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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.