On a recent visit to England I discovered that British life begins and ends at the pub. The centuries old custom of pub going means more than frequenting the local watering hole where you can wet your whistle. The pub, a center of community life, is a place where social barriers break down, class distinctions disappear and everyone is treated equally. Even dogs.
Visiting a traditional pub with a native helps you interpret the pub going protocol. We would still be waiting to be served if it weren’t for Larissa our son’s British girlfriend. When she took us to her hometown favorite The Embankment, a trendy place in Bedford, she explained that you must go to the bar to order and pick up drinks.
This renovated, wood-timbered Victorian era pub built in 1891 across from the River Great Ouse down from the Rowing Club reflected its roots. Though it retains its old world charm, there is nothing stuffy about this place. Divided rooms cater for dinner parties and crowds, but the heart and soul of the establishment remains the front room’s long wooden bar.
A local patron, a jovial mate stood there reading a newspaper knocking back his first beer at 10 am. He greets the steady stream of clients by bending to pet every pooch that entered the premises while his own dog dozes in a stuffed chair by the door.
The family friendly pub welcomes kids and pets. Everyone can lounge around over breakfast, lunch or dinner on cozy banquettes and sofa chairs in front of a log fire. The din of adult’s chatter, children’s laughter, and dogs’ barking, creates a convivial carnival like atmosphere.
“It is the opposite of America,” my Frenchman quipped, “In England dogs are welcome, but no guns allowed.”
With people watching at a premium I reveled in the view. At the round table next to ours, a posh couple coddling a poodle ordered a morning whiskey and Baileys on ice with a side of coffee. I nudged my husband and whispered “They brought dog biscuits in a mini Tupperware.”
“That’s nothing,” Gérald said. “The local chap at the bar has a box of kibble that he hands out to visiting pets.”
For the price of a drink you can linger and savor the show all day.
After our morning coffee, as soon as a table freed up in front of the fire, Larissa ushered us to comfier seats where we ordered lunch. The menu? What else – fish and chips. In keeping with British tradition, we doused our thick-cut fries and fried cod with a dash of cider vinegar.
But by far the biggest celebrity to parade into the pub was Guinness, Larissa’s sister and brother-in-law’s dog. The fluffy, black labradoodle stole the show when he loped in on gangly legs while everyone cooed in delight.
Dining on fish and chips in a real pub made us feel ever so British. In addition to greeting new arrivals, the man at the front of the bar put a fresh log on the fire as soon as the flame grew low. As if we were royalty sitting in his front parlor, he shared a kind word with each of us on our way out.
We felt like honorary guests in a British private home… until it was time to pay the bill.