We tried running a country pub and it nearly killed us
How Andrew Dickens’s dream job became a living nightmare
Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent. And me, should I ever return to the village of Great Barrington, Gloucestershire.
It’s a Sunday morning in December and I’m showering in my bathroom above the Fox Inn, Great Barrington, Gloucestershire. Each stream of water hitting my back feels like a lit cigarette; those missing sound like firecrackers against the curtain. I’m tired, I have a Hadean hangover and I have decided, assuredly, that after three days of attempting to run a pub, I am not up to running a pub.
I’d had such high expectations. For many, Pub Landlord is the dream job: the escape route from wage slavery to a world of free beer and many friends. I don’t love much in this world, but boy do I love pubs, so the idea of having my own? Well, it’s not even a job, is it? Or is it?
My plan was to find out by giving it a go, to learn the ropes and take the reins at the Fox for a weekend. I also planned to pull some strings, and use my London Media Wanker position to bring both pizzazz and footfall to the pub in these quiet winter months. No blag would be too shameless, no plug too obvious, no favour unasked. The pièce de résistance: a free semi-acoustic set on the Saturday night from the excellent Palace, a band who’d spent the previous week selling out the 1,500-seat Brixton Electric. Hotter than the Sun. Great Barrington won’t know what hit it.
A PUB OF MY OWN
Rewind to Thursday and I’m approaching the Fox. I’ve always had an image of my perfect pub. Unfortunately, it’s something of an Escher print: an impossible mix of city and country, tradition and invention, excitement and tranquillity, Sky Sports and no Sky Sports. This weekend, I chose country, tradition and Sky Sports. According to my research (Google Maps), the Fox would be as rural as pubs get, where bars on your phone are as rare a sight as bars serving cocktails in jam jars.
I’m determined to be the ultimate village landlord. I’ve used ‘media channels’ to go Full Cotswold, wearing a stylish-yet-practical Belstaff waxed jacket and, this being Clarkson country, driving a Jag (pronounced Jaaaag) - the also-stylish-yet-practical XF-S. Both are kindly loaned.
On arrival, my expectations are exceeded. The Fox, all Cotswold stone and antique charm, is everything you want from a country pub. It’s everything Brexiteers want from life. There’s beautiful scenery, a beer garden alongside a river and barely another building in sight. The Britain of 2019 we’ve all been promised.
Inside things are even better. There’s a roaring fire, a pub dog with ‘feed me’ eyes called Chester, tankards above the bar and, behind it, Summer (real name), the barmaid (her term). “I’m the one who’ll get you into trouble,” she says. Her CV backs the claim up: burlesque stripper, kissagram, Ann Summers vibrator tester, Britney Spears tribute act. It causes me agony in my liberal elites to write these words, but she is very much the archetypal ‘buxom blonde barmaid’.
THE WORD OF THE LORD
There’s also the real landlord, Paul Porter: a tall, slightly portly man, with cropped brown hair, glasses and a ruddy complexion. Before I say a word, he greets me by name – I must whiff of London.
The pub is quiet, so I sit on the familiar side of the bar and get to know the wares. The Fox is owned by the Cotswolds’ oldest brewery, Donnington, and three of their ales – Best Bitter, Cotswold Gold, and SBA - sit front and centre. Their prices: £3, £3.30 and £3.65. Yes, that’s per pint. I try them all. I like them all. I try them all again. Until, once Summer leaves, Paul gets out the whisky and begins to pour forth 23 years’ worth of ‘lording’ (as I call it in the trade) wisdom. Paul, it seems loves pubs even more than I do. More than any man I’ve ever met.
“My ambition when I was 18,” he says, “was to visit the pub every day of the year. I got as far as Christmas Eve, but then got food poisoning. So I did it the next year. I think that means I was in the pub 722 days out of 730 or thereabouts. Anyway, I thought, the best way to be in a pub every day was to run one.”
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is, watch what you say. You’re the centre of the universe, the focal point of the community. There are no shops around here. In the early years, I said something tongue-in-cheek and it went up and down the valleys.”
I offer up my theory that a local pub is like a living room: the place where the ‘family’ sits, drinks, maybe eats or watches telly, but most importantly talks to each other. And the landlord is a parent, albeit a cool one.
“Yes,” he says. “I love the sociability of it. Meeting people, getting people together. A pub is all about the landlord. People come or don’t come because of who’s running it. I could be posher, snobbier, but that wouldn’t be me. This is a real pub.”
At 2am, words of wisdom bouncing off the soggy walls of my mind, I find myself ironing shirts and eating two packets of complimentary biscuits, forgetting that, this weekend, everything is complimentary for me.
Five hours later, adrenaline overcoming the tiredness, and I’ve got my game face on: jovial, yet no-nonsense. I find Paul in the kitchen, where he’s cooking up a Full English treat for the guests (and Chester, Chester hopes). Paul can cook 14 full English breakfasts in eight minutes. It’s a gift.
