A beacon of hope amid media hysteria

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Tim and Jane Hunter run the Red Lion in Preston that's Preston in Hertfordshire, a small village not far from Hitchin and Welwyn Garden City. A...

Tim and Jane Hunter run the Red Lion in Preston that's Preston in Hertfordshire, a small village not far from Hitchin and Welwyn Garden City. A couple of weeks ago it was my pleasant duty to hand Tim and Jane, on behalf of the local branches of the Campaign for Real Ale, the plaque that celebrates the fact the Red Lion has been named the Campaign for Real Ale's Pub of the Year for Hertfordshire.

It's the only pub in the village so Tim and Jane know their customers well. In particular, they know the opening hours that suit their regulars. Those are currently 12noon to 3pm and 5.30pm to 11pm every day, including Saturday, with half an hour less on Sunday evenings.

I asked Tim what hours he would be adopting come November, when flexible licensing comes in.

'They'll stay exactly the same, he said. 'We get precious little time off as it is so a few hours in the afternoon are important to Jane and I.

Equally important, his regulars are happy to sup a pint and enjoy a snack at lunchtime, go about their business in the afternoon and return to the pub in the evening if the fancy takes them.

The notion that every pub in the country will be open round the clock from November is palpable nonsense. In the new edition of the Good Beer Guide, many of the pubs listed still close in the afternoon from Monday to Friday.

They are not all country pubs. In the county town of Hertford, two of the three pubs listed close in the afternoon. I doubt if those hours will change in November: the tenants or managers will fashion the hours to suit their custom. There's no point in keeping empty pubs open.

The Daily Mail will not be featuring the Red Lion at Preston in its pages, as it doesn't fit the nightmare scenario the paper paints of a country teetering on the edge of a drunken catastrophe when '24-hour licensing comes in. But if any of the Mail journalists care to read the cuttings, they will find the paper did once praise the Red Lion to the heavens.

Back in 1984, when Whitbread owned the pub, it planned to turn it from a country local into a steak house. The villagers, who number 400, rose up and said 'No to the brewery. They went further and raised £90,000 among themselves, a further £30,000 from a bank, and bought the pub from Whitbread.

Television crews descended on Preston to film the story. The Queen Mother, who was born in Hertfordshire, sent a message of congratulations. And, significantly, the Mail devoted an editorial in praise of the villagers and the campaign to save their local.

Tim and Jane Hunter are employed by the village shareholders to run the pub, which acts as the unofficial pavilion for two cricket teams in Preston. It raises money for the church, other local charities and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. Tim and Jane grow vegetables in a plot at the back of the pub garden and serve them as accompaniments to lunches and evening meals.

The beer has changed since the days of Whitbread. The Hunters operate a vigorous guest-beer policy. The bar area is festooned with pump clips to mark the hundreds of beers, mainly from micros and smaller independents, that have been served to satisfied customers over the years.

The Red Lion is a small success story. It is typical of thousands of pubs that are rooted in their communities, satisfy their customers and raise money for good causes. In the current climate, the Red Lions of England get little praise or coverage from a media hell bent on painting every pub as a place of debauchery, leading the nation's youth on the path to drunken ruination.

On the evening I handed the plaque to Tim and Jane, their pub was packed with villagers and Camra members. Good beer was supped in a convivial atmosphere. Nobody got drunk and there were no fights on the village green when Tim finally called last orders.

That's a good news story but, as we know, the media is not interested in good stories where pubs are concerned.

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