A journalist walked into a bar. In fact, he couldn’t. Alas, even bar jokes are restricted by current regulations because nobody is allowed to walk into the Signal Box Inn in Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire. Not a single customer can enter the smallest pub on the planet, because at eight feet by eight feet it is too small for social distancing – despite 33 rugby players once managing to fit inside.
The inn's landlord, Alan Cowood (“66 years old and six months young”), had no other option than to adopt an al fresco set up, pioneering a new serving system best described as the 1:1:Table formation. Cowood pulls the pints, passes them to his colleague in front of the bar, and drinkers collect them from the table in the doorway. “This is so efficient you just can’t believe,” he says, beaming.
Cowood actually predicted the need to provide outdoor operations at the start of June, a full month before being allowed to reopen after lockdown, writing a risk assessment then that didn’t require any amendments. “The one person I’d love to come down and see it is Boris,” he says with pride.
Indeed, Cowood might just be the best-prepared landlord in the country for this situation, having been compelled by his spatial constraints to become something of a pub minimalist. There’s no ice behind the bar (“Which alcohol do you want me to get rid of?”) and he regales me with a story about “a very nice-speaking lady” who was excited to hear he served cocktails and enquired which. His response? “I do a very, very nice… lager shandy and an equally nice… bitter shandy”.
Instead, Cowood enjoys his free-house status, regularly rotating beers in his constant quest for good quality (and “best prices”) and sending brewery reps packing when they try to overcharge. The biggest challenge he faced when he reopened was that all the breweries had moved into bottling and canning, whereas he wanted his beer in “these round objects, kegs.”
That isn’t to say Cowood is not open-minded about the best ways forward for his pub. The Signal Box Inn normally hosts two annual music festivals. With the restrictive regulation of live acts, Cowood is considering alternatives. “I thought, let’s have a string quartet playing in the background, and a lot of the regulars said, ‘That’d be great. I’d come’”.
Since the Signal Box Inn opened in 2006 its claim to be the smallest pub on the planet hasn't gone unchallenged. Another contender (Sam’s World’s Smallest Bar, in Colorado), threatened it with litigation but gave up after both pubs were measured independently. However Cowood feels his inn's case is vindicated after staff from The Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds, which is recognised by Guinness World Records, visited and conceded that it was smaller.
There’s a charming feel to the convivial cosiness of the pub’s patrons drinking at a distance on wooden-benched tables outside. Red, white and blue bunting blows in the wind, which on the day I visit is fast developing into a classified storm and making the wind turbine across the main road spin dizzyingly. The punters seem unperturbed. One holds his pint in a neoprene sports glove, an accessory acquired for serious October outdoor drinking.
When asked about the incoming winter weather, which would threaten the success of any beer garden, Cowood is philosophical. “I’ll work with whatever comes along. We’ve had horrendous rain, snow, and everything, and we’re still here”.
The Signal Box Inn has always been something of a survivor. The original fate of the building, when it was part of Scunthorpe Steelworks, was to be “flattened and set on fire”. Instead, the diminutive wooden structure was deposited on its current site (a nondescript street corner adjacent to Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway), where, after serving as a garden shed and then a training office, it was reborn as a pub when a couple from Grimsby leased it from the railway. They didn’t renew their initial two-year lease, and Cowood has been the landlord ever since. It went on to be crowned “the 13th best pub in the whole country”.
Its appeal seems only to have been magnified by the coronavirus measures. Cowood tells me quite matter-of-factly that a lord has just swung by for a pint. So what brings an aristocrat to drink in bracing conditions in a glorified car park? “It’s basic,” Cowood says, “They know what they’re getting is what they see. I can’t hide anything”.
The fans of this formula seem to have increased in number. The pub’s outside area has actually doubled in capacity, the new tables obvious thanks to their more lightly weathered wood. Cowood mentions that since reopening he’s seen, “a lot of new people I’ve never seen before… Yes, we do get full”. The inn has even taken on two extra part-time staff to enable its new serving system.
As he prepares to weather the storms ahead, Cowood is optimistic. "Small," he says, is not only "manageable," it's "wonderful" too.