I come from a family of pub-appreciators. My Dad in particular was a pub-appreciator of the highest order until a few years ago when the taste of alcohol in any form changed for him from a comforting, slightly naughty sensation of decadence to being nothing more than the the rancid squeezings from Satan's mouldy teabags. Like the reformed smoker that he isn't (but, I am told, some people are) he now abhors the smell of booze on me, my sister or my mum (who don't drink a lot, but like the occasional giggle) and makes verbose and earnest garrumphs of disapproval (“that wine smells like Daly Thompson's jockstrap”) whenever a new bottle of anything is opened.
I think this is because he has never quite got over the refurbishment of his local, the Yardley Arms in East Birmingham, around twenty years ago. It was a little building, rather like a big 1930s house, which had a bar, a lounge and a smoker's room where the men hid from the women. It had open fires, no jukebox and the locals made jovial but clearly intentioned threats to the owner every time he made a passing comment that he might like to get a couple of fruit machines in. I remember many rather lucrative Saturday afternoons when I'd come in off the swings in the beer garden with my friends, pad through the bar and, on my way to ask Dad for another Vimto, be given the odd 50p or even pound note from various uncles or mates of my parents. Apart from the miasma of beer, fags and cigars the main thing I can remember was the chatter. People talked to each other as if this were in fact not a weird thing to do. There may've been a domino or darts match going on, a committee meeting (they did a lot of work for charity) or my Granddad burbling Danny Boy to some unfortunate young woman in the corner, but rising above all these sounds was the bubbly rumble of amiable chit-chat.
Since then I have loved pub-chat in all its lucid and non-lucid forms. This boat trip has been many things, and one of them has been a voyage to find the most entertaining pub chat in Britain. On the whole it has been superb; a chat-tastic trip.
The thing is, though, in general not many pubs encourage that sort of racy behaviour any more. I don't quite know what it is breweries like Fullers do to pubs; perhaps they go down into the cellar and forcibly excavate its mojo or something; but whatever it is, it makes the pub shite. The Yardley Arms is, as my dad would emphatically agree, a most tragic case in point. Anything described in our Nicholson Guide as ”recently refurbished” is given a wide berth. We don't want polished ash interiors and chrome and shiny things. I think it may be in the old nicotine stains, sticky, rickety wooden tables and questionable upholstery that a pub's mojo really dwells.
The Carpenter's Arms in the exquisitely named village of Slapton just north of Marsworth on the Grand Union is one such establishment. We were there last week and shortly after we had walked in, had our chilled bones soothed by a coal fire which oozed warmth and ordered a couple of drinks from the friendly (and scarily loads-younger-than-me-looking) bar person, we got chatting to Lol., the local long-haired-older-chap, prodigal son of Tring returned from a life of film archiving in Cheshire. Really lovely man. He was also a very drunk person. As soon as we began talking to him, I had to adjust my ears to his lonng, s-slow, s-s-s-sibilant music, a feat that can generally be accomplished with ease by downing a couple of drinks very fast and joining in, but I was too full up with shepherd's pie and a gut load of cabbage to go in for any of that kind of malarkey.
It turned out that Lol was a very genial bloke with a fondness for telling us he was “happy as a pig in shit” to be back on his home turf. As if to demonstrate, he continued to downed pint after pint of Guinness with showstopping swiftness, and got happier and happier. It was very nice talking to him, even though any attempt to introduce a topic of conversation on my part was met with a fatherly “Yep-yep, been there, done it, dusted it” from Lol. He bought me a drink and refused to let me buy him one back. I could've been back in he Yardley Arms. After I commented that the fire was getting low, Lol heaved himself up, swayed uncertainly to the coal scuttle which was brimming over with coal, picked it up and with some gusto chucked the whole lot onto the fire. Well, I say onto it, it'd be more accurate to say that he threw it in the general direction of the fire. He threw it heartily, mind. The few lumps of coal that did hit the fire did so with such force that most of the glowing stuff already in there was forced down into the ash pan. As he bent to pick up the scattered lumps of coal, rocking like a ship in a squall, he told each of them off for falling out of the bucket.
“Back in Cheshire, they used to call me Alco-Lol” he informed us. I couldn't say I was surprised.
If I had the time and you had the patience, I could describe a myriad of hostelries we have been to on the cut which have afforded us the kind of hospitality, warm fires and friendly loons that we found in the Carpenters Arms; The Olive Bush in Flecknoe, The Anchor on the Shropshire Union Canal, the Shroppie Fly, The Sun Inn in Llangollen, The White Hart in Ellesmere. Even The Angler's Retreat in Marsworth – a pub that had been dismissed to us as “too Seventies” by a boater – was a winner (this was partly due to the fact that we went there on Al's birthday and took with us one of our most 70s mates. Oh, and there were giant fish on the wall). Try 'em out. And if you see a friendly looking person sat by the open fire with a glass of cider, go over, say hello and have a chat with them. It might even be me.