My aim is to do as much of Paul’s job as possible, but in the interests of public health, I won’t cook. Instead, I clear up guests’ plates. Paul doesn’t do this, but I want to compensate for all the less glamorous tasks I’ll be skipping, many of which aren’t in the pub landlord fantasy: the admin, the finances, the maintenance, the getting up and cooking at 7am after five hours’ booze-ruined sleep. I’ll also do the most important part of the job: serving beer.
“A pint of bitter and half a lager shandy, please,” asks an elderly, dignified-looking former army officer, with the first irony-free moustache I’ve seen in months. It’s just gone 11am. Way to start a Friday, Brigadier. I haven’t pulled a pint since my teens, but it comes gushing back to me with a creamy head on. Two firm, manly tugs at the wooden pump and lo, a pint of glorious beer sits in my hand. I pause before handing it over, as if I’d given birth to a delicious, hoppy child that I must now give up for adoption. Luckily, there will be many more children, and not all will go to other people.
Friday lunch passes quietly; this is a tough time of year for country pubs, which thrive in the summer. Speaking of Summer, she offers me some edible glitter that she’s bought to make her poo sparkly. I decline, and instead top up the crisp display, empty drip trays and prepare for my first pizzazz-adding event: Silent Movie Night (a credible Harold Lloyd double-bill). As per my mission, I’ve borrowed some key components: a Rif 6 Cube projector and a Bose SoundTouch30 speaker, to give the Robert Israel’s original score some 21st century wallop. As I fiddle with wires and try to position the projector using a pint glass, a vase, and various condiments, the first regulars of the weekend begin to arrive.
I meet ‘Ella’, who is heavily pregnant, and her brother, ‘Tom’. I later meet their sister, mother, and father, ‘Peter’. They’re the kind of laidback posh people I’d like to be, if I was posh. Tom is particularly relaxed - a fan of loose knitted jumpers, with a kind of RP drawl that makes him sound like David Mitchell on morphine. Tom works for a company that sells cannabis seeds and has a forearm tattoo of a woman in a swimsuit riding a slug. Peter, a barrister, in the irony of ironies I’m told, once prosecuted Howard Marks.
I also meet Ella’s partner: a man who I’ll refer to by his nickname, BC. The source of the acronym and anonymity will become clear.
Unlike tomorrow’s Palace gig, I haven’t publicised the silent film night, mainly because I lack confidence in both the concept and my ability to use the technology. So, it’s a soft launch. I’m hoping that news of Lloyd’s romantically comic stylings and death-defying stunts will reach the village grapevine. “Have you heard? They’re showing Girl Shy at the Fox.” “Fetch my steed at once! And the Butterkist!”
It’s 5pm-ish and the bar is beginning to fill out nicely. This is the post-work crowd, with most of that work being local. Contrary to my preconceptions, there aren’t many London commuters here, what with it being fucking miles away. I feel very much Of London, finding myself at pains to explain that I was born in a horseracing town, as if this will gain me some kind of Country cred. There’s some good-natured ribbing from the locals about ‘London ways’, but there is also the existence of a mind-set I rarely find in the capital. It’s a lack of policing, self or otherwise. Some would call it straight-talking – an antidote to PC. Others would call it a minefield of potential offence. It lacks malice, but also sensitivity. It is, like I say, Clarkson country.
BC, however, is an extreme case. BC is the kind of person that prompts the question: “Have you met BC yet?” And a face that adds: “Because I really want to be there when you do.”
BC is normal looking: about 50, grey hair, average build. His only unusual physical characteristic is a lack of movement in his left arm. When I first met him, he’d been sober and perfectly pleasant. Now he is neither. When BC drinks, he becomes obsessed with two things: the Truth and penises. When I say the Truth, I mean he not only doesn’t lie, but he also doesn’t filter. He says everything he thinks. Everything. If he thinks hunting for pleasure is twisted, he’ll say so – and indeed does to several people returning from a pheasant shoot. If he thinks someone’s a “fat bitch” who eats too much sugar, he’ll say so, and again, does.
And when I say penises, I mean penises. He mentions “cocks” and “wanking” more often than a parrot that’s binge-watched The Inbetweeners.
For example, when BC expresses a love for Harold Lloyd, I ask him to pose for a photograph watching the screen. He at first refuses, because it wouldn’t be the Truth. He then says he will, but only if I “suck his cock”.
BC, by the way, stands for Beer Cunt.
BC makes me sad, because I think he’s probably a decent guy. Ella is lovely and clearly intelligent, so there must be good in him. But he clearly has a problem – his knackered arm comes from upsetting some people to the point where they kicked seven shades of Cotwolds manure out of him. I want to ask him: why the f*ck do you still drink? But, perversely, I doubt I’d get the Truth.
