‘I think it’s a friendly pub for people who like to chat. You won’t be in long before you get invited into a conversation. You’ll always get a decent pint of beer. And you’ll be made to feel welcome, I think. That’s as much as I can say and it’s up to yourself after that!’ Charlie Gallagher, Dog and Bell.
The best way to approach the Dog and Bell is to start at the southern foot of Deptford High Street and work your way up.
This way, you start with sensory assault: the raw smells of fresh fish and meat, bold and gaudy shop fronts, the calling of traders and the cackling debates of betting shop street drinkers. As you pass underneath the railway bridge, this lively bustle recedes into a hum of alfresco coffee drinkers, grocery shoppers and the muted rattle of prams. The northernmost point feels more like a remote outpost, bracketed by the boarded-up Noah’s Ark and the boarded-up Harp of Erin, all quiet except for the rush of traffic, the stench of exhaust fumes. Continue on, over Creek Road, and walk up Watergate Street, enveloped in leafy silence. Rounding a corner onto Prince Street, deep in residential stillness, you will find the Dog and Bell, a classic back-street local.
Stillness permeates the pub. Wandering in on a Thursday afternoon, I find the front bar bathed in soft, contented quiet. There are two other customers: one sits at the end of the bar reading the paper, the other sits in the adjoining room near the lit fire with a pint and a novel. The pub is immaculately kept, well lit and warm, with a carpeted floor, wooden bar and light yellow walls. It feels like someone’s front room.
The quiet might unnerve the first-time visitor, depending on their disposition. There is no piped music, jukebox or fruit machine, just an unobtrusive, terrestrial-only television sitting above the door. Sit long enough at the bar, however, and you realise that this stillness actually makes for a more relaxed and sociable atmosphere. Drinkers drift casually in and out of conversation, old and new faces alike, playing along with TV quiz shows or sharing local gossip. Or not, if they don’t feel like it: it’s also the perfect place to steal some peace and quiet with a decent pint and the papers, suspended in a very English nirvana.
All told, there is something deeply civilised about the Dog and Bell, personified in the figures of landlords Charlie and Eileen Gallagher.
Charlie, who took over the pub in 1988, is a soft-spoken, modest man who apologises in advance of our interview for ‘not being very good at this sort of thing’ and is visibly relieved when the tape recorder is eventually switched off.
‘This was basically a dockers’ pub,’ he explains. ‘As Convoys Wharf closed down and left the area, more and more of the pubs around here have simply folded.’
The Dog and Bell has survived, however, thanks to friendly service and Charlie’s reverence for proper beer. The pub serves five or six real ales from the pumps at any given time, always in prime condition and at incredibly low prices; usually between £3 and £3.30 a pint (with similar prices for lager and cider). As a result, it has become something of a destination pub for real ale drinkers.
‘We have a decent reputation for real ales and there are enough real ale drinkers to keep us solvent, with the help of a few students and some newer people moving into the area,’ says Charlie. ‘There are still local people who come in, but most people travel here from any distance really, a lot from Greenwich, other parts of Deptford, New Cross, Brockley, as far afield as Lewisham. Also a lot of students have got into the real ale scene recently, and there is a big local student population.’
Listed for decades in the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, the pub’s walls are heaving with certificates of commendation from both CAMRA and the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, whose members regularly meet and drink here. The latter group is particularly keen, having crowned the Dog and Bell as its “London Pub of the Year” three times in the past ten years.
As the independent owner of a free house (that is, a pub not tied to a single brewery or corporate owner), Charlie can stock whichever beers he likes, although this is less of a competitive advantage now that smarter pub chains such as Antic are now also offering greater choice. Still, this flexibility allows the Dog and Bell to mix old favourites with newer styles and trends: as well as traditional real ale, the Dog and Bell stocks around 20 Belgian and American beers in bottles.
‘I’m prepared to experiment. I quite like them myself actually!’ says Charlie. ‘I’m not anti-change. You have to move with the times, insofar as you can do it.’
Indeed, the pub’s pumps regularly feature innovative ales from upstart local brewers such as Brockley Ales and London Fields Brewery, alongside established brewers producing more traditional styles. Charlie draws the line, however, at craft beer dispensed from kegs rather than pulled from casks; while he acknowledges their quality, they are more expensive and he prefers to stick to his strengths.
Aside from excellent beer, the Dog and Bell offers an affordable lunchtime and evening menu of ‘traditional pub food’, including a Sunday roast. The pub is typically busiest on the weekends, with the beer garden proving a strong draw in the summer. The Sunday night pub quiz is also something of an institution:
‘The pub quiz has been going for 25 years, that attracts a jolly crowd. It’s set by customers who volunteer to do it, so they take the flak if it’s a bit too tough, and get the plaudits if it’s enjoyable. It works very well.’
