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Barrels of fun for the old publicans

When pub licensees call time on their working lives, they gather in the bar of their own retirement village. Old habits die hard, says Jenny Knight
Retired accountants seldom meet up to pore over old tax returns, nor do ex-teachers gather to discuss differential calculus, yet one group can't resist returning to their former workplace - the pub.

At the publicans' retirement village in Denham, Middlesex, former licensees flock to the on-site pub each day. As of old, they voice opinions, berate the Government, and gossip outrageously. Little has changed since they were landlords, except that, now in their sixties, seventies, eighties, most of them prefer lunchtime sessions to late nights.

From midday onwards, The Owl pub fills up as residents leave their bungalows to congregate for a bevvy and sometimes a sing-song, followed by lunch in the restaurant. Not for the Denham crowd the slippers and cosy cardigans traditionally associated with retirement. Such sloppiness is shunned by the ex-publicans and their lady wives. No former landlady enters The Owl for her lunchtime tipple unless she looks smart enough to meet the Queen. Eye make-up is applied with infinite care, hair is coiffed into submission, floral dresses are freshly ironed and the two-inch heel is fairly standard. As Jean Portass, 72, says, "We put on our tiaras to come down here."

Jean breaks off to greet two friends who now can't cope alone and have moved into the site's residential care home. Yet they both still manage to get down to The Owl using a stick and walking frame, and both are band- box smart.

The village was opened in 1958 and still has a faint air of other times. Tidy little bungalows dot the steeply sloping site, each with a minuscule garden and an outlook on to lawns.

Publicans are, according to cliche, genial, although anyone with the slightest claim to a misspent youth knows that the descriptions "opinionated", "irritable" or "sozzled" often meet the case. Those who have fallen foul of a stroppy landlord may find the idea of a village of 166 bungalows, a 37-bed residential home and a 37-bed nursing home filled with retired licensees a nightmarish prospect. Yet Denham is remarkably short of bust- ups and dramas. Maybe publicans mellow once the stress of running their own pub is forgotten, or maybe the combined disapproval of people skilled at giving short shrift to awkward customers is enough to quash any bad behaviour.

Nor are residents often seen under the influence. As 85-year-old Flossie Scott explained, "On special occasions you do see someone who has had one too many and doesn't realise he has gone over the mark, but someone else usually has a word and takes him home, and that's the end of it. We don't take any notice, because he'll have the bad head, not us. The next day, he comes in and it's all forgotten."

Denham's nursing staff seem to lack the normal medical obsession with pushing the temperance message to the over-sixties. Most GPs can't resist a lecture on heart, lung and liver disease when they learn that an elderly person still likes to drink and smoke. At Denham, the fortunate ex-publicans are deemed sensible enough to suit themselves.

Pamela Mathews, the welfare officer, said, "If someone has a severe drink problem, I ask them if they think this is the right place for them. Some people here don't drink at all, but most like a drink; and they drink more than I could, but it doesn't affect them as it would me. They know how to enjoy themselves and they do. They like mixing with other people and getting everything out of life while they still can. They have definitely got more go in them than most elderly people."

Denham is the biggest of the 32 Licensed Victuallers' National Homes in Britain. The ex-publicans typically move in when their health begins to fail or after the death of a partner.

Bill Bedford, 80, who used to be landlord at the Robin Hood in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, rang Pamela Mathews after his wife died. "Pam was wonderful," he said. "She sent me a form to fill in and here I am. I still miss my wife and still talk to her. I came here for the company and it's worked out very well. You are better off here if you are a drinker. You get on with more people. I had never cooked in my life, or washed or ironed. I told people in The Owl that I couldn't cook. They gave me a recipe for shepherd's pie. I went home and put the mince into a saucepan, peeled the potatoes and sat down to watch the racing, but I'd had a drop too much and nodded off to sleep. When I woke up, the mince and the saucepan were stuck together and had to be thrown out."

