Visited: Monday 2 August 2010
What do you think about when you think about going to the pub? As a general concept, I mean. Visualise an archetypal visit to the boozer, and the chances are you’re in a group of at least four people. It’s dark outside. It’s probably a Friday or a Saturday night. You spend a few hours fastened rigidly round a table. And you probably drink enough to get at least pleasantly squiffy.
Plenty of trips to the pub, though, are nothing of the sort. Today I’m at the Barley Mow, on the edge of Chesterfield town centre, with my girlfriend and our little son. It’s the middle of the day. The day is Monday. We’re having some lunch and then we’re going home.
I’ve been here once before. I liked it because I ate a baguette the size of a Zeppelin, stuffed with vegetarian sausages and onions. People think of a meat-free diet as inescapably healthy and virtuous, all lentils and pasta, vitamins, and fibre. But you can be a vegetarian and still dance with the devils of cholesterol and carbs. And I’m the living proof. Living for the time being, anyway.
Here we are, then. According to its sign outside, the Barley Mow belongs to the Pubmaster chain, which in turn, I think, belongs to Punch Taverns. Punch Taverns is the biggest pub landlord in Britain. (Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.) This is bound immediately to prejudice me against a pub, because I’m that sort of person. I just like small, culty things, independent things, stuff that hardly anyone knows about.
But the Barley Mow is half decent. It’s not up there with the best pubs in Sheffield, obviously. It’s not as good as the other pub I know quite well in Chesterfield (which is yet another Rutland Arms, right up against the crooked spire). But that veggie sausage baguette really was good.
Not that people’s objections to the big pubcos are entirely on abstract or ideological grounds. There’s one very tangible downside to a local pub being tight in the grasp of a huge national or international operation. And that’s a dull and uninspiring range of beers on offer. The ones with big distribution deals. Greene King IPA, Abbot, Old Speckled Hen. Deuchars IPA and Black Sheep. Cask-conditioned beer should make your mouth water. Nowadays these names just make my heart sink.
That said, I didn’t get to the pub at all over the weekend. So I’m starting to salivate at the prospect of a pint. Compared with some of the fabulous and subtly coruscating brews we’re lucky enough to enjoy over large parts of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, Black Sheep is a fairly unremarkable beer. But I’ve bought one today, and the first half-pint or so tastes like heaven.
And the service is good, even if the girls behind the bar look barely old enough to drink. But rather than a flagrant breach of employment law, this is likely to be another sense-distorting side effect, akin to the Black Sheep tasting like heaven. This time, of course, the cause is my own increasing proximity to middle age.
The place is doing reasonable business for a Monday. Three huge blokes here have those enormous shoulders that hunch up when they walk, so that their arms stick out at a funny angle. Either builders or bodybuilders, I reckon. Or both. Over to our left, at the far end of the room, are two old and very slightly posh ladies (not a word I generally favour, but somehow apt here), dressed smartly, great care taken over hair and make-up, for what I’ll guess is their regular weekly lunch together. They perch incongruously beneath the big Sky Sports News screen, enjoying being out, enjoying life, politely swapping items of gossip between forkfuls of pie and veg.
Any interest in his lunch long elapsed, our one-and-a-half-year-old offspring has been entertaining himself for some time by playing with those horrible condiment sachets that pubs insist on using instead of proper sauce bottles. At length, though, his attention span snaps and I take him outside for some fresh air and a look at the spectacular flowerboxes along the windows.
Out here the three men with unnaturally large shoulders are sitting round a table drinking pints of lager. I say “sitting round”; they’re too big to fit onto the benches, so they’re actually sitting on the table and leaning against the wall. And they have big, big voices to match their elephantine torsos. One is speaking very loudly indeed about some recent sexual escapade. “SO SHE SAID, CAN I LICK IT OFF?!!” We’ll never know who she is, but her erotic expertise is now common knowledge across most of northern Derbyshire.
Back inside, there’s a lovely little pub moment. The two lunch ladies get up to leave, carefully wrapping jackets around themselves, and in walking to the door they’re about to pass behind me. I pull my chair in to make space, but more than I really need to, just to make an ostentatious show of politeness. One of them touches my hand lightly and smiles: “Hey, I’m not that fat, y’know!”
It’s Monday in a mid-sized, north-east midlands market town. In showing us these two small groups of very different people, the Barley Mow has served up a small but perfectly formed slice of life here. With some quite good chips and peas.