Is the Dog & Bell in Deptford, South East London, a hold-out against gentrification, a symptom of it, or, somehow, a bit of both?
We’ve known Deptford on and off for twenty years, since the days when it was all concrete creek, boarded-up buildings and pigeon roosts.
So resolutely down-to-earth was it that we sometimes wondered if it might be the one area of London that would never go hip.
How naive we were.
The turn started while we were away living in Cornwall. We noted from afar the arrival of the Antic Pub Group which took over a former Job Centre and turned it into a pub called, with stunning insensitivity, The Job Centre. If you were trying to come up with a symbol of the worst instincts of urban gentrifiers you might think this too ripe.
We were also intrigued when Des de Moor’s excellent guide to London pubs included a place in Deptford. We took note of its name, The Dog & Bell, thinking we might like to visit sometime if we found ourselves down that way.
It took a few years, though, as we kept finding ourselves either distracted by the established pleasures of Greenwich or drawn further out to places like Bellingham, for research purposes.
On our most recent trip, though, we actually stayed in Deptford, and made a visit to the D&B a priority.
Here’s what we were expecting, for some reason, having not double checked the entry in Des’s book: a high street pub with lots of keg beer where we’d feel old and a bit uncool.
In fact, it’s on a back street, on the wrong side of the big A-road that connects Rotherhithe with Greenwich. We wandered through piles of leathery leaves under orange street lights thinking, “Really? This way?” The neighbourhood doesn’t feel gentrified, just… Normal. A touch seedy, perhaps, but not rough. Like lots of suburban London.
Our first sight of the pub all but took our breath away. It looks a bit too perfect – not corporate or contrived, fire engine red, with painted windows casting warm, broken light onto the blank, bland brick of the block opposite.
On this occasion, the temporary mural had a Cornish theme reflecting a recent beer festival and we felt momentary confusion at seeing One And All alongside renderings of cliffside mine workings.
Stepping through the door, glasses fogged and faces dewy, we were surprised to find London and Irish accents dominating among the mostly white-haired clientele.
You know how people want London pubs to be? All earthy chat and laughter, but without any of the challenging content that too often comes with it? Lively, but good-hearted? Well, this seemed to be that dream.
An Irishman in a three-piece tweed suit demonstrated his line dancing moves as a country and western song played. Someone asked the woman behind the bar if she was still a compulsive knitter: “I’ve seen you walking down the street doing it, haven’t I, eh?” There was heated debate about the likely winner of an upcoming pickle-making competition and a jar of something spicy was passed around for testing: “Bloody hell, I can’t breathe!”
Then there’s the beer list. Apart from apparently better-than-usual Guinness, cask ale and boxed cider, there’s also an extensive range of reasonably priced Belgian beers in bottles.
Belgian beer doesn’t feel faddy or trendy in the way a wall of craft beer fridges can. It also felt, somehow, completely appropriate to the setting, perhaps because a characterful brown pub with dark corners in London has a lot in common with a characterful brown cafe with dark corners in Brussels.
If it isn’t obvious, we were rather smitten, and struggled to leave. We can imagine staying in Deptford again purely on the strength of this interesting, authentic, fascinating pub.
Thinking about it later, though, we realised what felt odd about the place: it somehow reminded us of those insistently quirky pubs in Mayfair and Belgravia.
Now, Deptford is still Deptford, the odd splash of Farrow & Ball paint aside, so why should that be?
Perhaps because, as with those Up Town pubs, its survival feels so pointed – defiant, defensive, a last grab at something that’s slipping away as commodity flats replace factories and chi-chi coffee shops displace caffs.