Drinking in England should not be confused with drinking in London. Drinking in London involves craft beers and trend led cocktails priced just above the point where you wince and just below that where you mewl like a newborn lamb. Drinking in England however still revolves around the country pub.
Pubs are simple places, places with reassuring names like The Red Lion, The Crown or the Smuggler, the focal point of every community and as fundamental to Britain's culture as tea, sarcasm and chatting about the weather. Whatever their actual name they are known to all those who drink in them simply as The Local; a well lit room with smoked windows, perhaps a friendly dog sleeping by the fire, bare stone or wood panelled walls adorned with countryside paintings, those little brass things that used to hang on a horses bridle or ancient farming paraphernalia; dangerous admittedly in case of a bar fight, though a little impractical as weapons unless you want to crudely sheer your opponent. There may well be a pool table, though at least one wall will be too close to wedge your cue in effectively. Perhaps there will be a beer garden for the fraction of the year where it's actually warm enough to drink outside, or, If you're especially lucky, a wooden skittle alley, which is much like bowling, only instead of a high-tech pin retrieval system, has the sullen and resentful child of the landlord and landlady, who themselves can be found getting slowly more inebriated at the end of the bar as the night progresses.
Life's changed little inside them and you can't help but feel a certain weight of history, a million conversations about sport, cars and milk prices rattling around within their walls. They are a little bubble, utterly resistant to change, more often than not hundreds of years old and some even exceeding a millennia. They have survived plague, revolution, fire and torment and are not about to let a little thing like fashion sway them. In fact the only encroachment of the modern world is an arcade quiz game, a cigarette dispenser or perhaps even a juke-box, though all the music will be at least thirty years old and it will play Sonny and Cher's 'I Got You Babe' no matter what you choose.
The drinks selection centers around cask ale, and generic euro lagers, but mainly cask ale; a frothy, cloudy brew, drawn unfiltered from a hand pump and served luke warm and as bitter as a divorce lawyers soul. It's a place where Smirnoff is considered a premium vodka and a gin and tonic a cocktail, a place where ordering a spritzer will see you hailed for the courage of your lifestyle choices or soundly thrashed in the beer garden. When it comes to food there's no need to ponder your choices long as they all have the same menu; scampi and fries, pie and fries, burger and fries, chicken in a basket with fries and a sunday roast. It's unadventurous cuisine, and yet something about it is deeply comforting, even if most is now the result of an overworked microwave.
Staff in pubs ascribe to a more laid back form of hospitality than the keen interaction of their city cousins; a raised eyebrow, a barely noticeable nod, a grunt of affirmation, all are considered a conversation, but sit alone for five minutes and someone will befriend you, if only to discuss sports, cars and milk prices.
Having survived the worst that man and history can throw at them, the Pub's most recent and perhaps serious challenge is fending off the invasion of the Gastropub; a hideous portmanteau of pub and gastronomy, specialising in fancy or edible food and elegant wine lists. As a concept they try to dilute the pub down, to temper the beast to make it more palatable, only to succeed in lacking any of the things that made them wonderful in the first place.
The British pub is a throw back to a more sedate time, a time where the highlight of a week was a bracing game of dominos over a pint of Ruddle's bitter or Bishop's Nipple Ale. A place where everyone really does know your name. Squint and you could be practically anywhere in history, and that's exactly why I love them.
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