So here we are, hopefully on the verge of pubs being reopened, or at least those that have beer gardens where we can all drink our fill in an accepted socially distanced manner. So here we are, getting closer to something resembling normal life. Are we? I doubt what will pass for normal in our pub-going lives will be anything like it was in February when I sat in the corner of the Lord Nelson in Southwold with a couple of friends and the mood and the music and the voices of pub life circulated in the air like spindrift on a sunny summer’s morning. One day perhaps, but not for now.
The chaos and the craziness and the grief and the greeting card of bleakness that the lockdown brought with it won’t be forgotten either, won’t vanish like a panto villain going up in a puff of smoke in front of an audience of wide-eyed and unruly children who haven’t been to school for a while. But for beer-lovers and pub-goers, the reported opening of licensed premises in July will hopefully toss us a bone of hope, a change of mood and a renewed perspective with which to view the world.
So, what am I looking forward to as I start to consider engaging once more on my beer journey? For a start, chatting and checking out how people with whom I normally drink have been, naturally, then lifting up a glass of beer and letting the sun shine and sparkle through its hazy, pale interior and then maybe just watching the world slow down and stop and somehow try to make sense of the last few months.
However, there is one thing that is crucial to my sense of well-being when I think of embarking on my beer travels once more. It might seem peculiar given the constricted world we have been used to since March, but I am looking forward to pub solitude, that sense of delicious loneliness you experience when hidden away in the wooden womb of a pub, whether London, Exeter, Brussels or that small town in Bohemia whose name I can never pronounce.
I am reminded of this sense of solitude when I was transported back a year ago to a rainy June afternoon in Nottingham. I was down for the city’s craft beer week and on that afternoon, at a loose end, I visited the Lincolnshire Poacher, which had been recommended to me. I arrived at lunchtime, rather too early to start on the dry-hopped barley wine I noticed on the chalked-up keg list, but the right time for a thoughtful pint or two.
The ambience of the pub was stripped wooden floors all the way through, a classic dark wood cosiness that is elemental and reassuring, a soothing hand on a fevered brow. Meanwhile the gleam of engraved brewery mirrors above the wooden banquettes were beacons of silvery light, another, inside-out world in which the solitude of the pub was reflected. There were two drinking spaces around the bar, as well as a conservatory and snug at the back and as I sat there with my glass of beer (an IPA from Castle Rock if you must know), I noted the calm and considered air of the pub, a quietness, a tranquillity and a serenity, which you perhaps get in a cathedral before the crowds start filing in.
I was not alone: a mother and father came in with their student son for lunch, while a regular sat at the end of the bar doing a newspaper crossword. Outside in the early afternoon drizzle, cars hissed by the window, but I was secure and dry and all alone in my place of beer.
I continued to look about my surroundings, for one of the joys of solitude in a pub is observation, not only of people, but of things too: glass handled mugs hung over the wooden bar, its glass panelled gantry gently shuttered with black chalkboard panels on which the day’s dishes were illustrated. A brass rail ran along the bottom of the bar upon which vertical drinkers could rest a foot, and look at the old Wrigley’s spearmint gum machine, 6d to be inserted, which was affixed to the wall. Also in the same landscape, an old poster entitled Whitbread’s Brewery Graveyard, detailed the former brewery’s voracious appetite.
This was a place where beer and its culture were celebrated, in the company of its various shades of brown (some amber, some chestnut, some sandy), while the sound of kegs and casks being moved into the cellar was almost devotional. I decided that my afternoon would be spent here and prepared to hide away from the world, which is once again something I am looking forward to when the pubs open their doors once more.