The highlight of the year, however, is the annual pickles contest held at the end of November, which has been running for over 15 years.
‘It’s a wonderful thing,’ he says, chuckling. ‘It started off through a simple idea: what do allotment holders do with their vegetables at the end of the year? Most of them pickle them. One of our customers who had an allotment came up with the idea of a pickle competition to see who makes the best homemade pickles. Surprisingly, a lot of people like to do that sort of thing! It’s a hugely popular event, people come from far and wide with cakes and pickles, and jams and breads.’
And if this were not typically English enough for you, the Blackheath Morris Men sometimes meet here, practicing and performing outside the pub on occasion (‘they’re always looking for new recruits if anyone’s interested!’). There’s also a bar billiards table kept in pristine condition, although with so few of these tables around it’s difficult to organise any inter-pub competition.
I linger for a few pints after the tape recorder is switched off. With the “formal” interview over, Charlie now chats freely with me and the other patrons about beer, breweries, pubs and changing Deptford. As the evening draws in, a steady trickle of customers fill up the bar and the adjoining room, giving rise to a gentle conversational hum.
After pouring me a third pint of Trilby, a lovely 4% beer from Herne Hill nanobrewery A Head in a Hat, Charlie disappears to his office and returns with a sheaf of historical documents. It’s a treasure trove: a list of all of the pub’s previous landlords stretching back to the 1700s, a copy of a sea shanty – ‘Homeward Bound‘ – that immortalises the pub in verse, an auction notice from 1859 advertising the pub as offering ‘to a clever man of business an opportunity of realizing a speedy fortune’, as well as several accounts of court proceedings that hark back to Deptford’s rough and tumble past. Of these, my favourite is an account of the 1895 mugging of John Cox, set upon outside the now-closed Navy Arms. His assailants were arrested shortly afterwards, having fled no further than the Dog and Bell, a few doors down.
I can only assume the beer was as irresistible then as it is now. By the time I make my way back home, Deptford High Street is quiet and still.
Dog and Bell, 116 Prince Street, London SE8 3JD. 020 8692 5664. Cash only. Not suitable for children.
Author: Oliver Holtaway
Oliver Holtaway is a freelance journalist and researcher who moved to New Cross Gate in 2011. View all posts by Oliver Holtaway
‘There are a lot of good things happening in Deptford, and I think the Bird’s Nest is one of them. People should come here because it’s different; we’re not your average pub. We’ve got the art gallery, live music, good beer and great homemade food; the underground art scene is happening here.’ Joel Matthews, manager, the Bird’s Nest.
Ever fantasised about buying up your favourite pub? Just as everyone allegedly has a novel inside them, there are certain pubs that bring out the inner Frank Butcher or Peggy Mitchell. A beloved local boozer, a “surprise find” on a country walk: the pints drain blissfully away and the idle dreaming begins. No more rat race, no more commute, just an honest living running a “proper pub” – surrounded by friendly regulars, respected by the community, all of your favourite beers on the pumps and all of your favourite tunes on the jukebox.
The fantasy rarely outlasts the next morning’s hangover, but it’s reassuring to know that some people do end up making it happen. In the late 1980s, Joel Matthews was just another teenager growing up in Greenwich and going to gigs at the Oxford Arms, famous for hosting early shows by Squeeze and Dire Straits. A budding guitarist, he promised his mates that one day he would have a music venue to call his own. Twenty-five years later his teenage dream is coming true: the Oxford Arms is now the Bird’s Nest and, as of last year, Joel is its manager and soon-to-be owner. It’s not his first music pub – he cut his teeth in the Grove Tavern in Wimbledon– but if all goes to plan, it could be his last.
‘I plan to be here forever,’ he tells me. ‘I want to build a family business.’
The Bird’s Nest sits at the base of Creekside, tucked under the curve of the DLR tracks running north from Deptford Bridge station, right next to the eye-catching Big Red Pizza Bus. It’s a wet Friday afternoon when I cross Deptford Church Street to meet Joel, and there are already a decent number of regulars nestled around the bar. Joel counts himself lucky to have inherited such an uncommonly loyal customer base: ‘a lot of these guys have been drinking here for 40 years.’
