Here we are again, in the middle of another lockdown, closed pubs, closed lives, and livelihoods being hung out to dry as if on a celestial clothes line. I feel a bit more prepared this time, and unlike in March the unknown has become known. Coffee can be taken away, beer too, as long as you send a message as if writing to Santa. I don’t doubt there is a need to curb this nasty disease but whether this lockdown is the best way I don’t know because unlike the rest of the world I am not an epidemiologist.
So, as I have seemed to have done through most of this year, it’s a time to remember, to recall, to take the clock back. This time it’s back to early October I will go when for the first time since March I went on a train. What a joy that was. To Totnes I took myself, a couple of stops down the line from Exeter, a gorgeous coastal trip for part of the way, the sparkling English Channel dimpled with diamonds of sunshine as the train hissed along.
For me, the unusual aspect of travelling in this time of Covid was the way I kept thinking about rules, constantly watching other people and wondering if they were breaking these rules. Should they be sitting so close, are they coughing or sneezing? I let my mask down to take furtive gulps from my water bottle, head bowing down so no one could see me in the act. What have we become?
However, it’s the memory of the day I want to celebrate, a visit to the New Lion brewery tap room, a couple of miles outside the town, in Dartington, where as I recall there was (or perhaps there still is) a college, that was rather — in the words of a friend who once went there — ‘hippyish’.
New Lion makes good beer, especially its IPA Pandit and Totnes Stout. Both are engaging and suitable suitors of the palate, the stout especially, but for my first drink of the day I ordered a Pilsner from Barnaby Brewhouse, which brews its beers somewhere in the countryside outside Totnes. This was a deep rich golden colour, with a fine grainy and floral flurry of notes on the nose, and was rich and bittersweet on the palate with a good dry finish. As I sipped and then swigged I looked around, asking myself to remember these moments, for they have been few and far between.
The brewery is on a rather battered-looking industrial estate, a place of different shades of concrete surfaces, on which faded painted lines mark out the various zones of the road, while long-lived, low-slung buildings look on with moody indifference. As well as its brewery, New Lion also has a tap room, in which there was a deep and commodious sofa, but for my first couple of pints I sat outside at the front at one of the tables that lounged about like skeletal layabouts.
There were five beers available, chalked up on the ubiquitous blackboard. Two were from New Lion, Totnes Stout (of which more in a moment) and Local Hero, which was made with community grown hops. The other three were from Left-Handed Giant, Barnaby Brewhouse and Plymouth’s Roam, of whom I am hearing great things.
I opted for the Totnes Stout, which is fast becoming a local favourite of mine. Aromatics and flavours of leather, treacle, toffee and coffee along with a dry and bittersweet finish bestrode the landscape of my being, a complete and highly accomplished beer that will stand the wealth of time. Another one please and I still studied the beer with a vigilance and also a sense of escape.
After the first lockdown had finished I was reluctant to travel, something I used to take for granted so much. Early morning coaches to Heathrow, sleep slow to come as the endless miles of the M4 rolled on beneath the dark skies of Wiltshire; a subterranean self-proclaimed craft beer bar in Budapest or the familiar surroundings of Poechenellekelder in Brussels, savouring glass after glass of Saison Dupont in the company of those grotesque life-sized papier-mâché mannikins. All taken for granted but all put on hold for now.
So you can see how the delight I took in my brief visit to New Lion surged through my soul with the strength of the Severn Bore at its height. It was a small step to reclaiming some part of my pre-Covid beer life. And now we’re in lockdown again, but as a friend of mine emailed to me when I told her of my joy on that day, ‘soak up the happy moments. Focusing on what’s good and keeping our eyes on the horizon is probably the best way out of this mess’.
Next month I will travel again. For beer.