The fantastic Craw Inn, Auchencrow, with pump clips from the ages (including cask ale from BrewDog; Hype and The Physics, top left)
There’s only a certain amount of time that you can sit in a pub car park before passers-by begin to get suspicious – even in a place without passers-by. Yet it sometimes happens; you’re in town for something else and make a spur of the moment decision to nip for a quick pint, or (like us the other day) impulsively swing off a main road to a pub you’ve heard about and never visited, only to find yourself half an hour early for opening time. We’ve all been there at the end of a night, last to leave; bolts clunked home as the back of your head clears the door jam – but what about at the other end of the drinking day?
Even today, when you can find beer in most urban areas – and can port about a few decent emergency cans if not – there’s still something slightly naughty about being the first person in a pub. No matter how many beers you’ve ordered in your life, walking into an utterly deserted bar feels strange – when it happens to me, I instantly get the feeling that I’m doing something I shouldn’t be, and somebody in a position of authority will swiftly turn up and lead me out by my earlobe. Either that or it feels like they have opened up purely for me, as if I’ve been granted the freedom of the city (or are the lone survivor of some appalling yeast-triggered apocalypse).
I should say at this point that although I do have experience of being ‘First In’, my history is not a lengthy and detailed one. Before the Craw, it had happened only once; at the City Arms in Manchester, when on a drinking afternoon with my Dad. On that occasion, I was actually the first in a line; behind the two of us there were a couple of others, and good-natured banter was exchanged before the door thunked open at Noon and a swift flurry of elbows propelled me over the threshold. The early start that day was down to territory; the securing of the favoured City Arms corner seat.
Of course, there’s something hugely pleasant about being the sole customer of a wonderful pub. All is quiet and pristine; the drinking equivalent of new sheets, or a sparkling bathtub. Not just the corner seat – every seat is free. The papers are unsullied, sudoku empty and waiting. The clock ticks away softly. You might even be guaranteed to hear your tunes on the jukebox, if you stay for a fourth pint. You feel compelled to ask the person behind the bar if they are open, when you know full well they are, otherwise the door would be locked. It still seems too good to be true, though.
The only downside of being First In, then, is what happens if the arrival is mis-timed. You end up sat in the car, road-menders staring accusingly at you from their freshly-dug hole. Dog walkers looking at their watch and tutting. Yet how close to the bolted door is it acceptable to wait? Within touching distance? Or peering round a distant corner, pretending to be lost in the window display of Topps Tiles? And the very worst thing – you count down the time and stride boldly up at one-minute-past, only to telescope your right arm into a door that should be open. Damn those weekend opening hours!