Now, if you’re a North American, when someone says they’ve just been at the pub, you tend to think of a somewhat seedy, dark, down-in-the-mouth beer joint that caters to those drowning their sorrows in lager at any hour of the day or night. You know the old saw: it’s past noon somewhere. It isn’t a high class ‘wine bar” or a posh whisky house. It’s a place where one gets drunk…the faster the better.
You can imagine my horror when Gill first went to England as a young woman and announced, more times than I care to remember, that she’d had a ‘rough night down the pub’ and was ever-so-slightly hungover. I thought my daughter had gone over to the dark side. Leaving that aside for the moment, I had forgotten that pubs in England are a different sort of animal. There ARE the down and out grubby ones, but the majority of them are cozy local gathering places that welcome families, children, dogs, possibly even pot-bellied pigs and donkeys, offer great food and become the social centre of a town, village or even big city. They are, in many ways, the community centers of the country.
My recent trip to visit Gill brought back many pleasant memories of pub lunches years ago during my first trip to the UK– drinks and lunch in a thatched roof pub in Oxford, the backyard next to a river, swans cruising by on the water. Or a pub in Scotland, built hundreds of years before, fire crackling in the stone fireplace, the townsfolk huddled in away from the cold of the evening, enjoying a warming drink. Local gossip was exchanged, funny stories, bad jokes told. It was an ‘evening out’ without really being ‘out’.It was like your own living room but better since all your friends were there…and you could probably wear your p.j.s if you so chose.
It was appropriate that Gill and I ate (and drank) in a few pubs during my visit last month. Two were great– full of character, cozy, with good food. The other was less than great but, since we were tired, had sore backs after walking for hours and needed to sit down and eat something, it worked.
My favorite was a pub in Bristol named The Ostrich. Right away, since it appealed to my bird freaky side, I was inclined to be impressed. What clinched its appeal for me was the sign outside that announced “We are a dog-friendly establishment”. Any pub that advertises an acceptance of furry customers wins my vote paws down. I suspect it was known as a ‘safe haven’ for dogs since, while we were sitting inside, watching the passersby walk through the patio area, I spied a homeless man. He sat down on one of the benches, made a hand gesture and up jumped his dog onto the man’s lap. The man cuddled the dog, hugging him close, the love between the two a touching display — proving that no matter how down and out a person may be, having someone to love and care for is perhaps the most important thing in life. The bond between the two was so strong I almost wept. So my feelings for this pub were definitely of the warm and fuzzy variety.
During a day trip to the seaside in Exmouth, Gill and I stopped for a cup of tea mid-afternoon in the local pub. Yes, you CAN order a cup of tea in a pub without being ‘that weird person’! I can only imagine what would happen if you tried that in North America! Near us sat an older couple, obviously also resting after a walk along the beach, their dog curled up under their table, just as he might do at home.
I’m not saying that the Brits don’t deserve their reputation for being heavy, binge drinkers,fouling the streets with vomit after a hard night on the town, but I was happy to see that the other side of pub culture remains as it was when I first visited the UK. It was delightful to see families with young children enjoying a meal in the pub or people playing board games, dogs curled up at their feet, enjoying the fire and the companionship of friends. When we went looking for a place to rest or have a wee tipple, we looked for such clientele. We did kind of misread one pub in Bath, however. But I plead extenuating circumstances. My back was very sore after our long walk and Gill’s arthritis was bothering her…two crippled old ladies we were! So of course we were desperate for a drink and some food. We spotted a pub close by.
“What about this one?” I asked Gill.
“Hmm, I don’t know, Ma. It’s a chain…the food may not be great.”
After perusing the menu plastered on the door, I commented, “It looks fine to me. After all, we’re not looking for a gourmet lunch and we are, above all, tired and need to sit down.”
“You make a good point, Ma. although we both know you like this place since it has fish and chips on the menu. What is that — four times you’ve eaten fish and chips in the past four days?”
‘It’s only three times, dear. Besides, my back hurts…that in itself is enough to assume the food will be tolerable. I vote we try it.”
We did. As Gill wandered back to our table from a washroom stop, she confided to me, “Ma, I don’t know about this. There seems to be a hen party over there downing tequila shots. They’re getting pretty rowdy.”
“You worry too much,” I said, brushing off her comment.
Little did I know that I would become involved with the hen party by the end of our lunch.
And that is known, Dear Readers, as a tease. Stay tuned for my next blog wherein I proceed to embarrass Gill and prove the old adage that sometimes ‘you can dress them up but you can’t take them out!’