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.

Pub Life: For the Slugs

A slug approaching a pint of beer.

A warm evening in late summer, the smell of weed on the air, and blackberry stains on the pathway to the pub door.

Ahead of us in the queue a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes and a sensible but bramble-bothered jumper, with black mud beneath her nails.

“Oh, hello — I wonder if you can help me… Do you, by any chance, have any beer dregs I might take away with me?”

She waves a large margarine tub hopefully.

“Dregs?”

“Waste beer. For the slugs. On my allotment.”

“For the slugs?”

“For the slug traps. Slugs love beer. Keeps ’em off my plants! They drown in it.”

The young woman behind the bar eyes the gardener with suspicion. How can she be sure this strange stranger won’t just guzzle down the slops straight from the plastic the minute she gets outside? Desperate people will do all sorts of weird things for a freebie. She decides on a delaying tactic, a test of commitment.

“I can’t give you any now because we’re in the middle of service but if you come back at closing time when we’re cleaning out the drip trays I might be able to help. Once I’ve asked my manager, obviously.”

“Closing time? Oh, no, I’m afraid I shall be in bed by then. You couldn’t…?”

She waves the tub seductively.

A shake of the head.

And so the slugs, or perhaps the gardener, went thirsty that night.

Bottle & Jug

One night last week, guided by The Buildings of England, we made our way to the Shakespeare in Redland, Bristol, and gazed upon the ghost of its Bottle & Jug.

Bottle & Jug was a phrase we didn’t know six years ago which is why we found this oddly arranged historic sign on the side door of The Crown in Penzance so baffling — ‘Bottle Bar & Jug? Eh?’

Jug & Bottle sign at the Crown, Penzance.
Sorry this photo is so crap. It’s only from 2011.

We were being dim, of course — it’s Bottle & Jug, and then Bar. Here’s how Francis W.B. Yorke explains it in his manual for pub designers from 1949:

The out-door department, sometimes called ‘off licence’ or ‘off sales’, and formerly known as ‘jug and bottle’ department, is set aside for the sale of intoxicating drinks ‘to be consumed off the premises’, and by law may not be used (as formerly) for the consumption of drink. It may be planned off the general servery, or as a separate unit. It must be in direct communication with the street, quite shut off from drinking areas, and contain no seating. It is the only public room a child under the age of fourteen may enter.

The Shakespeare has a fairly well-preserved Edwardian exterior but much of the interior has been remodelled in 21st century style with every surface either grey paint or bare wood, and partitions removed to make one long bar room.

There are still odd bits to enjoy, though, such as the stained glass signs for LADIES and GENTLEMEN on the toilet doors, for example. Very helpfully for roving pub nerds there are also framed plans of the pub before and after its early 20th century rebuild.

A plan of the Shakespeare, Redland.

That’s how we spotted another lingering relic of the old layout: a narrow corridor of blue and white tiles running from the front door up to the bar. Assuming they are original (they look it) are all that remains of the old Bottle & Jug. They interrupt the floorboards, insisting upon the distinction between rooms that no longer exist, across the distance of a century.

Back before World War I, take-away customers (often kids sent by their parents — the cause of much worry for social campaigners) would come through what is now the main door and, between panels protecting their privacy, and that of sit-in drinkers, and order beer to go at the long counter which serviced all three parts of the pub.

It would be nice if those partitions were still there but in their absence it’s pleasing that the old layout can at least be discerned with some imagination, like the outlines of an Iron Age settlement visible in the bumps and ditches of an English field system.

Pub Life: Vapeman Against Humanity

A small pub with dark walls, swirling with psychedelic rock, and swirling also with sweet cherry-scented vapour.

Four men are gathered around the bar, three of them playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’.

They all have the build of nightclub bouncers but one is dressed in heavy metal denim; another like the croupier on a Mississippi gambling boat; the third in tatty biking leathers; and the fourth, disappointingly, in jeans and trainers. The first three have different varieties of ostentatious facial hair; their less showy friend is clean-shaven.

No, his flair is not sartorial; rather, he is generating his own fog with an illuminated sci-fi e-cigarette. Clouds and clouds of it. He is too drunk or too disinterested to join the game, or perhaps just concentrating too hard on his art.

Croupier reads from his card: ‘“What do old people smell like?”’

Bike Leathers slaps his thigh: ‘Oh, I’ve got the winner right here, my friend… “Sneezing and farting at the same time”!’

Everyone cracks with laughter, except the Vaper. Though the Vaper isn’t playing, he is thinking hard about the question, eyes narrowed and pink, fixed on a faraway place, or perhaps a distant time.

Heavy Metal begins his turn: ‘Right — “What do old people smell like?” The answer is obviously, “My balls in–”’

‘Decay!’ declares the Vaper suddenly, and loudly, killing the chatter in the bar. ‘Decay, isn’t it? That’s what they smell of. Decay. Impending death. Like…’ He generates a serving of particularly gothic graveyard mist. ‘Like their bodies are breaking down even though they’re still… Their eyes are still…’

Silence falls. Vapour churns.

‘Another round of these IPAs, lads?’ slurs Croupier, slapping his cards down on the table. ‘Or is it time to move on to that imperial stout?’

Everyone cheers, except the Vaper.

Vaper just vapes, intensely.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 26 August 2017: Seaweed, Scofflaws, Soupy IPA

There was a lot of good reading this week so it’s a bit of a bumper fun summer special today, covering everything from consistency to country pubs.

First up, for Draft magazine Zach Fowle explores the growing popularity of seaweed beer. Our first instinct was to bracket this with, say, moon-dust beer, as silly and gimmicky, but there seems to be more thought behind this particular trend:

David Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast, Maine… says Sea Belt has become one of his most popular beers; he brewed it five times last year and is trying to build up to making it once a month. What’s behind the sudden desire for—or, at least, acceptance of—seaweed in our beer? Hard to say, but it may be tied to the rise in the popularity of gose, the saline German ale that helped the American palate become accustomed to saltiness in beer.

(Via Kate Bernot @kbernot.)


Mild taste-off: multiple milds in plastic beakers.

From Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey comes a reminder that we are all alone in the universe, experiencing the world in our own way, able to relate to each other only through a collective lie. That is to say, she has realised after years of confusion that she tastes diacetyl as vanilla:

While I’m getting my head round the idea that my vanilla = everyone else’s butter a couple of previous episodes of ‘funny tasting beer’ come drifting back, where pale ales and IPAs tasted of vanilla to me but not to anyone else. I even know someone who won a medal for a homebrewed saison that tasted like cream soda to me. I knew it didn’t taste right at the time but I couldn’t have said what the specific fault was then (other than saisons shouldn’t taste of cream soda, obviously). But I could now… At this point I should mention that before I switched to a career in biomedicine I used to work in a QC/chemical analysis lab at Yoplait Dairy Crest where I was known as a bit of a vanilla super taster – I am very sensitive to low levels of vanilla…

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 26 August 2017: Seaweed, Scofflaws, Soupy IPA”