Photography in the Pub

In some ways we’re in a golden age for pub photography as almost everyone now has a relatively powerful camera on their phone, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s simple.

Historically, photos of pubs tend to be of the exteriors. That’s partly because of the availability of lights, partly because the exteriors were highly decorated, and also perhaps because drinking has been, and maybe still is, a somewhat furtive activity.

There is the odd historic interior shot, more often than not taken by brewery photographers to document the decor, and thus usually eerily empty. But this one from c.1915, a favourite of ours, is an exception:

Interior of a London pub c.1915.Even there, though, it’s obvious they’ve been told to sit very still and not to smile so it hardly looks natural. Things start to get really good with Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton pubs for Mass Observation, taken in the late 1930s. We’ve used a few on the blog before but here’s a particularly dynamic example, where you can almost taste the mild, smell the smoke and hear the clack of the dominoes on the table:

Men playing dominoes.
Image ref. 1993.83.17.07

Spender snapped quickly without necessarily asking permission and occasionally got thrown out by irritated landlords. Eighty years on, the results are totally worth it — moments in time, faces, relationships, all captured without varnish.

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QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.

UPDATE: Every Pub In Penzance

Last December we made a new year’s resolution to visit during 2016 all the pubs in Penzance we had until then overlooked.

In fact, what we said was that we wanted, in general, to go to…

More and different pubs. We don’t even need to go far afield: there are pubs in Penzance we’ve never been in. This is ridiculous, and we will sort it.

With trips to Birmingham, Bolton, Dudley, Hartlepool, Manchester, Newcastle, Stevenage and a whole bunch of other places, with the specific intention of visiting pubs not necessarily known for their beer, we’ve achieved our broader goal. But the pubs of Penzance remained stubbornly unfinished until the weekend past.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

We started out well, visiting The Pirate at Alverton and The Sportsman at Heamoor in April, liking both enough that we’ve made return visits despite them being out of our way. The Pirate especially has got something about it: Adnams Broadside, a verdant beer garden, a carpeted and cosy old-fashioned interior, and a proper crowd of locals who (all we ask for) don’t look at us twice. It’s become a little treat for us to wander out that way on a lazy weekend afternoon when we’re not on a train or bus somewhere up country.

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DETAILS: Performance Enhancers

Item: the pills they sell in pub toilets that definitely aren’t Viagra.

The other week in Munich with friends I mentioned how funny I found the various ‘blue pills’ they sell in gents toilets alongside condoms and other useful items such as a novelty penises that expand when you put them in water. The women in the group were astonished by this revelation, as was Boak when I mentioned it to her the other day.

So, because this leads me to believe other people may not know about this either, here’s an example:

Solid Gold vending machine in a pub toilet.This one is unusual in that it doesn’t have ‘blue’ in its name but otherwise the characteristics are typical:

  1. A vague suggestion of potency (extra strong) without any indication of what the active ingredient might be, if any. A quick search online suggests these ones are ‘herbal’ which leads me to conclude that you might as well eat a vegetable stock cube.
  2. Some iconography of ‘adultness’ — in this case, a simple nod to the BBFC’s 18 certificate logo, although it’s often an elaborate illustration of a ghostly blue naked woman.
  3. And a word that hints at what it is supposed to do to your physique without being open to challenge under Trade Descriptions — solid, if you catch my drift, nudge nudge, know what I mean?

Who buys these? The condoms I can understand but non-specific pills that might do… something? Then again, perhaps someone gullible enough to spend their cash on ‘medicine’ in a pub bog is also highly susceptible to the placebo effect.

Sonder, Truro’s Craft Beer Bar

How had we not heard about Sonder, a six-month-old craft beer bar with, 12 keg taps in Cornwall’s county town?

We did know about Newquay’s craft beer venue, No. 5 Brewhouse, but our plan to visit that was foiled by its closure for a private party. Sonder, meanwhile, we merely wandered past on our way to Truro bus station.

It caught our eye because it gives off all the correct signals as prescribed in the Craftonian manifesto: dark paintwork, neon, modern typography and, of course, liberal use of the phrase CRAFT BEER on the frontage. Inside we found more of the same. Edison bulbs? Check. Recycled pallet wood? Everywhere. Staff in black T-shirts? Several. ‘Street food’? A menu full of it.

Pallet wood seating.

Based on stopping for two drinks, one on Friday afternoon, another on Saturday evening, we can’t presume to pronounce judgement, but our first impressions are good. Like a lot of would-be craft beer bars outside big cities (Truro is technically a city but, well…) it has an endearingly un-hip micropub quality, with customers of all ages and types chatting around the bar.

Edison bulbs.

The beer list is unusual with few of the usual suspects, suggesting direct supply rather than middlemen, and is displayed on electronic screens behind the bar. Turnover seems brisk with several beers on the list having changed between our visits. Tasters are positively pushed, too, which makes up for the obscurity of some of the beers on offer. On our first call, Buxton Axe Edge and Chorlton Mulled Lager were classical and fascinating respectively, the former crystalline, the latter hazy. On take two we had Pilsner Urquell served in a cute, chunky branded mug, and an IPA whose name we forgot to write down from a brewery we’d never heard of. (We’ve only been doing this for a decade — cut us some slack.) They were served weirdly without any head but we managed to whip some foam up with a plastic straw once we’d cleared an inch or two.

The bar at Sonder.

We mention that last point partly for the sake of honesty, and partly to underline that this isn’t a super-slick operation — the phrase ‘labour of love’ crops up on the Facebook page, and that’s what comes across. It simply feels like a happy place to be, if not yet quite comfortable in its own clothes. We remember, though, when Cask at Pimlico, the first pub in the Craft Beer Co chain, felt much the same, and look how that turned out.

It’s good, finally, to have an at least tentative answer to a question we get asked fairly frequently — where’s good for craft beer in Truro? — having never been able to back The Hub wholeheartedly. We’ll certainly be adding Sonder to our own regular and slightly eccentric Truro crawl along with The Old Ale House* and The Railway Tavern, a former working men’s club next to the station which we like for reasons other than its beer.

* We popped into The Old Ale House on Saturday but left after one — how is it possible for what is meant to be Skinner’s flagship pub, a venue with lots to commend it otherwise, to be serving beer that tastes so tired? Exasperating.