There’s a chalkboard outside the entrance to the Cott Inn in Dartington that reads ‘Please wait to be seated’. It’s the first sign that the Great British Pub of the Year 2019 is a very different place than it was last year.
For a pub that’s been around 700 years and seen off two world wars and the Great Plague, stopping people at the entrance to take their details is little more than a minor inconvenience – a bump in the road. But it’s a pretty significant bump.
And while the pretty thatched inn on the outskirts of Totnes has limped through lockdown serving takeaways to locals, reopening under Covid-19 restrictions is like navigating an endless series of bumps and made up rules for a road that will be much longer than we ever could have anticipated.
“The short version is that we already had considerable investment prior to lockdown in our garden and garden kitchen so we are, in a sense in quite good shape,” duty manager Anton told me when I called to book a table for six.
“The detriment to our business has been incredible. I’d say it’s put the Cott Inn back to where it was five years ago.”
In those five years, the pub has built up a reputation for being the best in Devon, if not the country. Its rooms are always full, its tables always busy. It’s known as a go-to place for food, for a drink in the sunshine and even just to prop up the bar.
That new garden kitchen that was designed to host the most important milestones in people’s lives – their weddings, their birthdays, their funerals – and that has instead become a lifeline for the pub itself.
“One thing that it (lockdown) has had a big impact on is large party bookings,” said Anton. “Those days are over. We had a really significant number of weddings and anniversaries. It’s been really interesting and humbling for people for whom the Cott has played a really significant part in their lives.
“It’s a shame that as it stands a lot of those community events can’t be done because they can’t be done anywhere. You can’t get married and have a reception. I’ve had three inquiries for big functions in 2021 and we don’t know what it will be like.”
There’s no doubt that, the Cott Inn is taking its post lockdown safety measures very seriously indeed. All staff wear visors. There’s a one way system not just into the bar but in and out of the garden. The tables outside are all spaced apart. The menus are wrapped in plastic. The straws are individually wrapped in paper. The toilets are only accessible from outside.
On a beautiful sunny July night, my daughter and I were first to arrive and a man in a full face visor showed us to our table in the garden and handed our plastic-wrapped menus. We were told to order our drinks at the bar, so we duly went inside and stood on the arrow on the floor awaiting our turn to be called forward.
As I ordered the drinks, my seven-year-old grabbed on to the bar and tried to jump up to see what the barman was doing. It’s something she’s always done – just a way of not missing out on whatever’s happening the other side. But she was politely asked not to touch the bar and to stand back. Covid measures clearly include touching as little as possible.
As the rest of our party arrived, the garden began to fill up. But despite the July sunshine, the socially distanced tables and strict booking system meant that what was once the most popular beer garden in all of Devon was actually just quietly buzzing.
After browsing the menu, we were asked to order at the outdoor counter. “Only one or two of you need to go up,” said the waiter. “And there are hand sanitisers on your way.”
We ordered our food and were handed our cutlery to take back to the table. Everything was ordered and spotless. Every detail had been considered.
Our food was brought by a waiter in a full face visor. Already, they’d become as much part of the furniture as the hand sanitiser dispensers distributed throughout the garden. What would have seemed entirely alien a few months ago has become the new normal overnight.
And the food itself was just like the Cott always was. Sourdough pizza crisped to perfection, succulent fillet steak, the freshest Brixham fish – big portions, bold flavours, honest pub grub done exceptionally well.
By the end of the meal, it would have been easy enough to forget how much has actually changed. The ‘new normal’ seemed almost normal.
Except it’s 8pm and there’s still no one standing at the bar and there are no Saturday night crowds. In fact for the staff, who’ve been run off their feet every night in summer for years, there’s something to be said for this ‘new normal’.
“When I started at the Cott one of my colleagues said to me that I would drop two dress sizes by the end of the summer because we are so busy,” said Anton. “That was 2013. We are crazy busy and each year we’re busier than the last.
“The hotel was rammed right through last summer, our bookings were astronomic, we were heaving. That’s why we invested so much, to prepare for a mega summer. That’s gone.
“One of the things that’s gone is people’s confidence in going out. People will be saying they don’t want to go out. We are dealing with the unknown. The impact is the long term one as much as the short term one.”
Who knows what the next few months and years will bring for pubs like the Cott Inn. Will people’s confidence in going out return? Will Devon be flooded with tourists, or will they stay away? Will there be another lockdown this winter?
“No one knows what it will be like,” added Anton. “Your guess is as good as mine how it shakes up.”
Right now, like everywhere, the Cott Inn is on the long road to lockdown recovery and it’s handling it superbly.