Can ‘England’s oldest pub’ survive the lockdown?

For over 1,200 years, a pub on the same site in the middle of St Albans has survived invasions, civil wars, world wars, recessions – and more recent requests from animal rights group Peta to change their last name. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which claims to be the oldest inn in Britain, has even crossed the black plague. Today, however, the future of the Hertfordshire pub – like many others across the country – is at stake as a new scourge threatens traditions and livelihoods.

“I’m not a flip-flop and I’m dying like a guy, but I died in the water here,” says Christo Tofalli, the owner of Fighting Cocks and the vice president of Save UK Pubs, a campaign group for this which was already a trade in danger. “I have 30 pounds left on my credit card, which I saved to put fuel in the car.”

Before the government even ordered the closure of all 40,000 pubs in the UK on Friday evening last week, Tofalli had been amazed at the number of Hertfordshire pubs that were closing permanently because of fear of the virus. “I’ve heard of five closings this week,” he told me Thursday from his almost empty bar, which sits under knotty oak beams next to a large open fire, still lit for the moment. “Unfortunately, eight more closings took place today,” he added the next morning. “Some with multiple sites and good friends. It is heartbreaking. “

The picture was just as dark elsewhere. “This is an absolutely devastating time for the industry,” said Emma McClarkin, former Conservative MEP and CEO of the British Beer and Pub Association. “These companies were already operating with the tightest margins.” McClarkin heard stories of brewers pouring beer down the drain before a monthly payment of potentially unacceptable beer duties this week. She is pressuring the government to cancel it.

The exterior of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans on March 19 © Tolga Akmen

When the closure finally came on Friday, it had changed little for Tofalli after an already calamitous week. “The minute Boris said not to go to the pub, we were empty,” he said of the Prime Minister’s initial plea on Monday March 16. On Thursday, he had two customers all day and had torn bookings for nearly 300 people. Mother’s Day lunches.

No industry or individual is immune to the effects of the pandemic. But in pubs, the coronavirus has struck at the heart of a nation’s social and cultural identity. Much more than churches or village halls, the vitality and community spirit of Great Britain cross its bars. We meet in pubs to celebrate and seek refuge and comfort in these troubled times. The fact that many pubs remained busy until Friday closed was as selfish as it was perhaps understandable. “Would I have been in an inn in London!” said a soldier, fearing another enemy, Henry V. “I would give all my fame for a jar of beer and safety.”

In Shaun of the dead, the 2004 horror film, drinkers await a zombie apocalypse in The Winchester. Apparent instinct was so strong in many to make a similar retreat last week that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who played Shaun and Ed in the film, posted a video on YouTube. “Don’t go to Winchester, the pub is closed,” Pegg told Frost on the phone from his home. “Do you remember what happened last time?” (The zombies finally entered. They usually do).

Pub Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, photographed on March 19, 2020.

Even before government pubs closed last Friday, owner ChristoTofalli was amazed at the number of Hertfordshire pubs closed due to fear of the virus © Tolga Akmen

Pubs are also a key part of the UK offer to international tourists. Surveys by the government agency Visit Britain show that frequenting the pub is the third most popular activity for tourists, behind shops and restaurants, but far ahead of castles, historic houses, museums, galleries and art in the countryside or on the coast. Much of the appeal of pub visitors is the combination of drink and history: hundreds of pubs across Britain are more than two centuries old, although the identification of the oldest is a murky business.

At least six people claim the title, but the water is clouded by a lack of written documents and debates about whether the age of the actual building or site is more relevant. Guinness World Records gave up trying to judge in 2000, but rated the Fighting Cocks as a “first plaintiff”.

About a third of Tofalli’s trade generally comes from tourists. Fighting Cocks sits at the edge of Verulamium Park, an area of ​​lakes and parks on the site of one of the most important cities in Roman Britain. There is a museum and, a few meters north of the pub, St Albans Cathedral. Tofalli says that a pub has stood here since the construction of a former 8th century monastery and that a lost tunnel still connects the pub to a monastic brewery now lost in the foundations of the cathedral.


