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Lockdown Stories, Part Three: Finding My Pub Legs

Written by Matthew Curtis

· Matthew Curtis,Blog,COVID-19

Around mid-July, a couple of weeks after lockdown had technically ended, I hit a wall. Pubs were open again, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the confidence to visit them. Instead I retreated to cans at home, but also into myself.

A couple of weeks earlier I had been to a pub local to me for my first pint of draught beer in over four months. I waited until Tuesday, hopeful of avoiding the potential rush on Saturday July 4th when pubs were given the green light to reopen. When I arrived at the Brave Sir Robin in Stroud Green, North London, crossing the threshold felt unusually awkward. I was asked to stop and sanitise my hands before being shown to a table and told under no circumstances must I order at the bar.

It was weird, but soon I was presented with a pint of Kernel’s inimitable Table Beer and a little weirdness washed away. The beer was glorious. In fact it was so good, I stayed for three. But something didn’t quite feel right. This wasn’t the same as the pub experience I missed, and still longed for.

Not long after that visit I got out of London for a weekend—another activity I hadn’t engaged in for several months. Heading to Norfolk for a few, blissful, carefree days in the countryside was the agenda. I even got out for a few beers, finally having that first pint of cask after so many months! Although the drab state of the Ghost Ship I was served compels me not to tell you where that was.

It wasn’t all bad news though. I had better luck a couple of days later at the Chubby Seal craft beer café in the town of Holt. Lost and Grounded’s Keller Pils was in stirring form. What a treat so be sat outside a bar in the sun, drinking a nice pint of lager.

But again, something didn’t feel right, and so once this short break was over the only unwinding I felt compelled to engage with was sitting at home, Playstation on, can in hand. I had lost my pub legs, and I was thoroughly down in the dumps because of it, and everything else.

The melancholy hung around like a bad stench. In part it was fuelled by frustration: I love the pub, I feel joyful simply by being in one—whether sat alone with a beer, or with a group of friends, talking shop, telling stories, and revelling in the hugs at the beginning and the end of our meeting. Deeper than that was my anxiety. I am pretty confident I had a nasty case of Covid-19 in March before testing was widely available. With no idea if I have received immunity or not, the thought of going through that again constantly weighed on my mind. Worse still was the idea of giving it to someone else, or maybe even forcing a pub to close down via asymptomatic transmission, via the mere selfishness of wanting a pint.

Too much time sent scrolling through doomsaying news reports only served to compound my fears. Bar my solo-runs, and a very quick weekly visit to the supermarket for essential groceries, I had all but stopped leaving the house entirely.

Thankfully, this wasn’t to last.

I live in Manchester now, and part of achieving this involved not just leaving the house, but catching a cross-country train and spending time in normally busy areas like train stations. Getting out-and-about was the nudge I needed, and after viewing the property that would eventually become our home, my partner Dianne and I went for a walk around the Northern Quarter. For the uninitiated, this half-kilometer-squared area of Manchester town centre is home to some of the very best pubs and bars in the country. I was desperate for a pint, but twice I paused outside venues without the confidence to go inside.

Then, I saw my moment. With just 30 minutes to spare before we had to be on our way, I spotted an empty table outside of Port Street Beer House. “Do I need to ask someone to sit down? How is all of this going to work?” The longer I stood waiting the more excuses my brain fired at me as to why I shouldn’t. But soon we were calmly and politely asked if we’d like to take a seat. After using the hand sanitizer on the table I scanned a QR code and logged my details, while the bars app downloaded itself to my phone. Things that sound complicated at first, but soon become second nature.

A couple of screen taps later and a pint of Mallinson’s Nelson Sauvin was delivered to me. Pin bright and snapping with the New Zealand hop’s tropical herbaceousness. I put the glass to my mouth and took the beer in big gulps; one, two, three. Perfection. You could probably hear my smile as it bent from ear to ear. I had missed this. But even more so I had missed the experience, as my partner and I chatted about nothing in-particular, slowing down for an idle moment while the world carried on with its business. I was in the pub again!

When I returned to London, I felt as though a switch had been flicked inside me. Over the next few days I felt a weight lift. The positive effect visiting the pub had on my mental wellbeing was huge. Slowly but surely I realised just how vital pubs are not just for employment, and supporting a billion-pound industry, but how the social aspect helps us function in the day-to-day. Eventually, the weirdness began to feel a little less-so. With each pub visit my mood was boosted.

There was also a new sense of urgency. I would be leaving London soon, and I desperately wanted to visit as many of my favourite pubs as possible before moving a couple of hundred miles away from them.

And so, with my confidence building, I headed out to some of my favourite spots: The Harp; The Old Fountain; The Pembury Tavern; Red Hand; The Southampton Arms. With table service, readily-available sanitiser, contactless payments, staff wearing masks and customers donning them when leaving their table, I felt far safer in pubs and restaurants than I did in other public spaces. Due to the intense amount of scrutiny they’re under, hospitality businesses are doing more to ensure their patrons' safety than any other business setting I have encountered. It feels a world apart from other retailers, where the same scrutiny doesn’t feel like it’s being applied. Pubs and restaurants are the only businesses in which I have needed to leave my name and address in order to enjoy their goods and services.

I’m also very aware that each visit was not without its inherent risks. But seeing the positive effect on my mental health, I decided that the need was to find a balance between risk and reward. Not everyone will (or should) have to take the same risks. But for me the benefits were obvious, and it reminded me that I don’t just head to the pub for a pint, but for the welcome, and the chance to do some living, instead of just existing.

Things have changed again though. Just two weeks into my move and newly imposed tier three restrictions mean that wet-led pubs in much of the north west will be forced to close. It will be interesting to find out exactly how a “substantial meal” is to be interpreted. Manchester institution the Marble Arch has already rolled out £3 bowls of stew at lunchtime—a perfect-sounding accompaniment to a pint of bitter.

And of course there will be a few “working lunches” because although you can’t meet friends or family from different households in hospitality venues under tier three, you can have a meeting with up to six people so long as you’re talking shop. This all makes perfect sense to me.

I am immensely uncomfortable with how the billion-pound hospitality industry is being used as a scapegoat—being made an example of so that other sectors fall in line. Thousands of businesses are now suffering through measures that even deputy chief medical officer Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam has admitted in talks with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham that regional lockdowns will not work unless they include much more widespread closures of businesses.

My longer-term experience of pubs post-lockdown reinforced my belief in how important pubs are to both individual patrons and the wider community. Hospitality is taking more comprehensive steps towards customer safety than anywhere else and I believe that locking down hospitality (without the required financial support) is wrong if other aspects of society are left open. To paraphrase a now famous piece of graffiti up here in Manchester: the hospitality industry is not a petri-dish.

It remains to be seen how deep the cuts caused by these measures will be, and how well the scars heal afterwards. My heart goes out to all the businesses and people affected by these measures. In the meantime, I’ll keep visiting (and enjoying your newly designed food offerings) as often as I possibly can.

All photo's by Matthew Curtis

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