The flickering light glints off the pint pots and the wine glasses as smiling faces appear out of the half-light. The chatter is jolly but a little quieter than might be expected of a busy pub, a pleasant hum rather than something more raucous.
Not a scene from a Thomas Hardy story or, given that this is north Cornwall, a Poldark romance, but autumn 2022 in the Masons Arms, Camelford, where soaring electricity bills have prompted the landlady and the landlord, Katy Chawner-Woods and Alan Woods, to turn the lights off and illuminate the place with hundreds of candles.
“Romantic, isn’t it?” says one of the faces that emerges from the shadows. Paul Parkinson, a gas engineer, has been coming to this pub for almost 20 years. “It’s like going back to the 18th century,” he says. “It feels relaxing. Everyone is struggling at the moment and if this is a way to keep this sort of place going then I’m all for it.”
Jayne and Chris Meadway, tourists from Gosport, Hampshire, were surprised when they arrived. “He thought it looked a bit weird,” says Jayne. “But when you get used to it, the candlelight brings out the character of the place, the shapes in the stonework. I think it’s lovely.”
Chawner-Woods says the idea came after she opened the August electricity bill – £2,574, compared with £1,172 for the same time last year. “I was having a moan and one of the locals said: ‘You should go back to how it was when the pub opened in 1753.’”
So they headed to Ikea, filled their car up with candles and launched candlelight Mondays. “We could have cut our menus or opening hours but thought it worth trying something different. And it seems to be working. People are telling us how it feels like a proper old cosy pub. It seems to change how people behave a bit. You don’t see so many people on their mobiles. Everyone is enjoying chatting to one another by candlelight.”
Bev and David Bull, who run a holiday home management company in the town, are sharing a bottle of red wine, having been drawn to the pub much earlier in the week than normal because of the candlelight.
“I think it’s lovely and romantic,” says Bev. “It feels really chilled.” Like all businesses, they have been hit by the soaring power prices. “We run two industrial washing machines and two driers,” Bev says. “The bills went from £100 a month to £700. Crazy. And we know we’re the lucky ones, we can afford to come here, when there are elderly people who can’t afford to put the heating on.”
At the end of the summer the pub industry warned that thousands of pubs faced closure if they did not get support. The announcements by the new government on an energy cap for businesses and a beer and wine duty freeze may have eased concerns slightly but Woods says there are still deep concerns. “Things like the cost of produce is going up hugely. We can’t keep passing it on to the customer, we have to swallow it.”
The pub employs 14 people. “Some people said we should lay people off but we don’t want to do that. It’s not easy getting a good job around here,” Woods says.
Like most of Cornwall, this area – just inland from glorious Tintagel Castle – has its challenges as well as its beauty. Opposite the pub there is a flyer in the window of the old bank for a community food larder for families struggling with bills. A glance at the estate agent window reveals homes are being sold for a million and more, but almost always as holiday homes or lets, making it almost impossible for younger people to get a home here.
Back in the pub, one or two drawbacks to the candlelight emerge. A man asks for a torch so he can read his paper; the dartboard is not in use, too hazardous. They have to keep the lights on in the kitchen and the toilets on health and safety grounds.
But the pros clearly outweigh the cons, especially when Callum Flew, a Cornish crooner specialising in jazz and swing numbers, performs for the crowd. “The candlelight suits me. It’s creates a laid-back groove,” he says.
Terry Dugard, a scaffolder and antique dealer enjoying life in the semi-darkness with his border terrier Maggie May, says others, including private households, should follow the Masons’ lead. “If everyone did this once or twice a week, it would make the energy companies think. I reckon this is a good time to get into the candle industry.”