It’s easy to see why. Ducking from the rain into the Bird’s Nest is like putting on a warm jumper – a well-worn, patched-up jumper, but all the more comfortable for it. The layout is traditional with a horseshoe bar, “barley twist” columns and an open fire flanked by two upright armchairs, but there are also traces everywhere of the pub’s more bohemian element: band flyers deck the bar like bunting, a small stage sits in the corner, a lone disco ball hangs over the door and Alice Cooper drifts over the sound system.
We retire to the quieter back room to talk about his plans for the pub. A musician hailing from a family of artists (his father was a fine art professor at Goldsmiths), it’s clear that Joel intuitively appreciates the Nest’s distinctive mix of booze and culture.
The pub has been steeped in the performing arts since the 16th century, when it adjoined the old Deptford Theatre. Over the last 40 years, it has become a bastion of south London’s underground arts and music scene, channelling Deptford’s creative energy more than any other local boozer.
‘Music, theatre and the arts have always been a part of the pub,’ says Joel. ‘Squeeze played here on their first ever tour in 1976, and upstairs, which used to be a theatre, there were always unusual plays on, quite cutting edge at the time. There was a big anti-racism movement that used to meet here; it’s always been quite a left-wing, radical pub.’
That doesn’t mean you need multiple piercings in order to enjoy a pint here, though.
‘You’ve got your core punk scene that’s here, you see the Mohicans and leather jackets, that sort of thing, but then there’s also the art influence from all of the studios and industrial estates on Creekside,’ he explains. ‘And there’s also been a lot more young professionals coming in since I’ve been here over the last year, which is really good. It’s a very diverse pub in terms of clientele, but there’s definitely a link in terms of people who appreciate arts and music.’
A chalkboard near the front door boasts a full slate of gigs organised by Joel and a loose affiliation of specialist promoters. A recent gig by squat-punk (no, we don’t know either) band P.A.I.N. brought in 200 people, forcing bar staff to move all of the furniture out to make way. Joel is also diversifying the music policy by bringing in folk nights and rock nights alongside the longstanding punk scene: ‘the common theme is underground music, just like the art.’
Sitting in the back room, I notice something different – wasn’t there a pool table here before?
‘Well as Creekside is a road full of artists, we converted the pool room into the Undercurrents Gallery,’ says Joel. ‘We’ve held monthly exhibitions since last May; there’s a launch night each month and bands connected to the artists come and play.’
The gallery is run together with Creekside arts group Minesweeper Collective, who have curated a series of collaborative exhibitions at the Bird’s Nest. The current show, Primitive Impulses, is a group exhibition of abstract drawings and painting from Bulgarian art collective the Cleaners. As I chat with Joel, a passing Minesweeper hands me a flyer for an upcoming show, and later, a man in a paint-encrusted jumper wanders in seeking permission to wash his brushes in the pub toilets, as the hot water in his studio is on the blink.
Joel clearly understands his mission as enhancing and building on what is already there rather than messing with the pub’s core appeal. While art and music remain essential to the Bird’s Nest, however, Joel says that his vision of the perfect pub has perhaps matured since his teenage years.
‘When I was younger it was all about having a rock venue. Now as I’ve got older, I also want to bring back the traditional pub. I hope the Bird’s Nest can become a really good, vibrant music venue but also be a traditional, historical pub that serves decent beer.’
To this end, he has introduced real ale pumps alongside draft and bottled lager.
‘Beer is your main product and you have to get it right. Heineken just installed brand new lines in our bar and cellar, so we have the latest technology that will give you a good pint of lager. But now that we’ve got that in place, we’ve also brought in a big ale brand, Doom Bar, and I want to try to bring in some smaller ones. We always stock a few ales from Truman’s, who have just reopened, and I’ve just signed an agreement with a smaller brewery to bring in a few of theirs. We’ll have flat ciders from the West Country, and something like a wheat beer on draft.’
Another new feature is food. Joel acknowledges that the pub’s interior doesn’t exactly scream “haute cuisine”, but since the kitchen opened a few months ago, around half of his customers will typically grab a bite along with their pint. The food is simple but well-made pub grub, including 15 types of homemade burger, all at incredibly affordable prices. Four pounds for a decent pub burger? I doubt Squeeze fans will have paid much more in 1976. I’m also pleased to see a basket of “Joel’s Rolls” going for a quid, having long considered the pub roll to be our own English form of tapas.
Other new features are altogether more futuristic. Inspired by the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, the Bird’s Nest has become the first pub in south London to accept the internet-based currency Bitcoin. Bar staff convert the price of a pint into Bitcoin using an iPad app and customers can pay by scanning their smartphone. It all sounds like a bit of a faff to me, but local Bitcoin investors at least now have a place to calm their nerves as their infamously volatile market twists and turns.
