as safe as possible. It is one of my locals and I'll feel as safe there as I do in Aldi or the like - and I go there. I have to.  My friend, the licensee is taking it seriously and the brewery is to - and I'm sure most others will do so too.

The simple message about any pub now, is if you don't feel comfortable and safe - leave. Frankly it was ever thus, but never more important than now.

I also had my first (and second) pints of properly cask conditioned, freshly brewed beer.  It was nectar from the Gods.

I won't be at the pub today, due to a family "do" following E's Mum's passing, but I will be tomorrow. Life is for the living.