A Brief Encounter
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I had a lovely weekend at the Ludlow Food Festival recently. I was there to give a beer tasting on behalf of Slow Food Ludlow, introducing my guests to cask ale. I was helping them to understand why it is special and giving them the opportunity to sample some of the very best that Shropshire has to offer, helped in no small part with some carefully selected nibbles from the incomparable Shropshire Salumi. We tasted our way through Salopian, Three Tuns, then of course on to Ludlow before finishing off with near neighbours, Hobsons.
It was my second day at the festival, and I’d taken the scenic route through town to take in the sights. The previous day, I’d stopped off to visit the George, a beautiful Grade II-listed building that has recently reopened as a pub and hotel. It’s a very sympathetic refurbishment and a wonderful place to enjoy a well-kept pint of Ludlow Gold.
That day, I decided to head off the beaten track for some liquid refreshment. It was a cloudless day, blazing hot, and the compact Norman town was bustling. It’s pretty hard to veer off the main drag in somewhere as small as Ludlow, but I managed it by ducking around a corner to the Old Street Tavern. Two picnic tables sat invitingly on the frontage, each occupied by one solitary gentleman.
Jackpot! Every other pub, cafe and restaurant in town was standing room only thanks to the festival, and the Old Street Tavern’s al-fresco seating had the added benefit of being in a welcome shade. I hopped over the threshold and cast my eye along the bar, settling on a keg pint of Jaipur. A little bit pokier than I would have liked at that moment, but certainly offering all the cool hoppy refreshment that temperatures in the near 30s demand.
After exchanging a few casual words with the bartender and giving the panting dog by the bar a quick tickle behind the ears, I carefully carried my precious golden cargo back outside. Asking to share one of the tables, I naturally fell into conversation with Geoff (I’ve changed his name for privacy), a 79-year-old man who had been previously enjoying a quiet, solo beverage.
Our conversation spanned an incredible array of topics. Geoff told me about his childhood and time spent in boarding school. We talked about the state of the nation and the problems faced by local bus services. When he confided that he was an arch Conservative who had gradually become deeply left-wing as he aged, I duly congratulated him.
He had suffered a stroke, Geoff explained, that had affected his ability to process numbers. A former chartered accountant it was clear that this was a deep source of frustration for him. At times, our conversation was stilted as he struggled to find the right words, but that was no issue to me. He was good company, humorous and compassionate.
Geoff drained his glass and carried the empty carefully inside for a refill. When he returned with a fresh glass filled with shining ruby-red wine, I asked him how it was. Sitting back down, he took a sip, and winced. “What is it?” I asked him. He looked mournfully into the garnet depths.
“Red,” he sighed.
I know that dejected feeling. It was probably Jack Rabbit or something similarly equally uninspiring. When we got onto the subject of my writing for a living, he asked me to consider asking the industry at large why great beer pubs can’t offer a great wine as well.
It’s a great question, although this is neither the time nor place for it. I retell this encounter not to beg answers from publicans but because the incident made me feel good. Geoff and I chatted for about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. We’ll probably never cross paths again, and would we even recognise each other if we did? We both had a strong hat game that day, so maybe we would. But these are the conversations, the little moments, that make pubs great. They are also the interactions that make pubs unique – a chance to shoot the breeze with people from totally different walks of life than you as equals. We come together as supporting characters in one chapter of the great story of the public house.
We always talk about religion and politics, let’s not pretend otherwise. A different generation to me, Geoff had a couple of off the cuff generalisations about women that I gently chided him for, even though apparently I get a free pass as a beer drinker. Maybe we learned a little from each other, maybe not. But our brief dialogue touched my day and made it better. This is why I care about pubs; this is why I visit them whenever I can. Because you just don’t know who you might meet.