Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

The Champion, Fitzrovia: a Victorian fantasy

Until we started studying pubs it had never occurred to us that The Champion was anything other than a wonderfully preserved Victorian survivor.

Leaded windows, glinting mirrors, polished wood and ornate details that give a thousand layers to every shadow – it’s one of those places that makes you suspect that, at any given moment, a hansom cab might be passing in the street outside.

In fact, it’s a product of the 1950s and the flowering of art and design that followed the Festival of Britain.

The Festival, which took place in 1951, was intended to reignite British pride and optimism. Its various guiding creative hands concocted a unique style that overlaid elements of the Victorian (especially typography) onto economical, prefabricated modernism.

Having survived the war, The Champion looked a bit sad in the early 1950s. An earlier inter-war makeover had brought it in line with prevailing ideas of cleanliness and simplicity – wipe clean, plain.

Plain pub interior.

The Champion before its 1954 refurbishment.

In 1954, Barclay Perkins commissioned architects and designers Sylvia and John Reid to bring it up to date by taking it back to the newly fashionable 19th century.

These days, the Reids are best known for their Scandinavian-style S-Range furniture, now manufactured by their son, Dominic, which indicates where their hearts lay: they were modernists, not nostalgists.

Accordingly, they told the brewery that they didn’t intend to create a straightforward pastiche or reconstruction of a Victorian pub. Instead, their plan was to identify what made pubs feel pubby and then achieve the same atmosphere with modern materials and craft.

The Champion sign. Pub interior with new Victorian style.

There were even rumours, says fellow pub designer Ben Davis in The Traditional English Pub, 1981, that the Reids got the final say in choosing the couple who were to run the pub, keen to ensure that they were the right type.

“It can – indeed it should – be in the best of taste, but it must be larger than life, an exaggeration of the interiors its customers know…”

In his book English Inns, from 1963, Denzil Batchelor compares The Champion to The Sherlock Holmes, one of the first theme pubs, and seems unconvinced:

The Champion… is an example of a Victorian pub as beautifully reconstructed as the arena of a chariot-race in a billion dollar film. THe beer-mugs are authentic as the handles of the beer-engines. To visit it to pay a Chinese respect for your grandfather’s memory… [But for] all their merits you could hardly call The Champion or The Sherlock Holmes unselfconscious.

Generally speaking, though, people seemed to like it, not least as an antidote to the unabashed, stark modernism of many post-war pubs.

Alan Reeve-Jones says, in his snarky 1962 guidebook London Pubs, that “The work was carried out with such skill that it takes an expert eye to see where the old left off and the new began looking like the old.”

Official photographs of the newly refurbished Champion, without drinkers in the way of the detail, do indeed reveal a blend of old and new.

Pub window.

Etched windows evoke the Victorian era while at the same time employing the kind of lettering very much in fashion after the Festival of Britain. Gill Sans was out, a relic of the 1930s; modern adaptations of the kind of bold typefaces seen on Victorian posters were in.

Ornate bar.

More of the same can be seen over the bar, advertising mild ale, best bitter, DBA and lager  – a nice snapshot of the move towards ‘premium’ beer styles in the 1950s.

There’s lots, in fact, that would become standard in pub makeovers in the decades that followed. Leather seating, barrels as decoration, and vintage mirrors doing a lot of heavy lifting.

The funny thing is that The Champion today isn’t the Reids version – it’s a later refurb that does exactly what they wouldn’t. Pure Victorian pastiche. The modern arts-and-crafts they commissioned have gone, from the painted sign on the exterior to the modern-retro window designs.

A useful reminder, at least, that much of what evokes The Olden Days in British pubs is rarely more than 30 years old.

Images, details and quotes from A Monthly Bulletin for January 1955.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

An Extraordinary Gentleman: the Brand New Victorian Pubs of Roddy Gradidge

MAIN IMAGE: The Markham Arms in 1976 © Klaus Hiltscher, used with permission.

The architect and interior designer Roderick ‘Roddy’ Gradidge was both a conservative and a wannabe Teddy Boy proto-punk. Though he worked on all kinds of buildings, and wrote several books, he is usually described in short-form as one thing: a pub designer.

