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.