Going to the pub with my dad when I was a kid was a treat. Fuck knows why. He’d give my brother and I a bottle of Coke and bag of salt and vinegar crisps each, and push us out into the freezing pub garden to grapple with rusty swings and broken slides. Two hours later, with the drinks and snacks long gone, some new bruises and injuries sustained, and interesting theories proposed about how the empty balloon with the funny tip came to be behind the pub bins, we’d go back into the smoky, dingy pub to seek warmth. ‘Oi. No kids inside,’ came the curt call of the barman. Dad would roll his eyes and reluctantly escort us home. Childcare in the 1980s.
These days, the smoking ban means you can no longer escape the little blighters by leaving them in the garden or at home if you want a quiet afternoon in the pub. So you might as well take them with you and earn a few brownie points for undertaking parent/child activities, giving the other half some well-earned time off to do whatever it is you do on Saturday afternoon if you’re not in the pub.
Owing to the fact that parents go to the pub less than they’d like and are therefore excited by even the slightest prospect of having a beer, most pubs will reluctantly allow children in as they know that wide-eyed, thirsty parents are likely to spend big and fuck off before too long to get back home for little Tarquin’s bathtime.
But how to happily marry the twin worlds of childcare and boozing? And where?
The smaller your child the better. They’re immobile, they sleep a lot and they generally just seem happy to stare at a ceiling. Stick them in a pram, park by your table or leaning board and check-in occasionally to see they’re okay. Make sure they’re well fed before you leave the house though, as asking for a half-pint of breast milk in the local can cause offence.
If your nippers are a bit larger, more preparation is required. Quietly pack the pushchair with toys, snacks, colouring books and then wait till dark clouds appear ominously on the horizon. This shouldn’t take long. Just before the rain starts, say in a loud voice that you’re taking the kids to the park. Leave the house with pre-packed buggy and kids, then duck into your local when the deluge commences.
This approach does require a certain degree of timing but it also gives you the perfect excuse as to why you haven’t been to the park and the young ‘uns are stuffed full of crisps. Once happily ensconced in the pub, you should be able to keep a child mildly entertained with the basics pre-packed in the pushchair. A word of warning: if purchasing snacks do not go for the jalapeno crisps. Your child will invariably want one and will bawl the place down when the chilli heat kicks in, forcing you back outside into the wet, cruel, sober world.
If you’re lucky, the other regulars and bar staff will assist in childcare duties and it’s useful if your kids are able to perform the odd trick or two. For example, teaching a child to say ‘cheers’ whilst raising a beaker full of juice goes a long way in attracting sympathy, smiles and good nature.
Be prepared to visit several pubs during the course of the afternoon. This serves two purposes. Two apart from the obvious one that going to lots of pubs is good. Firstly, it fends off boredom from the kids by providing a modicum of variety. Secondly, it avoids those reproachful looks from staff who think that anything more than two pints whilst in charge of a child is irresponsible. Irresponsible? In my book, two pints is a minimum requirement.
If you can, try to find a pub with a fruit machine or two. Buttons, flashing lights and bright colours basically mean that fruit machines are kids’ toys for grown-ups. Again, you may have to ignore stern looks from staff and punters who think it’s morally dodgy to let an 18-month-old gamble.
If you feel a bit too self-conscious to go to the pub with a semi-literate, dribbling incontinent for company then you’ve obviously got better friends than I have. So invite them. And get them to bring their kids. They might even play with each other, giving you the chance to settle down into what now should resemble a decent session. It’s an update on the coffee morning. A beer afternoon, if you will.
Of course, while you turn the whole place into a fucking crèche everyone else in the place will hate you, so probably best not to do this in your local. Perhaps think about having two locals. One for visiting with kids. One for visiting without. Like GoodFellas. With infants.
Even the most ‘family friendly’ pub will usually call time on your kids at about 7 or 8pm, or risk losing the favour of the evening crowd of young, childless and carefree pissheads. But hopefully by this time you will be nicely smashed, and fending off calls from the other half wondering what you’ve done with her darling offspring, seeing as you only nipped out for ‘a quick pint’.
Relaxing it ain’t, but it beats necking whisky at home in front of Peppa Pig.
Here’s a run-down of some SE London pubs for the pint and pushchair set.
The original pubs-with-kids compromise. As a consequence it means that it’s a terrible place to drink if you don’t have kids and is mediocre place to drink you do have kids. Has a dedicated children’s playroom room with CCTV so you can sit at the bar observing happy playtime/desperate fighting, and get your kids used to Orwellian levels of surveillance from an early age. Although my other half said it was ‘cold, dirty and smelled of wee’, but perhaps she got lost and wound up in the gents.
One of my favourites so I’m not always keen on bringing junior along for the ride. Has a decent atmosphere and open fires, both of which are generally spoiled by the presence of those under 18. Has a robust looking playground out the back, mind, so I reckon I’ll set up camp here once the weather improves.
Kids are welcome at the Princess but where it really comes into its own is with the duck pond on the heath, opposite. Suddenly, you’re not going to the pub, you’re going to feed the ducks, where you can meet other folk with pints and pocketfuls of stale bread.
Another favourite due to the large expanse of car-free space outside, where small people can run around and point at boats to their heart’s content. Possibly overused to the extent that when my mum took the boy there during one of her visits, she was surprised to find that the staff knew him by name. Busted.
Because it’s the best pub ever and since the manager’s recently had one of his own, he’s a lot more sympathetic to the cause of parenting in pubs.
Update: April 2016
Sadly, The Florence in Herne Hill no longer has a playroom out back where you can watch over the little tykes from the garden with a lovely big pint. Unfortunately this fine facility was not used sufficiently to make it worthwhile, however kids are still welcome at The Flo, until 7pm.