England’s pubs prepare to reopen, hoping to put dark year behind them

The late, great British actor Laurence Olivier used to occupy the corner by the fireplace, and the Beatle Paul McCartney filmed the video for his yuletide classic, “Wonderful Christmastime”, at the bar as punters queued six deep.

But when the Fountain Inn in Ashurst, West Sussex, reopens next week for the first time since December, it will be more like a dress rehearsal for the quintessential village pub act. As for every pub and restaurant in England, come rain or shine, the clientele will be restricted to the garden until at least May 17 under the latest government rules.

This and the cold snap that Britain has been experiencing over the past week, have dimmed the excitement, and commercial prospects, of many landlords for Monday’s reopening under prime minister Boris Johnson’s gradual path to easing lockdown.

The new rules will prevent reopening altogether for the more than half of Britain’s 48,000 pubs without sufficient outside space, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). They will have to wait another five weeks before limited indoor service may be allowed in line with the government’s cautious response to falling Covid-19 infections.

But the continuing restrictions have not stopped Alex Tipping, landlord at the Fountain, and his partner Lyndsay Ferguson, from brewing up enthusiasm for the resumption of business, fortunate as they are to have a large garden near the rolling South Down hills.

Landlord Alex Tipping and his partner Lyndsay Ferguson benefit from having a large pub garden © Charlie Bibby/FT

The couple have grand plans to bring their 16th century tavern, now part of the Stonegate Pub Company, into the 21st century with a new menu brimming with local produce, a spring market to mark the first weekend, and designs for an outdoor oyster and sparkling wine bar to showcase Sussex vineyards.

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“The one thing the pandemic has taught us is to take everything in our stride,” said Ferguson, a former stewardess at Virgin Atlantic who was laid off by the airline last year.

“We have five weeks when a lot of other pubs won’t be opening. Last year even when the weather was really crappy people were so desperate to socialise they came,” said Tipping, who despite his optimism acknowledged that the past year had been a real struggle.

During it, British pubs endured shifting rules imposed from on high, absorbing a 10pm curfew, social distancing, table service and a controversial, “substantial meals” only rule — among other measures to ensure they were “Covid-secure”. They have also poured away an estimated 81m wasted pints during lockdowns.

Despite the furlough system, grants and bounce back loans intended by the Treasury to mitigate the pain, pubs were closing for good at a rate of more than five per day, according to the BBPA. For an industry embedded in British culture that had seen almost a quarter of all pubs shuttered in the preceding decade, the pandemic has proved a terrible blow.

Tipping said it would take him two years to recoup losses and repay debts and deferred rents for the more than half year when pubs were forced to close altogether. He has had to lay off two chefs, and to save money will be doing the cooking himself in months ahead.

“Until we are back on our feet, I would rather be hands on,” he said.

For bigger pub groups, such as the Laine pub company — with 55 bars in Brighton, London and Birmingham, the economics have been equally challenging.

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In the 23 years since he co-founded the business, chief executive Gavin George, has tailored his establishments to their immediate community.

Gavin George: ‘It’s not just about drinking. It’s about celebrating and there hasn’t been a lot of that going on. So, we are really excited about the reopening’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

This has included helping to revive the brewing industry in Brighton with a line in craft beers, and creating idiosyncratic pubs such as the Dead Wax Social, named in homage to the city’s indie music scene, and the Aeronaut in Acton, west London, where Britain’s aviation industry began.

But the company was running at a loss with income down 27 per cent in the year to August 2020, he said, and is a further 64 per cent down since.

“It’s not just about drinking. It’s about celebrating and there hasn’t been a lot of that going on. So, we are really excited about the reopening,” George said.

Like landlords all over the land, he has invested in making outdoor areas more hospitable with covered areas and heaters, and has built roof terraces in some inner city establishments that would otherwise have remained shut next week.

“It isn’t enough to just open gardens. To make money we need to be open without restrictions. That’s why June 21 is important — only then can we think about recovering,” he said, referring to the earliest date when the government will lift the rules altogether.

In a bid to speed things up, Hugh Osmond, who founded Punch Taverns, one of the UK’s largest pub companies, and Sacha Lord, the Mancunian festival and rave organiser, have taken the government to court.

They argue that the government’s own data shows that the hospitality industry has been responsible for only a negligible number of transmissions of coronavirus and there is no evidence to show they are any less safe than shops, which are allowed to open on Monday. The case has been expedited to April 19 at the High Court.

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“It’s a lot of bloody places that have been closed. Any day of opening earlier would be good,” Osmond said.

Emma McClarkin, who heads the BBPA, said landlords have invested £500m in total to make their venues safe during the pandemic, and have felt singled out for rough treatment.

“It has been a long hard year for people in the sector. They have adapted. They have lived on the edge. Some are hanging on by finger tips — we are longing for the day the pub is back to normal,” she said: “I need a pint!”


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