There is no universal understanding of what ‘the pub’ means – no single image that materialises in the mind at the sound of the word.
For us, it’s a space with low light, nest-like corners and the murmur of conversation. Though not right now, of course. Together with the world but separate. This is the George Orwell ideal, about contentment more than excitement.
Some hear ‘pub’ and think, oy oy, here we go, lads! It’s going-out clothes, perfume and lippy, aftershave and flash the cash. It’s laughing, shouting, hugging, tumbling into cabs, he’s not worth it, babe, I love you mate, you know that, don’t you, like a brother? Crawling, ranging far and wide, biting into life like a hot kebab.
For others, watching from outside, the pub is chaotic and dangerous – a place where people lose control, behave badly, practice a form of self-harm. They get pickled, get gout, disappear into the fog. Maybe they fight, or fall over, or superspread – “Please sell no more drink to my father…”
Some see the pub as a place where they’re not and never can be welcome – “He smelt of pubs/ And Wormwood Scrubs/ And too many right wing meetings…” Opaque windows, a glare from the doorway, no incentive to ever step across the threshold.
For our ruling politicians, up above the clouds, the pub is where you go for your down-to-earth-chap photo op, or to eat an informal meal in the Cotswolds, pointedly tieless in chinos and deck shoes. It’s a prop. Abstract. A line in a spreadsheet.
In suburbs like ours, there are those for whom the pub is the only manifestation of The Community. It’s where they see the couple with the poodle most Sundays and Nick the Electrician and Pete the Widower who keeps dropping his stick down the back of the radiator. The pub connects them to the world and makes it all make sense, for an hour or two, which is why it’s worth the risk.
All this is why when we talk about pubs, we’re often at cross-purposes – how can you keep them open/let them close? How can you love them/hate them so much? Won’t somebody do something.
“The Cook’s Ferry Inn? Why do I know The Cook’s Ferry Inn? Oh, yeah – because there’s a roundabout named after it.”
Variations on this statement are fairly common. Baker’s Arms, Green Man, Charlie Brown’s Roundabout – they’re all over London, certainly.
We came across the mention of The Cook’s Ferry Inn in The House of Whitbread magazine for April 1928, a new acquisition for our little library.
It has an eleven-and-a-half page photo feature on the launch of an ‘improved’ incarnation of this old pub at Edmonton, North London, on the way to Chingford. That’s the source of the images in this post.
“The Cook’s Ferry, Edmonton, reproduced from an old print of uncertain date.”
The old pub seems to have been built in the 18th century as a waterside pub and was a local landmark throughout the 19th century. It was also popular with anglers.
In the inter-war years, it was decided to build a great north circular road to connect newly populous outer London neighbourhoods, open up space for industry and provide jobs. In 1927, the stretch between Angel Road, Edmonton, and Billet Road, Chingford was opened.
“The old Cook’s Ferry… showing its position as the new arterial road was being constructed.” Photo by E.A. Beckett of Loughton.
The rebuilding of the Cook’s Ferry Inn was made necessary by the fact that the new road was higher than the narrow old lane it replaced.
In 1928, this was a grand, well-appointed pub – part of Whitbread’s commitment to make pubs bigger, smarter and more respectable.
“A view of the Cook’s Ferry showing the new arterial road looking towards Walthamstow.” Photo by Larkin Bros.
Saloon Bar. Photo by Larkin Bros.
Public bar. Photo by E.A. Beckett.
Dining room. Photo by Larkin Bros.
The kitchen, with Whitbread branded rubbish bin. We’re not sure we’ve seen a photo of an inter-war pub kitchen before. Photo by E.A. Beckett.
After World War II, like many of these hard-to-fill inter-war pubs, it had become ‘scruffy’ and morphed into a music venue.
First, it was a jazz club, founded by musician Freddy Randall and his brother Harry in the 1940s.
Then, in the 1960s, it became associated with ‘beat music’, mods and pop music, with performances by bands such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and The Who.
