Visited: Friday 19 August 2011
I am in a station pub on a Friday night, in a town I’ve only vaguely even heard of. It’s a lively place but I don’t know a soul. In a strange sort of way, I’m relishing this.
Here’s the context. I’m on my way to my brother’s stag weekend. Most of it is taking place in Brighton, but we’re staying in a converted farmhouse thing miles from anywhere. It’s been a long, long day already; I’ve travelled straight from work, and we’ll be up until 3am. My brothers phoned with an instruction to leave the train at Haywards Heath rather than Brighton, and they’d come and pick me up in a bit. (At the moment they phoned, a little alarmingly, the train was stopped at Haywards Heath station.)
Obviously, rather than hang around a gloomy, deserted commuter station on a Friday night, even for a short while, you’re going to get to the pub, aren’t you?
The young lad working the bar brings me a foaming pint and an apologetic smile. “Bit frothy,” he points out. In the south of England, of course, draught ale is served with what is often described as “a tight head”. Much of the time this seems a euphemism for “no head at all, and completely flat” (the Bree Louise in central London is a pub I like but epitomises this style). So in fact, there’s no need to apologise.
Here’s my only interaction with any fellow pubgoers at the Burrell Arms. I ask three of them if the adjacent table is free despite the unfinished drink resting on it. This established, I sit and sip and relax for the first time since I got out of bed this morning, 15 hours, 200 miles and several large income brackets away from here now.
As affluent as I imagine this little town might be, this pub has no ideas above its station (commuter pun intended). It’s a cheerful place, straightforward, comfortably middling: there are no gastro pretensions but no snarling dogs. The two cask beers are respectable, not imaginative. It’s not quite small and cosy, but certainly not big and impersonal. It’s not the greatest pub you’ll ever find but it’s nowhere near the running for worst. The people here aren’t wishing there was somewhere better to go. They’re enjoying it.
I fiddle with my phone for a bit and scan the TV screen for the score in the test match. Then one of my brothers is on the phone. They’re waiting for me in the station car park. I drain the rest of my London Pride and slip away unnoticed. I’ve been in the Burrell Arms for no more than 15 minutes.
Here’s the conclusion. A brief encounter like this lacks the epic quality of discovering a place like the Blue Bell in York, say, and becoming immersed in its fluent humanity. To a pub obsessive there’s something romantic and quietly thrilling about the happenstance and psychogeography of it. In these scenes, though, we’re forever the outsider, with almost an anthropological rather than a fraternal connection to the people around us. We get fleeting, haiku-like glimpses into communities other than our own, rather than become one with them.
But as my brother’s Mini bumps over the uneven country lanes between Haywards Heath and our isolated stag weekend accommodation unit, my phone lets out a beep. My friends Clark and Kate in Leicester have replied to my remarks on Twitter about being in the Burrell Arms. They know the place well: Kate’s parents are from here. Time and place may detach and divide, but the pub, somehow, seems always to connect.