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Pubs reopen in Kent: What it's like for customers

To paraphrase a quote often misattributed to a famous explorer of strange new worlds, "it's the pub, Jim, but not as we know it."

Walking into Folkestone yesterday morning, on a path well worn at the start of many a night on the town, I was caught in two minds – eager to tread once again the floorboards of some favourite haunts but nervous to see what the "new normal" post-lockdown would look like.

Pubs are open again – but will a trip to the local be anything like the experience we know and love?
Pubs are open again – but will a trip to the local be anything like the experience we know and love?

For many of us, the idea of the pub goes far beyond the four walls, the fixtures and fittings. The magic of this centuries-old national institution lies in the emotion, the feeling of sociability, the chance to raise a glass with old friends, and some you may only just have met.

But what if you take all that away? Throw up screens, enforce social distancing, remove the chance encounters at the bar and the conspiratorial huddles in the corners where the smokers linger?

What is left of the pub when so much of what makes it "the pub" is now forbidden by the restrictions of the coronavirus age?

Entering the bar at lunchtime, in the minutes before the doors were finally opened to guests for the first time since March, much was as it was pre-pandemic.

But, as if in a dream set in a place familiar yet somehow not, there were many signs of just how much things had changed since that day the Prime Minister, mournfully, ordered the taps dry.

"There was a distinct sense of people being desperate, after these long months, for a return to business as normal."

Staff hurried to straighten aprons and adjust face masks, last-minute signs drawing attention to hand sanitiser stations were put up, perspex screens stood barrier between barman and the room.

Renovations carried out during lockdown had obviously been carefully thought through. Erected between some of the larger tables for four or six, partitions appeared seamlessly inserted, creating a sense almost reminiscent of the old-time diner booth.

But the dividers between tables for two, to this observer at least, suggested something of the dole office, slightly sad little compartments to which you might be summoned at the allotted moment.

Perhaps that's too harsh. They may in time make wonderfully cosy snugs for first dates, sealing two people off in candlelight from the hubbub around. But on a drizzly, overcast June morning, these barriers only served to remind you just how this terrible virus has thrown up divides right throughout our lockdown lives.

Boxing people up, told to keep their distance from strangers, it goes against everything the pub stands for.

Hand sanitiser is likely to become a fixture of any visit to the pub for the foreseeable future
Hand sanitiser is likely to become a fixture of any visit to the pub for the foreseeable future

Not that the first customers through the door seemed to mind. There was a distinct sense of people being desperate, after these long months, for a return to business as normal.

Except, it's not normal, is it? Leave aside the wisdom of reopening the pubs while the virus remains, if not rampant, at least not fully tamed – the new pub experience will simply not be the same as the one we all knew and loved before Covid.

I walked home feeling quite melancholy about it all. Yes, delighted that so many wonderful people, their businesses and their staff are back to work, doing the thing they love.

And pleased also for those who, after a challenging lockdown, will find a trip to their local to be a real tonic and a chance to reconnect with people and places that can feel like a second home.

But sad because something has been lost. And because the world as we once knew it may not be returning any time soon. If it ever truly does.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

Read more: All the latest news from Folkestone


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