A one-week-old fence has brought international attention to this small, 400-year-old pub.

By Mike Pomranz
July 14, 2020
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Since British pubs were allowed to reopen across England on July 4, patrons may have noticed some differences: socially-distanced tables, arrows on the ground directing foot traffic, or a farm-grade electric fence blocking drinkers from approaching the bar. Okay, that last change may have only been at one pub—but for those who have encountered the odd new security measure, it certainly had an impact.

The Star Inn in St. Just—a small seaside town near England’s southwesterly tip in the county of Cornwall—has become a global phenomenon after the manager, Johnny McFadden, opted to install an electric fence in front of the bar to encourage drinkers to follow the new countrywide policy that pubs can only offer table service. In Brits’ defense, before the pandemic, table service for drinks was extremely uncommon at proper pubs, and old habits are hard to break. Still, for McFadden—who is also a local farmer used to dealing with livestock—to install something better suited for containing animals certainly sends a message.

“I didn’t realize it was going to go viral,” McFadden told me. As a small, self-described “drinkers’ pub” catering to older locals, The Star Inn isn’t used to this kind of attention. So despite squeezing me in between interviews with radio and television stations in Australia, Canada, and the United States, the affable landlord (as you call a pub proprietor in the U.K.) was happy to chat on the phone with me at length about his situation as if I was one of his regulars. He even mentioned was scheduled to talk with Fox News later in the day. “Trump wants that fence with Mexico. I can help him,” he joked.

The Star Inn in St Just, Cornwall

But though the fence was installed with a humorous touch, McFadden stressed the need for it was serious: The bar is right by the door, often causing immediate crowding as soon as people enter. “Before the fence, people were not following social distancing and were doing as they pleased, but now people take heed to the guidance around social distancing,” McFadden told Cornwall Live. “We’re in a rural community. Everybody knows what an electric fence is. It keeps the sheep away, and it keeps the people away.”

Despite some quips to the contrary, McFadden told me the fence has never been turned on, but he provided a valuable analogy. “It’s the fear factor,” he told me, “like the virus.” Just as people can’t see the virus but should be aware of it anyway, patrons can’t tell if the electric fence is on or off, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t cautious, he explained.

And far from the chain links some Americans might be imagining, this fence is little more than a couple of wires hooked up to a six-volt battery with a warning sign hanging in the middle. Still, the pub’s ownership group—St. Austell Brewery—told Cornwall Live they were a bit concerned about the admittedly “tongue-in-cheek” safety measure anyway. “We are in conversations with Johnny about his plans to replace the fence with a more traditional safety measure,” they were quoted as saying yesterday.

The Star Inn in St Just, Cornwall

However, McFadden told me the global phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. “The fence is staying up!” he proclaimed, equal parts adamant and amused. He says he hasn’t yet seen an influx of customers from all the publicity, but it certainly doesn’t hurt at a time when he’s only able to do about 25 percent of his usual business. And there’s an unsettling irony that a nearly 400-year-old pub—one that McFadden says had never closed its doors before, even through two world wars—was perhaps going to be able to weather this horrible coronavirus storm all because of a one-week-old fence.

“I’m going to get some T-shirts made,” McFadden told me, apparently in earnest. “Hopefully they sell; otherwise, they’re going to be our normal uniform for the next ten years.”