Buying a Country Pub, Part 2
Easter came and went, this was an ordeal by fire, the World and his Wife descended on us, we had no concept of what it would be like. If anyone suggests taking over a business before a Bank Holiday to enjoy the benefits, don’t ever do it, it is the quickest way to lose customers through lack of experience, we sold every bit of food and begged, borrowed and scrounged more to feed the World, floundering our way through and nearly having a divorce en-route.
Following Easters scramble life seemed quite easy, the initial problems had been resolved, the locals were happy with the prices, the pub had been filled with pub junk to make it look like a traditional Inn, the brass was gleaming and the food was good, the tourists were impressed.
We had the patronage of Jan Ridd, the only Ridd to bear the exalted name of Lorna Doone fame. I had thought it a “Wind up” when the locals told me that it was really Jan Ridd, especially since this was the main coach road into the Doone Valley and Oare Church. Jan’s similarity with the story stopped at the name, he was about five feet four inches in height very substantially built, hands like gnarled hams and a face like a battered red bus. His cap, when very rarely removed showed a bald white head and his occupation was farm labourer to almost every local farm at different times of the year. He would drink thirteen pints of Starlight Beer and the go on to Dubonnet and Lemonade, at this point anything could happen, usually a big grin appeared on his face, and the immortal words came out “Church or Chapel, let it Rattle” this tended to clear a large area of the Bar. On one occasion, after a particularly extended session he fell asleep in a snow drift opposite the pub for four hours, woke up and started work at six a.m. as usual, anyone else would have been a hospital case. On a particularly bitter Winters day he came into the pub with splits on his hands and fingers from the cold, that were unreal and it was only after a lot of persuading would he allow us to treat them, I am sure anyone else would have lost at least one finger if not two.
Our learning curve was not yet complete, at about ten fifteen a battered Land Rover rumbled in to the car park on a particularly quiet evening, the door opened and a character wandered in ordering a pint of Manns Brown. I had noticed that there were several crates of Manns Brown in the Beer Store, a beer that was reputed to guarantee failure of a National Service Medical after two pints the night before, something I was never able to prove, but was always curious.
I had heard mutterings among the locals about Dick and his brother in law the Farmer and various odd questions as to whether they had been in yet, I was not sure in the blur of faces initially. This was Dick, with a distinct smell of sheep and a broad Exmoor accent, he had been lambing and that was why he had not been in before, also this was really his pub and had been his Fathers before. I had found a picture of a large farmer being loaded on to an equally large horse, this was Dicks deceased Father, the horse had been replaced by a Land Rover.
Dick proceeded to consume about six pints of Manns Brown and paid cash, one of the very few occasions, the rest of the time he used cheques which I wrote out, having passed the honesty scrutiny. His age was hard to assess under the weather beaten face, the clothes were spattered with straw and had a very well worn look to say the least, you would not say one of the County Set, in fact he and his Brother in Law owned most of the land around us plus rights on the moor and thousands of sheep and a prize herd of cows, apart from some very interesting horses. He must have been feeling benevolent towards us, because he left nearly within the licensing hours, which was unheard of later on.
The Regional Crime Squad made their fortnightly visit with Farmer Dudley, Dick’s Brother in law. Dudley referred to everyone as “Lovey”, drank prodigious amounts of whiskey and milk, so much so that he we had to find extra milk on numerous occasions. It appeared that some well known criminal had been hiding in a cottage locally for some considerable time and had finally given himself up, the Police were trying to find any information as to how he had managed to stay undetected for so long. It seemed pretty obvious to me from my limited experience, all you needed were some very old clothes and boots, fall into a sheep pen, put on an Exmoor accent and drink copious amounts of weak beer and your own Mother wouldn’t recognise you let alone the Police.
The Regional Crime Squad finally decided that there was nothing further to be gained from calling once a fortnight, which was quite a relief, continually being questioned about curious phone calls etc. finally begins to rub off and you start to feel like a suspect yourself.
Business quietened down between Easter and Whitsun. A brand new Mercedes pulled into the car park and a man came into the pub and ordered food and some beer. He appeared to be known to the locals and very familiar with the pub, he had apparently been up to Dicks’ farm to discuss horses which did not seem to fit the distinctly East End accent. His clothes were casual and obviously expensive, money was no object, since he bought several rounds of drinks for everyone. Closing time arrived and to avoid patently breaking the law I offered free coffee and removed the glasses, the Police having called at closing time a couple of times because of my Probationary Licence, for want of a better description. Jim had drunk his coffee and wanted to buy some more drinks, he ordered a large Hennesey XO Brandy with Coke in his coffee cup and proceeded to demolish half a bottle, much to my financial delight. After an hour or so he asked me whether I still had the little Green Safe upstairs, I nervously replied that I had and he said that he could blow it in two minutes, I have never felt so financially inadequate and eventually retired to bed thinking that I would put the takings anywhere other than in the safe.
