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.

The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 September 2017: Pasteur, Porter, Pubcos

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in writing about beer and pubs in the last week, from ladylike behaviour to label design.

First up, something funny, in the form of a post from Kirst Walker who explains the limits within which she, a delicate lady, likes beer:

In all honesty, I have never been tempted to try any beer which strays past the golden and into the brown. I feel that a beer in one of the more masculine shades, for example a coal black stout or a cigarillo coloured bitter, would really be a step too far for a lady. I find that many hostelries now supply a tiny mason jar in front of the pump which displays the colour of the beer, which has been a tremendous help to me. I carry with me in my handbag a Dulux paint chart, which I hold against these tiny jars to make my selection. Once a beer passes Lemon Punch and heads towards Hazelnut Truffle, it’s off the menu!


Louis Pasteur
Detail from a public domain image restored by Nadar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Your history lesson for today: Lars Marius Garshol has unpicked exactly what Louis Pasteur contributed to brewing which is, actually, not much:

Pasteur’s work was of tremendous theoretical importance, but had limited practical use. It showed the importance of hygiene, of course, but brewers were already aware of that. Using acid to clean the yeast of bacteria was useful, but often when the yeast turned bad the problem was not bacteria, and Pasteur had no solution to this problem… The main thing Pasteur did for breweries was to show them how they could use the tools and methods of microbiologists to get better control over and understanding of their own brewing. In the years after the publication of ‘Studies on beer’ a number of breweries invested in laboratories with microscopes, swan-neck bottles, and all the other equipment Pasteur used.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 September 2017: Pasteur, Porter, Pubcos”

‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads — they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Further evidence to support this view arrived in our Twitter timeline earlier this week:

And this summary struck home with particular impact:

The map referenced (irritatingly uncredited at first, though they’ve since apologised and given him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incredibly comprehensive London pub blog Pubology. Do go and explore it, and bookmark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many other postcodes (e.g.) many of which show a broadly similar picture — red and yellow dots in the backstreets, green on the arteries.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are closing, and which ones, concluding that it’s easy for middle class commentators to shrug closures off because it’s not their pubs that are disappearing. This is another angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own compulsive wandering: if you stick to main roads in London, or any other major city, there are plenty of pubs. But cut back a block and the story can be quite different. We’ve seen it with our own eyes — walked miles on the secondary route without seeing a single operating pub, even if the buildings remain, converted for residential, retail or some other use.

Coincidentally, on the same day, we came across a note of a parliamentary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this coming:

I do not think that alcohol is evil in itself. I find that drinking with meals is more beneficial than drinking without a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawling to continue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attractive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-purpose restaurants. I believe that we shall see the larger ‘pubs’ taking over and the smaller ‘pubs’ gradually turning in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just happens to be micropub central.)

It all makes sense in commercial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advantages. Backstreet pubs don’t get as much passing trade, obviously. They can be a nuisance for those who live near them, and are harder to police. (More on this coming up.) And smaller pubs especially, without room for kitchens, waiters, gardens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a particular disadvantage in the 21st century.

Of course there are many, many exceptions — Bailey wrote about one earlier this week; and our old Walthamstow local The Nags Head is another. It’s funny, now we think of it, that those lingering backstreet pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feelings for a moment) the nicest, being all the better for their seclusion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it happens in our new neighbourhood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a couple of surviving back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can manage.

The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.