As promised, we’re scanning and sharing pictures from the various magazines and books we’ve picked up over the years. This particular set tells a bit of a story.
During and after World War II, until 1954, there were strict building regulations — you couldn’t just build a pub when there was a desperate need for houses, schools, shops and so on. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any pubs built at all. Rather, each case had to be debated with local authorities and central government ministries to prove there was a real need.
What you’ll notice about these pubs built immediately post-war is that they look very like those being built a decade earlier during the hey-day of the Improved Public House. (One reason why guessing the date of a pub isn’t always as easy as it should be.) That’s partly because ‘bigger but better’ remained the prevailing philosophy of pub design (Basil Oliver’s book was mostly written pre-war but only published afterwards) but also in some cases because plans had been drawn up and then put on ice.
The Balloon Hotel, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire
This is The Balloon Hotel was designed by W.B. Starr of local firm Hall & Clifford and built in 1951 for Tennant Brothers of Sheffield. It looks, to us, very 1930s, not least in terms of its scale. We haven’t been able to find much specific information other than that its name was eventually changed to The Wollaton Arms and it is now gone.
The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.
With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’
We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.
Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.
Here’s a puzzle for you: which Birmingham pub was Ian Nairn actually writing about in his description of ‘The Windsor Bars’ in the Listener in 1960?
In Temple Row, near St Philip’s Churchyard, is a pub of some character called The Windsor Bars. At the far end are the usual offices, and of these the Gents is Birmingham’s least-known piece of architecture… What [the gents toilet] is is a beautifully detailed piece of Art Nouveau. Who did it and why I cannot imagine, but for the witty and elegant solution of literally the most mundane of architectural problems it would be hard to beat. The pub is part of Rackham’s site and is bound to come down within ten years.
Here’s the twist, though: in his 1967 postscript, added when the essay was collected with others in a book called Nairn’s Towns, he confessed that he had no idea where he’d got the name The Windsor Bars — ‘an aberration of mine’ — and confirmed that the pub he had in mind had indeed gone, or possibly had only ever existed ‘in a drunken dream’.
So, does anyone who knows Birmingham and the history of its pubs have any suggestions as to which establishment he might actually have been thinking of?
There’s no particular reason we want to know, it’s just irritating that Nairn let this loose end lie.
Pubs in Cornwall are ditching the cosy smugglers’ den look for airy-and-aspirational, and it doesn’t always work.
On Saturday we went for a walk to Land’s End looping back to check out The First & Last, a pub we usually end up visiting a couple of times a year. Having closed for a time it has now re-opened after a refurbishment, and under new management.
We used to find it pretty decent: there were always a couple of beers worth drinking, it was snug in winter, and had a fairly bin-free garden for when the sun happened to be shining. The refurb hasn’t been drastic and most of that still applies — the beer, in fact, is better — but we reckon the attempt to brighten it up has taken away some essential character.
Things have been painted light teal — why is it always teal? — and there are more bare surfaces. It doesn’t look bad, as such, but it’s not what we’re looking for in a pub caught between moorland and rugged cliffs.
We’ve seen a few other makeovers like this, too, most notably The Sir Humphrey Davy here in Penzance.
Cornwall’s problem (and maybe this applies to Devon, too) is that it is really two different places depending on the weather: on a sunny high-season day, an artfully gloomy pub with wood and low beams is no use to anyone. Equally, when it’s dark at 4pm, raining and blowing a gale, a pub decorated in beach hut colours, tiled and metal-trimmed, can feel like a morgue. At the moment, the trend is, quite understandably, to cater to the lucrative summer trade.
The thing is, though decor can give a slight lift, it can’t make light where there is none: at The First & Last, the windows are still low, small and facing west, and it still felt dark.
It’s not always a disaster. At the Old Coastguard in Mousehole — perhaps the inspiration for some of these other makeovers — it works, because the light floods in through huge windows at the back of the pub, with no obstructions as the garden slopes down to the sea.
We can’t help thinking, though, that some pubs ought to accept that, through circumstances of location, history and architecture, they are destined to be Cosy Old Inns, and just double-down on it. If the pub lacks light, then give up and make a feature of shadowy corners. If it feels cluttered, get more and more intriguing rubbish to fill any gaps. If it looks old-fashioned, don’t waste time trying to be hip: settle into it.
Did you, your parents, or grandparents grow up or live on a housing estate in England? If so, we want your memories of its pubs — or lack of them.
First, we’re interested in the period between the wars when big estates first started to be planned and built around the country, like at Downham in South East London, or Quarry Hill in Leeds.
The pubs on these estates tended to be huge, well-equipped, superficially resembling stately homes, and were often experimental: when it was first built, The Downham Tavern, for example, had no bars — only waiter service.
Here’s what used to be the Yew Tree, Wythenshawe, Manchester, built in the 1930s:
Realistically, to remember these pubs as they were before World War II, you’d have to be… what? More than 90-years-old? Still, we’ve got to ask. Alternatively, second-hand tales might still be useful, and any diaries, papers, photo or letters certainly would be.
And, slightly more realistically, recollections of these pubs in their later years, in the 1950s through to the 1980s, are also of great interest — how did the experiment work out?
Secondly, we’re also interested in post-war pubs — the kind built from the early 1950s until the 1970s, usually out of brick, often on the plain side, like this constructed by Truman’s in Bethnal Green, East London, next to the Victorian building it was to replace:
Pubs built in to tower blocks like those at Park Hill, Sheffield, are a particular blank for us at the moment. Was having a pub in your block convenient, or was going down in a lift to get a pint more trouble than it was worth?
We’re particularly interested in hearing from anyone who remembers drinking in these pubs when they were brand new, when the breweries that built them were full of pride and optimism.
If you feel inclined to help us out, please do ask your parents or grandparents — if nothing else, you might find their reminiscences interesting yourself.
But more recent memories are very welcome to — every email we get, even if it’s only two sentences long, helps us build a rounded picture.
In both cases, we are gently testing received wisdom which says estate pubs, almost by definition, are soulless, miserable and unpopular. Maybe what you tell us will prove that view right, or maybe it will help to challenge it. Either is helpful.
Or perhaps you recall moving to an estate with no pubs, as does this 2014 commenter on a blog post about slum clearance in West London:
When the time came we were offered a place in Lavender Hill. My mother was too ill to go with us, and when we got there my dad didn’t even bother to get off the bus. His only comment was “Not a pub for miles!”
Sometimes, the absence of a pub says a lot too.
Comments are great but emails are better: firstname.lastname@example.org