Any fleeting concerns that Bitcoins and burgers might see the Bird’s Nest drift into Shoreditch pretentiousness are allayed by the no-nonsense Happy Hour, still its biggest draw. All drinks are £2.50 from 5–7pm, Monday to Friday. Conveniently, this starts just as our interview ends, so I settle in at the bar for a cheap and serviceable pint of Truman’s Swift. The pub is soon packed with a mix of leather jackets, fluorescent work coats, parkas and flannel shirts. All ages are represented: on one table, post-work drinks unfold over bottles of Tyskie and the Guardian crossword, on another, young bearded artists in baseball caps huddle over a Macbook. I notice that almost all of the men are wearing earrings. Creekside’s grizzled old guard mill about in paint-flecked gilets and berets, handkerchiefs around their necks, thirsty after a hard day at the easel. The sky darkens outside. I order a second pint and think, wow, wouldn’t this be a great pub to run?
The Bird’s Nest, 32 Deptford Church St, SE8 4RZ. 020 8692 1928. thebirdsnestpub.com
‘Just a friendly atmosphere, reasonably priced. There you go – spit and sawdust, but a warm welcome!’
– Patrick McGowan, The Star and Garter.
It takes me a few visits to pin down the landlord of the Star and Garter, which sits a stone’s throw away from the vanished Deptford anchor on New Cross Road. The first challenge is figuring out whether the pub still exists. Peeking through the windows in the late afternoon, I see that the front room has been renovated into something more like a café. The door is locked and a sticker on the window advertises an African restaurant. Hey-ho, I think, another pub closed for good – at least this is a nice change from the usual fate of flats or mini-supermarkets.
I’m about to scratch the interview off my ‘to do’ list when I notice a lone smoker standing around the corner, next to a side door marked ‘Back Bar’. It transpires that, owing to a bizarre renovation decision by a previous landlord, the Star and Garter is physically split in two: customers must walk out into the street to move from one bar to the other. To make things even more interesting, the front bar has recently been rented out to an Ivorian restaurateur while the back bar remains an unapologetically sticky-floored drinking den. This gives the Star and Garter something of a split personality – encapsulating, in one pub, the changes that have taken place in Deptford since landlord Patrick McGowan first moved to the area in 1987.
A landlord for over 20 years, Patrick took over the Star and Garter four years ago after running pubs in Bermondsey and Lee High Road. When I sit down to chat with him a few days after my initial visit, he is generous and frank in his assessment of the challenges facing Deptford’s traditional boozers – including his own.
‘I came in here to try to make a go of it and then hit probably the worst recession since the Thirties! So it was kind of bad timing but there you go.’
Clearly a glass half-full type, Patrick cheerfully catalogues the Star and Garter’s past and present travails:
‘This pub here has had a chequered history over the last fifteen or so years. It’s been closed, it’s had people coming and going, it had no regular customers. Back in the seventies and mid-eighties it was a West Indian bar, there was a girl here who had it for ten, fifteen years. Since she left there’s been no continuity. Different people have come in and had a go, and it hasn’t worked out, it’s been empty or whatever.’
Patrick took over the pub just as the Deptford Arms, formerly a hub for high street traders, was closing. He hired its manageress and was able to capture some of the Deptford Arms diaspora, but business remains tough.
‘Regulars are few and far between these days. A wee crowd comes in for football on Saturdays when Millwall are at home. We’ve got two pool teams who play [in the local league] on Tuesday – one that drinks more than they play, and one that plays more than they drink! But a lot of the old regulars have all died off, to tell you the truth,’ he says.
The pub is not struggling for lack of elbow grease – Patrick says he has tried everything to get people through the doors.
‘I tried to run it all as one bar at the start, in the front I had a folk night, things like that, English folk, old sea shanties, there were a few characters hanging about,’ he explains. ‘That went on for a wee while, then we had comedy nights in here. I’ve had a go at everything – open mic nights on Wednesdays, live bands on Saturdays, [bartender] Sharon’s doing a karaoke thing on Fridays.’
The Star and Garter has been given something of a lifeline by another diaspora: that of Francophone Africa. Last year, after initially trying to partner with an eel and pie shop, Patrick let out the front bar to the aforementioned West African restaurant, Les Delices de Tresor.
‘We had to move with the times with the French-African restaurant thing,’ he explains, ‘because if you look at the top of the high street there, you’ve got restaurants from Nigeria and other African countries, and you go right down to the bottom and you’ve got a Vietnamese bar. The whole population of Deptford has changed, obviously.’
