Classic Pubs in Posh London

Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.

With a plan to catch the last train out of London back to Bristol we didn’t want to stray too far from Paddington and so picked the section entitled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Victoria not far from the West Country terminus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own websites, and previous experiences with this kind of exercise, our expectations were fairly low.

The book's map of Chelsea.

We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tavern in Belgravia, where we used to drink occasionally even before we started blogging, when we both worked in Westminster. Green & White say:

The Star Tavern… is one of the handsomest pubs in London, both outside and in, contemporary with its surroundings. It is a fine Georgian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of London) built on generous lines and — being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or business areas — free from that maddening tidal crowd which packs more central pubs at lunchtime and evening opening…. The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not familiar with the pub, he should be.

Approaching The Star is still magical, through a stuccoed arch and over cobbles, and into the pub’s warm tractor beam glow. Inside it felt approximately (runs calculations) 32 per cent less ‘authentic’ than we recall it, having apparently had a visit from Fuller’s corporate style police. But there were still plenty of normal people knocking back pints (“They get a lot of butlers and doormen in,” someone said at one point) and the overall feel was of a secret refuge, especially in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tasted as good as we’ve ever had it, with the quality of the London Pride not far behind.

Door at The Antelope.

Next, we made a brief detour to The Antelope — not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with similar ‘classic’ status — to pick up another of our mates. This pub, too, was stunningly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gastro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and intimate, all corners, cubbyholes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.

Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante considerably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creaking floorboards it feels as if it’s been transplanted from Southwold or perhaps more specifically the Southwold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tatty in the best sense with an eccentric layout which means you can find yourself sitting below the level of the bar staring at a rack of knives under a sagging union jack, or next to a vintage end-of-pier penny slot machine by a roaring Victorian range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody — not the couple snogging intensely at the bar or the moustachioed bloke in mulberry-coloured waistcoat and bow-tie doing a crossword — looked as if they particularly wanted to.

The Nag's Head.

The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a comparative let-down being too bright and too Shepherd Neame, with Spitfire at its nail-polish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and rowdy with more genuine pub character than many others in London — a miracle considering the sterile acres of pristine mansions for absentee millionaires that surround it.

Sadly The Grenadier, the classic of classics, was closed for public order reasons (there is a Christmas fair in the park nearby and the authorities are apparently concerned that people will stagger to the pub from there and cause trouble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we finished with one more in the Star. There the whole party sat in quiet amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve never been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Londoner who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Belgravia.

It is odd, given that these pubs are recommended in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edition, many editions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rarity Capital Ale, and so many others. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst — that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that London in particular Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, protected from the real world by the sheer weirdness of West London, there’s some kind of persistence.

If you haven’t been, and especially in the run up to Christmas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat yourself.

Q&A: What was ‘The World of Brewing’?

When Lou Tweeted the above at us back in August we added ‘World of Brewing’ to our list of things to keep an eye out for in the archives. This week, we found something.

It’s an advertisement from around the time of the museum’s launch in June 1980 and gives a pretty decent description of its purpose along with some good, solid facts.

Text of an old newspaper ad.It’s good to know exactly where it was, for one thing — at 226 Tower Bridge Road, right next to the river.

That very distinctive name, Tarant Hobbs, is also helpful. Following that trail we discover that (a) the museum ‘flourished briefly’ but had closed by December 1980; and (b) it was backed by Big Six brewery Courage, somewhat on the quiet:

The Cornell Column, June 1980.
Hertfordshire CAMRA newsletter, June 1980

The museum might have come back to life — it seems to be listed in this 1986 tourist guide to London — and there are hints, here and there, that Tarant Hobbs might still be around. If we can find a postal address we’ll send him one of our nice letters and see if we can get him to tell us a bit more.

In the meantime if you find this reviving any long-buried memories of visiting the exhibition, do drop us a line.

The Changing Scene: Watney’s Pubs of 1964

In 1964-64 Watney Mann and its subsidiaries were on a spree of pub building in towns, New Towns and on housing estates up and down the country.

