Tag Archives: pubs

Tightrope walking: pub life in East London

One of my favourite recent commissions was for Norwegian Air’s magazine, N, who asked me to write text accompanying Jan Klos’s terrific photographs of East London pubs that, as he says, “capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction.” The article is here.

I visited several pubs, interviewing the landlords about the difficulties of running a pub in London. “London’s pub landlords are tightrope walkers,” I wrote. “Maintaining a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.” What fascinated me about successful pubs was how they balanced their role as “a communal living room” as Pauline Forster, formidable landlord for The George Tavern described it, with their need to draw custom by programming events, from the ubiquitous pub quiz to the more avant-garde offerings at somewhere like the Jamboree on Cable Street. Even that is not always enough, and the George is under threat of development.

jan

All the pubs had been photographed by Jan for his project, the Photographic Guide To The Pubs Of East London. He explained to me via email how it came about:

“I was looking for a project and I was playing with the idea of examining London’s tourism industry. The idea of photographing pubs was born from (believe it or not) cycling by Parliament Square and Big Ben and watching all the tourists. I really hate crowds and landmarks. There’s much more to London than Big Ben, double decker buses and telephone booths and I wish more tourists would see that.

I thought of all the tourists who come to London following travel guides full of landmarks and return with home with exactly the same boring photographs as everyone who has ever visited. I felt it a duty to show them what they are missing out on. Around the time I started plotting the project, more and more articles started appearing in the press about gentrification, pub closures and the death of East London. I’m a massive fan of East London’s pubs and slowly a way in to my project took shape.

I thought it made perfect sense to combine a “tourist guide” idea with a documentary approach to capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction. It gives insight into London’s pubs as a good tourist guide would, but, most importantly, it documents these fantastic institutions and groups of people – “families” – who run them. The family portrait approach I have taken also highlighted how close the teams are and how strongly they feel about their survival: many of the staff I encountered have other jobs but still do an odd day of work  in the pub, just because they enjoy being part of a close-knit community.”

Advertisements

Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar. 

On old pubs, and getting older

Last week I went for a stroll around Soho for the first time in a while and spent most of the time in a state of shock and confusion at the lack of familiar landmarks: restaurants and bars had changed name, shops had appeared from nowhere, and everything appeared to have been cleverly redesigned to make me feel old and out-of-it.

Just about the only thing that remained consistent were the pubs: Bradleys, the French House, the Sun and 13 Cantons – venues in which I had spent much of my 20s were still present and correct. Indeed, while we can bemoan the undoubted withering of London’s traditional pub life, it’s still remarkable how many old-timers still cling in. The British Library has just republished The Epicure’s Almanack, an 1815 guidebook to London eating and drinking. Fascinating in its own right – did you know there used to be three inns near Westminster Abbey called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory? – it also has brilliant footnotes by Janet Ing Freeman, who maps and chronicles the history of the 650 establishments reviewed by Ralph Rylance 200 years before. In doing so, she notes those places that still exists: all are pubs rather than restaurants and include the still excellent Seven Stars in Holborn, as well as London legends like Wapping’s Town of Ramsgate, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in the City, the Windmill in Clapham and the  Spaniards Inn in Hampstead.

Town of Ramsgate, Wapping

Another London institution, the BFI, have also been looking at pubs. Their brilliant new two-disc DVD, Roll Out The Barrel, rounds up a great bunch of short films and documentaries about British pubs. A highlight for Londoners is Under The Table You Must Go, a 1969 film by Arnold Miller, the gonzo exploitationist behind London In The Raw and West End Jungle. His film visits half-a-dozen London pubs, almost all of which appear to no longer exist. The most intriguing for me is surely The Great Escape, a theme bar for RAF man that is filled with paraphernalia from WWII escape attempts (it’s now Mabel’s Tavern), but I also appreciated the moment when Jon Pertwee inexplicably popped up in a pair of lederhosen to serenade a crowd of pub goers with a burst of the classic Chelsea anthem Zigger Zagger. A trailer for the DVD can be seen here.

Hogarth was right: Beer and London’s brewing renaissance

This piece originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine. 

Beer Street by Hogarth

Is it a renaissance, or a revolution? In 2006, when Young’s left its brewery in Wandsworth to move to Bedford, it felt final orders had been called on brewing in London. The city that was once swimming in beer – literally, when a brewery exploded in Tottenham Court Road in 1814, causing the Great Beer Flood –had become a desert; only a handful of breweries remained. Six years later, everything has changed. London now has 21 breweries, in every corner of the capital, with more opening all the time.

‘London was once the brewing capital of the world,’ says Paddy Johnson, director of the Windsor & Eton brewery but speaking for the London Brewers Alliance, formed in April 2010 to represent London breweries. ‘It was bigger than Burton-on-Trent or bloomin’ Munich. We want to return to that. At our first meeting there were 13 brewers, ranging from Windsor & Eton, who had just done our first brew, to Fuller’s the biggest, oldest brewery in the capital. At our last meeting we had 21, and another six are on the way. It’s a vibrant scene. There is a real buzz about London beer. The public have cottoned on big time.’