Finally, in the 1970s, the North Circular was widened and the pub was demolished. Now, the spot where it stood is all concrete flyover and brambles.
Even the channel of water it once stood beside has gone.
Still, the name lives on, just about, on bus stops, road signs and maps.
In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.
First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.
In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.
You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.
With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.
The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.
They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.
They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.
It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:
[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.
This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.
If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.
As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.
In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.
The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.
This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:
His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)
Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.
Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.
Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.
Not everyone welcomed this new development.
“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.
The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:
A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.
And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)
In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.
Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.
For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.
SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.
We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:
The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.
Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.
In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)
Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)
In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”
With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.
So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.
The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.
What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.
But that’s pop culture for you.
This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.
You don’t forget a name like Comus Elliott so when we came across it in an article from 1971, we remembered the story at once: he was arguably post-war Britain’s most famous pub crawler.
From that article, which appeared in brewing industry publication A Monthly Bulletin for May 1971, here’s his own account of how his quest began:
I first set foot inside a pub in August 1954. I have now been inside 4,250 different inns, pubs and hotels, the majority of them since 1957, when I started my hobby of visiting a new and different pub every day… Not long ago I visited once more my first pub, The White Lion at Aston Clinton, in Buckinghamshire. Over my pint, I recalled the midday break when inside a pub for the first time, I self-consciously drank ginger beer, in what, until then, had been forbidden territory… I do not often have time for second visits to pubs on my list so I doubt that a similar incident will occur again, if only because pubs everywhere in the country have changed so drastically during the past few years.
A new pub every single day! This made for a good story and was covered in various American newspapers during 1971.
Jeff Morgan’s ‘Dining with wine’ column in the Oakland Tribune from 6 January that year, for example, included more detail on Elliott’s approach to ticking:
Comus Elliott, a 30-year-old bank clerk who lives in Braintree, England… carries a notebook with him on his pub crawls and carefully notes the name and address of each, and the time of day the pint was consumed.
And it turns out this was a family business. The same article says he inherited this hobby from his father, Charles Elliott, who, in 1971, had visited more than 8,000 pubs. A brief entry in the 1971 edition of the London Spy reveals that Charles Elliott generally confined his pub crawling to London and, as of that year, had visited 4,500 pubs in the city – that is, more or less all of them.
Another American newspaper column from 7 January 1971, mining the same United Press wire, introduces us to yet another member of this pub crawling family:
Life for Rosemary Elliott, 25, has become one long pub crawl since she married Comus Elliott, 30, three years ago. “My husband is determined to drink a pint of beer in each one of Britain’s 70,000 pubs,” she explained. “It’s a fun hobby, you know.” So far Mrs. Elliott has been to 1,657 pubs and gets an autograph from each proprietor. “Comus has passed the 5,000 mark in 14 years,” she reported. “It will take us forever to do them all, but it’s nice to have a lifetime ambition.”
On 22 July 1983, Mr Elliott (or Elliot – we’ve seen it spelled both ways) held a party at the Leather Exchange, a Fuller’s pub in Bermondsey, to celebrate his 10,000th pub visit. (Liverpool Echo, 19.07.83.)
The 1971 article from A Monthly Bulletin that nudged us to look into this story is interesting because it reflects Elliott’s observations of how pubs had changed during the 1960s. In it, he expresses his delight at the emergence of pub grub – well, you would, wouldn’t you, if you’re visiting a new one every day? – and dismay at the loss of local beers in favour of national brands.
This is our favourite bit, which captures the voice of a pub ticking bank clerk perfectly:
To attract and hold the new young trade, brewers have started to offer something more than a pint or a ‘short’ in arid surroundings. To become part of the new swinging scene, many pubs are run almost as mini-music halls where young musical ‘groups’ have ousted ancient pianists. We can now see ‘go-go’ girls dancing, and, if we know where to go, can even see ‘drag’ or strip-tease shows. Some pubs have been restyled as Birds Nests which have, among other things, real life Disc Jockeys, dancing girls, soft lights and numbered tables with telephones so that in the good old Continental fashion you can order your beer, request a song or ‘chat up’ a blonde sitting at a distant table without having to get up… In saying this, one cannot always sound as enthusiastic as one would wish.
