Jeremy Clarke

Welsh hospitality

A social leper tells us of his miserable existence

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I spent last week in south Wales, staying in a cottage near the coast. On the second evening we walked to the local pub to see what it was like. We went across the fields to get there. Nailed to one of the stiles was a notice. 'The bull in this field is a Semmantal bull. He is tame with people he knows, but visitors are advised to give him a wide berth. At the far end of the field you may also come across a donkey. Gunter is unpredictable and has been known to bite people. Visitors are advised to talk loudly as they approach so as to avoid startling him.' The bull, which was lying across the footpath on the other side of the stile, we nearly tripped over. A little further on we startled the donkey, which went berserk but luckily didn't attack us.

We came finally to a narrow cove containing a fishing village. The pub was called the Lobster Pot. First impression on pushing open the door was that it was a food-oriented pub. Second impression, no less depressing, was that a system of apartheid based on nationality was in operation. The left side of the bar was for English tourists like ourselves, the right was set aside for the Welsh. The prominent notice explaining the separation of the nationalities didn't come right out and say it of course. Instead it whined on about the local 'fishing association' wanting somewhere to sit during the summer months when the pub was busy. But 'No English' was the essence of it, without a doubt.

Neither half of the pub was very appealing, in fact. We weren't sure which was worse, the side containing the timid, snobbish, middle-class English tourists, or the side containing the macho, beer-bellied, resentful local Welshmen. So we had a pint of Double Dragon each and returned home to our cottage across the moonlit fields, startling the donkey into apoplexy again and nearly tripping over the fortunately placid Semmantal bull.

The only other pub in the district was in a village about a mile inland. There was a footpath but we drove instead. Pushing open the door of this pub we found a row of backs around a horseshoe-shaped bar. The owners of the backs fell silent as I pushed between them and put in our order. Pinned to the wall next to the bar was a collage of photographs of customers in advanced stages of drunkenness. One was asleep with his head on the bar, another was being sick on the pavement, another was asleep with a moustache and glasses drawn on his face in felt-tip.

'It's all right if I get pissed in here then, is it?' I said loudly to the man on my left. He was staring moodily into his pint but weighing me up nevertheless by listening carefully to my accent, to which drinks I asked for, and by sneaking glances at my big black army boots. The other men at the counter stared fixedly ahead, as if they were manning a barricade against English raiders, but they too were listening intently, weighing me up. 'Of course you can,' said the man neutrally. 'Like you can in any other establishment selling alcoholic beverages.' 'But some establishments selling alcoholic beverages I've been to don't like it at all,' I countered. 'They throw you out if you get pissed.' The Welshman conceded me the point. 'Well you'll be all right in here, man,' he said to the glass in front of him.

Well, unless he was being ironic, at least I had been granted the status of 'man' –clearly not an unimportant issue around there. We took our drinks and sat at a small circular table to the rear of the row of backs. Now it was our turn to weigh them up.

With a pair of English tourists sitting behind them and listening to their conversation (it was about the effect of ragwort on horses and cows), it was their turn to feel a little self-conscious.

We'd walked several miles around the cliffs that day. I was quite thirsty. The first Double Dragon went down without touching the sides. After I'd been back with an empty glass four times more within the hour, the locals' spokesman paid me the tribute of looking me in the face. (Even the landlord hadn't managed this so far.) He had jet-black hair and a hard, embittered, cowardly face. 'Not bad, is it?' he said. You couldn't fault his honesty. He was quite right on both counts. The beer wasn't bad and they did allow you to get as drunk as you liked in that pub. And at the end of the evening, although he still hadn't looked me in the face once throughout the evening, the landlord even got his car out and gave us a lift home.