There are still a lot of pubs in East Anglia, but there used to be so many more. Nearly every village had at least one, and some had four or five. Even if the hamlet was too small to have a Post Office or a village shop, you could normally rely on the village having a pub. The tiny village of Howe between Poringland and Brooke never had a pub, and Taverham was another exception; from the closure of the Papermakers Arms in the mid-nineteenth century there was no public house in the village until after the Second World War, when the Silver Fox was opened on the main road.
The Silver Fox is in theory my local – it is the nearest pub to my home – but it is not where I commonly go anymore. Things were different a dozen years or so ago. It was open for breakfast then. At about 10 o’clock I broke off from my post round and went into the dining area to have a hearty mixed grill. I had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Whereas this condition normally means a reduced intake of food, in my case the danger came from eating too little, not too much. Mine was an exhausting physical job, hence the hearty meal. This pleasant existence came to an end when Betty the landlady retired to Spain, and the new licensee did not serve breakfast. I was reduced to eating sandwiches. Half a banana is an ample breakfast for me now that I am retired!
The Red Lion was my real ‘local’ for many years. It is in the next village of Drayton, but it served a very reasonable carvery, and we were regular visitors until recently. It was a pub I used to visit in the 1970s with my father, so I have known it a long while. In those days it did not serve food except crisps. Our lunches (and it was at lunchtime that we used to frequent the pub) consisted therefore of a half pint and a packet of crisps. The Green Dragon in Wymondham was a fine old-fashioned pub, but back in those days it did not even serve crisps. A pub was where you went to drink, in the opinion of the landlord, and he looked with disdain on anybody who asked for something to eat. Many bars were places where the need to eat was almost ignored when I first began to venture into pubs. You might be able to buy a packet of peanuts if you were lucky, but it had not always been so. The 18th century diarist Mary Hardy frequently called at a pub with her family while travelling, to have a drink and a bite to eat. Parson Woodforde called at the Dove in Poringland for tankard of ale and some cold leg of pork, and at the Kings Head in Beccls he dined on oysters. Both pubs are still open after nearly 250 years, and both selling beer – and food.
Now most pubs have to serve food in order to survive, and quite a few have even turned into restaurants which do not serve alcohol at all. I am reminded that the Caxton Gibbet in Cambridgeshire turned into a Chinese Restaurant before it burnt down. The Ordnance Arms on the Fakenham Road is now a Thai Restaurant and the Coach and Horses in Norwich is a Pizza Restaurant. The former Bignold Arms in Hellesdon is now a Fish and Chip shop.
In Southwold the Harbour Inn was a pub I used to visit with my father in the 1970s. Back then it was quite basic, and all it seemed to serve was Adnam’s beer. When I returned with my family a few years ago we had a fine meal of cod and chips, and a wood burning stove warmed the bar. There had been no fire forty years ago. This is another old pub, and in 1830 it was called the Fishing Buss, after a Dutch type of vessel that used Buss creek on the river Blyth to moor.
I definitely approve of this return to an earlier way of life in the English pub. Without the possibility of eating you would end up getting drunk, except for the poor driver who would be sipping orange juice. It is more work for the publican, but at least it keeps him in employment. There has been a lot of talk about ‘British Values’ recently, especially from the Prime Minister. I don’t know what he means by the phrase, but I doubt we would agree; for me there is no better example of a British value than drinking a pint of beer and eating a pork pie down at the pub. Make of that what you will.