So, why the change? It’s partly about microbrewing – a movement that began in America among people feel they weren’t getting sufficient taste, value or variety from the conglomerates that rule the beer world, so begin brewing their own. Microbreweries reached the UK in the 1980s and flourished after 2002, when tax rules were relaxed. London took a while to catch on, people put off by the barren London beer scene and the high-cost of starting up.

Camden Town Brewery

Under a railway arch down a cobbled mews in north London, Rob Gargan, brewmaster at Camden Town Brewery, takes a break from overseeing the production of 16,500 litres of beer a week to explain. ‘London is one of the last areas of the country to open up,’ he says, amid gleaming hi-tech equipment. ‘People realised that the beer they were drinking was from up north but there’s no reason why we can’t do it here.’ First to the pump was Meantime in Greenwich in 2000, but the new wave really began when Sambrook’s opened in 2008 in south-west London. Through 2010 and 2011 it felt a new brewery was opening every month as the resurgent London scene became the talk of the beer world. It isn’t just about microbreweries, either, Chiswick’s huge and venerable Fuller’s is a keen member of the LBA. ‘It’s not about micro it’s about local,’ insists Johnson. ‘Local beer for London is our mantra.’

And it is more than the rediscovery of a lost art, it’s about introducing a new drinking experience into London. There’s a running joke in ‘Asterix In Britain’ about the Englishmen’s baffling fondness for warm, flat beer, and while these classic brown ales are still brewed in London, the new breweries often look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Peter Holt, landlord at the award-winning Southampton Arms, explains: ‘English beers would be a bitter or mild made with Kentish hops, for an older generation. But a lot of the beers we sell use New World hops. Hops are measured in alphas and while English hops might be three, American hops are 13, 14 or 15. It’s much more intense.’

The Southampton Arms, the Campaign For Real Ale’s London pub of the year, only stocks beer and cider from small, independent breweries. It’s one of a growing number of London pubs to steer clear of mass-produced lagers and foamy bitters. ‘People are much more aware of what they eat and drink,’ says Holt. ‘People are conscious that you can buy Aussie lager in the supermarket for very little, so why go to the pub to pay three times as much when they have decent beer that can’t be found elsewhere?’

Southampton Arms

It’s not just locals. ‘Tourists desperately want to drink local beer,’ says Johnson. ‘When they go to a pub, they ask what’s local. London now has a huge range of award-winning beers to offer them.’

Most popular among these are the American-influenced pale ales (IPAs): golden, citrusy, stronger in alcoholic content, gassy and cold. Asterix and Obelix would approve. ‘Pale ale is the big thing,’ says Mark Dredge, a beer writer turned communications officer at Camden Town Brewery. ‘Most breweries sell more of them than anything else. It comes between a lager and a cask ale, so if you’re an ale drinker you can appreciate the flavours, and if you’re a lager drinker you can enjoy the texture and the fact it is colder. It’s the sort of beer anybody feels they can drink.’

Sambrook’s

Camden Town does a popular IPA, while the ones bottled by Kernel, a brewery near Tate Modern, have beer-lovers in raptures. But there’s variety among London brewers. Sambrook’s – founded by Duncan Sambrook, an accountant who attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court, realised no London beers were available and decided to do something about it – specialises in traditional British beers. He talks me through the beer-making process. It’s a complex business. Who ever realised that if you got some barley, soaked it to the point of germination, and then rotated it on a flat floor with a large rake so the seeds didn’t know which way is up and can’t break into shoot, you could roast this malted barley, boil it, add hops, cool it, add yeast, add a fish’s bladder, call it beer, drink it and not kill yourself?

Adapt this basic method, and much can be made. Meantime does lager, pale ale, fruit and wheat beers, you can get a great thick bottled stout from former solicitor Gary Ward’s Redchurch Street Brewery in Shoreditch, while Redemption – which was opened by banker Andy Moffat in Tottenham in 2010 – and Brodie’s – run by a brother-and-sister team, James and Lizzie Brodie, in Leyton since 2008 – make beers that come somewhere between the pioneering Kernel and the traditional Sambrook’s. And that’s just for starters.

Camden Town’s big seller is lager. The brewery was founded by Jasper Cuppaidge, who realised that the beers he liked came from abroad so decided to make some himself. His beer is now in 120 pubs, mainly in London – for most London breweries, distribution is limited to the M25, although the LBA helps organise festivals of London beer all around the country, as well as having regular London beer showcases in different London pubs each week. The LBA also set up a marquee at London Zoo during their late-night summer openings, which was very popular among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many of the breweries themselves are run by similarly young, self-taught enthusiasts.

The LBA give these tyros the help they need. ‘A lot of our members are young so we assist them with distribution and technical problems,’ says Johnson. ‘We want to raise the bar for everybody brewing in London. We’re competitors, but we act co-operatively. If more people drink more London beer we all benefit.’