As the sun sets on a weekday afternoon, RealAleRocks and I are walking along Mile Road, heading to The Red Lion. Part of me is having an “I feel old” moment, mainly because even the Southern bypass still feels new to me, and the name “Elstow” still conjures up decades-old memories of nuclear protests and Nirex. Since then, progress has inevitably marched on; the bypass was built, and many new homes besides. The quiet little village of Elstow now lies dangerously close to being consumed by the town, if it hasn’t been already. After all, we included it in the list of pubs “In Bedford”, right?
We turn onto the footpath at the roundabout, and within a couple of hundred yards, the town is all but forgotten, and it feels like we’re on the edge of rural Bedfordshire.
With the closing of The Swan some years ago, The Red Lion is now the only remaining pub in Elstow, and indeed one of very few pubs in the area at all. Its external appearance is uncomplicated, just plain white walls with a few potted plants along the side. As you turn off the High Street and towards the ample car parking at the rear, you pass a block of half a dozen stables on the right; and, opposite that, the main entrance into the bar.
This is quite a large pub, with several distinct areas. But, business first: let’s start at the bar. Today, the handles pull Doom Bar, Greene King IPA, and something by St Austell that’s not quite ready yet; the taps provide Coors, Carling extra cold, Guinness, and the usual selection of lagers. Oh, and there’s Newcastle Brown Ale in the fridge. We both select the Doom Bar (£2.75 a pint), and are pleased to see that, without even being asked, it’s served in a mug. Cheers!
At the front of the building, adjoining High Street, is an area which seems quite sport-oreinted. Two TVs silently play a sports news channel, and modern pop music (Robbie Williams, Duffy, Keane) plays at a medium volume. Perched on a stool at one of the tall tables sits a man in his sixties, playing with his phone and reading a newspaper. On his table are a pint and a half of some sort of lager; on the back of the stool next to him is a leather jacket, but I can’t tell if it’s his, or that of a temporarily-absent friend. Even after more than half a pint’s worth of people-watching on our part, the answer still isn’t clear.
At another table, two men in their forties talk about cricket and football over their pints of Stella and Coors. On one side wall, away from the windows, is a pool table; nearby, a fruit machine. Three men in their twenties sit near the pool table. Opposite, there’s a leather sofa – tired-looking, but comfortable.
In spite of the dark wooden wall panels, this area is light and airy; the ceiling is beamed, but not low. A large brick double-sided fireplace separates this area from that of the main bar. But then I realise what this place – or, this particular room at least – is missing: any form of decoration, anything superfluous. Except for some adverts, usually framed, the walls are bare. The mantelpiece is empty, the ceiling is featureless. No pictures, no books, no brasses or crockery, no candles, no flowers. All a bit … not even bland. Just empty.
There’s busy level of noise here now. On the TV, an advert for the next big football fixture. Soon, a match starts: the music goes off, and the TV’s sound is turned on, louder than the music that it displaced.
So with that, let’s move along. Moving past that double fireplace, we’re back in the bar area. It’s after working hours now, and the place is filling up a bit. On the tables by the windows sit various groups: a man and a woman in their sixties, with a Newcastle Brown Ale, and a lemonade; three men in their forties, one of whom is on his phone; he laughs loudly. The pool-table-group from earlier has become more mixed now: two men, two women, all probably in their twenties. There’s a jukebox here, and another fruit machine; and a smaller TV, facing the bar. A woman in her 70s sits near the window; seven men stand in a group at the bar. Judging by the dog collar, one of them seems to be the local clergyman.
Moving further back still, past the bar, things get quieter. The end of the bar area is demarcated by another double fireplace; and round the back of this one, and up a step or two, there’s a room with a handful of tables and an assortment of chairs. Above the fireplace, another TV hangs on the wall.
Further round still, and there’s plenty of tables to eat at, mostly in a conservatory area, and a “grabber” machine. Beyond this, the beer garden, large and grassy, with a substantial paved area and lots of tables. Round this side of the pub, it’s quieter: away from the TVs, and away from the all-male groups. Here we have more diversity, with family groups, and couples of all ages.
Elstow may inevitably be consumed by the neighbouring town, but for now at least, The Red Lion remains a village pub, attracting a good mix of custom. Next time we come here, let’s hope that the third handle has something interesting on; and if the weather’s good, sitting out in that beer garden could be just what the doctor ordered.
Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0