Gold Cup Day at the Woolpack

It’s gold Cup day at Cheltenham racecourse in the largest and most prestigious jumps race meeting in the UK and Ireland. It’s a busy and buzzy week in Gloucestershire and the lilt of Irish discourse is everywhere along with shouts of winning delight and woeful cries of disappointment. The Woolpack has a tradition of celebrating this event with televised races from Gold Cup day and punters make sure they have laid their bets for all the televised races and they enjoy a drink and some camaraderie with the regulars. The main bar is fairly full as is the snug where a small TV is seated 8ft high on a small shelf. A previous cellar manager, Elizabeth, who now works for one of the owner’s businesses, is amongst a number of regular punters are present including the owner, a local brewer, the landlord of another Stroud pub who likes his beer, and some of the regulars who frequent the main bar in the evenings.

The other two bars are quieter but have served a few lunches to walkers and visitors to the area. The pub owner sits next to Elizabeth and charts the bets that have been made and so everyone becomes aware fairly quickly who is successful and who has been disappointed but who generally shrug it off as they enjoy the ‘crack’. Regular pub goers from across the valleys have gathered for this annual event and they all seem to know one another. Outsiders would be unaware of this event as it is not advertised widely. Someone broadcasts some Irish music from a lap top and the ‘Crack’ progresses happily. A latecomer greets a regular ‘Hello Babe’ and gives her a kiss. She says ‘good to see you. How’s things’ and he says ‘fine’. They discuss her bar jobs and talk about local pubs closing. She greets the fellow’s partner with a hug and tells a friend in an Irish brogue a story about her Irish mother and betting.

A member of a group of middle aged men not seen regularly in the pub tries to turn down the volume and loses the race meeting on the TV to much laughter and ribaldry. Wendy is called and he says he has fixed it and then the TV crashes down just missing a punter sat below. Beer is spilt over his jacket and Wendy apologies for it. They move from their seats and Wendy stands on the seat and replaces the TV and finds the channel and everyone cheers and claps her. She suggests that they do not touch it again with a wry smile. The snug empties a little as punters leave for a smoke or to visit the facilities, most of which are, unfortunately, out of action but Dyna Rod is apparently on the way. Everyone takes it all in their stride.

Punters like being amongst the throng. ‘I’ve put on £4 to win’ is heard from one of the regulars and a part time member of staff. A dog looks anxiously as she eyes the comings and goings. She cheers up as her owner looks to move but she is ‘only ‘getting one in’. As the time for the Gold Cup arrives the main bar begins to empty and the TV snug fills up. At the same time Dyna Rod arrives. It’s all go here.

In the TV race bar a smart couple with a tie and cufflinks and an expensive coat sit under the TV unaware of the earlier incident. The race begins and there a shout of ‘GOOOOO on’ is raised. The bar staff try to peek through two large punters to follow the race. Half the bar chatters and the other half follows the race. We can hardly here the commentary so punters are following the colours of their choice. Six to jump and a call of ‘looking good is heard’. Many are on the same horse, ‘Cue Card. ‘He’s going well’ but falls at the next fence and a groan of despair resonates through the pub. There is a shout of delight as one punter who backed the favourite celebrates. Wendy arrives to ask which horse won. It’s a bit of a damper really but punters quickly recover to continue their afternoon at the Woolpack Gold Cup.

Wendy has a break outside on the common table with a couple of regulars having secured a speedy Dyna Rod arrival, fixed the TV and backed the winner in the Gold cup unlike most of her punters. She’s everywhere and she fixes everything.

As the afternoon’s TV coverage ends punters begin to disappear a hard core remain and are supplemented by those regulars who had to work joining them. Wendy and William are beaming as they had three winners in the last race and they celebrate by passing round scotch eggs to those remaining, ending another regular’s event at the cherished Woolpack Inn.

A Tuesday in late February – 7.45. Engaging the regulars in the stocking of the pub wines

Wendy has advertised a Wine Tasting from a local company and gets the regulars to play a part in selecting the wines for the pub. She has twelve willing participants who have paid £15 which includes some nibbles from the kitchen. There are eight women and four men all between 35 and 50. A wine merchant has given them a Prosecco to start – Italian. The host tells them there will be a short wine quiz later. He then tells them about the prosecco, low frizzante which means low fizz-Casa Defra. Everyone obviously pays attention as he tells them about the production of the prosecco and how his wines are directly from producers. The company has been going for eight years and they are based in Cheltenham selling to restaurants.

They get their first glass of white wine, Torre solar Macabeo Spain. ‘It’s quite light, best drunk in warm weather in Spain….wines always taste best drunk in the vineyard…this is an upmarket Macabeo. It’s quite a fat bottle’ he says. Wendy says ‘ I always like a fat bottle’. Gradually the chat becomes louder, calling across the snug to each other. The second white wine arrives and people ask for a second glass before having finished the first. The second is an Italian Baccola Bianco, Appassimento, Parzile, Sauvignon Blank and Garganino grapes. He compares it with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blank and two of the group own up to being from there. Someone takes a picture of themselves drinking. The next set of wines are white from France – Languadoc duc de Mornay picpoul (grape) de Pinet. ‘This is the most popular white wine in their line, the same, consistent, organic grapes and a better class of hangover, great with fish’. And then they taste three red wines from Chile, Italy and South Africa.