Birds Nest pubs are interesting – we’re going to write something about that brief craze another time.
Now, here’s a final interesting point. Until recently, Mr and Mrs Elliot were based in the North East of England and still contributing to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. So, if anyone happens to be in touch with them, do drop us a line.
Yes, here we are again with the hottest takes on the latest developments in beer: not only are there craft beer bars in Hackney, but it turns out there also micropubs on the Isle of Thanet in Kent.
One of our own little rules for coping with the weirdness of the present situation has been NO PUB CRAWLS. In Broadstairs last weekend, though, we made an exception because we figured we could visit every micropub in town without going within a mile of anyone else, and sticking to outside seating for the most part.
We started off with a visit to The Magnet on a hot, golden Saturday evening with the smell of garlic on the air. Sitting in the alleyway outside on wobbly chairs, we could have been in Marseilles or Malaga.
The game in 2020 is all about confidence and reassurance and there was plenty of that at The Magnet. There were enough staff on to intercept every guest and cheerfully direct them to the sanitiser and guestbook, along with table service that felt as if they were doing you a favour rather subjecting you to a restrictive regime. Personality goes a long way, doesn’t it?
When it got cold, we moved inside and, suddenly, it felt more like Belgium than the Mediterranean: brown wood, enamel signs, mirrors, warm light and conspiratorial conversation.
The cask ale selection reminded us of The Draper’s Arms, covering a range of tastes but tending towards the trad and with an emphasis on local. The standouts were a strong, vaguely Victorian IPA from Gadd’s which suggested strawberry jam and orange marmalade, and Bexley Brewery Bursted Bitter: “This is how Shepherd Neame wants its beers to taste.”
Or maybe it just feels like a… pub? Bar, hand-pumps, not especially micro. We liked it a lot and came back for another go on our final night in town.
‘It’s been manic,’ the landlady told us. ‘It usually goes quiet when the schools go back but not this year. All the hotel owners say they’re booked up for weeks. But who knows. You’ve got to keep putting money away in case there’s a second lockdown.’
Let’s hope that one upside of this strange year is a slow, steady trade for pubs in tourist areas right through the off-season.
On a burning hot Sunday, we walked past The Four Candles on the way out of town and noticed three little tables in the shade across the road. On our way back, dusty and dry, we knew we’d have to stop for at least one Ice Cold in Alex.
It’s one of those barless micropubs, the pure Hillier model, with casks in the back room and regulars who look as if they never go home.
A perennial problem for micropub owners is that people confuse them with microbreweries. This micropub is, of course, a microbrewery. One of the beers we tried, a pale ale with Amarillo hops, was outstanding; another, with Centennial, was rough and hard to finish. We’ll let others who know the pub better than us chime in below to suggest which is more typical.
Knowing that the other micropubs in town would be closed on Monday, this is when we decided we had to crawl, small C, and set off for The Pub. Slightly out of town, beyond the railway line, it would probably be classified as a craft beer bar in any other part of the world: vintage record player, smart graphic design and keg beer from breweries such as The Kernel.
Desperate for shade, we sat inside, looking out on a sun-blasted shopping street with ‘Fruits de Mer’ and a Free Church of England. A couple a little older than us sat on a bench outside smiling into the sky.
Finally, we nabbed a seat outside Mind the Gap, where we had a brief, intense emotional affair with Gadd’s hoppy pale ale (HPA).
We’ve known about Gadd’s for a long time, known it was a respected and well-liked brewery, but rarely had chance to drink the beer ourselves. When we have, we’ve been reasonably impressed but, of course, there’s something about consuming cask ale close to source. This beer could not have tasted better, or fresher, more subtle or more vivid.
The phrase ‘Another pint and a half of HPA, please!’ slips off the tongue easily, it turns out.