Gossips, snacks and the odd proposal: why I loved growing up in a real pub

Cathy Rentzenbrink

In 1989, when I was 16, my parents bought the Bell and Crown in Snaith, a small town in Yorkshire about 30 miles east of Leeds, and we moved in upstairs. The regulars were welcoming, but guarded. “You’re not going to start doing food, are you?” asked all the men who propped up the bar. “No,” said my dad. “We’re happy being just an ale house.”

I was a voracious reader and had recently raced my way through lots of historical novels by Norah Lofts which traced the fortunes of pubs through the ages, showing how the livelihoods of the landlords would be threatened by invasion, war, plague, the alteration of the route taken by the mail coach or the relocation of the market. There was no longer a market in Snaith, though we lived on Market Place and around the corner from Butter Market and Beast Fair, which seemed like good evidence of past glories. Down in the cellar, which was the oldest bit of the building and where the low ceilings spoke to times when everyone was shorter, I’d hope to see a friendly ghost who might help me make up plots for novels that featured barmaids through the centuries.

I was keen to find out about life through people as well as books so I took to bar work and loved the chat, the jokes and the gossip. We were busy at weekends, but the weekdays were all about darts and dominoes and conversation. Builders would come in when they got rained off, farmers would talk fondly of their pigs or explain about the moisture content of the corn.

I had my first proposal of marriage from a smallholder who traded us courgettes for beer. “It’s a bit lonely down there but I could get a record player for you.” I declined. One day I realised I hadn’t seen him for a while and I hoped he was tucking in to a courgette supper and then dancing the night away with his new bride.

I was fascinated by the complex etiquette of buying in rounds. No one wanted the reputation of hanging back, of having short arms and long pockets. But neither should you be flash. Who was in a round was a carefully orchestrated business, the traditions of which had been laid down long before we arrived.

When it was quiet I’d sit on the other side of the bar smoking with my favourite customers, flicking my ash into the heavy stone ashtrays that ran the length of the bar, punctuated by brewery-branded trays and towels. One of our regulars – a great laugh of a man who had a noisily acrimonious relationship with his wife that they both seemed to enjoy – built a bar in the corner of his sitting room. “I want it to look professional, like,” he said, so we gave a him a bag of stuff and he want off happily. A few weeks later he came with a black eye and a busted nose. “That ashtray you gave me has got some weight in it,” he said. His wife had hit him with it during sex. “I deserved it,” he shrugged. He was equally sanguine when she chased him with a shotgun after another drunken exchange of insults.

Violence was never far away. Beer in, sense out, we used to tell each other, when long held resentments would boil over. I’m aware of my rose-tinted spectacles. At this distance it is easy to forget the night a drug dealer smashed up our neighbour’s car because he thought it was mine, or the era of the threatening anonymous calls, or the friendships lost because people were cross that their relatives had been barred.

I can’t get my head around a proper pub with no bar. For me, the bar was always where it was at

Pubs are bad for the landlord’s kids and dogs, they say. Too much spoiling, too many snacks. I remember many happy times drawing shamrocks on the Guinness foam and sharing in the significant life events of our customers. I will for ever be grateful for everything I learned. The pub gave me good radar and a lifelong ease in the company of men.

And I value the sense of perspective. Now I am a writer I often reflect that no matter what else might go wrong at work, it is unlikely I will end up standing in the street at midnight with no front windows and covered in someone else’s blood.

None of us will be literally propping up the bar, even when the pubs do reopen. It will be table service only. I can imagine how the licensed cafe-style places will function, but I can’t get my head around a proper pub with no bar. For me, the bar was always where it was at.

The Bell and Crown in Snaith. Photograph: John Morrison/Alamy

I still fancy writing a pub novel in homage to both Norah Lofts and the Bell and Crown. I could try to find out when Butter Market stopped selling butter and when Beast Fair lost its animals. Even in the 30 years since our tenure there have been plenty of changes. I could cover all-day opening and show my characters building an outside terrace to try to mitigate the effects of the smoking ban.

I wonder how I’d write the corona chapter. I suppose nobody knows that yet. I only hope that the Bell and Crown and all the ale houses like it find a way to survive.

Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader: the Comfort and Joy of Books will be published by Picador in September