‘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