So when the lockdown began I ached and ached for the loss of the pub. Not literally, I only ache when I have cycled or fallen off a chair (as I did last night — ouch). However, I definitely felt a poignant longing for the ease with which I could go within the confines of the pub, its wooden, crumpled and cassocked confines, where I could drink both cask and draught beer and talk words of little or no consequence with equally benevolent souls.
I told fellow Zoomers when I appeared on Eoghan Walsh’s Cabin Fever podcast that the loss of the pub (and I write about the generic pub, the universal pub, rather than the Dog & Trumpet or any other place that you and I, and you over there, usually spend time at) was one of the hardest things about the lockdown. This was followed by the gym and the looming need for a haircut.
In the days leading up to July 4 I decided I would visit a couple of pubs and for journalistic reasons I would even visit a Wetherspoon’s, likening myself to the great war photographer Robert Capa going ashore on Omaha Beach with the first troops (I was obviously joking but the point I was trying to make was that as a journalist who writes about beer and pubs I need to witness this new era of drinking despite the risk, though it is naturally a lot less dangerous than bullets).
I managed to visit a couple of pubs and have a haircut, while the gym looks possible later in the month, but it’s the pub, rather than the barber’s or the gym, that I want to write about. I always knew I was going to visit a pub on July 4th (though I never called it ‘Super Saturday’ as the newspapers did in all their loud inglorious noisiness), but it was going to be a pub with a beer garden.
This journey led me to Exeter Quay and Topsham Brewery’s taproom, homed since late 2018 in an old warehouse (and a very fine warehouse it is), with a bar in one stone-walled, wooden beamed space and a brewery in the next. More importantly, it has a beer garden as well as benches and tables outside overlooking the start of Exeter Canal, where the art of socially-distanced drinking could be indulged with the ease of a conqueror.
Whether people went to the pub or not on July 4 was none of my business. I hated the words that came from those who hectored people who were avoiding pubs until they felt safe. I also felt very uncomfortable with the social media warriors who seemed to take an almost physical glee in predicting that those who were photographed in crowded streets outside a pub might have picked up a death sentence. This is how far Covid-19 has divided us.
So what was it like? We had to queue, email our contact details, was only allowed in three at a time, served from behind plastic screens, and also had to give the number of a table before being served. I found it fine, if this was the price of a cool pint of Topsham Brewery’s bananas-and-custard Weizen so be it.
I sat at a table with friends and as we swapped gossip about Exeter’s still slumbering beer scene I realised that this was what I had missed about the pub: people and conversation. Sure it’s easy to sit in a sunny garden with can after can of beer from the likes of Utopian, Magic Rock, Deya and Verdant appearing on the table, but there is an ineffable, unconscious joy about sitting (socially distanced naturally) at a pub table with like-minded souls, scattering words about like confetti at a wedding and bathing in that soulful sunshine of company.
Spoons? Oh I did my Robert Capa and went to one of the largest in Exeter, based in a former church. Here I was shown to a table, I put my contact details in a box and maintained a distance at the bar while waiting to be served. The beer? Oh that was Punk IPA, but the beer was wasn’t really the point. I felt like a lonesome island in an archipelago of people, which is another glorious aspect of pub life. I have missed pubs and even in this changed state I am glad that those that feel they can open are around to hand out some of that essential essence only a pub can provide.