s opening time approached, the staff at The Victoria in east London’s Mile End stopped their frantic preparations and stared in unison at the door in a strange stand off. On the other side a group of customers, having booked a table they would be sitting at in a matter of seconds, were waiting patiently for the hypothetical clock to strike. It’s quite possible that in the times before the pandemic-inspired breakdown of society, they may well have barged straight in – but something, maybe the threat of ever changing rules, or a rusty understanding of social etiquette, or the prestige of the moment, saw them wait till it was exactly midday.
“Come on lads, in you come, let’s get going,” Matt Ward, the pub’s director says to the door that, staff aside, had seen little use for the best part of four months. It was a call that was soon answered – with a small polite queue forming the moment noon passed. Punters, replete with scarves and coats to ward off the cold and face masks to ward off the existential threat that rules over our daily lives, began to make their way into the room and straight out again towards the beer garden. “I’ve never seen people so well behaved,” Pedro, part of the front of house team, says as regulars are welcomed warmly and ushered to the back door. The sun cuts through the grey to stream through the windows and spill over the woodwork. For a moment things feel almost normal.
There had been a risk, however brief, that the first day pubs were reopened in England could have been something to be endured as opposed to enjoyed. The coldness of the April afternoon, accompanied by freak snowfall, stood as a stark reminder why Britain has never been able to develop the al fresco dining culture of the continent. Other sectors opened up alongside hospitality – in particular barbers, beauty salons and non essential retail – but with the ability to do their business indoors. Come rain, sun, or any other unlikely but very possible weather phenomenon, the great outdoors will be the only space pubs can operate in for at least the next 35 days.
Hospitality has bore the brunt of the country’s lockdown legislation, the sector consistently among the first to go into lockdown and the last to emerge from them. Customers are met by both friendly staff and a sign reading “More Rules… (sorry)”. As much as there is a buzz ahead of a big return to service, it’s accompanied by a weariness. Speaking to The Independent about the first lockdown way back in March 2020, Ward says: “We didn’t have a clue how long it was gonna be, we didn’t realise it was would be as long as it was. We’re just praying this is the last one because it’s been so stop start trying to get any consistent business… consistency has been the biggest thing that we’ve missed.”
“The last [lockdown] has been tough”, Danny Sands, the pub’s manager adds. “It’s been really slow. We’ve done a bit with the business, we did takeaway bits and some food which was good and kept us busy at the weekend, but it’s just gone on that little bit too long”.
“It feels like because we’re a pub we’ve had to suffer quite a lot” he adds “You look around and there’s takeaways, places open that are able to serve people and people are allowed to go inside, and we haven’t been able to. We’ve got all this beautiful space to serve people, it’s a business at the end of the day but it’s also part of the community. I think that’s been the difficult thing is watching other places – cafes and takeaways – being able to operate and we haven’t been able to.”
The public’s relationship with pubs and bars has been complex throughout the pandemic. Their return after the first lockdown was accompanied by trepidation until the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was launched by the treasury to incentivise the public. Moral panic around long lens shots of mass crowds on beaches and in parks also contributed to a culture of discomfort around social gatherings – despite later evidence suggesting no such events led to spikes in case numbers. In a poll conducted by YouGov in October, 46 per cent of those polled said it had been a mistake to reopen pubs after lockdown.
But that fear seems to have abated – at least enough to fill a booking sheet. The Terrace Bar at Alexandra Palace had filled its booking for the entire first week of its reopening before Monday had even begun. The Waterlane Boathouse in Leeds received more than 700 bookings in a matter of hours after opening up outdoor table reservations to the public for the coming four days. Pub chain Fuller’s said it had received a “high level of bookings” prior to the relaxation of Covid restrictions.
While time and social starvation may have served as a factor – other forces are at play. “I’m vaccinated,” Ilana, 29, says from the comfort of the Victoria’s pub garden when asked if she feels safe. “It’s really nice, [I missed it] a lot but actually I’m just now realising how important it is, it’s lifting my spirits.”
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That the Victoria is able to open at all places it in the minority, and was in part a result of a gamble – maximising their outdoor space during lockdown two and getting rid of a hollowed out caravan that served as an inefficient seating area towards the back of the pub garden. The British Bar and Pub Association, which serves as a trade body for the sector, predicts that only 40 per cent of pubs will be able to launch during the first phase of lockdown easings. While former bugbears like the 10pm curfew and the vagaries of the “substantial meal” have been done away with, access to a pub garden or a few tables’ worth of street space has meant the difference between open and closed signs for businesses across the country.
For most the absence of service as usual has meant a need to diversify in order to survive. In east London, as in the rest of the country, hospitality venues turned to delis, grocers and takeaways. “We’ve been doing takeaway oysters and seafood within a 2km area around here,” Ward says. “Pedro’s been on his bike, we’ve been cooking and we’ve had all [of our business] from Instagram. It’s been really good to meet new guests and keep people who are addicted to oysters nearby fed.”
The ability to maintain relationships has been difficult for much of the country and indeed the world over the past year as covid has forced distance between us all. For hospitality, as for the public, that’s meant trying to reach out through social media and keep a sense of community support behind a business. “We run the instagram internally,” Sands says, “and that’s the best way to reach out to the public really. We’ve had loads of DMs asking when we’re open. We live here as well so we see people in the are on a daily basis and everyone’s always asking when it’s going to be open. Everyone’s just very very supportive.”
The feeling appears to be mutual. Helen, a regular at the pub, started a week of holiday that coincided with the easing. “I want to come out and spend money and keep the industry afloat because if we don’t it’ll disappear and we’ll never get it back. That’s it.”