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Sampling first weekend of the 'crazy new norm' in Canterbury pubs

Pubs across the county reopened for the first time in months on Saturday - but not as we know them.

KentOnline reporters Lydia Chantler-Hicks and Jack Dyson went out over the weekend to sample a taste of what's been dubbed the 'crazy new normal'....

Super Saturday in Canterbury
Super Saturday in Canterbury

SATURDAY - by Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Approaching the Old City Bar in Canterbury, I feel almost nervous.

After months of lockdown, my local pub - where I’ve spent countless evenings with friends and colleagues - feels oddly alien and I have no idea what to expect.

There were four groups waiting to get in at bang-on midday, but by the time I arrive half-an-hour later, it’s just me.

The usually-heaving bar is empty. Behind perspex screens, staff are meticulously cleaning things.

A half-pint of Kronenberg beaded with moisture at the Old City Bar
A half-pint of Kronenberg beaded with moisture at the Old City Bar

A cheery waitress asks for my name and contact details for Test and Trace, and as I scribble these down, she rattles off the new procedures: a one-way system in place throughout the whole building; an at-table service with no orders taken at the bar; and if you get to the loos and they’re busy, please return to your table and wait until they’re clear.

She leads me to a table outside, and takes my order.

Benches are spread throughout the spacious garden. It’s not as busy as I expected – certainly far less so than a Saturday lunchtime pre-pandemic.

Just six tables are in use. Two middle-aged men sit on their own, contentedly sipping session ales. A few clusters of friends glance around, like me, drinking in their surroundings.

At one table a group of men, a few pints in, is getting a bit rowdy. A security guard's standing by but it's the manager, Heather, who quickly swoops in and expertly hushes them.

'Pubs have to move forward with the times...'

My Kronenburg - beaded with moisture and looking rather glorious - is brought out on a tray.

Heather explains I must reach out and take it, as they're limiting the number of staff touching glasses.

Above, the sky’s a steely grey and it’s spitting slightly. Every now and then, a gust of wind surges through the garden, battering the large umbrellas. But preoccupied by their conversations and long-anticipated drinks, my fellow punters don't appear to notice.

My pint finished, I head into town.

I’d braced myself for big crowds and long queues, but here too, things seems quiet.

The Old City's new-look bar
The Old City's new-look bar

Outside the Thomas Ingoldsby Wetherspoon, two or three people are waiting patiently to be allowed in. At the other end of town, The West Gate Inn has no queue at all.

I head to The Dolphin in St Radigunds Street, where I meet owner Charles Smythe.

Here, it's bookings only. There’s nobody sitting inside, but the newly-refurbished beer garden is packed with people at spaced-out tables.

Mr Smythe says the less-than-lovely weather is perhaps blessing in disguise; things are certainly less chaotic than they might have been.

“It’s been good,” he says. “I think we’ve got it right. I’ve got brilliant managers, and we’ve made sure we have every bit of documentation and more.

Charles Smythe at The Dolphin in Canterbury on Saturday
Charles Smythe at The Dolphin in Canterbury on Saturday

“We’ve had some regulars turn up at bang on 12 o’clock.

“They’re actually appreciating the continental style of service, where they sit in the garden and don’t have to come to the bar. I think going forward, good operators will always have waiters and waitresses in the garden.

“For the last 13 weeks, people have grown used to sitting at home, not paying a lot for their alcohol. So I don’t think you can open the doors now and expect people to just turn up for a bad environment or bad service.

“An at-table service gives an edge. You can come out, and yes it’s going to be expensive because at the end of the day we’ve got staff and overheads, but this is adding to the experience.

"I think that’s one of the most positive things out of this - it’s making pubs turn a little bit more professional.

The Dolphin has undergone a major refurbishment during the lockdown. Picture: Charles Smythe
The Dolphin has undergone a major refurbishment during the lockdown. Picture: Charles Smythe

"That’s what pubs have to do. They have to move forward with the times.”

As I head back into the city, I can see what he means.

Some pubs – The Shakespeare, Truman's, the Millers Arms, the Black Griffin – have chosen to remain shut for now.

But on the high street, the al-fresco drinking does make for a certain holiday-esque feel.

People stand in clusters outside The Lady Luck, and are perched at tables by The Cricketers.

The Cricketers in Canterbury on Super Saturday
The Cricketers in Canterbury on Super Saturday

Pedestrianised Guildhall Street has a particularly continental vibe. Outside The Drapers Arms and under awning in front of the Chocolate Cafe, people at bistro tables sip coffees and lager and catch up with friends.

Later on Saturday night, I learn a fight broke out in the high street and police were called to break it up. It makes me glad I came out to experience ‘Super Saturday’ for myself, as from what I saw it appears to have been an isolated incident.

Nobody, not even landlords, knew what to expect when they opened their doors in this brave new, post-lockdown world.

But all things considered, it seemed to go smoothly - Canterbury handled the reopening well. And we can all raise a glass to that.

SUNDAY - by Jack Dyson

With images of drunken revellers thronging Soho fresh in my mind, I trudge towards the centre of Canterbury filled with apprehension.

My head is spinning with questions about what I’ll find when I enter some of the city’s boozers. Will landlords act responsibly? How will customers behave? And will I even feel safe?

