Walking down last Sunday to catch my bus to Sevenoaks Weald for the Pub of the Year presentation to the Windmill (more about this later), I passed a couple of local pubs, both of which seemed decidedly empty. Although it was only 10-15 minutes after midday, it set me thinking back to the time when pubs would have been packed on a Sunday lunchtime. This of course was before the advent of all-day opening, when Sunday hours were the most restricted time of all trading hours. Typically pubs were only allowed to open on Sunday between the hours of midday and 2pm, and then from 7pm to 10.30pm. If you were dying of thirst on a Sunday afternoon then it was tough luck!
These restrictive opening times did mean though that Sunday lunchtime was by far and away the busiest session of a pub’s trading week, and was the one session most regular pub goers would do their utmost not to miss. I was off to join my friends in such a session, but I knew full well there was no rush, as the pub would be open right through from midday until closing, probably at around 11pm.
These extended opening hours do of course mean that the trade is spread out over a much longer period of time, rather than concentrated over the space of just a couple of hours Whilst today’s opening times are much more civilised, I still couldn’t help feeling that something has been lost from pub-going, and feeling a touch of nostalgia for the old days.
There was a time when I rarely missed a Sunday lunchtime session at my local pub, even during the mid 1980’s when i was much less of a regular pub-goer than I used to be. In those days one was practically guaranteed to bump into at least one person you knew, and often several people. In fact there were probably many people like me who, like me, weren’t regular attendees during the week. Pubs would have nibbles, in the form of lumps of cheese, nuts and sometimes crisps, laid out in dishes on the bar. Many, including my former local, would hold a meat raffle, or other fund-raising activity.
We had a dog back then, so the latter part of Sunday morning was spent taking her for a long walk, the end of which coincided nicely with pub opening. After her lengthy walk, our dear old collie-greyhound cross would be quite content to lie on the floor, under one of the tables or benches, whilst I enjoyed a well-earned pint or three! Like I hinted at earlier, there was invariably a good mixed crowd of regulars in, so depending on mood, occasion or who was present, I either stood at the bar, or joined people I knew at one of the tables. We would get stuck into the beer, swap a few tales and generally put the world to right; in short it was a way to escape the hustle and bustle and the general grind of daily life, and relax and unwind in the company of like-minded people.
The pub I use to drink in was in south Tonbridge, and was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin; a daft name for a pub, I know, but it had been bought by a bloke called Tom, and he obviously thought it sounded appropriate. The pub was in a row of terraced cottages and had been converted by joining two of the cottages together. The pub is still trading, although it is now known as the New Drum. When originally opened, it was called the Victoria Tavern, but for most of the 20th Century was known as the Drum; hence the current name when one of Tom’s successors decided on a better and more appropriate moniker.
"The Cabin", as the pub was universally known back in the mid to late 80’s, was a free house, although Tom’s immediate successor made the dubious decision of going cap in hand for a loan-tie to the former South Wales Clubs’ Brewery (latterly known as Crown). Based in Pontyclun in Glamorgan, the South Wales beers were not well received by the locals, including me. Living in Kent we expect hops in our beer, and what’s more plenty of them! Fortunately, the arrangement didn’t last too long, because Greene King, then not very well represented in Kent, stepped in with a better offer, and IPA and Abbot became the pub staples. At least these Suffolk beers had some hops in them!
There was a good crowd who used to meet in the Cabin on Sunday lunchtimes, and the sessions used to get quite lengthy. This was because the pub held regular “lock-ins”. Not only did these extended sessions take place most evenings, but they were a staple part of Sunday lunchtimes. Come about half-two, the landlady would ask for the door to be put on the latch, and then carry on serving. It was quite a regular occurrence for me, plus the dog, to stagger out at around 4pm and make my way home, where a nice roast dinner would be waiting.
This comfortable and cosseted existence came to an abrupt end in 1991, with the birth of our son. I was now needed to assist at home and help out with jobs around the house, and with the various tasks associated with bringing up a new baby. Also, with my wife no longer working, money was much tighter than it had been, and lengthy sessions down the pub were no longer as affordable, or indeed acceptable as they once were.
It wasn't just me that changed though; the pub changed hands, changed its name and morphed into something resembling a "Sports' Bar", with a TV screen in every corner and seemingly endless and inescapable football. The trade itself changed out of recognition as well. Although pub opening hours had been liberalised in 1988, with the introduction of all-day drinking on weekdays, it wasn't until 1995 that all-day drinking on Sundays became law. At a stroke, the uniqueness of the Sunday lunchtime session vanished. With pubs open all afternoon, and through into the evening, there was now no need to rush down to the local at midday, and cram as much into the two hour session as possible. Now you could turn up midway through the afternoon, or indeed later, if you fancied a drink. This was great if you had things to do at home, or you were on holiday, or were a foreign tourist used to having a drink whenever you fancied one, but the very freedom to drink when you wanted a drink, rather than having to stick to limited "permitted hours" meant you were far less likely to bump into your mates, or other pub regulars, as you were before.
I am not saying that liberalisation of the UK's outdated licensing laws was a bad thing. Our restricted pub opening hours were the relic of a bygone age and had no place in a modern and free society. Reform was long over-due, and on the whole has had a civilising effect on the nation's pubs. However, something has definitely disappeared, and whether it is the camaraderie which went with being a pub regular, or the anticipation which went with waiting outside the pub for it to open, it is hard to say.
It is however, worth noting that back in the early 1970's, when reform of Britain's licensing laws were first being looked at, rumblings of disquiet were being heard. Many in the trade were concerned that the essential character of the country's pubs would be changed by the removal of the compulsory afternoon break. The humorist Basil Boothroyd, wrote at the time "You may be able to get a drink whenever you fancy one in those stained old crummy round-the-clock Continental bistros; only here in the land of the un-free, can we savour the spring-like sensation , twice a day, of life beginning anew!"