‘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.