Progress Vs. the Pub

St Martin's Lane pub c. 1973
By Grepnold, via Flickr.

In researching Becky’s Dive Bar, we came across mention of another pub, Ye Olde Mitre on St Martin’s Lane, which had a reputation for selling a wide range of beer in the nineteen-fifties. (Note: not the one off Hatton Garden.) Though we’ve had no luck finding out more about the Mitre, we have, as a pleasant side-effect, found a new question to ponder on: when did people start fighting to preserve pubs?

On 6 November 1968, the Covent Garden authority, a government body which had taken on ownership of the historic fruit and vegetable market and surrounding land, announced its grand redevelopment plan. It was to include widespread demolition, and the building of motorways and concrete walkways, turning a ramshackle ‘neighbourhood’ into something from Logan’s Run. (But probably a bit crapper.)

There was a very successful campaign to overturn the scheme, led by local residents, and supported by architects, historians and others with an interest in heritage and preservation. What is especially interesting to us, however, is the importance placed on the area’s pubs.

The Architecture Review published several pieces arguing for the preservation not of specific buildings, but of the area as a whole, because Covent Garden’s ‘unique qualities… depend on groups of buildings… [and] historic street patterns’ (22 November 1972). Dan Cruickshank and Colin Amery, in that same piece, provided a watch-list of vulnerable, unprotected properties in Covent Garden, which included many public houses, such as the Nell Gwyn and The Lamb and Flag.

By 1973, preserving the area’s pubs had become a campaign in its own right, which the The Observer described in a piece on 11 February, illustrated with a gallery of pub fronts:

The regular patrons had been preparing for a war of passive resistance — ‘Gandhi with an elbow bent’ as one put it — for the pubs are all within the Covent Garden Development Area and were in danger of being ‘developed’ out of existence.

But the pubs have been saved from the wreckers by Mr Geoffrey Rippon, Minister for the Environment — they have been listed as being of special architectural or historical interest. Not one can be touched now… Londoners and visitors alike will thus be able to go on drinking in the Lamb and Flag, built over the narrowest thoroughfare in London, The Crown Tavern where the idea for ‘Punch’ was thought up, and The Sun, whose forerunner on the site was one of Ben Jonson’s locals.

(Note, once again, the tittering amusement with which journalists write about beer and pubs.)

Pete Brown argues in his Shakespeare’s Local that people began to feel nostalgic about disappearing pubs after World War I, and tells the story of how the George Inn, Southwark, was ‘saved for the nation’ by the National Trust in 1937. It seems to us, though, that it was in the sixties and seventies — when everything got its own banner-wielding march and/or campaign group — that a more general urge to ‘save’ pubs (even those without literary or historic associations, or any particular architectural merit) emerged.

What we need to do next is read up on other post-war development schemes and see how prominently pubs featured in any campaigns against them.

Should pubs be preserved? There are lots, and perhaps not every single one should be considered sacred, but there’s certainly no reason why they should be treated with less respect than any other type of building.

UPDATE: this BBC article on historic disregard for ‘heritage’ seems relevant.

Porterhouse Oktoberfest

A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)
A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)

The Porterhouse in Covent Garden is a funny place.

On the one hand, it sets itself up as a beer-lovers paradise, with an extensive beer menu containing pages and pages of text about the integrity, commitment and passion of its founders.

On the other hand, from the time it opens at midday, it starts to fill up with stag-dos, parties of posh people, ex-pats from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and confused looking middle-aged tourists. Most of the clientele — and we were looking — seem to drink wine, Magners, Corona or Porterhouse Chiller. Chiller, by the brewers’ own admission, is the least challenging of their beers (viz, it is very cold and fairly light in flavour).

So, it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

We’ve got a little soft-spot for the place, though, as it was here that we first tried Paulaner Salvator and some other beers that helped to open our eyes a few years ago. This particular trip was prompted by the Beer Nut, who told us that the Porterhouse’s own German-style altbier was on its way, and by his review of said alt.

We weren’t disappointed by the alt — it more than measured up the real thing, which we got to know and love earlier this year, and satisfied our persistent cravings. It was on the bitter, fruity side, similar to the output of the well-respected Duesseldorf brewpubs, and bore no resemblance to the rather burnt-sugar-like commercial alt from Schloesser which we see fairly often in London these days.

While we were there, and being fortunate enough to have a quiet corner to ourselves, we decided to reappraise the rest of the Porterhouse’s home-grown beers. Weird nitro-keg shaving-foam heads aside, the stouts are all pretty impressive compared to Guinness. And that, after all, is the management’s entire focus: beat Guinness. Bailey preferred the deeply bitter Wrassler’s; Boak liked the softer, maltier Oyster Stout. None of the other beers are mind-blowing, but it’s good to see such a range, including three lagers.

Maybe the chaps in charge could turn this venue over to the party people and open another somewhere quieter, where we can appreciate their hard work in the brewery? Perhaps next door to the Greenwich Union?

Photo from 1gl‘s photostream at Flickr, under a Creative Commons license. Thanks, 1gl!