Just a few paces from my house I can drop out of the rainbow-adorned, yet somewhat tired, estate on which I live and fall into an under appreciated riverside walk. I say under appreciated but that’s now it’s former title, to me at least, as it has become something of a treasure over these past few weeks of lockdown. It is providing escapism from neighbours, news and monotony as I amble through copses and drink-in the birdsong, the pungent smell of wild garlic that has erupted, the spring blossom and the babbling nature of the river itself. Never more than a few metres from housing and roads there’s enough of a canopy to feel as though you are out of the middle of this south eastern market town altogether as oaks tower overhead, stoic and strong. It’s a little haven for nature; Grey Wagtails, Goldcrests, a Water vole and various butterflies have all been spotted on my most recent walks. It’s a managed area yet understated, mostly native and currently vital. I want to wrap myself in its enduring beauty, like a comfort blanket, only that would take longer than my allotted hour of outdoor exercise and so I meander with the river, acknowledge how lucky I am, and take my next steps back toward home.
Back from my walk and evening has fallen, whilst indoors we sit, Quiz, the ITV drama based on the cheating scandal of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, plays out on the telly. An opening scene shows characters in a pub, taking part in its quiz. It appears to be the kind of pub which has rooms, traditional aesthetics, low ceilings and close, small tables- possibly with a coaster wedged under a foot or two- with folk huddled around. In the brief few seconds of the scene I can almost hear the feint thuds of pints on those tables, I can almost smell the likely mix of beer, pub grub, wood and the fire; I can almost feel the warmth from the fire emitting from the television screen as if the screen were the fire itself. A reminder, in these publess days, from a few seconds of strong visuals, just how ingrained pub culture is that nostalgia can so easily be brought to life. Memories have been stirred of visits to similar pubs and thoughts drift to how I would very much like to be in a pub like that, or any pub for that matter, right now; to be in those moments and live those sensory experiences again. After all, the pub is where some of the very best memories are made.
The recent days have been warm and bright and I’m reminded of “utepils”, a Norwegian word for a moment; a highlight; the first day when it’s finally warm enough to enjoy a beer in the spring sun. It’s a pursuit many of us will have fond memories of and something many will look forward to. As the winter is shaken off and the light becomes that much brighter and the air that much warmer, the sounds and smells of spring mingle together and we realise that we’ve made it through the darkness and cold and here we are again to see in the cheeriest months. We’ll toast to that occasion as pub gardens become usable again, where flower pots, newly varnished benches and freshly mowed grass welcome us. Many will raise a glass to the sun whilst sat elsewhere, a beach perhaps, or a park. Many will be sat on a balcony or in their own gardens, as many of us will have done so far this season as the warm weather has broken whilst the UK is on lockdown.
I had been looking forward to that utepils moment and to travelling to my favourite pub with its expansive beer garden. My kid would have been running around on the wooden play area, then marvelling at the resident chickens and ducks. The pub’s food menu would have been ordered from; dirty fries and pizza to share, and the first beers would have been poured, not from one of the twelve lines of modern craft keg, but pulled from a perfectly kept cask of Surrey Hills Ranmore, our go-to sub 4% pale. It would have been family time spent in a happy place, a place where we’ve already made fond memories but a place so welcoming to us with a kid in tow, a place with such a special atmosphere that just seems to get better with each visit that we would seek it out the moment the light became as lightly golden as our favourite cask pale. That pub is The Surrey Oaks, Newdigate. It is the moon on a stick.
“When the tide of pandemic retreats there we’ll be, dip into the local and you’ll find us, from all walks of life”
I remember my first visit and stepping in out of the January gloom, carefully avoiding several thwacks to my head from the low hung oak beams, making a beeline for the bar that sits centrally within the building and scanning the beers on offer- Harveys Old, Surrey Hills Ranmore & Shere Drop and Titanic Plum Porter. Since then a wall for keg beer dispense has been installed and often sees the likes of Burnt Mill, Siren, Lervig, Verdant, etc. It’s not often a drive out of town results in finding a pub with such a fantastic and eclectic beer selection. A lot of town and city pubs could learn from this place. The surrounding oaks from which the pub takes its name are said to have been used for ship building, parts of the The Surrey Oaks are believed to date back to the 16th Century and as such this place almost creaks under the weight of its own rural, classic & slightly wonky charm. It is a pub not unlike that of the one seen in the aforementioned Quiz, with its series of small rooms and nooks & crannies that make up the interior, the inglenook fireplace, the mix of flagstone, carpet and wood flooring, wood panelling lining the walls, mismatched tables and chairs, and the beer mats stuck to some of the dark beams. It feels very homely. It feels very comfortable.
Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to stick to what we like, for better or worse, in some sort of attempt at security and comfort. It’s a safety behaviour. I wonder how many new habits will have been formed over these weeks of altered routine. I like my new habit of ambling riverside, I like seeing the way the local nature changes week by week under the watchful eyes of the old oaks, just a few minutes from the town centre. It seems the high street’s death has been put on a fast track, though, as larger retail outlets may never recover from this period which has seen folk resort to online ordering and staying super local, supporting smaller independent shops nearby. But what about pubs? Pubs are different. There is no substitute for going to the pub, no matter how hard some voices may try to convince us otherwise. As nature is returning to some parts of the country during lockdown, so too will wildlife of a different nature return to the pubs and social clubs when this is over. The community hubs in Britain’s smallest villages to the identikit bars across our sprawling cities will team with life once more. When the tide of pandemic retreats there we’ll be, dip into the local and you’ll find us, from all walks of life, on our favourite bar stalls, ordering our usuals, sitting in our favourite pub gardens, being welcomed back into a habitat where, one hopes, we’ll be comfortable again. Until then patience is needed, after all, an oak isn’t felled in one stroke.