I speak briefly to the eponymous Tresor, who recently moved to Deptford from the Ivory Coast, where she also ran a restaurant. She choose Deptford in order to reach Lewisham’s large Ivorian and West African community, but is eager to extend a welcome to all Deptfordians:
‘It’s a good area, good location. We really want people to come and enjoy our food. We will welcome them, we invite anybody to come try and taste our food,’ she says.
While it brings in vital revenue, the launch of the restaurant has caused some confusion among locals who assumed that the whole pub had been taken over (hence Patrick recently investing in the ‘Back Bar’ signage). With the ‘pub’ bit of the Star and Garter now off the main street, Patrick continues to struggle to find the right formula to attract customers outside of Tuesday pool nights and football Saturdays.
‘The back bar is a bit of a chameleon bar,’ he says, ‘I’m always moving furniture.”
Part of the problem is the recession, which has hit the Star and Garter’s traditional clientele hard – and there is also a generational factor, says Patrick:
‘People don’t have the money these days, they are picking and choosing their nights rather than being a regular feature through the week. Plus the older pub customers have not been replaced by younger people. They aren’t drinkers, or if they are, they are probably getting a few beers from the supermarkets and getting together with their friends at home and heading off to a club later on at night rather than coming to the pub. Plus with all the prices going up and people losing work – it’s a combination of quite a few things.’
Patrick can at least count himself lucky to be running a free house, which allows him to compete on price by selling cheap drinks – the bar offers mostly commercial lagers and Guinness for around £3 a pint.
‘My prices are lowest you can get,’ he says. ‘If people ask me for a certain type of beer I can get it in, it’s no problem, I can do whatever.’
And, looking determinedly on the bright side, the quietness can make for a friendlier atmosphere:
‘It’s friendly – we have to talk to each other because there’s not enough people,’ he laughs. ‘You get to know people a bit quicker, otherwise you’d be talking to yourself!’
This is certainly my experience of the Star and Garter’s back bar over the course of a few visits: a simple as a bar can be, but friendly service and talkative customers. The back bar is a small, rectangular room with the pool table taking pride of place (a shelf behind the bar heaves with pool trophies). A flatscreen hangs on the back wall, playing MTV on one visit and Olympic curling on another. This is occasionally drowned out by the pub jukebox: at one point, I bond with a man in a Millwall tracksuit over our shared love of Steely Dan as he pumps pound coins into the machine and sits on a bar stool playing air guitar.
Elsewhere, two other customers are locked in a deep and spirited personal conversation about the direction of their respective lives, while others periodically disappear through a back door to smoke in the concrete garden. Last night’s band comes back to disassemble their kit, having presumably been too pissed to do so the night before.
The Star and Garter won’t be for everyone. As Patrick says, it’s spit and sawdust. It doesn’t quite fit any of the traditional categories: I wouldn’t call it a classic old man pub, or a tidy backstreet boozer, or even a dive bar. But I’d still recommend a visit, to see firsthand how traces of Deptford old and new are inscribed here. I leave the Star and Garter hoping that Patrick will somehow crack the code and keep this curious, fragmented pub going.
The Star and Garter, 490 New Cross Road, SE14 6TJ. 020 8694 0240.
‘We’ll look after you – I just think that you need to look after people. They might come in for a pint of ale and you just pour it and give it to them. They might ask for a Bloody Mary on a Sunday morning. They might be someone calling up with an allergy to book some food. Or they could be someone who comes in and they’ve just viewed a house and we talk them through the area. Hopefully, the thing we’re best at is looking after people. That and beer.’ – Richard Salthouse, manager, Royal Albert
Several Deptford boozers can boast of early performances by Squeeze and Dire Straits, but more contemporary ghosts haunt the Royal Albert. A mere ten years ago, believe it or not, there was something called the “New Cross Scene”. As chronicled superbly in the Transpontine blog archives, art rock bands like Bloc Party, Long Blondes and Art Brut, record label Angular Recordings and a host of DJs and promoters ran amok up and down the New Cross Road, attracting attention from the likes of the NME and Vogue (yes, New Cross was the new Hoxton before Deptford was the new Shoreditch). The scene’s lynchpin was the gloriously scuzzy Paradise Bar, a live music venue on the Deptford/New Cross borders.
Eventually the New Cross scene fizzled out, unable to survive the day-glo horror that was “new rave”. Most of the art rockers hung up their guitars, knuckled down at work and started saving for a deposit. The Paradise Bar, meanwhile, was taken over by the Antic pub group in 2006, refurbished as a tasteful local boozer and relaunched as the Royal Albert, its pre-1990s name.