Naturally, the subject of "things ain't what they used to be" is a popular one at Denham, and with some justification. Drastic changes in the licensing trade over recent years, following a Monopolies and Mergers report intended to give the customers more choice, has led to hard times for many landlords. This has had a knock-on effect for the LVA's National Homes, which are now a charitable housing association, partly funded by licensees.

Frederick Ball, 66, formerly of the Shoeburyness Hotel in Southend, said, "I used to be chairman of the Licensed Victuallers' National Homes, and my team raised pounds 1.5m a year. Now it's down to about pounds 300,000. Landlords have their own problems and are concentrating on keeping their heads above water, rather than charity work. The brewers who used to give pounds 300,000 a year have had problems too. Financial constraints at Denham mean all sorts of little extras like the fuel allowance are no longer given - the fuel allowance and little treats.

"I came here in '94 after retiring in '91. I nearly drank myself to death when I first retired. I was in the profession of selling booze, and I missed it. I tended to drift to the bar every day. I can't think of anything better than living here. We are cocooned from the world's problems. There is no vandalism, and we are with people who understand how you feel and how you want to spend your time."

Denham's annual garden party is a major fund-raising effort. Henry Cooper, the home's president, is vastly popular with residents, but was reminded that many of the ex-publicans are tougher than he is, when he bent down to kiss a woman in a wheelchair and was gashed by her glasses. He spent the afternoon dripping blood from a cut eye.

In addition to charitable efforts by Cooper and his colleagues, most pubs have a collecting box on show, but retired publicans have considerably less donor appeal than cute orphans or crippled donkeys.

As Mrs Mathews said, "Regulars think there are no poor licensees, especially if they have just been served by a landlady dripping with jewellery. In the past 18 months I have seen many more people come in here absolutely penniless because of the changes by the breweries. Some are bitter. Some took on leases that were quite unrealistically expensive.

"They try not to ask for help. Often I am telephoned 10 days before a couple are about to be evicted from their pub. The local authority might only give them bed and breakfast. When they come here they are relieved but embarrassed. They feel like failures. They are very proud people and it's difficult for them to admit everything they have worked for has gone."

Another change for the worse is the time it can take to move frail residents into the nursing home. Previously, staff used their own judgement, now decisions must be endorsed by the local authority.

Mrs Mathews said, "We have frailer and frailer people living alone in the bungalows. The DSS no longer pay fees for the nursing home so readily, and if people have a fall we now have to call an ambulance to take them to hospital, where they are usually discharged. It is a culture shock to us. The local authority won't pay fees of pounds 355 a week for the nursing home in retrospect. They have to assess the patient first, and that can take up to 10 weeks. Meanwhile, we have a traumatic period when the resident has to stay in his or her bungalow. Nurses sometimes have to visit them up to seven times a day."

Changes in funding have also obliged the homes to offer vacant accommodation to non-publicans, who now make up about two per cent of the residents. One of these is Jack Little, 75, formerly a coroner's officer at Hillingdon police station. Although Jack is noticeably less ebullient than the typical resident, he denies being overawed by his new neighbours. "It's like a holiday camp. I knew the place before I moved in. My son is a chiropodist on the site, and I visited when I was the coroner's officer. I think they are all terrific. they are so gregarious. I came in not knowing a soul, and within minutes I was chatting to everyone and playing whist, even though I explained I had completely forgotten the rules. They just wouldn't take no for an answer."

The ethos at Denham is unpaternalistic. Residents are left to get on with their own lives, but there is an on-site shop and post office. A bus runs into Uxbridge for a shopping trip every Friday, and residents can leave their shopping trolleys for maintenance staff to deliver to their doors later.

Generally, the emphasis is on self-help. Jack Little is one of the volunteers who drive a decrepit old milk float kitted out with seats, picking up residents from their doors and depositing them at The Owl or the gate. The more mobile use paths with handrails, designed to help residents to tackle the slopes, not to give those who have overdone it in The Owl something to cling to.