Young’s pubs in the West Country seem to do beer gardens unusually well by British standards – but maybe beer gardens are also getting better across the board.
This thought occurred to us as we sat in the garden at The Chequers at Hanham Mills last weekend, on what felt like the final day of summer.
Back in 2012, we gave the following general description of the British beer garden:
Wasps buzz around the hatchback-sized industrial waste bin, over by the wooden fence with its dropped slats. The concrete paving slabs under foot are littered with cigarette ends, knotted crisp packets and squashed chips. The remains of steak and ale pie sit on the next table over, as they have done for the last two hours. A tattered white Bacardi-branded parasol is threatening to break from its moorings in a gathering gale. The ashtray on your table overflows.
Snarky, perhaps, but we’ve seen plenty of beer gardens since that fit that general pattern.
What The Chequers gets right is, first, that its beer garden is built around nature.
The River Avon (the River River, etymology fans) runs along one side and mature trees stand overhead. It feels shady but not gloomy, fresh but not exposed.
The benches are wooden – worn but clean – with parasols where they are needed.
Our neighbours felt close but not too close, their conversations forming part of a warm collective hum.
It’s not perfect, of course. Between the garden and the green space up the hill there is a large car park, around which people were constantly manoeuvring large vehicles or simply running the engines. (What fuel shortage?)
At times, this did somewhat shatter the illusion.
In Germany, we’ve sat in beer gardens on ring roads that solve this problem with hedges and fences.
With pints of St Austell Proper Job at £4.65 and Young’s Original at £4.30 there’s clearly also a premium to be paid for the maintenance of a destination beer garden – and sufficient staff to adequately cover it. We don’t mind that; some might.
Sitting in the shade, feeling content, we started listing other similarly excellent beer gardens we’d encountered. There’s The Lock Keeper at Keynsham, the next stop along the Avon, for example. And, on the river Exe outside Exeter, two in succession: The Turf Hotel and The Double Locks.
Apart from The Turf, those are all Young’s pubs. Based on a brief dig around, it seems acquiring riverside pubs might be part of the pub company’s long-term strategy. If so, that’s not a bad move – what marketing types call ‘nicheing’ – and one we bet has worked out well for them of late.
If you subscribe to the view that every cloud has a silver lining, you might wonder if being forced to drink outside more often in the past 18 months has made British people take beer gardens more seriously. And improved beer gardens and outdoor service, too.
Now we think of it, this is where apps and table service really work. It seems odd to think that, in the summer of 2019, we’d have had to walk the length of the garden, up a flight of steps, through a busy pub during Sunday lunch service, then back again (after a scrum at the bar), every time we wanted a fresh round.