Solving Britain’s pub crisis

January 30, 2009

According to a report last week from the British Beer & Pub Association, pubs are in crisis. Six of them are closing every day, a rate twenty times faster than three years ago. Last year 1,973 pubs called time for ever.

I like pubs. Actually, I love pubs. Not bars, but real pubs with old-fashioned names, friendly efficient staff, welcoming land-lords and ladies, decent beer, scampi fries, traditional pint glasses and chairs. I know where I had my first legal pint (The Plough in Sheen), I just about remember my most recent one (The Old Star in Victoria), and somewhere I have a list of every pub I went into in 1992. I estimate I have spent 13% of my waking life in a boozer – and a small proportion of my sleeping time too.

‘Suburban’ pubs are apparently most at risk, but central areas of London are not exempt as the smoking ban, credit crunch, property prices, healthy living and cheap supermarket booze combine to take their toll. The Barley Mow, the oldest pub in Marylebone, has been boarded up for a couple of years. George Best’s local, The Phene Arms in Chelsea, has gone. The Gloucester Arms near Regents Park is now part of an Independent Girls School. The Intrepid Fox in Soho, Archery Tavern in Bayswater, Black Lion and French Horn in Mayfair – just a handful of locals consigned to history.

Earlier this month I went to seventeen pubs in East London and didn’t buy a single drink – this was research for an article for London’s Time Out magazine about the East-End ‘Fives’ dart board (below). I travelled from Wapping to Mile End via Limehouse, the Isle of Dogs, Poplar, Bromley By Bow, Canning Town, Plaistow and East Ham. I went to stations I’ve never heard of, saw sights I won’t forget, and by the end of the day felt like a combination of Anneka Rice, John Candy and Ray Mears.
The Fives board at The Palm Tree
On my travels, I found the local dart board in some wonderful East London pubs. The Palm Tree in Mile End is undoubtedly one of the best boozers in London. Turners Old Star in Wapping is a proper pub just a few minutes from Tower Bridge. The Queens Head in Limehouse retains the character it had when the Queen Mum pulled a pint of Youngs there twenty years ago. At the Ferry House, the oldest pub on the Isle of Dogs, you will be guaranteed a warm and possibly extravagant welcome.

But spending a day in the backstreets of East London, I discovered a solution to the pub crisis. I had always thought it was a travesty that so many British pubs were closing down, but that was before I went to The Tooke Arms on West Ferry Road E14. To call it a shit-hole would be generous. Covered-up windows, water-less toilets, and no clue as to the original colour of the carpet. Smells, smells, everywhere. Describing it as a pub feels disloyal to those many thousands of boarded-up boozers. On leaving, I felt as if I needed a shower.

And The Tooke Arms wasn’t alone. The Forresters Arms on Abbey Street E13 would benefit from a bulldozer. The Duke of Wellington on Devas Street in E3 was full of dogs and children, in a bad bad way.

Of the seventeen pubs I visited, I don’t have a problem with six of them closing down. At least for one day all the decent pubs will have been saved.