Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Nags Head, Malvern, England

Hello again, my blog rhythm was interrupted because I was "on holiday". We went to Malvern England for Spring Break. It was wonderful for many reasons, but in particular it was invaluable to experience the daily life and place of our distant family. Western nuclear family life can be so insular so when we are invited into another's world it is a real honor. I am grateful to my sister-in-law Jenny who pampered us for five days in their home and toured us about the region. Our visit gave her the impetus to go to some of the local tourist destinations for the first time. Warwick Castle and Shakespeare's childhood home were great, but my preference was for the local "Third Place" the Nags Head.

The pub, short for public house, is a classic "Third Place" in Britain, going back to the time of the Romans. Perhaps the heart of the village or neighborhood, the pub was, and continues to be, a social center for meeting and the exchange of news. As with all great cultural developments, there are interwoven political, social and economic underpinnings. During Victorian times gin was considered evil, the cause of alcoholism for the working man, whereas ale was seen as nutritious and children were served ale because it was believed to be healthier than water. The water in Malvern is a noteworthy exception, a bottled spring water which comes from deep within the granite hills. Long ago Malvern became a spa town for the wealthy to come to recover from illness. Today there still exist many public fountains where anyone can come to have a drink or fill up water bottles. The Queen of England is partial to Malvern water, locals claim she makes a point of traveling with it wherever she goes in the world.

Mid week after a long day of sight seeing over hill and dale, we stopped into The Nags Head before heading home. Once upon a time the pub signs were required to have pictures because the general population was not literate. Today pub signs have words and pictures and often the meanings have a double entendre. My guess is that nag isn't a term of endearment for most of us. Indeed the pub was full of men, the communal watering hole, the place to escape the nag. Another meaning for nag is "an old useless horse" and in case this isn't the definition that comes to mind the business sign out front features a picture of a horse's head (one that doesn't look ready to turn out to pasture).

The Nags Head is the quintessential pub. Crooked walls, wooden benches, changing ceiling and floor levels (probably the built in sobriety test) and filled with men milling about together. We walked in, my husband, ten year old son and sister-in-law, and made our way to a snug corner with a fire blazing. A "snug" is a term for a tucked away corner of a pub which was intended for privacy. Police officers, priests, women and those generally not supposed to be seen there could sneak a swig away from the general gaze. We ordered at the bar, another pub innovation which originally was only used by the proprietor to keep watch over customers while taking care of business, but evolved into the fastest way to serve up the most people. A beautiful smiling young woman gave us our pints, pop and crisps (potato chips).

The pub was quaint, even the view into the cellar with a fake skeleton next to the keg. My forever entrepreneurial husband immediately started plotting his "theme" pub version for St. Paul. This fine establishment would never pass code in the US, but beyond that if we could really replicate the experience why would any of us continue to travel? Pubs in Britain today are threatened by supermarkets because they can sell alcohol at a much lower cost without the same level of legal oversight. As with all living traditions, the pub is in flux.

My husband managed to get to The Nags Head three times in six days, that might just qualify as his "Third Place" away from home. This is one of the places I will envision my family members, now that I have experienced the context for their daily life. My teenage daughter picked up on the use of the word "right" by the British in daily speech, giving her an insight into her own use of the word "like" all the time, perhaps I won't have to "nag" her about it now.