One Pub to Tell the Story


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We’ve been considering, for the purposes of this here book we’re working on, whether there’s a single pub in which the whole story of British beer since 1963 is encapsulated. We haven’t hit on one yet, but we’ve found a couple of interesting candidates. Consider, for example, the Nag’s Head in Hampstead, which tells at least part of the story.

Though some sources say there was a pub here from 1698, the present building seems to have appeared in the early nineteenth century (further research could pin this down), and it was not especially genteel at that time.

MARYLEBONE.– Highway Robbery.– Henry Cannon, John Surety, and Thomas Willoughby, three labouring-looking men, were yesterday placed at the bar before the sitting Magistrate… charged with assaulting on the King’s highway a middle-aged woman, named Mary Keal, and taking from her person a shawl and seven shilling in silver… Inspectoer Aggs, of the S division, said that from information he received he went on Wednesday evening, accompanied by one of his men, to the Nag’s Head [on Heath Street]. On entering the taproom he saw the two first Prisoners, who were sitting down. He said to Cannon, “I want you;” and then turning to Shurety said, “I want you also.” Cannon said, “Very well,” and they both got up and finished what they were drinking and left the house with him and the constable. (Morning Post, 22 November 1833)

More than a century later, however, the pub’s name had changed: it had become The Cruel Sea, after Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel about the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II, and was the quintessential ‘theme pub’, popular with actors. Our guess is that the name change came with the renovation in 1958, but we could be wrong. Here’s what our old chums Martin Green and Tony White had to say in 1968:

…the pub contains nautical gear and prints of whaling ships and the sea, as well as murals by Robert Lenkiewicz. Placed bang in the middle of Hampstead,  it does a brisk trade, though it is seldom too crowded for comfort, like many other pubs near-by. It serves wine by the glass, or by the bottle… as well as draught Guinness and Worthington… The clientele is predominantly young, second-generation Hampstead, whose parents moved here when it was beginning to be fashionable without being too expensive… (Guide to London Pubs, 1968 edn.)

We hadn’t realised that the Cruel Sea, well-known in its day, was the same pub as the Nag’s Head, until Christopher Hutt told us so. As head of CAMRA Real Ale Investments (CAMRAIL), their pub-owning spin-off, in the mid-seventies, one of the first things he did on acquiring this property in 1975 was ditch the theme and revert back to the old-fashioned, properly ‘pubby’ moniker. It was the cause of some anxiety for CAMRA — why were they opening a pub here in competition with several other existing ‘real ale pubs’ rather than in, say, Norwich, which had hardly any decent boozers? And it was frightfully middle class, not to mention expensive. At any rate, it was a runaway success during the years of the ‘real ale craze’.

Between CAMRAIL (which fizzled out in the eighties) and today, the Nag’s Head ceased to be a pub. It is now an estate agent’s office. Which, we suppose, does tell a story of the British pub, albeit one with a rather downbeat ending.