While Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, does his Jimmy Pursey impersonation with a chorus of ‘We’re Going Dahn The Pub’, our roaming correspondent, KEN TOWL, right, took a more cautious approach to the reopenings
Young people are, of course, immortal. So scenes of alcohol-lubricated Actual Physical Contact on the streets of Soho on Saturday came as no great surprise to me.
The 6am start permitted by this mad government for the reopening of pubs after three months of coronavirus lockdown, jollily titled “Independents’ Day”, did surprise me though. Their message that they hope people will observe restraint is surely compromised when they sanction drinking before breakfast time.
By last night, we were hearing on the national news of a pub that opened on Saturday having to close again by Monday because one of its customers had tested positive for the virus.
While I have never lost my appreciation of a good pint of draught beer nor my love of the Great British pub, I lost my belief in my own immortality several years ago.
Nonetheless, I decided to look for socially distanced social drinking opportunities in Croydon. And by Croydon, I mean Addiscombe. I think It might be a good idea to stay away from town centre pubs for a while.
First, I went across the road to my local, the Claret and Ale, but there was no sign of it opening. I went home and went online.
The Oval Tavern looked organised but you had to book in advance, and I hadn’t. The Builders’ Arms was still closed, or at least if it was open, the Fullers website didn’t know about it. The Royal Standard, a pub which has a beer garden under the Croydon Fly-over, had told a friend that they planned to open, but didn’t know if they would have anything to serve their thirsty customers.
Meanwhile, by Saturday afternoon, radio station LBC was breathlessly reporting that there was no social distancing on Lavender Hill, where crowds of “mostly young people” were spilling out on to the streets of Battersea, some of them “carrying two pints of beer”. A real Lavender Hill mob.
The BBC the next day reported that “police thanked the majority of people for acting responsibly”, adding gravely that there was “not much evidence of social distancing”.
I decided to leave it for a day. I haven’t spent three months zigzagging across roads and breathing into a mask on public transport only to immerse myself in an inhibition-free, virus-promoting street party.
I had found an email from Roy Aird, manager of the bar at Ruskin House, offering “an opportunity to socialise at the Club whilst strictly observing distancing of two metres (notwithstanding the option of 1 metre + recently announced), regular handwashing and use of the garden (weather permitting) and Mandela Lounge.” How could I resist?
Ruskin House is open to members on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, from 7pm till 11pm. I arrived shortly after 7pm and navigated my way around the pool players just inside the door. At the bar there was room to stand two metres behind the woman getting served, and a screen in front of the till.
At the far end, three guys were enjoying their pints. The distance between them was approximately 0cm. A bubble, I assumed. So, no obligation to observe social distancing but you could if you wanted to. For all its association with the Labour movement, Ruskin House appeared to be more a liberal club than a Labour Club.
I looked into the Mandela room – more space. In fact, there was no one there, apart from Nelson himself in two-dimensional monochrome, looking down at me from the wall. The weather permitted, so I took my pint of Harveys Best (a bargain at £3.40, no sign of a Wetherspoons-style post-covid price hike) to one of the well-spaced tables in the magnificent walled garden behind the house where some kids were kicking a football around and a group of three more drinkers were sitting around a table. I was being socially distanced; they were being sociable. I still couldn’t see a way to be both, so I opted for the former.
Verdict 6/10. Ruskin House is lucky to have a space that allows for well-distanced drinking.
Then yesterday, a small sign appeared in the window of the Claret and Ale to quietly announce a soft opening at lunchtime. Things were looking up.
I was looking down. On the pavement at regular intervals were “keep your distance” roundels.
They had been modified. A vertical line and a dot had been added to the original “2metres” to create a new stipulation, 1.2metres, a variation on the government’s “one-metre plus”.
Entering the Claret for its low-key opening at 11.30 yesterday morning was like entering a police incident, or rather a modern theatrical representation of one. Red and white cones mark out the entrance and exit lanes.
Meeting and greeting is done by a man in a visor. You are led to a table: “Large or small? High or low?” and asked to sanitise your hands. On each table there is a clear plastic bottle. Helpfully, someone has written in pen “hand sanitiser 73% alcohol” on it.
Your order is taken and then you are invited to “register”. Some of the regulars find this government-mandated lo-fi data collection confusing or intrusive, but they all comply; they are regulars, after all, and supportive of their local.
So they should be. Owner Charles Reid has made a Herculean effort to prepare his pub in a way that protects his staff and mitigates against risk to his customers, even to the extent of investing thousands of pounds in the “cellar” area at the back of the pub to make it easier to sanitise.
Occasionally, customers would forget the stay-seated rule and pass close by occupied tables, but this was a first day and will probably be ironed out. Reid is trying to get an online booking system going (he might want to have a word with the brewers Anspach and Hobday, who are trialling just such a system for their Taproom).
For now, you can walk in and book at the Claret. There are four slots: 11.30am to 1.45pm, 2pm to 4.45pm, 5pm to 7.45pm and 8pm till closing time, all giving the pub the opportunity to ring the bell four times a day and sanitise the seating area between shifts.
It is clear that Reid and his customers are blessed with capable and loyal staff who will manage this process well.
Verdict: 8/10, evidence of planning, investment, training and creative use of limited space.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in The Oval Tavern, an East Croydon institution, and more precisely in its garden. I messaged them at 10am on Sunday morning via their Facebook page and asked if I could have a table for two for 7pm on Monday evening.
I noted that at 3.46pm MP Sarah Jones tweeted that she was enjoying a “lovely lunch” there and that it was “incredibly well-run – social distancing, table service, great food. A very special place”.
I waited patiently for a response from the incredibly well-run Oval Tavern. They were probably incredibly busy. Eventually, I decided that my MP had probably done the job for me. I asked her, via Twitter, how she had managed to book. “Phoned up,” she said. I will have to call them on another day.
In summary, I probably got within a metre of half a dozen or so people, mostly staff, over a couple of pub visits, and none of them for very long.
The whole coronavirus thing is a numbers game, though, and I don’t want to push my luck too far. It will be a while before those of us who are no longer immortal return to our old habits. I suspect some of us never will.
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