A Ghostly Pub Tale for Christmas
It was 11.30 pm Christmas Eve 2009, a foul night, freezing with sleet and snow, gale force winds roaring across the West Country.
The M5 was blocked and a few diversions were in place, the North Coast Road was the only one open to Cornwall and that was blocked on Countisbury Hill. Two cars were pushing along, one following the other and the one in front kept going because the other was behind. The diversion from the M5 had taken them through Minehead from Taunton, not an easy drive, Porlock Hill was just manageable with loads of salt and grit.
Just before Culbone Stables another diversion to the left, down into the Doone Valley where there was very little snow and some icy roads, by-passing Countisbury Hill.
The two cars picked their way carefully down the narrow lane, one a dark grey Aston Martin and the other a silver Mercedes.
It had taken ten hours to get this far from the Midlands, both drivers hoping to get to Cornwall for Christmas. Both cars were slipping on patchy ice along the lanes, their speeds far slower than the speeds that they were built for, stupid driving was not on the agenda. They passed through a hamlet and up an incline beside the East Lyn River, which was in full flood and not a place to skid into on a dark night. The incline flattened and then descended down, both cars slowed to a crawl and inched down the hill to a pub with a car park beside the river. The road immediately started to rise on the other side of the pub and they realised that neither would be going anywhere with the ice on the road and gently reversed into the pub car park overlooking the river.
The lights were on and it looked like a haven in the wilderness with a big fire flickering through the windows.
There were no cars in either car park.
Both drivers climbed out of their cars with hats pulled down and collars up and dashed for the pub door, they stepped in and shut the door quickly.
A large jovial man dressed as Father Christmas, behind the bar chortled “Happy Christmas”, both drivers grunted about how foul the weather was and made a beeline for the seats on either side of the fire, removing their coats as they sat down.
The bar was decorated with holly and festive decorations, carols were playing quietly in the background, the subtleties of Christmas celebration were wasted on the two exhausted drivers.
The jovial Father Christmas brought over two large glasses of mulled wine and several mince pies and said that they were on the house, since all his usual customers were long gone.
The two drivers looked at each other and one said “You’re Ebenezer Tuppense from Titanic Inns”, the other said “You’re Silas Morley from Judy Taverns, we haven’t talked since that disaster at the Select Committee.” Ebenezer said “I think we will drink the mulled wine and forget that episode”.
They both drank the warming wine and lapsed into a near totally relaxed state, in fact any movement was an effort.
Both men felt a gentle squeeze on their shoulders and came to.
The large jovial Father Christmas said to them “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, come and join me.” The door opened, the wind had stopped blowing and all three stepped outside.
They were both bemused but in a fuddled state and the jovial giant picked them up and they all three zoomed upwards and Eastwards. Neither felt cold or terrified as they sped back across Exmoor, Taunton with the lights flickering, the M5 snaking Northwards covered in snow with lines of stationary cars with twinkling lights. Swinging West along the A303, over Andover, Basingstoke, the River Thames was shimmering in the moonlight meandering through the white countryside. They finally floated down on to the car park of a pub in a small village called Laleham on Thames.
The pub was called “The Ash Tree”, it didn’t look inspiring, there were some very old cars parked outside, all covered in snow and not a place that either would frequent.
All three walked into the pub, nobody even noticed them, the pub was packed, everyone was singing carols and having a fabulous time, the staff were all working like mad, the landlord Frank was everywhere, the two had never seen a pub as busy as this for years.
The Ghost of Christmas Past eased them out of the door for a short walk towards the centre of the village and the “Saracens Head”, this was a much smaller pub, but again, this was packed with people enjoying themselves and celebrating Christmas Eve, they were all local people, the same as those in “The Ash Tree”. The Ghost eased them once again out of the door, they appeared to be invisible, nobody noticed. They walked round the corner by the village church and a hundred yards further on was the “Five Horse Shoes”, there were some wonderful old sports cars parked outside, again covered in snow. They walked in, again the pub was packed with young people and a few older ones all enjoying themselves celebrating Christmas, it was a beautiful pub with genuine beams, polished brass and a big fire. Stanley the licensee was dispensing hospitality to everyone.
The two looked at each other, their thoughts were the same what incredible businesses.
The Ghost once again eased them out of the door again and said that they must get back because time was limited, they flew West to Exmoor and back to their seats in front of the pub fire.
They both immediately started to doze, the door flew open and a lady in a long white cloak with fur trimming came in clutching a book, in fact she looked just like Bridget Jones with her Diary. She looked at our two weary travellers and said, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, come and join me.” She took them both up and over Exmoor, in exactly the same way as the Ghost of Christmas Past, finally landing in “The Ash Tree” car park, there was one car in the car park and a fairly old one at that. All three walked into the pub it was looking tired, there were three customers and a manager from the Management Company running the place. They were discussing how many people had failed in the pub, because the rent was too high, the discounts were non existent and people couldn’t make a fair living.