My fears subside as I approach the chocolate-box exterior of The Unicorn in St Dunstan’s Street. Sat in a pocket of shade, the 17th century building is without a queue. A sheet is fixed near the entrance with the words THERE IS NO LAGER UNTIL AFTER TUESDAY emblazoned across the page. The pub’s dark-coloured front door gapes open as I step inside and see the landlord, Lorenzo Carnevale-Maffe, stood behind the bar with another member of staff.

The pub is still. Large parts of it have been sectioned off, with customers instead directed to sit in its beer garden. With my palms swimming in hand sanitiser, I’m led to my seat.

I perch myself on the edge of my chair to face the smattering of early afternoon drinkers quietly jabbering to one another as they nurse pints of amber nectar.

The Unicorn Inn
The Unicorn Inn

“You can order your drink on your phone by scanning this QR code,” the member of staff says, pointing to a sign on the table.

I’m breaking new ground. Hastily, I download an app on my phone and position the code under my camera – but it fails. Following several more botched attempts, I sit there befogged.

“The app seems to be working, but for some people yesterday it was a bit of a burden. For 80% of people it won’t be a problem,” Lorenzo discloses, plonking himself onto a seat at an adjacent table. The burly 54-year-old’s face is obscured by reflections across his visor.

After taking my order, his voice deepens: “We could have been manic from 12pm yesterday, but because we didn’t have very good weather it eased. Opening on a Saturday is madness. It should never have been allowed.

“We needed time to get used to everything. We were opening for the first time in three months completely differently. You saw the chaos that went on around the country.

Unicorn Inn landlord Lorenzo Carnevale-Maffe
Unicorn Inn landlord Lorenzo Carnevale-Maffe

“I was apprehensive at first, but once I saw everything working it all went away. By closing at 8pm, eight of our 10 tables were full with regulars. They were just so happy to be walking into a pub – they loved it.

“Compared to a standard Saturday in July, we probably made a quarter of what we’d usually take. I’m hoping people will get used to the idea. It’s going to be the crazy new norm.”

The garden’s capacity has been reduced to half of what it was previously. Its floors are bedecked with red tape and some of the rooms inside are now used to store the pub’s excess furniture.

As he steps away from my table, Lorenzo walks towards a Unicorn regular. “How was the app?” he asks.

“I don’t know how to use it,” the man responds.

The signs with the QR codes that were a feature of every table at the Unicorn
The signs with the QR codes that were a feature of every table at the Unicorn

Meanwhile, members of a group nearby are regaling each other with tales of romantic woe and familial discord, in between bouts of rasping laughter.

After taking the final few swigs of my drink, I pay and then leave, walking towards the centre of Canterbury. To my left, the Bishop’s Finger, which remains closed, is conspicuously empty.

As I joined the streams of people filtering in and out of St Peter’s Street, I see a lone drinker imbibing a pint outside the Lady Luck. The man, business owner David Grimes, points across the thoroughfare to his shop as he introduces himself.

“This is my second pint. I’ve been drinking bottled beer during lockdown, which is OK, but the Doombar in here is lovely,” the 58-year-old gushes. “It’s a nice way to unwind.

“Inside there is no atmosphere. I think pubs are changed. I think older people have realised they’re not as important as they thought they were.”

Canterbury business owner David Grimes
Canterbury business owner David Grimes

Inside the quietness of the pub is only broken by the low hum of music. The tables are sparsely populated, with the majority of the customers posited in the garden. Unmasked, a member of staff stands behind thick plastic screens at the bar.

Walking past my seat close to the tavern’s entrance, a family of five heads towards the street as the group’s matriarch extols: “It’s so good to be back.”

Minutes later, a jubilant customer reaching into his pocket for his wallet announces: “I haven’t had a pint of Kronenberg for three-and-a-half months.”

The landlord Emma Smith, 41, asks for my name and number as she fills in a contact tracing form. She tells me she managed to just about break even the day before.

“I was equally excited and scared. I was scared it would be completely quiet or that we’d be crazily busy,” she says. “We’ve introduced table service to customers, which means more staff, so those costs are going up.

One of the many arrows taped to the floor of the Lady Luck
One of the many arrows taped to the floor of the Lady Luck

“We didn’t really notice a rush yesterday. It was nice and quiet – it wasn’t the craziness that we had expected. We took about half of what we’d usually make yesterday, and there’s nothing you can do to make it busier.”

Just a few doors down furniture placed around The Cricketers is filled with punters basking in the beating-hot sun. Among them is Paul Dobson. Wearing a pair of sunglasses and a broad smile, the 49-year-old says he spent six hours at the pub the day before.

“My mate booked a table yesterday for 12pm. I was quite excited – it’s nice seeing things coming back to life,” the regular beams. “My mates loved it; a lot of them didn’t want to go home. I thought my first pint could be a bit ropey, but it was perfect.

“It’s brilliant. The social distancing worked quite well. It’s all so easy.

“It’s nice to be out and people watch; I could sit here for hours.”

The Cricketers regular Paul Dobson
The Cricketers regular Paul Dobson

And half a mile away, the scene is similar at The Thomas Ingoldsby. Its customers are depleted in numbers, but are the usual mix of craggy-faced regulars, families and skinny jean-wearing couples. Outside a waiter rattles through a list of protocols for us to follow, before directing us indoors. In between the clangs of cutlery on plates, a trio of lager-swilling men share their disdain for vegans.

As in the other pubs, the usual smell of burgers and booze is gone. In its place is a mild, freshly sterilised odour. It seems – for now at least – that the city is continuing to live warily alongside the threat of the pandemic.

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