The locals had finally decided that we had not descended from Outer Space and we became part of the Community as one does when one owns the Village Shop or Garage or Blacksmiths.
The pub was built into the hillside with a small back bar and a stone chimney set against the hillside, on numerous occasions adders had crawled between the stones of the chimney, attracted by the warmth and fallen into the fireplace, fortunately the cat had killed them and proudly displayed them in the morning. Sam the cat looked extremely decorative but because of my predecessors neglect had become a well trained killer and if it was too big to kill he would bring it back alive. We decided that he had a mental hang up, that he thought he was a dog and lived on dog food, he flatly refused to eat cat food and any dog that came in to the pub he rushed up to with some fairly dire results. It became fairly apparent that Sam was not going to be collected by my predecessor and he was definitely part of the fixtures and fittings. Having decided that as a family we were a vast improvement on the last occupants and with his dog mentality proceeded to be treated as a dog having his whiskers, tail and fur tweaked by all and sundry, teased and played with incessantly, which he thoroughly enjoyed, playfully attacking everyone without using his claws or biting anyone. When he had finally had enough he would raise a paw then lie down or slowly walk away. I think being played with was a new experience for him, the previous owner having left him many times to fend for himself, which he did very well. His hunting activities produced some other unwanted guests, sheep ticks. The first time that I found one the family nearly had a fit, Sam was not happy about having it removed and after a combined effort I extracted it. Regular checks were then made and eventually Sam would come to me with a certain look about him and let me remove the ticks. If it was particularly painful he would walk away and then come back ten minutes later to finish the job, he would stop me by gently putting his paw up.
We had been warned that Coaches used to stop for coffee or lunch with previous owners, but owing to the vagaries of our predecessor they had given up
Our first Coach encounter was preceded by a visit from a character called Bob, who gave the impression that he was personally responsible for every Coach entering the Doone Valley, after some months we discovered that he was in fact a seasonal driver for one small Coach Company. The format was, if you were lucky a phone call would be made saying a Coach with forty-one people would be arriving at eleven o’clock. Forty-two cups, saucers and biscuits would be laid out and everyone would sing “There’s a Coach coming in,” and general panic would ensue. The Coach would duly arrive forty-one people would make a concerted rush to be the first to the coffee, the driver would slide round the back to ensure that he was served first and chaos would prevail.
On one occasion a particularly antagonistic, queue jumping dragon started shrieking that she was number three in the pub and had not been served yet and the service was atrocious. I suggested that if everyone had numbers one to forty-one tattooed on their foreheads I could serve them all in order but since they didn’t I would do my best. Ironically they were all served within eight minutes and she beat a sheepish retreat.
Another classic, was a very haughty woman and her small son came in on a Coach. We had finished the coffees and she said “Do you sell milk,” talking down to me, I replied “Madam, we are a Pub, we sell beer, soft drinks, food, coffee and tea under sufferance, we do not sell milk.” She said “I want a glass of milk for my son,” I had no desire to fall out with the Coach Company so I produced a glass of milk, which she paid for. She gave the glass to her son and said to me “Where does it come from,” I replied “Cows of course,” she then said “How is it delivered,” I replied in a milk float every morning, this may have been a bit beyond her understanding in the middle of Exmoor, she then said to her son “Don’t drink it.” he of course left it and I drank it later.
The Coaches became quite fun, and it became a race to get the coffees out and even more so when a second Coach appeared since we only had fifty cups, the clear up rate and washing up were down to a precise science. At the height of chaos two coaches would be in and out in twenty minutes.
The Toilets were always a constant source of trouble, before we altered the pub.
They were housed in a pink corrugated iron and chain link shack. On my initial attempts to knock it down and rebuild it the local Planning Officer objected because he believed that corrugated iron was part of Exmoor’s heritage, I pointed out that in two years time he would be working somewhere else and the last thing he would bother about would be Exmoor’s heritage, we differed somewhat and he is now one of the heirarchy in the Planning Dept, and I always have trouble with the Planners.
At this stage in my life I was fairly trusting towards the human race, the chain link gate to the Toilet Block was always padlocked by previous Landlords and opened during pub hours. By obtaining an old penny from behind the bar, hence the box of old pennies, and inserting in the equally old coin locks a form of control was established over the indiscriminate use of the toilets. This seemed to my innocent mind somewhat draconian for the use of a toilet, apart from the embarrassment of asking for a penny to spend a penny. I just left it unlocked and found to my horror two or three Coaches parked outside and the whole of the Western World using them, apart from stealing all the Loo Paper and everything else removable. My view on human nature changed over the next few months, in desperation I put up a sign saying “Persons using these Toilets without patronising the Rockford Inn may find themselves locked in the Toilets and will only be released on payment of 50p.” It started as a joke, since jokey signs are always noticed, but I naively thought it would be a diplomatic way to stop people abusing our facilities.
