Going to the pub, with the best of intentions

Oliver Cromwell praying for victory on the sign of the Good Intent, Puttenham

Last Monday I went out to a pub with some friends—or at least, we tried to get into a pub. We usually go to the Good Intent, but it was closed, so we tried the Harrow, also locked up tight. Finally we went to the Withies, but found all the windows dark, with no sign of life. What had happened to the country pubs in this corner of Surrey?

The next day, a friend said she’d seen this before. That time, a local publican (aka landlord, licensee, or pub-keeper) had died, and all the pubs in her area had closed so that all of the staff members could attend the funeral. Perhaps our pubs were all in mourning.

Pubs have been hit hard by the economic downturn; people without jobs don’t go out for drinks as much as they used to, which then means that the staff of the pubs lose their jobs, too. At the low point last June, 52 British pubs were closing their doors every week, for a total loss of 24,000 jobs last year. Recent reports put the losses at about 40 pubs every week these days. Pubs offering food as well as drinks haven’t been hit as hard, and gastropubs—pubs that revamp themselves as trendy foodie haunts—seem to be doing pretty well.

The Harrow has tried to turn gastropub, with limited success. The food doesn’t seem that much different, but the prices are up. And the last time I was there for a meal, the waitress warned us that they weren’t accepting credit cards, which another friend tells me is the sign of a business in trouble.

But surely all three pubs in the same area wouldn’t fail at the same time? Especially as they all offer food, which seems to be a sort of pub insurance, if you trust the statistics.

I had taken houseguests from the US out for a pub meal the week before. They wanted a traditional British pub serving traditional British food, in a quiet atmosphere—they don’t like a lot of noise. I stewed a bit over which pub to choose and finally decided on the Good Intent. When we got there, the bar teemed with people, but the dining room was empty, which we thought was lucky until the entire girls’ field hockey team from a nearby school showed up. Just my luck: those empty tables were reserved for their end-of-season celebration. Even though we found it hard to hear each other, we couldn’t be too grumpy about it, not when we had plates of bangers and mash with bacon-onion gravy in front of us, and it was a good evening, even though groups of hockey girls did practically barricade themselves in the women’s room, keeping everybody else out.

My writing group usually repairs to the Good Intent after meetings; it’s the perfect name for a pub frequented by amateur writers, a species notorious for having the best of intentions but not actually putting words on paper. Staff there once told me nobody knows where the name comes from, but it might have been the name of a ship. That’s a good bet; sailors able to retire with enough money to open a pub often named their establishments either for the captain under whom they’d served or for their ships. It’s not that the Royal Navy paid that well, but that at one time a crew that captured an enemy vessel got prize money or even a share of the value of the captured ship’s cargo. While the Good Intent isn’t a common name for a pub, it’s far from unique, and of the handful of Good Intents scattered around the country, a few do feature ships on their signs.

Pub signs are one of the joys of life here. Sometime before 1400, the king (Richard II, if you care) made it law that pubs must have signs, in large part so that government inspectors could find them. I’m sure I’ll write about pub signs again, probably more than once and with photos; I never get tired of pub signs, even from pubs with common names—the White Hart, the Royal Oak, the Crown, and such. The names may be fairly standard but the designs can still show great invention.

The sign of this particular Good Intent shows Oliver Cromwell on his knees, in front of his tent, praying for a military victory. (Oliver Cromwell governed England using the title Lord Protector, after his faction staged a revolution that turned Britain from a monarchy to a Republic for a brief period in the 17th century.) Not a lot of pubs advertise themselves with pictures of Puritans, although British Puritans weren’t as puritanical where alcohol was concerned as were American Puritans.

The day after our thwarted attempt to get a drink at the Good Intent I phoned to ask why they’d been closed. The woman who answered said with obvious irritation that they’d been closed for maintenance and redecorating, and that there’d been a sign up for two weeks to say so. Oops. Pardon me. None of us managed to see any sign.

Next I phoned the Withies—withies meaning willows, or more particularly meaning flexible shoots from willow trees, used like cords to tie and secure things. I asked why they’d closed early. Most pubs close up at 11:00; they used to have to, by law, and even though the law changed in 2005, closing time is still usually 11:00. In any case we’d arrived there well before 10:00.

It seems that while the cat was away, the mice may have closed early and scarpered (to use a good English word meaning “make good their escape”; it comes from Cockney rhyming slang—if you don’t know what that is, stay tuned and I’ll get around to it eventually). The landlord answered the phone and told me that as far as he knew the pub had been open as usual. He said he’d ask his manager, and I could hear him as he did, and as she answered that they’d been open until 10:30. Hmmm. Right.

Same thing happened at the Harrow—a harrow being a toothy thing you dragged over soil to break up clods and turn the earth over. The landlord said he hadn’t heard anything about them closing early on Monday. But it was locked tight when we arrived, some time before 9:30. We even tried the doorbell, but the landlord dismissed that as evidence, saying his doorbell doesn’t work anyway.

So I may have got (the British don’t use gotten) some pub staff into hot water, although I didn’t set out to, and I am happy to report that all of those pubs seem still to be going concerns. Long may they stay that way! I’d be happy to help out by buying a round of drinks, if only they’d let me in.

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1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Food

One response to “Going to the pub, with the best of intentions

  1. Pingback: A Pub-Sign Safari « M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

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