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
We’ve just acquired a handful of in-house magazines from John Smith’s of Tadcaster dating to 1968 and 1969 one of which contains a feature on a pub in Kirk Sandall, Doncaster, S. Yorks, called The Glassmaker.
The article says that the pub was the Kirk Sandall Hotel up until 1956-7:
It was erected by Pilkington’s, glass manufacturers, of St. Helens, Lancs., who have a large factory at Kirk Sandall, for their employees and to show off their “wares”… When it was first opened in 1934 it was regarded as being years ahead of its time…
From the outside The Glassmaker appears as an oblong building with flat roof. One of its windows measures about 20 ft. x 10 ft and contains no less than 98 panes. Dogs, representing various breeds have been exquisitely cut into some of the panes.
But that’s not all:
Inside the building the glass panels, squares and shapes of many sizes which surround the visitor on all sides are of many colours. Those used in what is known as the Gold Room are very rare and are known as “rough cast printed and fired gold”… The door of this room is of armour-cast toughened glass… The mirrored walls of one quite small room turn it magically into a vast auditorium and three or four people are multiplied into hundreds.
This combo of industrial showroom and pub sounds amazing so far — almost like a fun house. But…
To some extent the result of all this glass was a building which did not generate a high degree of warmth. In fact it was distinctly “cold” in appearance so the recent improvements have had the physical and psychological effect of “warming it up”.
Oh, no — ‘improvements’. What did they do?
The principal entrance hall has been completely changed and fitted carpet and mahogany-style panelling have covered up hundreds of green tiles which tended to give the impression of a fish and chip shop! The lounge has also been equipped with fitted carpet, some mahogany panelling, comfortable seating and modern tables.
The really interesting glass features, they insist, were retained, but we’ve got used to this narrative: modernised in the 1960s, faux-Victorianised in the 1970s, and then… Well, let’s stop guessing and take a look.
It’s still there! And looks in quite good nick. There’s hardly a trace of Art Deco left, the name has changed — it’s now The Glasshouse — and there’s a big old extension on the front. But, hey, it’s not boarded up, burnt down, or been replaced by a branch of Tesco.
And here’s an amazing 21st century perk for the architecturally curious: thanks to Street View we can even look inside at all that beautiful glass!
Unless we’re being dense, there is no interesting glass anywhere to be seen. Just boring glass. That’s a shame.