All three moved out very quickly the whole thing was totally depressing, the “Saracens Head” further down the road towards the village centre was boarded up, with a tired business agents sign hanging off the wall saying business opportunity, and looked as though it had been there for a long time. Once again they walked round the church and could see the illuminated sign of the “Five Horse Shoes”. Three cars were in the car park, the door opened and a scruffily dressed man walked past them. They entered the bar that had been so vibrant and fun, the air was subdued, piped pop music was blaring out with about six customers and a tired barman. The conversation once again was about greedy landlords or Pub Co’s, the difference was the same, nothing had been invested in the pub, a succession of inexperienced people who had all failed miserably because the landlords draconian demands had been too much for any to survive. All the time the Ghost of Christmas Present was scribbling in her Diary, she finally took them outside much to their relief and transported them back to the West and the comfortable chair by the fire side in the Exmoor pub.
They sank into the chairs almost exhausted, she gently opened the door and departed.
It seemed no time at all when the pub door opened and a large man in Prison Warders Garb came in, he looked familiar and could easily have been mistaken for the Chairman of the Select Committee who both our weary travellers had managed to incur some scathing comments from. He approached our two very weary travellers and said, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, please come and join me”. They both pleaded that they had driven miles and been transported miles and their systems had reached breaking point and they had no desire to see the final ignominy of what had been three brilliant pubs. He said, “You won’t, you are going into the future in another direction and have no option.”
They staggered to their feet and walked outside the Ghost whisked them upwards and Westwards, across Barnstaple, Okehampton.
Tavistock was away to the right, they were crossing the centre of Dartmoor, the prison loomed up, with Princetown beside it. They floated down through the prison wall on to a walkway with rows of old cells in front of them.
Two grey haired and bearded figures were peering out of the cell, the doors were open, they looked familiar, their hands were gnarled and callused, they appeared to stoop with premature old age. The terrible premonition that these two sub normal beings might be them, sent shivers down both their spines, the Ghost looked at them both and nodded having read their minds. Their legs and hands were shackled, they shuffled out of the cell and joined a queue of other convicts, who were then chained into gangs. All the gangs moved through the security gates and doors eventually getting on a flat top behind an engine on the narrow gauge rail track heading for the Prison Quarry.
Having arrived at the quarry the tools were handed out and they all started breaking rocks in their respective gangs. Only one did not and he drove the engine, they realised that it was Sid Mayell the Chief Rent Negotiator for Titanic Inns, he always loved trains. They both looked at the ghost dressed in his Prison Warders outfit and mentally asked the same question, “What happened?” “It’s a long story, the Select Committee were furious that nothing was done and got the new Government to bring in legislation to outlaw increasing rents and over valuing the freehold without considering true business viability and declared it a Ponzi Scheme, since so many people had lost billions of pounds buying leases that were not viable. Every Pub Owning company that followed that method, at least one director, accountant or valuer whose idea to follow suit was held liable. The Government directed that all people with a justifiable claim against the company even retrospectively could do so, this caused the total collapse of the majority of large Pub Co’s, the directors were held personally liable because it was deemed a criminal act, consequently you both lost everything and were sentenced to fifty years hard labour without reprieve.” They both said, “What happened to our families?” “They are living in high rise Council Flats in the Midlands on Social Security with many other prisoners families.” Silas said, “What happened to my house in the Caribbean?” “That got flattened in a hurricane and your insurance had not been paid.” The Ghost said, “ Have a look at some of your fellow convicts and the guards”
Again the terrible realization that there were loads of corporate Pub Co Directors breaking rocks and the guards were all ex licensees, they actually made more money as guards than running pubs.
They were both in total shock, much to their relief the Ghost whisked them away from that awful scene and dropped them back in their chairs in front of the fire on Exmoor.
They were woken by the jovial Father Christmas saying the gritter had been through, the weather had warmed up and they could continue their journey. They both looked at each other and said that they had had the most dreadful dreams and realised that they were both exactly the same, both were in a state of shock. They put their coats on and walked out of the door thanking the licensee for his generosity and walked to the railings around the car park over looking the river.
They both said, “Were we really that bad?” and sadly they agreed, “What can we do to make amends?”
“We can do an awful lot if we really try, we need some people that really understand the industry and licensees, we also need to listen to licensees.”
“Let’s see if we can put the clock back, I would prefer to have pubs like those in the past and make honest money for everyone”
The lights had been turned out on the pub and it was very dark as they climbed into their cars.
They started their engines and the lights came on, showing a boarded up pub with a sagging sign with a faded Titanic Inns Freehouse sign and a sagging banner acquired by Judy Taverns, closed until further notice.
They both felt a cold shiver run through their bodies as though something had just walked over their graves.
It must have happened they still had the after taste of the mulled wine in their mouths.
Looking at the dashboard clocks in their cars it said 11.30 pm????