David Banks stresses the importance of the country pub.
I live in a village that has no pub.
It wasn’t always this way; the first bitter shandy I tasted as a lad of 16 was discreetly served by the landlord of the Blue Bell at Crookham in Northumberland. I honed my domino skills alongside my father, grandfather and uncle at the big circular sycamore table made perfect for a shuffle by the cartwheel iron band riveted around its circumference.
For a century and more the pub served as the village’s focal point. More than a mere refreshment station where friends and neighbours relaxed, the Bell was also the village meeting place, a citizen’s advice bureau that played host to gatherings necessitated by births, marriages and deaths. Over the years a succession of well-liked landlords were counsellor, bon vivant, pools coupon distributor and, occasionally, banker to their loyal customers.
When my granddad was killed by a car as he walked the road to his beloved local, the landlord, Cedric, closed the place for the evening out of respect and helped make the arrangements for the old widower’s funeral.
Food, honest-to-goodness no-frills platefuls, arrived under Joe Smailes’ tenure and the Bell began to lose its mainly masculine tone. Times continued to change; cigarette sales ended and the food was gentrified thanks to Jan and David Thompson.
The transformation from rural drinking den to roadside licensed restaurant – local bar and domino tradition thankfully retained – was complete. And then … disaster.
The Thompsons retired. The pub was sold. Prices rose, meals diminished, locals felt rejected. As a result, trade plummeted and the place went bust.
That was almost two years ago. Since then, the Bell has stood empty and forlorn, gilded letters missing from its nameplate, its forecourt rank with weeds. And the community has suffered.
Of course, we have a pair of great pubs in neighbouring villages; the Black Bull at Etal has been a local for as long as the Bell and the wonderful Red Lion at Milfield, which boasts the full monte of great food, quiz nights, leek clubs, golf days, doms and darts and pensioner lunches.
But this is a deeply rural area and they are a drive away; the few local buses are garaged by opening time, whereas the breathalyser – correctly – is applied as sternly as it is in better-served towns and cities.
The Great British Country Pub is more than a nostalgic tradition; it is a vital part of the rural community and makes, with its B&B rooms and excellent food and drink, an incalculable contribution to the tourist trade.
No less than the Prime Minister has pledged to sustain struggling rural inns. If he puts his money where his mouth is he will be forever remembered.
As David CAMRAn!
David Banks is a regular columnist in The Journal and Press Gazette. He edited the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph (Sydney); deputy-edited The Australian; assistant-edited The Sun, Daily News (New York) and New York Post; was consultant editor of the Sunday Mirror, and has presented radio shows for LBC and Talk Radio.