'Soul-destroying' - One pub landlord's 2020 story

Railway Tavern landlord Paul Sandford

Paul Sandford said that 2020 had been a "soul-destroying" year for the Railway Tavern. - Credit: Noah Vickers

2020 at the Railway Tavern began like any other year: with a huge party.

“We were on a high, the pinnacle really, and then we had the rug pulled from underneath us,” said landlord Paul Sandford. 

2019 had been a big year for the Dereham pub, as Mr Sandford was awarded ITV’s Pride of Britain Award for the tavern’s fundraising work.

At the awards ceremony, Gareth Southgate congratulated Mr Sandford for hosting an open-air viewing party for the 2018 World Cup, which had itself made national TV.

Paul Sandford at the Railway Tavern in Dereham has had world cup t-shirts for his customers marking

Paul Sandford at the Railway Tavern in Dereham has had world cup t-shirts for his customers marking the fixtures for England and Portugal. With him is daughter Martha Sandford. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

By contrast, Mr Sandford said 2020 had been “absolutely soul-destroying.”

On New Year’s Eve, as for the rest of the world, there was no hint of what was to come. 

“We had a big New Year’s Eve party. We normally have good turnout right through the day really, right through to midnight, but obviously we won’t be doing it this year.” said Mr Sandford, speaking a week before the pub’s sudden decision to temporarily close in December 2020. 

January brought the UK’s exit from the EU, which the Railway Tavern marked with celebrations, attracting national television attention once more. 

Jamie Mathlin, and Janet and Stephen Rix with Union flags atThe Railway Tavern in Dereham's EU leavi

Jamie Mathlin, and Janet and Stephen Rix with Union flags atThe Railway Tavern in Dereham's EU leaving party. Picture: Lauren De Boise. - Credit: Lauren De Boise

Mr Sandford said: “It was a good party night. We’re known as a party pub. I think I said at the time: any excuse for a party! We didn’t have any views on Brexit, it was just a case of getting bums on seats as it were.” 


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When coronavirus began to spread across the UK in March, Mr Sandford said he became increasingly uneasy. 

"It hadn't really dawned on anyone... It had never happened before in our lifetime and hopefully never again."

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“The pub was still really busy in March. People still wanted to socialise and it hadn’t really dawned on anyone… It was obviously quite a shock. It had never happened before in our lifetime and hopefully never again,” he said.

The pub closed of its own accord on March 17 - six days before Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown. 

“I just didn’t feel comfortable [staying open],” said Mr Sandford.

“We had several staff behind the counter and I just looked at them and thought: this doesn’t sit right.”

Mr Sandford said the announcement of lockdown “was a bit of a relief really, because I thought: I have done the right thing!”

Mr Sandford pictured in the marquee outside the pub.

Mr Sandford pictured in the marquee erected outside the pub, partly funded by the New Anglia Partnership. - Credit: Noah Vickers

Reopening on July 4 meant “going into the unknown” said Mr Sandford, because the pub was “opening the door and not actually knowing if anyone was going to walk through it!”

The tavern’s layout was reordered around a one-way system - and sure enough, customers did return.

“It was a funny feeling… the first night was quite emotional,” said Mr Sandford, who himself became emotional remembering how patrons congratulated him on reopening.

The summer seemed more optimistic, said Mr Sandford, and bookings for small gatherings at the pub began to trickle back in. 

Funds from Breckland Council’s regeneration scheme and the New Anglia Partnership had helped the business to adapt itself for the pandemic age, with a marquee put up so families could gather outdoors come rain or shine. 

In October, with the help of local suppliers, the pub gave away around 360 free meals to children who needed them during the half-term holiday. Mr Sandford said he still couldn’t understand why the government hadn’t stepped in to provide them. 

"Obviously there's only a certain amount of money to go round... but children shouldn't be going hungry."

“Obviously there’s only a certain amount of money to go round, but that’s got to be one of the most important things - children shouldn’t be going hungry,” he said.  

Mr Sandford pictured in the marquee outside the pub

Mr Sandford pictured in the marquee outside the pub. - Credit: Noah Vickers

November’s second national lockdown came as “a massive blow”. 

“We’d just got back to taking bookings for small gatherings, christenings, baby showers and again, they were all cancelled overnight - so the diary was emptied once again,” said Mr Sandford.

Plans for Christmas and the New Year had been minimal even before the pub decided to close for the foreseeable future. 

Looking to 2021, Mr Sandford said the news of a vaccine was “fantastic” but warned that his and other businesses faced a lot of catching up.

"It's going to be a long haul, but we're in for a long haul."

“If I’m being realistic, 2021 is going to be a slog,” he said.

“It’s not going to be easy, catching up. I know we’ve got a good clientele, but at the moment our diary for 2021 is empty - normally by now, most of the year would be full up. 

“It’s going to be a long haul, but we’re in for a long haul.” 

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