You’ve probably been in an Antic pub before, even if you didn’t realise it at the time. That’s kind of the point: it’s a chain that isn’t supposed to feel like one, ensuring a Time Out-approved standard of food and drink while giving its managers relatively free rein to inject their own ideas and respond to the character of the local area. While the ex-art rockers might feel a little conflicted about drinking in a pub owned by The Man (and behind Antic’s pumps lurk Byzantine ownership structures and complicated bankruptcies and restructurings), the actual experience, at least at the Royal Albert, rarely feels fussy, corporate or overly aspirational, and the choice of food and drink is generally excellent if keenly priced.
I meet Richard, manager of the Royal Albert, at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Despite not opening for another two hours, the pub is a hive of activity: we talk over the buzz of power tools (the kitchen is being upgraded), while chefs periodically wander over to offer Richard samples of potential menu additions.
Richard has been back at the Royal Albert since last November, his second stint after managing the pub from 2008 to 2010 (‘I’m new blood, but old new blood’). A Brockley lad, Richard started out at the Jam Circus pub on Brockley Road, another Antic pub, before coming to the Albert.
Antic will soon open the Job Centre pub on Deptford High Street, becoming only the second pub on a high street that used to boast seven or eight. The choice of location has raised eyebrows (as has the somewhat problematic name, but let’s save that for the comments section), but Richard faced the same skepticism when he first joined the Royal Albert.
‘In the early days when we opened this pub, Deptford was a risky place to open, to a lot of people anyway,’ says Richard. After a slow and fitful start, he says, business picked up thanks to hard work and more people coming into the area who were willing to go out and spend money in Deptford ‘rather than jumping on a train up East’.
What kind of crowd drinks here now, I ask.
‘I’m sure every pub in the world says this, but it really is quite a big mix,’ says Richard. ‘The day-to-day reliable crowd are probably people who are settled into their first or second job, anywhere from late twenties through mid-forties. That’s the bread and butter. On the Friday night it gets quite a lot younger, either students or recent graduates who have settled in the area and are part of the Goldsmiths art crowd. They come in when it’s a bit louder, a bit more high-tempo, with probably an average age of 20. And then at the weekend it goes back to the people having a bit of lunch, a bit of peace and quiet.’
As well as a few regulars who prop up the bar – ‘two blokes who have been coming as long as I’ve been working here, they stand in the same place and drink Amstel, lovely fellas’ – the pub attracts a couple dozen regular faces, including couples, who come in at least once a week.
The Royal Albert has become busier since 2006 – they have applied to the council to extend into the shop next door, which should probably happen by the summer – but the basic offer is still the same: ‘It’s incredible how quickly it felt like home again, the nuts and bolts downstairs haven’t changed, the customers haven’t changed, the regulars haven’t changed.’
Richard’s approach is essentially to stay ahead of what modern pub customers expect. This means real ale and craft beer, a decent food offering and a higher level of service.
‘There is definitely now an expectation for craft beer across London,’ says Richard. ‘The numbers of breweries has gone up and up and up – we always have people asking what beers we’ve got coming on, what’s on now, asking about certain breweries, asking for samples, and the shift in sales is incredible. Our biggest seller now is cask ale, followed by Amstel and Heineken. That’s a really big shift.’
The other main draw is the food, although having long considered the Albert to be a gastropub, I’m surprised to learn that food only accounts for about a quarter of the pub’s takings.
‘You need to be sure you are doing good food just to give yourself a chance in terms of reputation,’ says Richard. ‘It’s quite an expensive operation to run the kitchen, but it’s worthwhile because it’s part of the package, it’s part of what people expect now. That’s something that’s changed over the last five years – even if you’re not intending to eat, you feel better about a pub if it has food.’
A quiz night helps bring people in on Mondays, but otherwise the pub does steady trade throughout the week based on its food and drink offering – as well as ambience and service, which are also increasingly important to many customers:
‘It’s quite a familiar place to come in as a customer I hope, it’s the sort of place that looks quite homely as soon as you step in. People definitely expect a little bit more these days: the way pricing has gone in the last three to four years, it’s costing more of your wage packet to drink in a pub, especially as your wages are probably less in real terms. People can forgive a bit of graffiti in the toilets but they do expect a little bit more! It’s a good thing, it pushes us to be a bit more considerate.’
