Where community lives

Pubs are not just for drinking; they are an essential safety net for those most affected by isolation and exclusion, writes Katie Mather


When tier restrictions began to be enforced throughout England, pub workers across England were concerned about lockdown returning indefinitely. Something needed to be done to curb the spread of Covid-19, but realistically, why were hospitality industries seemingly being targeted? How were businesses which rely largely on the coming together of people, going to be supported? Where would these restrictions end?

At the time of writing this, full lockdown has again been put into place across England. Thankfully, to make things a little easier on the pub industry, a farcical ruling that take-away alcohol sales from pubs would not be permitted was overturned thanks to lobbying and pressure from business owners and industry groups like SIBA. The mood across the industry at that time was dark. Given the difficulties and stress of the year so far, the hospitality industry was not about to be snuffed out by what seemed to be temperance masquerading as incompetence. 

We are told that lockdown will end at the start of December, but with trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic at an all-time low throughout the industry, it’s easy to see why beer business owners like Julie O’Grady at Neptune Brewery simply don’t believe what we’re being told.

“The furlough scheme has been extended to March, we all know that. So how are we meant to believe there’s an end in sight any sooner than that?” she told me. Along with her husband and co-owner of the brewery Les O’Grady, they have built Neptune into a success, adding a busy tap room to their site in Maghull in Liverpool in 2019 – which of course thanks to the lockdown, is unusable at the moment.

“We did everything right, we followed the social distancing rules, but like our friends with pubs, we’ve had to close, which has been difficult for us and for our local customers. If take-away alcohol had been prohibited too it would have been even harder and put more emotional stress on us, it’s not only financial.”

The unofficial social safety net

According to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, almost a quarter of adults of all ages have felt loneliness during the Coronavirus pandemic. When we think of loneliness, it’s easy to think that only the most vulnerable are affected, but when our social lives are cut off from us, it can affect us all. For many, many people, one of the easiest ways to form bonds with other people is at the local pub. So what happens when you suddenly don’t have that option anymore?

To find out, I wanted to speak to publicans who understand first-hand the vital but often unsung community work their pubs do, and hear how they are coping with the uncertainty, stress and loneliness of running a business and supporting their locals during a pandemic. How have their lives changed? What are they doing to look after themselves? And how are their regulars dealing with lockdown?

So here are the conversations I had with two passionate, brilliant women publicans, working hard to deal with the unusual and often overwhelming difficulties that 2020 has thrown their way. Rowan Molyneux runs The Trafalgar in Merton in the South West of London, a freehouse at the heart of it’s small community; Kate Major runs The Crow Inn and The Rutland Arms, both in Sheffield. In their words, here is how the pandemic has affected them.

Rowan Molyneux | The Trafalgar, Merton

I called Rowan after a relatively quiet day of take-away sales at half-seven on a Wednesday evening.

“We open Friday to Sunday and then on Wednesdays for a top-up at the moment,” she says. “There’s something quite ancient about sitting in the doorway ready for the take-away orders, like an alewife.”

We quickly get talking about the missing social interaction from the pub, and Rowan says her regulars are in her thoughts often.

“Community is definitely the right word to describe the people who come here,” she says. “A number of our regulars do live alone, probably the majority of them in fact, and to them the pub is a social hub. It’s especially important for those who are working remotely or are retired.”

“Even the people who come in and don’t join in with the usual pub chat and banter, it’s still somewhere to come in and get that nod of recognition from the regulars.”

I asked her how this lockdown has compared to the one in Spring.

“During the first lockdown, people were getting out and about a bit more because it was nicer weather, and that way we were able to keep tabs on most of our regulars. This time around it varies week to week; we’ve seen quite a few people here or round and about, but not everyone.”

Is everyone looking out for each other without having the pub as a central point?

“I think our regulars do really look out for each other and care for each other, even though they’d probably never admit it – you know, they’re mostly middle-aged blokes! Oh feelings, we don’t talk about that! But we’ve all seen the studies that show that pubs are valuable to promoting good mental health, especially for older men. And you’ve got to think, there are some of our customers who have been popping in for a couple of pints regularly for literally decades, you know, and it’s just taken away their core social support. It’s a worry really.”