Dealing with BC is a lesson in ‘lording. You can’t just bar people for being obnoxious or rude or generally a twat when they’re drunk, or else you’d soon have no clientele. People want to drink with their friends, even if their friends are bell-ends. You need to be firm with the idiots, but you also need patience, reason and understanding (let those of us who are without history of being a drunken bell-end cast the first stone).
This I find easy. It’s a transferable skill. If I have one thing going for me, it’s that I can talk with most types of people – it’s useful in my job. Paul praises my calm handling of BC. “You were brilliant,” he says. “I was very impressed. The main thing is not to react, because he’ll see that chink and go for it.”
This makes me proud. It will be the best bit of ‘lording I do all weekend.
Silent Film Night, however, is a failure.
Nobody cares. Nobody watches. But it has one redeeming effect: by taking up half the bar, it condenses everyone who doesn’t want to watch Harold (or, putting it simply, ‘everyone’) into a smaller, more intense space. As the night goes by, people of all ages and both sexes, though very few other demographic differences, arrive, meet and drink – their auras rubbing together. Conversations get louder, young white women dance with older white men, and I see The Living Room in full effect. This is now a house party. Some people think that means free booze, with several claiming that Paul doesn’t make them pay for their drinks. “Everyone pays,” says Paul.
Everyone except two people: Paul and me. It’s the double-edged sword of running a pub. You can drink what you want, when you want, but every time you do, you’re losing profits and control of your own senses. I make the error of drinking Addlestone’s cider: the world’s most dangerous apple juice. More drinkable than the drinkiest of drinks, it continues to ferment in the cask, getting stronger by the second; your pint can be anywhere between strong and disabling. BC calls it Truth Serum. He has a point. I become less host, more participant.
The evening cranks up to 11. There’s gurning, nostrils twitch. By midnight, a young, posh, rugby player-looking type is force-feeding me TVRs (tequila, vodka and Red Bull), which I thought had been phased out at the end of the last century. I’m getting punters to roll me cigarettes and helping Paul to work through a bottle of Scotch. (And, somehow, still managing to tot up rounds correctly.) By 1am, I think this is the greatest job in the world, and that I’m the greatest me I can be. Tomorrow we add a live band to the mix. What a night it will be.
By 1.30am, we’ve managed to get everyone out of the pub and I’ve managed to avoid being press ganged by the TVR lad (“I’m going to kidnap you. Come back to mine. I’ve got loads of coke.”). The party is over. Freed from licensing laws, it’s time for more fags and whisky. We just need to lock the doors. And put the chairs on tables. And switch the lights out. And so on.
By 2.30am, I’m in bed. At 7.30am, I’m back in the kitchen. At 9.30am, I’m back in bed. At 11.30am, I’m behind the bar. As Paul likes to say: it never stops.
THE BIG NIGHT
Saturday daytime is pretty quiet. A few people come in for lunch and others come to watch the racing on TV. The crowd really is, for the most part, very posh. A conversation overheard:
Old posh woman: “Who’s the new landlord?”
Second old posh woman: “I think he’s called Andy.”
OPW: “Andy? That’s a very odd name.”
SOPW: “I think it’s short for Andrew.”
OPW: “Well I never.”
But it’s Old Money posh - there’s some serious ancestry knocking about - which lacks any need to show off. It’s friendlier, more down-to-earth, and is unshockable. Old money doesn’t feel the need to be seen at the Michelin-starred gastro-pub down the road; they want authenticity – good beer, food and chat - which they get at the Fox.
I also want them to get royally entertained, and tonight is The Big Night. Paul has had posters for the gig up all week, and both ShortList and Palace have plugged it on social media. It’s going to be huge. I just hope the pub can cope.
The band are expected around 5pm to set up, with an advertised start time of 8pm. I clear all the furniture from the Harold Lloyd Memorial Corner. This is a great spot for an intimate gig by one of Britain’s most exciting new acts, I think.
The band arrive on time. There’s Leo (guitar and vocals), Rupert (lead guitar), Will (bass) and Matt (drums), possessor of the winningest smile that ever won me over. Their manager Ali accompanies them. All real names. They’ve just come from an appearance on Soccer AM. I get them a round of drinks and take a food order. The ‘mega knuckle’ of lamb and Cotswold Gold go down particularly well.
The band’s first gigs were in pubs, and they run a weekly night at the George Tavern in East London called Palace Presents, but their standard show these days doesn’t give them a view of pork scratchings and a dog.
“We’ve never played a tiny little pub in the middle of nowhere,” adds Leo. “Have some pints, some good food. We’re from the country originally, so it’s nice to get out of London.”
“I prefer gigs when you can see people’s faces,” adds Matt. “There’s no substitute for playing in front of people. It’s been an amazing experience, playing in a pub with literally two people watching, then playing the Brixton Electric.”