I return to the Royal Albert later that evening, sinking into a very comfortable armchair near the door with a pint of Railway Porter, a dark beer from Hackney’s Five Points Brewery (their IPA is now the Albert’s house IPA). Mismatched lampshades hang over the bar, which is backed by etched glass and barley twist columns. Fairy lights and bunting hang from the ceiling, while framed mirrors and pictures are clustered on the walls with a studied haphazardness. On the tables sit tealights and paper menus curled into half pint glasses.
The pub is busy, with drinkers lounging about on the big red leather sofas that bracket the front room. Nearby, a customer carries a round of drinks over to a group of flannel-shirted men and women in patterned dresses: ‘£6.60 for two, and it comes in a tankard!’ It’s actually a dimpled glass, but the point is well made – while the headline Five Points IPA is an eye-watering-for-Deptford £4.50, the ever-changing ale selection spans a range of styles and price points.
In front of me sits a young man with greased-back hair and a leather jacket, guitar case propped against the table – later, his place will be taken by a rockabilly couple wearing suspenders (him) and a short jet black fringe (her). Elsewhere, a seasoned punk with pink hair and a Ramones t-shirt waits at the bar next to a man in a shirt and tie, cardigan and clear-framed glasses. The music – a blend of old school country and Victoriana – is played at a discreet volume, and a few people sit on their own reading newspapers or novels.
I imagine this is what after-work drinks at 6Music must be like. Sure, at some point those mismatched lampshades have probably appeared on a PowerPoint slide back at Antic HQ. But hey, there are worse fates for ex-art rockers than a few pints down the Albert.
The Royal Albert, 430 New Cross Road, SE14 6TJ. 020 8692 3737. http://www.royalalbertpub.com/
‘We’re an up-and-coming place with a lot of history – free live music, good food, excellent beer selection, good vibe, that’s what we’re all about.’
– Wiktor Szary, The Duke
I have to start with a confession: I’d never heard of the Duke before starting this interview series.
The pub sits on Creek Road, just opposite the top of Creekside, in a kind of no man’s land between Deptford and Greenwich. I walk around that area all the time, but the particular side streets and river paths I usually take to and from Greenwich always steer me slightly away from the Duke, so it’s never become part of my personal Deptford geography.
Wiktor Szary, the pub’s recently appointed manager – who, appropriately enough, has just completed a master’s degree in human geography at UCL – acknowledges that this is a challenge for the pub (‘it’s a well-kept secret’), but is intent on putting the Duke on the map.
I drop into the Duke on a bright Monday lunchtime to chat with Wiktor over a coffee. Originally from Poland, Wiktor has been living around Greenwich and Deptford for about seven years, and first joined the Duke in 2012. When the previous landlord moved on to another job in January, Wiktor took over and immediately poached his mate Alex Sen from pub over the creek in Greenwich. Jim Donaldson makes up the third member of the Duke’s management team.
‘We’re really excited about running this place,’ says Wiktor. ‘Me and Alex have wanted to do something like this for quite a while.’
Alex is also a postgraduate, wrapping up his masters in maritime history at the University of Greenwich – although so far, an old rope fished from the Thames is the pub’s only bit of nautical decoration.
Like several pubs in the area, the Duke is a former ‘old man’s pub’ given a modern makeover. It was bought up in 2008 and refurbished by Innpublic, a small family-owned group of pubs that includes the Dolphin in Sydenham, the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill and the Crown in Greenwich.
The early days were rocky, with the recession biting just after the pub was acquired. The initial strategy of taking the pub rapidly upmarket was out of step with what local people wanted, says Wiktor, and the pub has since sought to provide more affordable food and drink, as well as free entertainment. It’s definitely a very smart, modern-looking pub, but the emphasis is on being an asset to the community rather than a flash consumer ‘experience’.
‘It’s a really big community of people who feel attached to the pub. The place has obviously been evolving a little bit recently, pushing in different directions over the last three months, but we are trying to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind and that everyone’s supported,’ says Wiktor.
‘We still get the old Deptford crew who used to drink here back in the day,’ he adds. ‘We still cater for them, they have their own night every Saturday – blues rock type stuff, a bit grimy!’
These days, the pub also attracts students from the University of Greenwich halls next door and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire down the road, as well as professionals living in the many new-build apartments that have sprouted up around the Deptford/Greenwich borders.
‘I think what we’re trying to do is get the right mix of the Greenwich student population and the Deptford and New Cross community, trying to merge those two together,’ says Alex. ‘I think the identity of the pub is based on its location, rather than actually trying to create an identity in itself.’
The hope, he says, is that the punters themselves will make their mark on the pub and forge its identity: for example, through Trinity Laban students putting on their own nights.