I think our regulars do really look out for each other and care for each other, even though they’d probably never admit it

I wondered if Rowan felt worried personally for her customers, and if she felt obligated to act and try to soothe those worries.

“I suppose it’s a little bit of a worry, as a community-based local pub you feel a sort of duty of care towards the people who come, I think that’s quite a common feeling for people who work in local pubs. And also, you’ve got to remember, these are people who you like! You see them day in-day out; you get to know them, it’s almost like they’re an extended family except you… take money off them!”

She continues: “I know everyone’s “okay”, but it’s mainly that loneliness can be a very pervasive thing, and I think a lot of the more traditional older blokes wouldn’t be open to someone popping round or giving them a call and asking how they are. They’d find that a bit weird, like they were being mollycoddled. Whereas coming into the pub, that’s their own agency, so I feel like any sort-of community outreach would feel a bit… they’d find it a bit “care in the community”, a bit patronising.”

Has anyone told her directly that they’re feeling lonely or isolated?

“A regular pops by with a takeaway container for two pints of cider every day that we’re open and he’s always counting the days. He’ll make it jokey, but today he said “oh, we’re a quarter of the way through if it doesn’t get extended” and you know he’s missing coming in and seeing people and the chat.”

“And gosh, I’m missing the chat as well! I was already missing the chat from not being able to have people standing and sitting at the bar, that’s part of being a bartender isn’t it? And it’s created a different vibe really. I feel quite strange about it all. It’s definitely not the job it was, you know. Hopefully it will be able to be again at some point.”

“I find a big part of my job is listening and being there, and being a sounding board, and everyone knows that what you say to a bartender is going to be forgotten in a moment. Really that is what a trad publican’s job is, a sort-of confessional.”

Is she managing to catch-up with any of her regulars outside of the pub?

“I would say that especially with the older generation who aren’t on social media it’s a real problem. I can actually catch up with quite a lot of my regulars via Facebook but for some of them it’s a case of asking around and seeing if anyone’s seen them out and about. And hopefully I’ll see them on the other side.”

“Something was said in a briefing at the start of lockdown when we started doing take-away, that we should remember that during lockdown we might be the only person someone gets to talk to that day. Make sure you’re nice, because you could be the only interaction they have. It’s so important.”

Katie Major | The Crow Inn and The Rutland Arms, Sheffield

“We’ve got a lot of young people and a lot of older people who will drink alone in our pubs,” Kate starts, “So it’s an interesting mix of people across the two pubs.”

We’re chatting on a Thursday afternoon over Zoom. Kate hasn’t worked in either of her pubs for a while – they are both closed, after taking the decision not to sell take-away drinks. I asked her how she feels about not seeing her regulars at all at the moment.

“Because The Crow is so close to a popular real ale crawl, we would have customers who would do the same five or six pubs at the same time every week. For example, one regular comes in on a Thursday every week without fail, but I don’t know what he’s doing now, I have no way of contacting him. He’s been doing it for as long as I’ve worked in that area, so over ten years, and while he’s got a wife at home, his only social life is going round the pubs on his own, talking to the staff and the other customers.”

Because her pubs have been shut for a large section of the year, Kate has realised how important they are to her for her own socialising too.

“When your life is the pub that you work in, your social life is the pub that you work in too.”

“I’m realising just how much I relied, like so many people do, on seeing people incidentally. Because now we have to actually plan things, and it just isn’t the same.”

“You create quite a strong bond if you see someone regularly even without any particular interaction. I forget that when customers come to see us, that’s the same as going to see your friends. Without realising it, we are their friends.”

Does she find it tough to deal with feeling responsible for the people she’s come to care about who would usually regularly visit her pubs?

“You go into pub work because you like people and you like being around them for all their faults,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s just one of those things that you sign up for when you go into the profession. Most people you encounter in pubs have got some shit going on and you have to want to help them.”

