The oak beams and glistening beer taps are so familiar that it almost feels like seeing a loved one again. The pots of hand sanitiser and one-way system aren’t. But at noon tomorrow, when the first customers arrive at the Duke of Cumberland Arms, a Sussex pub overlooking the South Downs, I don’t suppose they’ll care. They’ll just be glad to have their local back.
Like all pubs across England, when the last orders bell tolled at The Duke on Friday March 20, nobody knew when the next pint would be poured. Some staff wept. Others, who would be furloughed, vowed to help tend the pub’s vast, sloped garden while they couldn’t work. Simon Goodman, landlord and head chef for almost 13 years, set about turning leftover vegetables into soup for key workers. And then they waited.
“We didn’t exactly get a lot of notice,” says Goodman, 40, on Thursday afternoon, pacing around the pub excitedly, “but we’re raring to go.” After the Prime Minister’s announcement, just 10 days ago, that pubs could reopen from Saturday, his team has been busy preparing to not just revive The Duke, but to make sure it is safe in post-lockdown Britain.
So, what will it be like to visit a pub in this new era? A lot like visiting a pub in the old era, it seems, only with the potential for longer queues, wars over outside tables, and less interaction with punters. The latter is up to customers – Goodman will be putting more staff on than ever, but he trusts his patrons to police themselves. “They’re mostly locals and I hope they appreciate we’re doing our best,” he says.
Stone steps have been installed to allow easier access to the garden, and a new marquee will provide rain cover. The gents’ toilets, which were outside already (some elements of a 16th century coaching inn are helpful for a 2020 pandemic), will have the door removed, so brave customers can peer around the corner and see how many people are inside.
As the bar is tiny, spacing customers and staff out with “one metre plus” between them would have resulted in roughly two people being able to drink safely. So the restaurant is open, but drinkers must stay in the garden, queueing to order at a till set up at a window, collecting their drinks from the doorway, and moving in one fluid movement back to their tables.
Hand sanitiser (“£12 a pop!” Goodman exclaims) will be in abundance, arrows will mark the one-way system, and staff will mill around guiding befuddled locals, answering questions, and gently suggesting children don’t lick the tables... Goodman even plans to create a social media video outlining what’s different. It’s new to him. It’s new to us. But it’s a start.
“Who knows how it’ll go? We might have got it wrong, we might all go into lockdown again, and we’re not even thinking about winter…,” he says. “But just being here, with a busy pub and staff again, everyone’s got a smile on their faces. We just want to open now.”