The one thing that my beloved and I agree we miss most about the UK, apart from family and friends of course, is the Great British Pub.
Although an ailing institution in the wake of the smoking ban and a spending squeeze that has led to more and more people drinking cheap supermarket booze at home, it still has its own inimitable, if sadly increasingly sanitised, charm.
To me, there’s nothing like sitting outside one on a warm summer’s day, indulging in a glass of crisp white wine and maybe listening to a band playing bad cover versions or watching Morris Men camp about clashing their sticks together.
Or sitting inside one in the winter months, ideally by a roaring fire (we used to live in rural North Essex, where such things are perfectly feasible), having a glass of red or pint of beer and chatting about everything and nothing with anyone who happens to be in the vicinity.
Although my beloved thinks it’s nonsense, I have a weather-related theory about wine by the way – a lovely white, with cold droplets of condensation running down the outside of the glass, to my mind, can only truly be savoured on a hot, or even vaguely warm, sunny day when everything is sparkly and golden.
The richer, heavier spices of a good red, on the other hand, are perfect for those cold autumn/winter evenings when you need warming up both inside and out.
But the true charm of a traditional British pub is really, to my mind, less about the alcohol per se, although it admittedly does help to loosen the collective tongue of our still emotionally reserved race, and even less about the increasingly upmarket food on offer to try and win over a new family-friendly clientele in a bid to generate enough margin to stay in business.
Instead it’s much more about the camaraderie and the tall tale-telling and the daft banter in a dark, cosy setting, which manages to be intimate and impersonal at the same time. It’s about the getting together with friends old and new and just chewing the fat in a world that all too often finds itself too busy to bother.
And call it nostalgia if you will, but despite having been a non-smoker for a couple of years now following an unbelievably successful bout of hypnotherapy, I do miss the old days when everyone was at it.
There was something about that dingy, smoky atmosphere that was perfect for trading stories and sharing secrets, and something vital, to my mind, has been lost since publicans dutifully pushed through their own version of apartheid and smokers were banished outside to partake of their habit in the cold and rain.
On that note, however, I’ve been trying to put my finger on just exactly what it is that most foreign drinking holes, apart from one or two gems discovered in northern Europe and the ubiquitous Irish pub chains, lack when compared with the old-fashioned British boozer – as opposed to the worryingly trendy, binge-drinking bars aimed at the youff that keep springing up uninvited.
And I came to the conclusion that it’s just that – most of the aforementioned hostelries overseas aren’t drinking holes at all. Instead they’re salubrious, civilised places serving respectable food and drink, rather than just the latter, and are, in general terms, distressingly wholesome. With their unlived-in furniture and their too-bright lighting and their tasteful décor, they’re just too Nice.
Or else, they’ve gone so far in the opposite direction that it constitutes a health hazard simply putting your foot through the door and definitely wouldn’t be recommended as you’re likely to lose it.
Having said all of that, and just to contradict myself in the process, my two favourite places to go for a drink in Stellenbosch are the beer garden in the Brazen Head Irish pub on Andringa Street, which is a bit studenty but reminds me of home, and the Basic Bistro on Church Street, which is more of a cosy restaurant if you sit inside and a good people-watching spot if you park yourself down outside.
The thing that’s put us off going for our traditional Friday night out since we left our B&B near the centre of town and moved to the suburbs though is simply the lack of minicabs. Strange but true in a town of this size.
We’ve been warned off using the minibus-style taxis as being unsafe for the middle class likes of us and neither of us are keen to venture into the dangerous realms of drink-driving, although we’re possibly among the few who don’t. So what to do, apart from stay at home?
But it now seems that hope may have been restored to us in the shape of that mainstay of Southeast Asia, the tuk-tuk. I spotted one lurking in the car park of the Eikestad Mall in the centre of town on my way to the gym last week and veritably skipped towards my awaiting exercise (for once) as a result.
I’d heard on ‘Carte Blanche’, the weekly, magazine-style Sunday evening TV programme which simply everyone watches over here, that their successful introduction into Cape Town, had led to plans to roll them out elsewhere. And my hairdresser told me that their arrival in Stellenbosch was definitely on the cards.
So when I duly did a Google search to find out the current state of affairs following the Mall sighting, I discovered that, while the launch of ‘Tuk-Tuk Stellies” gleaming new service was imminent, it had, unfortunately, been held up temporarily by some kind of permit problem.
As a result, according to the company’s Facebook page, it isn’t now expected to make its initial debut until the start of June – which, disappointingly, won’t take place here either, but at the ‘Wacky Wine Weekend’ up in the Robertson Wine Valley, a good hour and a half’s drive away. So after raising our expectations so cruelly, let’s raise a glass to them being able to find their way home, one way or the other.