‘See you later mate, looking good, keep it up.’
With a thumbs up and a rat-a-tat of ‘laters’, the man with a tan that spoke of either Tenerife or the local tanning parlour took his leave of his mate in the pub’s beer garden (actually a wooden patio but it was in the sun and that was all that mattered) and walked off down a lane and out of sight.
‘I don’t trust people who don’t like cider.’
A young woman two tables away from me, a scrawl of tattoos on her bare arms, laughed with her girlfriend and then started telling her father about one of their early dates, while he took a swig of his Thatchers and replied with a grin, ‘I get you’.
A village pub, a country pub, only several miles outside Exeter, but the growing green of this early spring, the sheltered warmth of sunlight and the whisper of joy from a pint of dark beer brewed on the premises was my way of celebrating the great outdoors on a gorgeous Good Friday.
This is (or it should be) the time of year when we, who take ourselves to pubs throughout the four seasons, long to go outside and drink our beer in the warmth of the sun or at least beneath the sway of a pub parasol, which can often snap and crack as the brisk wind you didn’t believe was going to appear catches its brim.
This is the time of luminous enlightenment, of a sunny disposition as you finally believe the privations of winter and early spring are behind you; I managed to sit outside the Bridge Inn in early March but I was wrapped up as tightly as a parcel for posting such was the ambiguity of the weather — and then it started raining and I still had to cycle five miles home.
There is a sense of timelessness or maybe it is the stretch of the fabric of time that we feel when we sit outside in a beer garden and there is no threat of a gunmetal grey clump of clouds dumping its rain with the frequency of the tears of the damned. If there is no commitment to meet or going shopping or even put up a shelf then time spent in a beer garden when the conditions are right — weather, beer, people (or lack of), warmth and sun — then time is elastic and you might find yourself, as I have on many a time, end up sitting there until you realise you don’t want to drink anymore beer. And then it is time to cycle home.
For me this Good Friday was also about the cycle through the long lanes of Devon, with glimpses of the soft green hills in the distance as well as the gleaming pinpoint of sunlight on a farmhouse window some miles away. It was also about the pleasing solidity of the Victorian build of the pub, The Beer Engine in Newton St Cyres, perhaps Devon’s longest lasting brewpub, which was set up in the early 1980s, when it was called The Barn Owl. Prior to that it had a history going back to the 19th century when it started as an old railway pub for the newly built station, which surprisingly is still active. Its original name was The Railway and it has also been called the Iron Horse, which was the name of beer (pre-fixed with old) I was drinking that benign afternoon (a hefty malt character with a citrus lightness in the middle).
As I sat there, contented, I asked myself the same question I seem to ask every year at this time. Why do we like drinking outside? Is it because our weather can be so inclement that we tend to grab any chance we can because we so want that outdoor cafe experience that we believe everyone has in France or Italy? Or maybe there is this belief that beer is best outside as the days lengthen and as the month turns we want to be outside?
Another train rushes by, reminiscent of the sound of a malign wind on a thunderous night, while sparrows in the hedge counterpointed with their chirpy chirpiness, which all increased the mood of relaxation. Spring is this transition, the coming of the light, the warmth (fingers crossed), hopefully more dry days than wet, the sound of birdsong, and the drift of sweet smelling smoke from a barbecue somewhere in the village.
Sitting outside with a beer is definitely a way of satisfying the soul, killing time and passing time. And as the relentless passage of another train, this time on its way back to Exeter St David’s having left the metropolis of Barnstaple around 45 minutes ago, I think of other afternoons spent outside in pub gardens. Memories of outside pints down through the years, from the lost days of youth larking about with friends to the bouncy castles and colouring books of keeping my son entertained, onto the contemplation of a quieter life, in the sun on this cordial and beneficent Good Friday. Time for another I think.