Here are photographs of and notes on those new pubs from editions of the brewery’s in-house magazine, The Red Barrel, published in 1964. Where possible we’ve credited architects and builders. Unfortunately no photography credits are provided in the magazines.

The Kingfisher, Corby, Northamptonshire
Exterior view of a modern pub; interior view of the same.
The exterior of the Kingfisher and a view of its lounge bar.

This pub on the Lodge Park estate was opened in December 1963 by E.C.M. Palmer, the chairman of Phipps, the Northampton brewer Watney’s took over in 1960. It was designed by Phipps’s in-house architects and built by Simcock and Usher Limited of Northampton. The managers were Norman Houghton and his apparently nameless wife.

A feature of the spacious public bar is the woodwork. The seating, the counter front and the ceiling are of fine quality pinewood, and a Granwood floor blend with the general appearance of the room… [It] has that essential amenity, a car park, with space for about fifty cars.

Still there? It seems so.

The Old Swan, Battersea, London

Exterior of the Old Swan from the riverside.

This riverside pub was designed by architects Stewart, Hendry & Smith and built by Siggs & Chapman of Croydon. It replaced an older riverside pub.

A full length continuous window in the ‘Riverside Bar’ overlooks the Thames, and the nautical atmosphere is accentuated by the curved boarded ceiling reminiscent of a ship’s deckhead, and by a ship’s rail for a footrail, while ship’s lanterns and porthole-style windows provide light.

Still there? No, sadly not — it was apparently demolished before 1987 (didn’t even make 25 years) and was replaced with a block of flats that cheekily borrowed the pub name.

Continue reading “The Changing Scene: Watney’s Pubs of 1964”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 28 October 2017: Beer Mixing, Blenderies, Strong Stout

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pub writing in the past week, from World’s Fairs to Beer Miles.

First, there’s been a bubbling discussion about sexism in beer for the last month or two, prompted by a series of individual incidents and issues, which Kate Wiles has summarised in this widely-shared article:

Sexist beer labels may not be as prevalent as they used to be – but not a week goes by without an example cropping up on social media. The most recent example of “Deepthroat” beer clearly indicates fellatio on the label. Another, Irishtown Brewing, boasts the tagline “Dublin blonde goes down easy”. These examples are both demeaning and degrading to women. Furthermore, they reinforce the stereotype that beer is a “man’s drink” and that women have no right to it.

Her call is for stronger sanctions against offenders from within the industry itself: “Beers that are demeaning to women should not win awards, receive accreditation or be able to use industry logos.” We’re going to have to ponder that a bit but instinctively think it feels quite reasonable — not government censorship, about which people are understandably squeamish, but a setting out of standards amongst peers.


The New York World's Fair

Gary Gillman continues to mine the archives for interesting titbits. In the last week he has highlighted two especially juicy items:

  1. An 1850 catalogue from an English brewer which contains a detailed run down of the beer styles of the day — an astonishingly clear, helpful guide to what people were actually drinking then, and how those types related to each other.
  2. Details of the faux-English pub at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City — a topic that we’ve been meaning to get round to ourselves at some point, fascinated as we are by the UK beer industry’s push to export the pub concept worldwide in the 1960s and 70s.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 28 October 2017: Beer Mixing, Blenderies, Strong Stout”

Sir Charlie and the Elephant: Unreconstructed and Underdone

Pubs built in the period after World War II have, on the whole, had short, rather sad lives, but there are two still trading (for now) at Elephant and Castle in South London. What can they tell us about the fate of the post-war urban booze bunker?

Elephant (as we’ll call it from here on) was a furious cauldron of development in the 1960s. What remained of the old district after the Blitz was levelled and a new traffic hub for south London was created. Office blocks were built to house government staff, like the Ministry of Health building, Alexander Fleming House, designed by the famous Hungarian-British architect Ernő Goldfinger. Most importantly an enormous modern shopping centre was built, ‘a giant new type of building, a fully enclosed American style mall over three levels surmounted by an office block’.

It was amid all this excitement that Watney’s and Truman’s breweries built flagship pubs there, the Charlie Chaplin and Elephant & Castle respectively. In August, we decided to visit both.

Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, 1960s.
Artist’s impression of the shopping centre by Willett Developments Limited.

In the image above from Watney Mann’s Red Barrel magazine for June 1965 the site of the Charlie Chaplin, on the central island and appended to the shopping centre itself, is marked with an orange arrow. This is how it looked on launch:

Publicity photographs in black and white.
The saloon bar (top) and cocktail/grill bar.

A major feature of the house… is a wrought-iron mural of Charlie Chaplin. Designed by G. Dereford of Marlow Mosaics and made from metal springs to epitomise the spirit of the film Modern Times, the sculpture runs the full height of the first and ground floors… The Charlie Chaplin was designed by Erdi & Rabson, built by Sinclair & Son (London) Ltd and is let to the Westminster Wine Co whose manager will be Mr H.W. Moles.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Watney’s aspired for it to be an upmarket pub for shoppers, cinemagoers and office workers rather than as an ‘estate pub’. But the shops and shoppers never came to Elephant — it was a famous failure in commercial terms — and when a huge housing estate, Heygate, opened right next door in the early 1970s, the Charlie Chaplin seems to have ended up serving it by default.

The exterior of the Charlie Chaplin in August 2017.

In 2017, with the threat of closure and demolition hanging over the ‘mall’, as it has been for several years, and in the aftermath of a stabbing incident, the Charlie Chaplin feels a bit bleak. At some point it contracted to a single large room on the ground floor and received a half-hearted faux-Victorian makeover, leaving it neither thrillingly modern nor genuinely cosy. Given the tendency to connect the fate of pubs with that of the white working class it was interesting to see that the regulars were roughly fifty-fifty black and white, mostly solo drinkers, and entirely male. At one point a young woman in office clothes came in and took a seat by the window. As she talked on her mobile phone the woman behind the bar came over and asked her brusquely if she intended to buy a drink or not. The young women told the person on the phone, pointedly, that they should meet in a different pub instead, and left. We weren’t made to feel unwelcome in any overt, specific way but it did feel as if we’d intruded upon a private party, or perhaps a wake. It was literally and spiritually gloomy.

The Elephant & Castle neon sign in 2017.
The Elephant & Castle photographed in February 2017.

Across the road (or, rather, under it via the subway labyrinth) is the Elephant & Castle the history of which we’ve written about before as part of a round-up of 1960s Truman’s pubs so here, for variety, we’ll quote Danny Gill’s 2012 memoir Have Trowel Will Travel (via Google Books) which features a chapter on the pubs in this area as they were in the 1960s and 70s:

[The designer] must have had shares in a mirror company, as soon as you walked in the door there were mirrors everywhere, on the walls, toilet doors, behind the bar, and also some on the ceiling. The only place there weren’t any mirrors was on the floor. No matter where you stood in the pub, as you raised your glass to your mouth, your reflection was everywhere you looked. I must say I didn’t like this pub; it was too open for me and felt cold.

The bare ceiling of the Elephant & Castle pub.

These days, after becoming very rough and eventually escaping conversion into an estate agents, it is run by London pub company Antic, AKA ‘hipster Wetherspoons’. They have given it a retro brutalist makeover, all functional mid-century furniture and exposed structural concrete, which is somewhat in keeping with the period in which it was built, and interesting to gawp at, but also completely inauthentic. It too felt oddly gloomy — that’s bunkers for you, we guess. Although the wide range of cask and keg beer on offer looked enticing the former was in lacklustre condition and expensive, too. (We preferred the Guinness at the Charlie Chaplin.) The pub was at least buzzing, though, and if we felt out of place it was only because we had at least a decade in age on most of the clientele.

This experience probably informed a suggestion we made on Twitter earlier this week that there ought to be a prize for the first post-war pub to undergo an historically accurate refurbishment — to bring back the Formica tables, linoleum tiles, mustard-coloured lounge chairs and fibreglass friezes on the bar. The apparent alternatives — neglect or trend-chasing upmarket superficiality — seem rather sad.

This post was edited to remove a reference to the subway system which was apparently closed recently. We used to use it a lot when we regularly commuted through Elephant and must have got temporally confused. Also, we had consumed beer.