At the beginning of the week I decided to pop to the pub to celebrate the new freedoms as we ease out of lockdown 3.0. What a palaver it turned out to be.
On a trip to the post office at 9am on Monday morning I spotted a dozen people wetting their whistles at two Croydon watering holes, snow flurries and low temperatures be damned. I couldn’t help but flash a smile, not that they could see it behind my mask but the ‘Good on you!’ sentiment was there.
By lunchtime the sun had come out so I thought ‘Sod the no weekday drinking embargo’ (an embargo I’d placed on myself during lockdown) and headed back out.
I soon began to think I shouldn’t have bothered.
Everywhere with outdoor seating was packed with revellers revelling in the first chance to swig a freshly-pulled pint in more than four months.
Yes, the supermarket booze aisles remained open during those four months and relaxations to COVID restrictions at the end of March meant we could meet up to six mates in a park, tinnies or rose-filled plastic wine glasses in hand.
But to us Brits there’s something special about having a draft lager or clinking ice cold wine glasses down the pub that just can’t be recreated at home. More of a vino guy myself and someone who lives alone (by choice, I defensively hasten to add), I tried toasting myself in the mirror during that first lockdown but a) it was a bit sad and b) I did it with such gusto I almost broke the glass and the mirror. Fearing seven years’ bad wine, I never did it again.
Beer isn’t my usual beverage of choice but it seemed fitting to mark Happy Monday (my term for it, not Boris’s) with an amber pint rather than a translucent Trebbiano, given how that’s what everyone else seemed to be doing.
But I could I find somewhere to ease into an Estrella? To quote Julie Walters in a Victoria Wood sketch, could I bog roll.
The best bet - a pub with a huge beer garden at the back - was fully booked. There were tables out the front but they were all taken. When I asked the doorlady what the drill was she said ‘First come first served, love’ and suggested I do a bit of shopping and try again later.
The queue for Primark stretched all the way down the High Street, through several housing estates and halfway up the hill to Crystal Palace. Not that I would have gone in anyway. The passion for Primark is something I’ve never understood. Why would you buy a T-shirt for three quid that could barely survive two wash cycles when for £2 extra you could get a much more durable one in H&M or M&S?
So I tried another pub that wasn’t just fully booked that lunchtime, it was booked up all afternoon and evening. All week. Ditto the next one and the one after that.
Then I found a microbrewery where, miracle of miracles, there was a single table available but it came with caveats: It was in an alley next to the bins, where there was a whiff of gone-off veg and not even a sliver of sunlight.
Determined and undaunted, I put on a brave face, zipped up my North Face, pulled on my wooly hat and devoured my pint like a thirst-addled Himalayan sherpa. It was lager which, what with the less than salubrious setting, should have tasted bitter but it was bloody lovely.
One pint was enough but by much-warmer Wednesday I decided to venture further afield and hopped on a train to London Bridge.
The train was half empty. The Thameside pubs less so, although I did manage to quaff a cheeky half at the Anchor Bankside, which prides itself on being a Shakespearean-era watering hole even if the prices are far from Shakespearean. But seeing people laughing and socialising again was worth every penny.
Next stop: A beach-style bar on the South Bank, where when the sun came out it was like being in Ibiza and when it went behind the clouds it was more like being in Skegness.
The West End proved more of a challenge.
Every place I approached served up variations on ‘Sorry, we’re fully booked’ or ‘Yes sir, you can have a table but we need it back in 30 minutes’ - things you never used to hear on a Wednesday afty but which will probably be the new normal until pubs and restaurants are allowed to seat patrons indoors as well as outside from May 17th (subject to road map criteria being met, of course).
A man on a mission, I downed a Pinot Grigio in Covent Garden with the stopwatch ticking.
Ditto the house wine I had at the Ku Bar. That was another palaver if ever there was one. It cost nearly seven quid for a medium-sized glass and the only available slot was a metal chair next to the windowsill right under a speaker that was cranked up to full volume. And I only had 30 mins to drink it whilst thinking ‘This sure ain’t the same as cocktails at the Savoy’ but again it tasted bloody lovely.
If I venture out again before mid-May, though, I’m going to do so with friends so as not to seem such a saddo. And I’ll be sure to book ahead. Spontaneous sherries are a thing of the past, for a while at least, and I want to savour a Sauvignon, not have to wolf it down like the lush some already accuse me of being!