THE place was packed. The log fires, in each half of the bar, burnt huge slabs of wood. The walls were covered in obscure memorabilia, framed etchings, priests' mitres, military hats, more than 1,000 pewter tankards and weird examples of objets d'art.

The Wykeham Arms is nestled on the corner of a cobbled street in the shadow of the cathedral in the heart of Winchester, one of the most affluent cities in Britain. The striped shirts and silk ties worn by customers and bar staff alike, the comprehensive wine list, the diminutive wooden bowls used to serve crisps at the bar and the framed Egon Ronay certificates were testimony to the relative wealth of the area.

Graham Jameson, the landlord who took the establishment over about nine years ago, brought with him a new kind of clientele. 'I used to drink in the Wykeham about 10 years ago, but then it was run by a guy who owned a local taxi company so it was, of course, a little different. It was obvious that if you kept it running the way it was you would make no money at all.' So he put down new carpets, polished up the wood and revamped the eight bedrooms upstairs, putting in new bathrooms.

He now wanders around the pub, his chin resting on his maroon and blue bow tie. He greets most of the customers by name and awards tankards to those who 'fall over a lot', or who come in so often that it would be rude not to. 'Those who are really part of the community,' he laughed.

Bill, my friend, had a tankard behind the bar, but had not used it in a while. Despite his absence, little had changed. He was still able to continue conversations that he might have started more than six months ago. It was strange - and, indeed, rather comforting - to eavesdrop on this small, cosy environment, where the jokes and the characters remained the same. The two boys who left Winchester College almost six years ago still knew people in the pub and eased swiftly into familiar conversation. The rest of us listened in.

Over in the corner was Colin Nutbeam. He props up the bar most of the time. A carpenter at Winchester College, he is one of the 40 or so customers who definitely has a tankard. 'He actually runs the place,' admitted Graham. Colin always sits with his back to the wall and holds court. There is a raised platform in his area of the bar, made of an old piece of nutbeam (honest) that Graham found one day. The wood was carved in a strange way and screwed down to the top of the bar. In the centre is a circular brass plaque engraved with the word 'Nutbeam'; it is just large enough to fit the base of a tankard and that is where Colin puts his.

However, Colin was sitting on Vince's chair. That, too, has a brass name plaque but this has been worn smooth by Colin's bottom. Vince did not seem to take much notice of his usurper, he was too busy talking cricket with one of his former pupils from the college and living up to his reputation of not having bought a round of drinks since 1980. His last receipt for pounds 5.25 stands in a frame near the bar. He drank from his personal glass tankard, which bears the inscription 'Vince, the original Harvey'.

'Harvey Smith,' said Vince, with a loud laugh. 'You know, clear round.' He explained that his tactics for such an enviable and cost-cutting achievement were quite simple. 'I just don't come out with any money, leave the stuff at home.' He insisted that he does not charm drinks out of people. 'I just look sad, forlorn and depressed, and then people buy me drinks to cheer me up.' Ben, the ex-pupil who once managed to score a drink off Hugh Laurie when in the Wykeham, added: 'Just watch Vince, he taught me all the tricks I know.'

Basil entered to a round of applause. In his mid-eighties, he slowly made his way across the room with the aid of a zimmer frame. 'Get a move on, Basil,' shouted Colin from his corner. 'It's at least an hour and a half until closing.' Vince butted in: 'Don't wear out yer brake pads, Basil.' Basil was giggling. He had been a member of the cathedral choir but then emigrated to New Zealand, only to return to Winchester a few years ago. He, of course, has a tankard and, while his drink was being poured, his chair was organised by Graham, next to Colin and opposite Vince.

There is no music in the Wykeham and no fruit machines. The young are encouraged to stay the other side of the bar, which is non-smoking at weekends, away from the likes of Basil and Sir David Calcutt, who frequents the bar at Saturday lunchtimes (he does not have a tankard). 'A pub is nothing without young people,' admitted Graham, 'even if they sit on the fireplace and stub their fags out on the carpet.'

Time, and the pub empties as the punters walk home along Winchester's narrow streets. By the bar is another plaque reproducing the words of Samuel Johnson in 1776: 'There is nothing that has been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.' Vince and Colin are obviously inclined to agree. I wonder if Bill will always have a tankard here, or if I will ever have a brass plaque for my drink?

Comments