My first victims were totally unintentional, at about nine o’clock one morning I opened the gate to drop some empty bottles in the store beside the Toilets, having done this I locked up and went for breakfast. About three quarters of an hour later I could here some faint shouting from outside and assumed it was walkers on the other side of the river, thinking someone may have fallen in the river I went out, to find a highly irate couple locked behind the gate to the Toilets. I asked them if they had actually read the notice, which they couldn’t miss, they replied that they had and had taken a chance. I told them it would cost one pound for the two of them, which they quickly paid, I think they had visions of being locked up for hours, I did say that I would obviously refund the pound if they came back to the pub, they were not happy people and like a lot of visitors to Exmoor did not sound like regular frequenters of pubs.
Shortly after this I realised that I had not locked the Gate at about three o’clock one afternoon, our private quarters were adjoining the pub on the opposite side from the dreaded gate to the Toilets. As I walked down the road I could see two women reading the Notice, approaching the women one said “You nip in and I’ll keep watch.” The second woman looked round ignored me and went in, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I carried on walking. The Toilet door closed and the Loo seat went down, so I turned and walked back and proceeded to lock the gate. The look out woman went mad and started shouting at me, I said “You’re supposed to be keeping watch and you’re not doing a very good job,” she then wanted to know where I was going and I told her it was my afternoon off. At this stage the second woman came rushing out of the Toilet swearing like a trooper. I pointed out that it would cost her fifty pence to be let out, which she refused to pay, so I said “Stay there then,” the look out had rushed up the road to get their two husbands. They arrived looking a trifle hostile, wanting to know what was going on, I explained that their two wives had read the notice and decided one would keep watch whilst the other nipped in, and had unfortunately been caught. The husbands duly read the Notice grinned at me and said “You owe the man fifty pence,” the entrapped woman grudgingly passed fifty pence through the wire and I let her out. The four then walked up the hill arguing furiously. I discreetly mentioned to the husbands that I would refund it if they came to the pub, they said that they would love to without their wives later.
The Toilet trap became a talking point whenever anyone read the Notice and the usual questions came out did we really catch people in there? I said that it was too easy with all the walkers, as in any tourist area there are always a large proportion who will try and get something for nothing, and toilets come very high on their list of priorities. If anyone asked to use their Toilet at home they would send them packing with a large flea in their ear, the rules are different on holiday. On this particular day three people had lunch and asked for a demonstration after we closed. I said that we would leave the gate open and sit on the railings beside the river on the opposite side of the road and watch. Within five minutes a large woman with two men came down the hill, read the Notice and the shortest man looked round and nipped in to the Toilets, the other two walked on. I locked the gate and returned to the railings beside the spectators. The little man came out and found the gate locked and proceeded to try and get out with no success, in due course the large woman returned with the other man, who was instructed to find a way out, again with no success the smaller man did not seem terribly worried but the woman was berating him for having allowed himself to be locked in. The spectators watched this performance with hoots of laughter and finally I released him after the statutory fifty pence fee.
I had some serious trouble from two well known Coach Companies, the first parked in the car park and told all the occupants that they could use the Toilets and then drove on again. I phoned the Company involved to complain and got a very short answer, I said that I had no objection if we did some business, but I was not providing free Toilet facilities for Coaches, they said ours were the only available Toilets in the area and we would have to put up with it. The next time the Coach pulled up I checked with the driver to see how many coffees they wanted, he told me that it was a stop to use the toilets and nothing else, I off course locked the gate with a large proportion of the Coach occupants in there and a very disgruntled driver had to pay up.
The second Coach disaster occurred one afternoon when I was out. There was a knock on the door to our private accommodation, my wife answered the door to a very distressed elderly lady saying was it possible to use our Toilet, she somewhat surprised, agreed taking her along to the downstairs Loo, hearing a noise behind was confronted with a hoard of people walking into our hall, pushing and shoving to get to the Toilet. I arrived back to find a queue of people coming out of our front door and a large Coach on the car park, I asked my Wife what was going on and she explained about the elderly lady, I then told the Coach driver and his customers to get out in some fairly basic terms. I always thought a large section of the population should experience working in a pub and dealing directly with the public, but I think a tourist country pub would be more appropriate.
This may sound like a very jaundiced view and in a short time we began to recognise the freeloaders and abusers and found ways to turn the tables, the majority of people were great fun and enjoyed the stories of the mishaps of the few.
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