Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Chairs, tables, a bar and no canned music – a great pub

John Moores is one of forty investors who purchased The Black Buoy in Wivenhoe.

John Moores is one of forty investors who purchased The Black Buoy in Wivenhoe. - Credit: Archant

So there I was, on a Friday night round about quarter to six, in a pub with my mate Chris, having a quiet yarn after work.

The manager, bore down on us at speed, announcing politely, but firmly. “Sorry guys, you’re going to have to move. This table’s been reserved for 6.00.”

“Reserved?” I said. “But this is a pub...” the rest of the sentence died on my lips. Someone on their way back from London had apparently telephoned to reserve it. No. I’d never heard of such a procedure either. Never mind, however. We decided to swing with it.

We were directed to a smaller table crammed in behind a large group of braying people and their kids. This table, he assured us, wasn’t reserved until 7pm. Ten minutes later, another young man cantered over to ask us if we knew that our table was reserved. “Yes.” we chorused. We’d had enough now. We chugged our drinks down and marched. Steaming at speed towards the only other open pub within half a mile, I remarked, “Well, I thought that went well.” Actually, I used a terser phrase.

The hostelry, to which I won’t even give the oxygen of publicity, is symptomatic of everything which is wrong with pubs today. Owned by a pubco, it’s managed and (under)staffed mostly, by put-upon youngsters. The drinks are overpriced, they serve indifferent food and they cram as many tables into a small space as is possible.

The good points? It’s in a picturesque location. This is like saying of someone, “The thing I like best about him, is his girlfriend.”

Such pubs are probably the reason why almost weekly, nowadays, I’m reading about people who’ve clubbed together to buy back their locals from large companies.

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This particular week, however, it was my own town’s turn for some good news. Wivenhoe’s Black Buoy, a handsome old off-waterfront boozer, having been closed for a year, has just re-opened its doors. The consortium of people who have bought it are locals, or people closely connected. They’ve done much of the refurbishment themselves. The newly-opened pub will serve food, although there seems to be no intention of it becoming yet another fearful gastro-pub. Instead, the new owners harbour the possibly novel ambition of serving good quality, fairly-priced beers and wines.

The Black Buoy has chairs, tables and a bar – always a great old combo – and no canned music. The décor is devoid of pretension: you won’t find old Italian olive oil tins stacked jauntily on shelves, nor are there any broken Irish bicycles nailed to the walls. In best pub tradition, however, the Black Buoy does offer a few discreet corners for people who are, say, trapped in loveless marriages to snuggle into.

It must be admitted that Old Wivenhoe likes a gargle. How many Wivenhovians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. Two to go out for a drink and one to phone the rehab place to ask whether the electrician’s out of detox yet. A cheap shot? Yes please, I’ll have the house brandy.

The Black Buoy even has a couple of brand new B&B units upstairs. Hang on. What were you saying back there about loveless marriages? OK This could be a disaster, let’s move on.

Another Wivenhoe pub, the Greyhound, suffered a fire recently and may be closed for a while. For Wivenhoe, therefore, the Black Buoy’s re-opening at this particular time is like the cavalry arriving in diaphanous negligees, bearing flowers and champagne. Actually, that hasn’t happened since... 1992. Very popular it was too.

In all seriousness, the pub’s rebirth will be a very good thing for Wivenhoe, in terms of both its commerce and its community. A pub, you understand, is worth far more than the sum of the drinks it serves. Forget the Big Society for a moment, I’m talking about the little societies: the darts teams, the football players, the book groups, the quiz teams, or, in my case, the old buzzards who just like sitting around strumming acoustic guitars once a week.

For these are the unseen veins and capillaries which help to make up a sanguine society. Such things can never flourish in the types of chain-owned pubs where dispassionate young “wait-staff” soar up to you, chirping phrases like,“Everything alright for yourselves, at all?”

At last, though, despite the many outrages visited upon the Great British pub, it seems that the wind may be changing. Even as Wivenhoe’s Black Buoy relaunches itself, I learn about a couple who, four years after their own village pub closed, have bought it and plan to re-open it in early December.

The King’s Head at Pebmarsh near Halstead had been a pub since medieval times. The new owners stated that its closure had “ripped the heart and soul” out of Pebmarsh. That’s pretty dramatic language, isn’t it?

It does make you wonder how the big pubcos have been permitted to ruin so many other “hearts and souls” of communities. So, who are these people and why are they still at liberty?

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