On the day we arrived at The Spotted Cow, the air was filled with dainty tufts of white fluff. Flying around the garden, floating into people’s roast dinners, these downy little things were simply everywhere, snowing down on the scene, as we watched, enchanted.
It was a seasonal occurrence and the nearby tree responsible for shedding this pollen had for many summers caused distress to the inhabitants of the surrounding area. “Most annoying”, one of the locals at the pub had commented. Well, if this was what “annoying” was like in Surrey, I felt quite happy to say goodbye to London’s relatively maddening quirks.
Iain and I had arrived at The Spotted Cow just over a year ago to take on a live-in pub job, which required a couple. Having exhausted our patience with London’s fast-paced and exorbitant ways, we decided that our trip to China would only materialise if we laid low in the countryside, avoiding the bankrupting rental of a cold studio flat in Camden.
The pub lies deep within Surrey, on four acres of wooded countryside, and is adjacent to The Bourne, the seasonal stream after which the area is named. Half a mile down one of the many footpaths that weave through the county you’ll find the Bourne Woods, an expanse of cool green pine through which we spent many hours walking.
Iain and I moved in on a brilliantly sunny day, and not just by English standards. Even those most fond of their habitual bar stools had ventured out to enjoy a drink in the open, beyond the pub’s doors. We walked through the entrance and were instantly greeted by two men standing at the bar counter, both of whom welcomed us by name. They introduced themselves and the long-haired black dog that lay on the floor beside them. “Tar-baby is her nickname”, we were told, “A term that you South Africans must be familiar with”, they chuckled. Not a normal comment in post apartheid South Africa, but I was pleasantly surprised by their warmth. Little did we know how bound to this close knit community we would become over the next year.
An hour’s commute from London, Farnham lies within the envied “stockbroker’s belt”. The pub is a short drive from GU25, the most expensive post code in the UK – outside of London, that is. Luckily, Farnham’s residents are nothing less than generous and down-to-earth.
I could set my watch by the habits of some of the pub’s locals. They would arrive at the pub, at their preferred time, and upon spotting them I could often begin pouring their preferred drink into their preferred glass, and that was appreciated. To fit into a community that works like clockwork and perform an integral function (albeit as a bartender) was a new and rewarding experience, and I found a certain comfort in this routine.
“It’s like having a drink in someone’s living room”, a close friend had said of the sense of effortless belonging she felt upon visiting the pub. Unfortunately, Iain and I weren’t lucky enough to spend as much time as we would have liked on the drinking side, considered the right side of the bar, and weekends often brought blood, sweat and tears.
“Sunday is fun day”, we’d chant sarcastically at the approach of the busiest and longest shift of the week. The Sunday lunch tradition in England meant that week after week the restaurant would be packed out with hungry customers ordering The Cow’s renowned roasts. And as good as this was for business, it became our recurring nightmare. This had nothing to do with the customers, as we had a generally appreciative Sunday crowd. It had more to do with sheer volume. Although the restaurant only seated about 40 people indoors, sunny Sundays brought a hoard of 40 or so more, rushing in to enjoy their lunch in the garden, unannounced. All within about 20 minutes. We’d run around like headless chickens trying to serve them all in a sauna-like mugginess, hungry to the point of nausea, living only for the thought of the rewarding roast we too would eat once everyone else had had their fill.
Four o’clock would arrive, by which time the customers had usually all cleared out. We had finished disposing of the debris of that remained: highchairs, grubby wet wipes carelessly thrown about, dirty ashtrays encrusted in tomato sauce and roast potatoes tramped into the carpets. It seemed nothing short of a miracle to have finished for the week. And so we’d walk into the kitchen, in the hope of warming up our dinners. Dirty dishes were piled up on every conceivable surface, roasting trays congealed with pork fat lined the floor, and the sink would be draped in cabbage. At the foot of it would stand Kenric, his hands in the filthy water, almost stationary.
This became Sunday’s grand finale. We would spend the next hour or so ploughing through the residue in the kitchen, baffled as to how Kenric could wash up so very slowly. Outside of work Kenric was smart and quietly amusing, an intellectual and contemplative sort. Unfortunately he brought the same attention to detail into the kitchen.
He seemed almost fascinated by the task at hand. He would scrutinize the contents of every pot or pan, sniffing for clues, one blue rubber-gloved hand in the sink, the other clutching a ladle, spooning mashed potato into his mouth. Hence dishpig, the industry term for dishwashers.
A year working at The Cow made us many friends and, leaving after a year, we felt as though we would be genuinely missed. I felt equally sad to leave, the pub was truly a lucky find. But, as sad as I was, a year of living above the pub, saving, gave us the money to travel. Finally, our eagerly awaited trip has begun!
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