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‘It’s been murder without the pub’: Regulars glad to be back at bars and cafes

Super Saturday? HARRY TAYLOR takes a walk around Hampstead village on the first day pubs, cafes and restaurants were allowed to reopen following the coronavirus lockdown

06 July, 2020 — By Harry Taylor

Jimmy McGrath at the King William IV [All photos Harry Taylor]

DINERS and drinkers made their first tentative steps back into venues on Saturday as bars and restaurants reopened their doors to guests.

The King William IV in Hampstead High Street, was among those welcoming people back for the first time since March 20.

Would-be drinkers had waited outside the pub for an hour before its midday opening, as dark clouds threateningly loomed overhead.

Long-term patron John Graham, who has been drinking in the pub for more than 50 years, said the three-and-a-half month closure had been “murder” for him.

“It’s been murder being away from my second home, the pub,” the 73-year-old told the New Journal.

“I’m so glad to be back in my local pub. It’s been so boring, and living within a few yards of the pub, I’ve seen it every day, but you can’t get in for a drink. It’s been horrible.”

Regulars will have spotted the changes to the pub immediately. Signs have gone up outside telling drinkers to wait to be seated, hand sanitiser is on the tables, queuing at the bar has been consigned to the dustbin of pre-Covid history.

The 18th century pub has now got a one-way system in place, with signs on the floor pointing the way.

Landlord Jimmy McGrath said the changes hadn’t been easy to put in place, but he was keen to reassure guests. “We’re taking all the precautions that we can, and making it the same for everybody. We’ve been taking some bookings, but we’ve not gone for just bookings as you don’t want to be turning people away like your regulars. They’re your bread and butter.”

Before the pubs opened, the first noticeable changes was cafés putting tables and chairs outside again, and welcoming customers to sit and eat inside.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead High Street

Locals had soon slipped back into their routine habits from before. The couples who had dragged each other out of bed that morning returned, as did the bespectacled men reading their morning newspaper, and the parents wrestling to feed a unruly toddler, who promptly threw their food on the floor anyway.

Shoppers filed past the al fresco diners at the Coffee Cup, as though it was any other day of the week before the pandemic. Just with added face masks.The cafe in Hampstead High Street, which has recently raised concerns about its future in the wake of the economic shock caused by coronavirus, had a steady stream of customers.

Nicholas Mollura at The Coffee Cup

Its owner, Nicholas Mollura and his staff were serving customers with face-masks on.

He said: “It feels good to be back open. It makes a massive difference compared to just doing takeaway, when people are sat down they can buy more and take more time, especially with lunch and dinner. We can probably make 60% more than we were taking by doing just takeaway.”

He also criticised the government and Camden Council for their lack of help in the week leading up to the national reopening.

“We’ve not had nearly enough time to prepare, but we’ve done it,” he said. “We’ve had nothing from the councillors and inspectors in terms of advice. The council have sent inspectors up and down the high street to try and catch us out in the last few weeks, but nobody has come in to suggest how we can comply with the new rules. I expected them to get in touch.”

Around the corner at the Horseshoe in Heath Street, bar manager Neil Remedios was out in Oriel Place two hours before their opening at midday, measuring two-metre tape to put outside the pub to help drinkers socially distance.

Neil Remedios puts down tape outside the Horseshoe

The pub had more than 100 bookings across the weekend, with drinkers having to order from their table and screens separating booths on the periphery of the pub. On entry visitors had to scan a QR code on their phone to “sign in” at the pub on entry.

Similar systems were in place at the Sir Richard Steele in Haverstock Hill, and Southampton Arms in Highgate Road.

Mr Remedios said he expected takings to be down to 80 per cent as expected, and believed bookings could drop off over the next few weeks, as the novelty of pubs reopening drops off.

“I understand why people might not want to come out,” he said. “We should be fine with social distancing. Where we have a capacity issue on a Friday and Saturday, where you’re full, that is where it will impact it.

“The real test will be two weeks on, to see if the numbers of people coming in are the same. All you can do is to create a relaxed and safe environment for everyone. Some people will go out today saying ‘sod it’, and others will be more cautious and rightfully so.”

Michael Cameron, Hattie Lloyd and Tom Syms in the Horseshoe, the pub is pictured below

Sipping their pints of Camden Town beer, friends Michael Cameron, Hattie Lloyd and Tom Syms said the atmosphere of being in a pub had prised them from their homes. They were also happy to give their details for the new test-and-trace system.

“You give your details for most things now so it doesn’t bother me,” said Ms Lloyd. “You feel more comfortable with it in place. We just couldn’t wait to go somewhere and see what it was like.”

Mr Cameron described reentering a pub as “emotional,” while Mr Syms added: “It’s great, just seeing people face-to-face again. It’s not the same at someone’s house, you don’t have all the other people and have any atmosphere.”

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