Wine glasses pile up on the tables and Wendy sits down with them for a while and then jumps up guiltily as she notes two of us are waiting at the bar. Someone asks which restaurants they supply in Cheltenham as they live there. There are pens on the table as the tasters comment on the handout that has been supplied. The main bar is quiet with only four people having a business/arts meeting.

The wine merchant enjoys talking to the regulars about wines in general and Italian wines in particular. Evelyn then brings a regular a pigeon dish with beetroot he had ordered and the wine merchant offers him a South African Merlot which is gratefully received. Some snacks arrive and the tasters dig in and Wendy calls out ‘does anyone want more snacks’ to the main regulars bar. There are lots of glasses half full and the volume of chat grows as he gives out quiz sheets and organises them into teams. The wine merchant puts on his glasses and also moves the tapas plates from the tables so they can record their answers to the quiz. They all have to have a team name. They are multiple choice questions. Wine and sports quizzes. A glass is broken but they continue with quiz. The laughter rises and it becomes noisier. They all cheer at the end of the quiz and announcement of the winners.

Another Friday in February – 7pm. The welcoming host

Wendy is good at welcoming people, with an instant warmth and intimacy that makes one feel good, recognised, included and embraced. It implies ‘we are here for you. We value you and we will look after you’ and customers know she means it. She, along with the rest of the staff, are the public hosts. Every table is booked. It is half term and Wendy welcomes the upsurge as it has been quiet recently and ‘things have been difficult’. People will go out saying ‘she was nice’ because it’s her job to make them feel comfortable. They feel welcomed and special. She puts people at their ease as she talks to them as if she has known them all her life. A customer asks her about the fish stew and Wendy talked to her for about three minutes about it. The customer may have anticipated she would not know and that was why she was so tentative but Wendy reassured them that she knew her business and her product.

A Friday in February – 6pm – The village pub as home from home

The main bar is crowded and overflowing into the snug with three women in the space in between the two bars with one of them breast feeding her young infant. Another regular single mother is with her seven year old son who plays chess with a much older friend/relative and football outside with him. The three women find a space in the middle of the bar with their two men friends and an eight year old boy. One of them perches on the piano and one of the woman chats to the lad asking him about his rugby interests and that one of them will be supporting Scotland over Italy. The breast feeding continues discreetly but in a group with the eight year old holding his father’s hand tightly and his father kisses the top of his head. One of the women with the baby group tells them she is off to watch Chelsea play Swansea with considerable enthusiasm. She looks up the position of Swansea in the league table on her phone for the eight year old. The babe, having been satisfied now chews his mother’s scarf.

Charlie, the older man is heard describing the state of the chess board game. The young chess player then demands his mother join him outside and she leaves her enjoyable pint. They return and continue to chat together. The father of the babe holds him and the eight year old sticks closely to his dad and the father of the babe kisses him and chats to his wife. We can hear the seven year old’s mother saying ‘If I take your bishop here you can take me with your queen’. The snug has an atmosphere of warm family life as Charlie asks how old is the babe – five and a half months is the answer and the chess discussion continues.

A Thursday in early January – 7pm – A small world on a cold January evening

It’s a cold empty dining room but within minutes Wendy (the Bar and Co-Pub Director) is telling the couple in there that she has turned up the heating and after some discussion about it becoming colder she brings them a blanket purchased from an upmarket Oxfordshire woollen emporium, Filkins, and a hot water bottle. It is quiet, as is expected at this time of year, and another couple with dogs come into the room but move towards a warmer one. The couple are appreciative of a wonderful meal of homemade soup, confit duck with a sweet sauce and perfect mashed potato and a delicious apple tart with homemade ice cream. Another pair of elderly men sits at an adjacent table, drinking soft drinks and they have a meal while discussing local land ownership and details of holidays in tiger inhabiting countries.

Another five person party arrive in the dining room having booked a table and one of them is a European resident. It is a quiet January evening with only a few people in the main bar next to the warm fire but it is a varied group. Wendy recognises a picture of Nicola Benedetti on a concert leaflet one of the customers is perusing and says William’s wife – the Catering Director – is one of her cousins and they exchange stories of her good works and pleasant character. What a small world when a person from the west coast of Scotland comes to live in our area and is related to a world famous violinist. The soft drinkers compliment Wendy on their meal and it is noted that we are extremely lucky to have this quality of cooking on a cold January evening and the warmest of welcomes.

A year in the life of the Woolpack Slad

During my research into the survival of the English Village Pub from 2014-18 I observed or wrote fieldnotes about the life of the pubs in the sample. I have collated those written in the Woolpack Slad, South Gloucesterhire into a strory of some of the minor and major events in a year at the pub. The next post will begin in a cold January winter and extracts from the life of the pub during the year will follow, one after the other, within a few days of each other. Please feel free to comment positively as a critical friend but please do not criticise the people in the texts as they are still regulars at the pub.