Us on Estate Pubs

Detail from an unused book cover: a pub in black-and-white.

When we started work on 20th Century Pub a few years ago the intention was to write a 20,000 word e-book about post-war pubs in particular. We even got as far as mocking up a cover, above.

The book we eventually wrote takes a much wider view but has a substantial chapter on ‘mod pubs’ and by way of a supplement, we’ve written two original pieces on the same topic.

The first is in the latest edition of The Modernist subtitled ‘Gone’ which launched late last week and is available can be ordered from their website or picked up in specialist design bookshops such as Magma in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. We gather it’s a very small print-run, though, so if you want a copy, get a bend on. (We’ll also make this article available to Patreon subscribers at some point soon.)

The second was published today at Municipal Dreams, one of our favourite blogs, and includes some quotations we didn’t get to use in the book, such as this by Geoffrey Moorhouse from 1964:

At the moment, whereas Shotton has five pubs, five working men’s clubs, and a cinema, Peterlee hasn’t even got a cinema. The ones who do come, so they say in Peterlee, very often stay for only a year or two, until a cottage becomes available in their old village, and then they’re back off to it with without any apparent regrets of the exchange of a modern semi for a period piece straight out of the industrial revolution.

We can’t say any of this — all the research, thousands of words — has got the obsession with this type of pub out of our system. If anything, it’s intensified it. No doubt there’ll be more on the subject here from time to time.

Partial Pub Preservation: Hermit Micropubs?

Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?

We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.

In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.

Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.

At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.

So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.

The Greenford Hotel, west London.

Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.

Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.

Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.

But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!

The Alpine Gasthof: Let’s Crack This

We’ve been working on an article about German Bierkellers in English towns in the 1970s and as a side quest found ourselves looking into one of the UK’s weirdest pubs: The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

We’ve never been, though it’s very much on the wishlist, but Tandleman wrote about his visit earlier in the year:

Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith’s pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup. This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don’t do that… Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town… The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam’s, sort of on the cheap.

Although there are lots of photos, and though everyone seems quite fascinated by the place, there don’t seem to be many concrete facts. When was it built? Why?

We didn’t hold out great hopes for any information from the brewery which is notoriously tight-lipped but did get this, which is a start:

The Alpine Gasthof was built in the 1970s (don’t have the exact date to hand) because the previous pub we had on that site had to be demolished for road widening. To have a bit of fun we decided to build a pub modelled on the Brauerei Gasthof Hotel in Aying, Germany because at that time we were brewing Ayinger beer under licence.

We can well imagine Sam Smith’s execs going to Aying during licence negotiations and being charmed by the original, pictured here in a shot taken from the gallery on the hotel website:

Brauereigasthof-Hotel-Aying exterior.

Although, oddly, the pastiche doesn’t look that much like it. Here it is photographed in 2013, via Ian S on Geograph.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence:

The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

With a bit more to go on we reckon we can guess that the date of its construction was around 1972, at the tail-end of the theme pub craze (Further reading: Chapter 5 in 20th Century Pub) and just as the German Bierkeller trend was kicking in. That’s also when Sam Smith’s started brewing Ayinger-branded beers. But we’re awful short on actual evidence. We thought this might be something…

Google Search result.

…but there are two problems. First, though Google Books has the date of publication as 1972 the particular issue referencing the Alpine Gasthof might be from, say, 1978. We’ve come across this problem in the past. It’s hard to know until you have the journal in front of you, fully readable. Secondly… It says Wetherby, Yorkshire. Surely some mistake? But, no, apparently not — there is at least one other (slightly odd) reference to an Alpine Gasthaus in Wetherby, giving the address as Boroughbridge Road, LS22 5HH. That led us to this local news story about the burning down in 2005 of the Alpine Lodge, a two-storey chalet-style building in Kirk Deighton (Wetherby). There are various other bits out there including this interview with the couple who ran it for several decades and a teasingly indistinct photo taken from a moving car in bright sunlight on this Facebook nostalgia website. We’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, with some tweaks — hopefully no-one will mind.

The Alpine Inn AKA the Alpine Lodge.

What a bizarre building to find there on the side of the A1.

And that leaves us with two Alpine-style Sam Smith’s pubs to be puzzled about.

So, do drop us a line if you know anything concrete about the origins of either pub (that is, not reckonings or guesses); have friends or family members who might have drunk in them; or live near either Rochdale or Wetherby and fancy popping to your local library to look at newspapers for 1972.

Blue Boy Down

From the Brewers’ Journal, 17 June 1959:

The choice of name in this new House, built by the Bristol Brewery Georges & Co. Ltd., is of interest as it was chosen in an attempt to establish some sort of cultural connexion in an otherwise rather featureless housing estate.

Boarded up front bay window of the Blue Boy pub. Barbed wire around the perimeter of the pub.

Many of the roads in the neighbourhood bear the names of great English writers and it is intended that “The Blue Boy” should be a central pivot of this motive. Above the door to the large bar is a pleasing and colourful wall plaque. Elliptical in shape it is in fact a hand-painted reproduction on glazed frost-proof tiles of Gainsborough’s painting of the Master Buttall better as “The Blue Boy”. It is framed in painted hardboard that accentuates it and effectively separates it from the surrounding brickwork.

Continue reading “Blue Boy Down”

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.