Zoe Williams, the Guardian writer, spins a most agreeable yarn about the pleasure of pub gardens.
She talks about them in terms I remember from the past.
“The British pub garden is both reassuring and reaffirming. It’s like a co-dependent friend: you have a qualm about your booze intake and the garden waves it away. Should I be drinking this pint, when it’s lunchtime, and only Tuesday? Well, clearly I should – otherwise why would they have designed me this perfect green space, with its charming wooden bench and my very own umbrella? “
I’ve been in some lovely pub gardens, fringed with wild-looking herbaceous borders that have become rampantly infested with free-flowering bridal-white bindweed, gardens where you can hear the slip-slap of the river against the landing stage, where you can see clear across to the blue sloping hills of the next county, where you can sit on old, seasoned wooden picnic bench and watch wrens flitting to and fro their nest in the ivy on a Cotswold wall.
Obviously there are other things too – watching chaps reluctant to buy another round nursing their pints, noting people getting tetchy, getting squiffy, or even struggling with the attempt at the upright position. We were in a pub garden in Kingham, on the Oxfordshire border when an old local totteringly rose from his table of pals and made his way out of the garden using every available upright fixture for support – table, fence, wall, gate were followed by a floundery wave goodbye – followed closely by the hedge! He was rescued, unharmed and given a shaky two-man escort towards home.
It was perfect weather for pub gardens at the weekend in Glos; unseasonally hot and sunny. Great for cycling to a refreshment destination. You can forget ‘energy bars’ which taste like they’re made of plasticized marmite, Capt Sensible needs to balance his energy expenditure with the correct nourishment – which usually involves real ale.
So we had a pleasant ride by a tranquil canal with moorhens fussing about, necks jerking back and forth like windup clockwork toys, families out with kids, fishermen casting hopefully, dogs flat out on the grassy bank next to the narrow boats where their owners dozed in the shade.
It’s a long time since we’d been to this pub but it has a good view of the canal and a bridge and the general the goings-on – it also had a good view of the place where we locked up the bikes.
Our table with the view was next to a table where they didn’t much care too much about the view. It was all about soaking up sun and Stella. Considering the volume of everyone’s voices, they had been making full use of their time. The men were all stripped to the waist sporting tattoos of various complexities and colours. The women were showing acres of dimply sun-reddened flesh and there was a Staffordshire bull terrier under the table.
There was something about the loud, coarse occasionally obscenity-peppered conversations that clashed horribly with the surroundings. I was looking at a peaceful scene – a swan proceeding in a stately fashion down the centre of the canal followed by six mature cygnets – still in their grey feathers – in a triangular formation behind her. A buzzard circled on the thermals high overhead. Yet I was getting a loud account, delivered by the biggest boor at the next table of his wife who was “f***ing fresh-baked when I ad er, she wuz.” The women was no longer fresh-baked, apparently. He didn’t mention if she’d past her sell-by date but it was a distinct possibility.
The man was almost completely ignorant yet one of those people whose self-esteem and conviction knows no bounds.
“Course they have closed Brize Norton,” he asserted “To stop them bringing in our dead boys from Iraq. Shocking it is.” No-one disagreed or questioned him. Cobblers. They have merely stopped the repatriations in Wootton Bassett where so many local people regularly turned out to pay their respects. The dead are being repatriated in private at RAF Brize Norton, which is definitely not closed.
I listened – short of wearing earplugs, it was impossible not to – and felt unnerved by the fact that he was entitled to vote. His voice alone put me off my bacon and brie baguette, even without looking at his flabby, sweating, roasting back.
But he wasn’t the only loud one. The garden was full of tables of people for whom a lack of consideration for others had become a way of life. They were loud, garrulous, sometimes lairy smokers where tattoos and bull terrier crosses were universal accessories. There were some children but they were all at the play area doing their own thing unaccompanied.
I felt a bit fish-out-of-water-ish. It was similar but not quite so bad the following evening when we strolled down to the river and called in for a swift tincture on the terrace of a different pub on the way back home.
The terrace was full of smokers and women dressed up to the nines in chunky plastic jewellery, Ibiza-style sun dresses revealing acres of lumpy flesh and massive thighs. Fresh air isn’t really very fresh any more in places like this.
I felt under-dressed without an ankle bracelet. I hadn’t made any effort at all. I’d simply put on trainers and gone for a walk in jeans and a cotton blouse. Anyway we finished our drinks and I felt a bit sad, walking up the lane watching the little bats hunting insects beneath the trees, that some pub gardens aren’t what they used to be. Maybe we just went to the wrong ones but whatever happened to couth?
A bit of canal
A bit of Gloucester Docks