Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.

Pubs of London E17, 1991

CAMRA’s East London & City Beer Guide is a fascinating document which, across three editions from 1983 to 1991, charts changes to the drinking landscape.

We’ve had the 1986 edition for a while, and have 1983 (finally) on the way, but 1991 arrived this week, looking as if it had come fresh from the binders, the spine un-cracked. (“Printed by Calvert’s Press (TU) Worker’s Co-Operative”.)

We turned to the section that covers Walthamstow, London E17 — an area we know particularly well — which prompted a few observations.

1. It hasn’t changed that much. The Grove, the Windmill, the Plough and a few others have gone, but many others are still there — the Lord Brooke, the Lord Raglan, the Lord Palmerston, the Chequers, and so on, many in better shape now than they were when this book was written.

2. It’s always seemed odd that there’s no Wetherspoon’s in Walthamstow (the nearest is across the line into Leyton). Now we know that the College Arms on Forest Road was a JDW (Younger’s Scotch Ale at 79p a pint!) but, at some point, the firm abandoned it — something it seems it’s always been pretty ruthless about.

3. The Village, which looks like a well-worn and traditional Victorian pub, actually opened in 1989. The building is Victorian but the premises was formerly (Boak thinks, calling on childhood memories) residential. For that  matter, The College Arms was formerly two shop units and the Coppermill an off-licence, so these change-of-use conversions have occasionally gone the other way.

4. Pubs change their names a lot. The Tower Hotel became Flanagan’s Tower, which became the Tower Hotel again, which is now the Goose. The College Arms was formerly ‘Cheeks American Bar‘. What is now the Waltham Oak on Lea Bridge Road was formerly the Chestnut Tree, but began life with what might be our new favourite pub name: The Little Wonder.

The content of all three editions is available at this splendidly old-school website if you want to investigate further, but the 1991 edition is also generally available for pennies.

A Brief Bashing of the Bunny

Brodie's Brewery window sign.

We can’t claim to have really ‘done’ the Brodie’s Brewery ‘Bunny Basher’ festival, but here are a few observations based on popping in twice over the weekend.

The beer was never less than interesting, and the atmosphere was brilliant. Like the Blue Anchor in Helston, the pub is both a tourist attraction and a local boozer. People are there to drink and have a good time; some do it with Foster’s lager and football, while others sit alone with their third of kegged Belgian-style sour and write code on a laptop. No-one cares what anyone else is doing.

Brodie’s seem to be better at pale beers than dark. Apart from one dry-hopped with Motueka which smelled just a tiny bit too much like freshly-expressed urine, the yellow’n’hoppy ales were all at least good, and most were excellent. (But regular brew Citra at 3.1% is still our favourite.)

Cinnamon still doesn’t work in beer. Is there a market for a patented Beer Ruiner? If so, here’s the recipe: some cinnamon. (Coffee optional.)

We found the much-vaunted Elizabethan Ale (22% ABV) undrinkable. HP Sauce? We didn’t persevere past a couple of sips each, to be fair, and perhaps we need to get in training, c.12% being really the upper limit of our experience with strong beer.

We will certainly try to be in town if/when the Bunny Basher is on next year.

Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis’s take on the festival is also worth a read.

Ask not for whom the Bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The Bell Pub, Walthamstow, East London.

By Boak

Of all the exciting beer developments in London since we’ve moved away, none have intrigued us as much as the sudden discovery of demand for good beer in our former home of Walthamstow. This article highlighted the fact that not one, not two, but three (THREE!) formerly rough pubs were due to re-open under new management.

We went back to Walthamstow last week to have a look at the developments. Both the Chequers and the Cock are still being refurbished, which left us with the Bell.

The Bell is one of those large pubs-on-a-junction that you get in Victorian suburbs of London, the product of rapid expansion in housing plus limits on where licenced premises could be built. I went in once or twice as a teenager and remember it being huge and mostly empty. The best thing I could say about it then was that it wasn’t as rough as it looked.

Like other pubs of its ilk, it passed through many managers and a few halfhearted refurbishments in an attempt to bring it back to life, but never managed to shake its rough reputation. The Beer In The Evening comments make for a fascinating mini-history of the last ten years.

Why have the Bell’s new owners (apparently) succeeded where others have failed? Firstly, an ambitious but very tasteful refurbishment, which has involved stripping out lots of twentieth century additions and emphasising the original features (and complementing what’s there with old furniture). The pictures on the website actually make the pub look more modern than it feels. We commented a lot on how impressive the refurbishment was, how much more ‘pubby’ it felt now than we’d ever known it, and how, despite the vast space, it felt cosy.

Secondly, they are openly going for a more ‘aspirational’ market (craft beer and jazz feature heavily in the marketing) – but they are still managing to attract and welcome a range of clientele that reflect the local area.  Extremely welcoming and talkative bar staff help here.

Thirdly, the beer selection and quality is now the best in Walthamstow (which is getting harder and harder to do, and might be difficult to maintain if Antic open the Chequers as planned)  There are eight hand-pumps (plus a mixture of keggy stuff). We had to be somewhere else that afternoon, so we were limited as to what we could try in the time available. We were delighted with Brodie’s London Fields, which we could have easily drunk all afternoon. We also sampled their Landlord, which we’re coming to think is a good test of whether a pub can look after its ale or not.  They passed with flying colours.

We don’t want to exaggerate the quality of the beer selection –  the enormous competition in London means there’s probably not much to drag the serious beer geek out of their way to get here. However, if we were still living in Walthamstow, it would be our new local, no question.

Picture to come when Bailey gets back.

The Poshing up of the Chequers

The Chequers, London E17.

When we lived in Walthamstow in East London, we never once visited the Chequers, halfway up the High Street in the middle of the famous market. We admired the grand Victorian corner building and enjoyed the Taylor Walker livery surviving on its sign, but it never looked remotely inviting. In fact, it looked downright threatening.

The Krays moved to Walthamstow when they’d made a bit of money and supposedly made their way to the Chequers immediately after bumping of George Cornell at the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel. Every pub in East London has a Krays story but, true or not, it says something about the Chequers’ reputation. When we read that the landlord and landlady had voluntarily closed the pub ‘under police pressure’ as a result of accusations of drug dealing, we weren’t massively surprised.

What did massively surprise us was the news (gossip, for now) that it is to be taken over by Antic, the pub chain behind the excellent Red Lion in nearby Leytonstone. That should mean a brand-new-vintage makeover and an exciting range of beer from London breweries and elsewhere. From a selfish perspective, we can’t help but be pleased.

But what about the regulars? Though it wasn’t our cup of tea, it did have a steady clientele, and they’ll probably feel as unwelcome in the new Chequers as we would in the old. Let’s hope the market (and, indeed, the Market) continues to provide a range of pubs so that everyone can find one in which they’ll feel comfortable.