I cling on to those words: “amazing playing with two people watching”. It’s 6.30pm and I’m getting worried. There are four people in the bar and none of them looks like they’re there for the gig. Paul reassures me. He looks confident. I think of Field of Dreams: build it and they will come. Right now, I’d take a bunch of dead baseball players, as long as they got a couple of rounds in.
TICK, TICK, TICK
7.45pm and “they” still haven’t come. Two people, weekend guests at the Fox, position themselves by the bar, facing the band. It’s something. Paul is still confident: “Strictly hasn’t finished, yet”, he says. I ask the band to move the start back to 8.30pm, which they happily do. I bet Live Aid didn’t have to wait for Come Dancing to finish.
“Ok, I’m getting worried now,” says Paul, half an hour later. I’m not worried, I’m mortified and apologising repeatedly to Palace and Ali. They repeatedly tell me that they really don’t mind. Matt does his smile. They’re so nice. I apologise again.
At 8.40pm, they begin to play. The couple at the bar, me, Paul and Ali try to create the illusion of a crowd. About eight people sit passively nearby. Palace are fantastic. Really. It’s ridiculous; these boys could be huge one day and people are missing out on a “we were there” moment. Build it and they will not come. Build it and they will completely ignore it. I want to grab the Cotswolds by the neck and scream in their faces: “You idiots! What could you possibly be doing that’s better than this?”
The set lasts 45 minutes, each second adding to the weight of disappointment. A few more people turn up, but few pay any attention, except BC, who asks the band to “show him their cocks” as he passes on the way to the toilet. When they finish, I apologise again, but they insist they really enjoyed themselves. And I think they did.
“We’ve just finished our tour,” says Leo. “It’s really nice just to sit down and play in a relaxed environment. We loved it. And it’s such a nice pub.”
They pose for photos behind the bar and Summer insists they do tequila shots before they leave. I help them pack up their van and hug them all goodbye, still apologising, before returning inside, still cursing people for not turning up which, of course, many do shortly after the band leaves. Fuck’s sake.
THE DREAM IS OVER
I decide to drink through my frustration. It’s my last night, after all. I don’t mess around and hit the Addlestone’s hard, followed by more whisky. At 3am, I go to bed.
It’s 7am Sunday morning and I’m in that shower, in agony, trying to wash off the stench of failure. All I have to do is take Will, my photographer, to the station, get through lunch and cross off another dream. But there’s just time for one more drama.
“Someone’s taken the memory card from my camera,” says Will. “It has all of yesterday’s pictures on it.”
Will is not very happy. I am not very happy. But luckily, years of watching detective dramas have given me quite the nose for a perp.
“Beer c*nt,” I say. Paul tells us where BC lives and we head out.
But what if it wasn’t him? And what if it got chucked in a bush or a river? There wouldn’t be many pictures on this page, for a start, and I’d be making a call to the real police.
We pull up at BC’s annoyingly idyllic riverside cottage and knock on the door. After a minute or so, Ella comes down, wearing a dressing gown and a sheepish expression.
“Is it about the memory card?” she asks. “I’m so sorry. I was going to bring it to the pub later.”
She fetches the booty from the kitchen and hands it to Will. I think it kind not to ask questions about how it got there, and we all give silent thanks for the conscience that must live deep down inside drunk BC.
After dropping Will off, I muddle through a busy lunch service, my spirits lifted by my friends Cat and Gavin, who have driven from West Ealing to have a Sunday roast and cheer me on (or up). I buy them dessert to say thank you. Just one between them, but it’s quite a big dessert. Or pudding, as they probably say around here.
It’s 3pm and I’ve packed the Jaaaag. There’s just time for a debriefing with Paul, who I now look upon with much-admiring eyes. I’d like to think that we’ve become friends and, as a friend, I ask for an honest answer: would he recommend the job to anyone?
“I’d do it all again,” he says. “But you need to try it somewhere first, test your body. I don’t really have a day off. My brother ran a pub before me, and he said, ‘However hard you think it’s going to be, it’ll be twice as hard as that.’ He was right. You’d be very lucky these days if you can take on a pub, fill it with people, sit at end of the bar and watch your team get on with it.”
That, if I’m honest, is what my dream had looked like, but the reality – not even that, half the reality – has done me in. If I knew someone with a pub, I’d enjoy helping out in times of need, pulling the odd pint, for others and me, and giving it the chat. I love this pub, I love the beer, I love the people – even BC, in a weird way. But I started and ended this weekend the paying side of the bar, and I think that’s where my future will always lie. Cheers.
To visit, stay or eat at the wonderful Fox Inn please visit foxinnbarrington.com
To listen to or see Palace, and for details on their upcoming tour, visit wearepalace.com. Their new album So Long Forever is out now.