We’ve put together this profile based on the newspaper archives we were able to access, online sources, and the books in the ever-expanding Arthur Millard Memorial Library (our box room). As such, consider it a work in progress: when we get chance, for example, we’ll visit the RIBA library and see if we can come up with a more comprehensive list of his projects. Here’s what we know for now.

John Roderick Warlow Gradidge was born in Norfolk in 1929 but grew up in India where his father served in the colonial army. Young Roderick came back to England in 1943 to attend Stowe under the headmastership of J.F. Roxburgh. Writing in the aftermath of Gradidge’s death the writer A.N. Wilson, a friend, suggested that Roxburgh was a key influence on Gradidge’s character:

When one thinks of the flamboyant gallery of talent fostered by that schoolmaster – Peregrine Worsthorne, Antony Quinton, George Melly, – it is hard not to feel some connection.

Flamboyant is certainly the right word: Gradidge, who everyone describes as ‘huge’ or ‘massive’, started wearing an earring in 1955 and ‘longed to be a Teddy boy’, donning the uniform drape jacket, sideburns, tight trousers and suede brothel-creepers and devoting himself to rock’n’roll.

Categories
marketing pubs real ale

QUICK ONE: One Function of a Pump-Clip

Handpumps at a Bristol pub.

A huge, gaudy, distinctive pump-clip is the speculative pub-explorer’s friend.

For benefit of readers from Mars, pump-clips are the badges displayed on handles in pubs. They barely existed until about 50 years ago but now they’re ubiquitous, increasingly ornate, and increasingly huge.

Which, though some may scoff, is great for people like us whose favourite way of finding pubs is wandering about with feelers twitching.

In Topsham the other week, researching our Devon Life column, we saw a pleasant looking pub but with only limited time before our train had to make a snap decision about whether to pop in. From the street, through glass, across several metres of floor-space, we could recognise the brands on offer and see that they weren’t terribly exciting. Without stopping, we were able to make a quick decision to push on somewhere else instead.

Equally, though, there are times when we’ve slammed the brakes on because one of us has subconsciously registered a hit in the database: wait — was that the clip for Rooster’s Yankee back there in The Union? (They’ve never had it on again since; it was glorious.)

In lieu of pubs displaying a list outside, which is ideal, a bank of pumps visible from the street, with bold clips on display, is the next best thing.

And brewers: if your pump-clips are generic, or inconsistent within the range, or lack a visual hook, you might want to bear that in mind next time you review the designs.

Categories
opinion pubs

QUICK ONE: The Ubiquity of Coastal Chic

Sign outside the First & Last: New Look, New Menu, New Team.

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.

‘Contemporary’ ages fast; snug is eternal.

Categories
marketing opinion

Infantile?

Label for Partizan X ale w. crossed dinosaurs.
Art by Alec Doherty. SOURCE: Partizan Brewing Archive.

We’re working on an article about mild in the 21st century, research for which prompted this statement in an email from Andy Smith at Partizan:

The beer was originally simply called mild… We then decided to rebrand as X… This worked OK but not as well as we’d hoped. It was at this stage we put dinosaurs on the label and sales rocketed! I kid you not. It sells as well if not better now as our other dark beers. Dinosaurs! Now we spend our weekends hearing how cute the dinosaurs are (recently changed) and  answering the question what is X?

That’s funny, of course, but also made us think, ‘Huh. So craft beer drinkers are like children?’

We’ve observed before, as has almost everyone else who’s written a tedious think-piece on the subject, that craft beer in cans has been successful partly because they are tactile and colourful, bright and toy-like. Beavertown Brewery’s cartoon-laden designs in particular suggest material for an (admittedly slightly weird) animated series and also make them look like a bit like soft drinks. (Gamma Ray more so than this example we have at hand.)

Beavertown Smog Rocket design.
Art by Nick Dwyer. Source: Beavertown Brewery.

And sometimes, with fruit and residual sweetness and novelty flavourings and higher carbonation, the hippest beers can taste a bit like soft drinks too.

Of course we checked ourselves fairly promptly: one person’s infantile is, of course, another person’s fun, and we understand that you humans enjoy this emotion fun is good.

And even if it is infantile, is that a bad thing? One key reason people drink is to reduce the pressures of adult life and the pub is where grown-ups go to play.

This is a question we’re going to have in mind from now on, though, especially when we find ourselves considering the generation gap between real ale culture and craft beer. (Def 2.)