Three cheers for independents

Where were you at 12 noon on Saturday, July 4? I was waiting outside an independent pub as they were finally able to re-open 3½ months after their enforced closure because of Covid-19. I’m proud to state that as I’m supporting a much loved British institution much in need of my patronage, as well as enjoying a pint.

But – as for many readers of the Oxford Drinker, I suspect – I have also been the target of criticism for going to pubs at all. I’m accused of recklessly exposing myself and others to unnecessary risk, but it is up to each and every individual to calculate that. For me – to quote Bob Dylan, writing during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – “I will not go down under the ground/Because someone tells me death’s coming around”.

To quote a columnist in a national newspaper, “How did going for a pint get so political? Is going to the pub in a pandemic a patriotic duty – or selfish and irresponsible?”

At 12 noon on July 4, landlord Paul Silcock welcomes his first customers at the Gardeners Arms, Plantation Road, Oxford

So, how are we doing since that sunny Saturday afternoon nearly three months ago? Ever since, pubs have had to tread a fine line between making people feel safe and making people feel welcome. Since re-opening I have been to pubs where – before the latest tightening of restrictions – the only change was a request to sanitise your hands. I have also been to pubs where the atmosphere was as sterile as a hospital waiting room, where you had to sit and fiddle with your mobile to order a drink online without even the benefit of an app. What I’m seeking is somewhere in between.

The latest restrictions – a 10pm curfew, mandatory Track and Trace, mandatory table service only and mandatory face coverings except when seated – are the final straw for some, who just don’t recognise their local any more. Unable to socialise, they’d rather drink at home – but at least many local independent breweries now deliver as an alternative to buying from supermarkets.

Many would argue that the restrictions don’t make sense, and that the 10pm curfew makes people less safe as some will go home to carry on drinking, perhaps in a small, stuffy room with any number of their mates. As for the very latest “advice”, that pubs should not play music louder than 85 decibels and discourage people from singing and dancing, how are publicans supposed to enforce that? Do they need a decibel counter and indoor equivalent of a doorman? Should some pubs rename themselves “The Killjoy”?

Sorry about the spelling — but it isn’t local!

Many pubs in towns and villages are relaxed about the 10pm curfew, as they were closing early anyway and don’t want the hassle of late night drinkers who may already have had a few. But in Oxford city centre and at a few other venues known as night-spots, the curfew is bad news. You’ve got to feel sorry for pubs such as the Half Moon in Oxford, where some pub staff go for a drink after work, which had opening hours of 10.30pm-2am only and must now re-invent itself.

But despite all the restrictions and often greatly reduced trade, most local pubs are toughing it out and very few have not yet re-opened, although some took their time in doing so. Around Oxford those still closed include the Fir Tree on Iffley Road, whereas the Eagle and Child on St Giles was due to close anyway for a major revamp including new garden area and boutique hotel accommodation, and may not re-open for at least two years. One that won’t re-open is the Bicycle Shed in Summertown, Oxford — a new pub opened in October 2018 but which threw in the towel during lockdown.

Popular Iffley Road pub the Fir Tree remains closed

The Bullnose Morris, a Greene King Hungry Horse pub on the edge of the Blackbird Leys estate, has also shut permanently. Looking further afield around our branch, the Red Lion in Islip is to re-open soon under new management while the Swan Inn in Islip has also been closed. But in general, compared to other parts of the country I have visited recently, the Oxford area has seen very few pubs remaining closed.

Breweries have had a bumpy ride, and to hear it direct from the horse’s mouth (sorry, Russ!), read Russ Taylor from XT writing as GUEST COLUMNIST and also the PROFILE of Tap Social. Despite often much reduced production, breweries that have introduced home delivery were able to open up a new revenue stream while pubs and their own tap-rooms remained closed. Most small independent breweries are continuing to deliver, and so are some pubs.

Weed-strewn: the closed Bullnose Morris in Oxford

One thing that became very apparent during lockdown was that the pubs and breweries that arranged take-away and deliveries were almost without exception independents, whereas the larger breweries and pubcos were happy to close down, furlough most or all of their staff, and sit it out.

Many independent pub businesses, whether community-owned, privately owned free houses or tenanted pubs, really served their communities well not only by offering take-away, but by delivering beer and other drinks, and also cooked meals and essentials such as milk and bread.

Not all pubs could do this – especially those in the city centre – but pubs that did something during lockdown came to be appreciated by many people who weren’t regulars before, and let’s hope they are continuing to reap the benefits. I received deliveries during lockdown from the Rose and Crown in North Oxford (although I live about four miles away), Loose Cannon brewery and Church Hanbrewery. Receiving fresh cask ale from the Rose & Crown – Turpin Golden Citrus and Shotover Trinity – was a particular pleasure, as was the Cottage Pie, thanks Debbie!

Friendly advice from the Red Lion, Northmoor

This pub resumed weekly deliveries of drinks in late September, meaning more income at a time when social distancing means it can offer only three tables inside, but with greater seating capacity on the heated and sheltered patio. Landlord Andrew Hall told me it was “putting people before profit” by obeying all the rules vigorously, but he was bitter about pubs that flout them and called for stricter enforcement.

The closest I came to a pub experience during lockdown was on a Sunday lunchtime visit to the Seven Stars in Marsh Baldon during June, which was holding a beer festival no less. You were able to buy drinks from a counter set up outside and enjoy them on the village green, with a hog roast available too.

Take-away service during lockdown — Matt Bowden-Ford at the Seven Stars, Marsh Baldon, with Oxford CAMRA’s Tony Goulding (left) and editor Dave Richardson

Matt Bowden-Ford, who still helps out here despite giving up the tenancy in March, is now retail manager of Loose Cannon brewery so can speak as both publican and brewer. He says the Seven Stars did well for takeaway at weekends, and also helped villagers with home deliveries. Let’s hope locals continue to offer the support it deserves.

Loose Cannon, meanwhile, has cut brewing capacity by about 30% but kept its core range, including Abingdon Bridge and Gunners Gold, with exclusive beers in the tap-room including Red Rye and an oak-aged porter. “It’s been the most difficult time for both pubs and breweries, and if pubs have to close again then many people will walk away from their leases,” predicts Matt. “What we need now from Government is a six-month plan to see us through to spring, as a fluid situation makes us feel things are beyond our control.”

We wish every single pub and brewery all the best in the coming months, but we must continue to support the independents who have supported us. It’s now more true than ever – use them or lose them!