Our Beerhunter points out the way our lives connect up around good times in pubs and people we meet there
I’m not sure if I’ll manage to keep a beer column going for the duration of our current exile from pubs but here’s one, inspired by Mark Gilliver, landlord of the Coach & Horses at Draycott, which he has built into a marvellous community facility.
This was Mark’s Facebook post which spurred me into action:
“Life just doesn’t seem the same without The Pub. A pub should be a cornerstone of every village, like a post office or church. It’s a place where a community knits and socialises. It’s a second front room, where you go to meet your neighbours, vent your woes, wind down after a day at work, solve all the world’s problems or join a pool team. You can have a bite to eat, watch the football and it’s the perfect place to take the in-laws when the conversation at home dries up.
“Call me old-fashioned but I think the good stereotypical English boozer has an esteemed place in our history and whether it will still be living and breathing in the future remains to be seen, but for many of us it’s an essential part of every decent community in this fine land. Looking forward to seeing all our friends and neighbours back at the Coach, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
If anyone reading this can’t agree with that then they might as well move on. Wrong article, wrong column!
What follows is a bit more personal and nostalgic because the Coach was one of those pubs that played a part in my formative beer-drinking years, around 1976, when I was in the sixth form at the now defunct Western Mere School in Breaston.
We’d get free afternoons (especially me, lazily doing only one A-level) and I’d walk home the three miles to Borrowash on a nice day. Now and then, I’d stop in at the Coach for a pint and a salad cob (or roll if you prefer). A blind eye was turned to my age. At 17 I looked about 12; the family joke is that I still did on my wedding day at 28, the obvious follow-up joke being that I started ageing rapidly thereafter.
Anyway, grown-up as I felt, I was aware that the Coach’s Whitbread Tankard was different, in a bad way, to the Marston’s Pedigree I was trying at the Bull’s Head in Breaston or the Shipstone’s at the Chequers in the same village. It was fizzy and largely tasteless.
The Campaign for Real Ale had been launched in 1971, with the first Good Beer Guide published three years later. My journey of discovery was beginning. Other regular haunts as I reached official drinking age were the now-demolished Foresters at Borrowash, where I can recall Home Brewery mild costing 17p a pint, and the Royal Oak in Ockbrook, run by the same family then as it is now.
In town, I can recall drinking fizzy cider in the Silk Mill (I was avoiding Whitbread by then), missing my future wife working behind the bar by a year or so.
My education expanded at the Harrington Arms in Thulston, one of the few outlets for Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the time. I was 18 and in the only six months (so far!) of my working life unemployed, so I would take a five iron and a golf ball down to the showground at Elvaston Castle, whack it around and then go to the Harrington and sit with Alf and Bert (yes, really), listening to their stories over pints of Sam’s. I deplore many of Sam Smith’s business practices but I still love Old Brewery Bitter.
When Derby Beer Festival got up and running in 1978, I joined Camra and volunteered. The fact that the Derby branch had a cricket team at the time also helped and fierce matches were played against, especially, the Smith’s Tavern in Ashbourne.
Lifelong friendships were made, notably with Derby branch stalwart David George, with whom I then shared a house off Abbey Street, Bass in the Bell & Castle and Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale in the Spa becoming our staples.
At the Spa, I finally did meet my future wife, who was working there, asking her out when she was preventing me from falling off a bar stool after a “rigorous” day of sponsors’ beer, wine and food at the county cricket ground
Fast forward a few years, reporting on local cricket, I always got on well with Ockbrook and Borrowash Cricket Club’s all-rounder Ian Darlington, a guy who, for me, epitomised local cricket.
He lived opposite the ground and took a “hit it hard, bowl it fast, give no quarter but then have a beer and a smoke with the opposition afterwards” approach.
Today, Ian has been landlord of the Cross Keys at Ockbrook for more than a decade, turning a dying pub into a centre of the community, proving that it can still be done even in pubs owned by large pub companies.
At my most regular local, the Malt at Aston, the landlady, Laura Bowler, is the daughter of Clive, a guy I formed a social cricket club with in 1981 before losing touch for many years.
Coming full circle, I still get in the Coach at Draycott from time to time (thankfully the Whitbread Tankard is no more) and I’ve been going to the Derby Inn in Burton for more than 40 years while pursuing Burton Albion’s fortunes.
I’ve not related all this just to be self-indulgent but to make the point about connections, about how pubs link up our lives and play an integral part in them.
If you’re a pub-goer, have a think about how many key aspects of your life have been influenced by people you know through pubs. I bet it’s a lot. May it always be so.