A 1936 painting from the pub © Alamy

The octagonal, low-ceiling, half-timbered building that customers see today only dates back to the 11th century and was originally used as a dovecote. It is believed that Oliver Cromwell stayed one night in the pub during the Civil War, stabilizing his horse in what is now the bar. The names came and went – these are the Roundhouse and the Three Pigeons, and the Fighting Cocks were briefly abandoned in favor of the fisherman when the cockfights (which had taken place on the premises for hundreds of years ) were banned in 1849.

This setback is nothing compared to last week. Pubs that are not yet forced to close are now struggling to prepare for weeks, if not months, of closure. Tofalli, the son of a Cypriot family of chefs and cafe owners, rethought his business. “We are no longer a pub,” he says. “We are a community center.”

On Friday, he opened a fruit and vegetable stall on the old cobblestones outside. He added a fish counter on Saturday and printed take-out menus with cod and fries and tofu curry. Its staff delivered Sunday roasts to residents. He encouraged regulars to participate in a city-wide “Stick One In” campaign, in which pubs sell food stamps and drinks to use when – and if – they reopen.

Tofalli, a former Xerox salesperson who bought and relaunched the Fighting Cocks eight years ago, says bar and bar owners are used to innovation in extremis. “I live with the fear of going bankrupt every day of the week,” he says. “This song is not new.”

Pub Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, photographed on March 19, 2020.

The octagonal low-ceiling, half-timbered building that customers see today dates back to the 11th century © Tolga Akmen

It costs £ 100,000 a month for the Fighting Cocks to continue, Tofalli says. About 30% of this amount is donated to the brewery. Food still costs about a third. Wages can take 20 to 40 percent, depending on the season. Then there are loans and business rates to pay and lights to turn on. Many landlords have large rent bills. Sometimes there is a profit. “Euro 2020 was going to put £ 50,000 in the bank,” he said of the football tournament, which was postponed for a year until June 2021.

Yet even the emergency response must change quickly. Monday evening, after the government announced the almost total closure of the country, the trade of passage in the stalls of Tofalli disappeared and it closed them to concentrate on the deliveries. By Wednesday, he had received 42 meal orders, mostly from isolated elderly clients, and the phone was still ringing. “It’s like a Red Cross point,” he says by text.

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Ads also illustrate the devastating coronavirus that is spreading to industries around the world. Tofalli’s attempts to sell products and takeout serve not only its community and its bottom line, but also its suppliers. “I’m thinking of the cheese maker and the honey,” he says. “They are also skint.”

Government’s announcement that it will pay 80% of the wages of staff retained by companies that temporarily close is a possible lifeline – Tofalli says he was “on the moon” when he heard it – but the owners of companies are waiting to hear when money may appear. The invoices will not wait. In addition to a freeze on beer duties, McClarkin wants the government to cancel the VAT payments due later this month. Some large brewers, including Fuller’s, have canceled the rent for its tenant pubs. What is at stake in many villages and towns, she says, are the only community spaces still standing. “Ads are the original social network and we want to keep it going after this crisis,” she says. She had hoped that the doors could reopen in time to mark Victory in Europe in early May. “I don’t think it will happen now,” she adds.

At Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, Tofalli’s mission is to help other pubs in the region minimize their losses and live to serve another round. Two weeks ago, he called a “Covid-19 Cobra meeting” with other owners, who continue to share their support and ideas. Even if the pubs are closed, he hopes their role in the community will only become more vital – and that they could come back stronger.

Pub Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, photographed on March 19, 2020.

The pub is now trying to sell products and take-out while being closed © Tolga Akmen

Bubonic plague caused greater terror than the coronavirus, killing 70% of the inhabitants of certain villages in Hertfordshire and three out of four monks at St Albans Abbey. After the Black Death and its immediate economic impact had passed, the surviving workers earned higher wages as part of an economic resurgence on a European scale. Disposable income and leisure time increased hand in hand, and more and more Britain went to the pub, forging its modern image and role in society. As Robert Tombs, a Cambridge history professor, put it in his book The English and their history, “The English pub is born.” On a sunny day, for weeks or months, an industry – and its customers – hope it can recover.

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