“I would never have ever begrudged that sense of social responsibility pre-pandemic, but during the pandemic it’s just a constant sense of guilt – because there isn’t really anything you can do, you can’t really reach out to a lot of people. I feel like there’s a big element of government responsibility that hasn’t been taken on board. They’ve taken away any sort of social lifeline, and for someone who’s on their own or in a relationship that’s not supportive they’ve lost an entire network of support.”

“I’ve been getting angry actually, because so much of the rhetoric online has been like “I don’t know why people are whinging about not being able to go to the pub, are you all alcoholics?””

“There is more to going to the pub than wanting to have a drink, and what the government haven’t considered is the wider social implications of closing these community pubs loudly for the “greater good”. That idea is spilling down onto people who are then becoming more and more inclined to support the idea of pub closures because they think the only reason people go to the pub is to get pissed. And it just isn’t fair or true.”

“Pandemic aside, people can go weeks without seeing anyone without a pub. The pub gives them the opportunity to be somewhere and be surrounded by people and strike up a conversation when they’ve got no other way of speaking to other human beings. I firmly believe that there has been no consideration by government for the past 20 years for the importance of pubs within communities. The lack of regulation of pubcos is kind of proof to me of this.”

“The treatment of the hospitality industry throughout the pandemic isn’t an isolated incident and it really demonstrates the contempt that government – and I mean both Tory and Labour governments – have for the idea of the pub as the nexus in a community, a place where ideas can move around, and where people can create bonds and relationships. They don’t see them as anything other than salacious, seedy places where people drink and get drunk, which shows the luxury these people live in, because they don’t have to use a pub for anything else.”

They government don’t see pubs as anything other than salacious, seedy places where people drink and get drunk

“Someone at the pub in-between lockdowns called this current period of pub closures neo-prohibitionism, and I loved that. It’s so fitting. It’s this idea of pubs and drinking in general being the sort of thing that poor do. Rich people drink good wine at home, poor people drink lots and lots of beer in pubs. There’s always been this sort of anti-drinking movement. I don’t think the treatment of hospitality is just because of a worry of pubs being a hotbed of transmission of disease, I think they’ve been vilified beyond what they can actually be blamed for.”

Kate briefly re-opened her pubs after the first lockdown finished, so I asked her to talk to me about what the mood was like when she opened the doors again.

“What brings it home for me is when we opened after the lockdown, the customers who came back in in the first week or so were people we already knew and it was so exciting to see all these people again. We’d not seen them for four months, but before then we’d seen them every day or every week for years.”

“I found it really overwhelming for a while, being in busy environments after spending so much time away from people. But for some people, going to the pub and being surrounded by people is the most stimulation they’re going to get outside of work and that’s really important for combatting loneliness. It was good because we could see everyone and check they were still doing okay. Especially with the old guys, I really worry, because for years, you get to know when people are going to come in and if they don’t turn up you send someone to go and check on them. But now we’re shut again, they’ve got nobody checking on them now.”

I wondered if Kate was also feeling a loss now that she’s not seeing her regulars at the moment. Is she worried or stressed about the situation, aside from the economic factors?

“I’m not worried from a financial perspective, we’re in a pandemic, I’m just having to accept what’s happening. I’m worried out of a love of the people we can’t reach out to. I know that my staff have gone to visit customers. There’s one customer from The Crow who is quite unwell, so he’s not been out of the house since March, so staff go up a couple of times a week to chat to him in his garden and he brings his chair to the front door.”

“There’s a sense, isn’t there, that if you know you can access someone who isn’t seeing anyone else, you kind-of have to don’t you? You don’t have a choice. There is a sense of obligation because these people relied on us so much before. There is a sense of social responsibility – you care for the people who kept our businesses afloat and supported us for so long. It’s hard to put that into words, I feel quite emotional thinking about it. Because it’s something I’ve always taken for granted when we were open – we would always be open and these people would always come in.”

“I feel awful because I feel like I’ve not done enough to reach out to enough people. Our staff are so lovely and they are reaching out to people if they have their contact details but so many people just aren’t contactable. Even the loneliest customers aren’t asking for anything, they just want to talk. And now I miss even the lengthiest monologues! I wonder what these people are doing now, who they’re talking at. I hope they’ve found a neighbour to bond with.”

Share this article