Not that the management are sitting back: the Duke team is working hard at putting on events and fine-tuning the food and drink selection. While Wiktor, Alex and Jim all pull pints, collect glasses and change barrels, each also has a specialized role for building the pub’s profile.
‘Alex is down with the kids, so he’s responsible for the live music and gigs,’ says Wiktor. ‘I’m the man with the stapler, looking after the admin and the business side.’
Jim, meanwhile, looks after the pub’s social media activity, as well as the cellar.
Live music and events are central to the team’s vision for the pub, which like many Deptford boozers has a strong musical heritage.
‘Dire Straits used to rehearse in what is now my kitchen upstairs,’ says Wiktor. ‘We’re still waiting for a blue plaque! It’s a place with a spirit, I think – we definitely want to keep the live music going. We want to do free live music for everyone, at least two or three gigs every week, and never charge for it.’
These events bring new people to the Duke, helping it to extend its reach beyond potential geographical barriers. And it’s a good space for live music: the back of the pub is roomy enough to accommodate the 16-piece big band that comes in once a month. Recent events include electroswing nights, film screenings, roots reggae gigs and blues nights. The Duke also hosts a weekly open mic jam session on Wednesdays, where people can sing or play along with a house drummer, bass player and pianist.
While the team is keen to make the most of the pub’s 2am license, the Duke will still remain at heart a comfortable pub rather than an out-and-out live venue.
‘It’s not going to be a big party every Friday and Saturday night, the idea is more to have the odd events and also have it be a nice pub to go to on the weekend,’ explains Alex.
Thanks to Jim’s social media work, punters can check when events are on with a quick refresh of a Twitter feed. Wiktor created the social media co-ordinator job as soon as he took over, and sees it as vital for spreading the word and building repeat business.
‘It used to be a bit jump-on, jump-off, but now it’s a bit more structured,’ he says. ‘The job is unique to the whole company – we just realised that we really need to push that side of things if people are to know about us.’
Giving customers constant updates via Twitter is particularly useful for attracting people to events, and Jim also lets customers know about guest ales and changes in the menu.
‘It’s never going to be a substitute for just being welcoming, but it’s a good way of keeping people in the loop,’ says Wiktor.
Speaking of ale, the Duke has a solid and contemporary beer selection: Meantime’s pale ale and lager, Czech lager Kozel, Leffe on draught (something of a rarity), Tribute as the house ale and two guest ale pumps. There is also a fridge full of craft beer in bottles. The cheapest pint of lager is Beck’s for £4 (£3.50 on student nights), with ales at around £3.85. House spirits are £3.
‘[The craft beers] sell very well, people clearly want that. They obviously still want a cheap pint every now and then, but they also want a good pint,’ says Wiktor.
The Duke’s food offering, meanwhile, embraces the trend for American diner-influenced ‘dirty food’.
‘We’re obviously trying to tap into the mood of the market – the menu is very modern, quite diner-y, all homemade, all freshly prepared,’ says Wiktor. ‘People like the food, there isn’t anywhere else locally that does that kind of menu. And we make sure to get quality products, we source all our meat locally, it’s not junk food.’
Having survived the worst of the recession, things are now looking up for the Duke.
‘For a good few years, they couldn’t work out if the place would sink or swim,’ says Wiktor. ‘But I feel like recently, especially this year, people either have more money or feel like they have more money, or they’re just tired of the whole recession thing and they just want to go out and have some fun. There’s only so much suffering and austerity you can take!’
I revisit the pub a few nights later as a band sets up for a gig. It is a modern, bright and airy room with almost café-like elements of décor. ‘If Friends was set in England, this would be Central Perk’, says my friend. World music hums over the speakers, and I spy a poster for a ‘pop-up wine making class’.
It doesn’t really tick the ‘pork scratchings / old men reading papers / real ale / darts board’ boxes I have in my head next to ‘community pub’. But I take a closer look around the room.
Towards the back, a family celebration is in full swing around a long table. By the far window, a dad and his young son, both in sports kit, sit having a drink. Some impossibly thin students wander in and stand by the bar, taking a very long time to discuss their order. A group of women share post-work cocktails at the next table – looking around, I realize that at least half of the customers are women. The crowd is also noticeably more multicultural than most other pubs, not just in Deptford but generally.
Everyone here seems very much at ease, very much at home. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I see that Wiktor and team are well on their way to building a decent community boozer. Now if only I can remember how to get there…
The Duke, 125 Creek Road, SE8 3BU. 020 84698260. thedukedeptford.com. @thedukedeptford.