When did it all start? How come didn’t I notice it earlier? I had read about it but not really measured the impact the pubs’ disappearance was having on the city. Though one night, while being with friends, it really hit me. We were leaving from a gallery opening, Cabinet, somewhere in Old Street, and a friend mentioned going to a pub round the corner. We followed, me and a group of 5 or 6. It was a short walk away from the main street. When we hit the area where the pub should have been, my friend John realised it was closed. Another one! John described it as a local pub, unpretentious, laid in wood and serving some reliable ales. He knew another one, not far, so we moved on.
I stayed behind, the pub had been transformed into flats and there was not much left to distinguish it from the rest of the houses along the street. It had been painted a dignified dark blue, but the distinctive architecture still remained: large windows, now recovered with an opaque film. It was situated at a corner, and still carried an aura of grandeur. No one seemed to have moved in yet, all the building’s windows were dark. It reminded me of the end of the 90’s, when the old London Italian cafés disappeared one after another. Then a nicely designed photography book had been published, marking the death of the old coffee culture being replaced by the coffee chains which started opening everywhere. At the time, I was a fan of those old atmospheric places, I would often spend long afternoons reading there. The coffee they served was mostly appalling, but it did not really matter.
The pubs seem to follow a similar pattern, but unlike the coffee shops, they address a different part of the fabric of the city. They are essential to the history of a territory and the communities that spend solid chunks of their lives in them. When I started reading about the topic, I was quite surprised by the number of closures all over the country, and more than anywhere else in the capital. In 2014, 550 pubs closed down, at a rate of 10 a week. The logic behind their disappearance is obvious, the capital is going through a massive shift, where entire areas are either redeveloped or gentrified.
Having heard about the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, I went there early in the morning to photograph what was left of it. Built in the 20s, the pub had survived the heavy bombing during the Blitz, unlike the rest of the area, where brutalist tower blocks spread all around. Backed by the tall trees of a park, the sight of the demolished pub struck an eerie sight. Half destroyed, with some walls still hanging showing its inside, the place radiated a strange violence in the making. In 2014 the Carlton Tavern was bought by Israeli developers company CLTX Ltd, which planed to redevelop the site into modern flats. The demolition team was sent before Westminster and City Council had given the full authorisation for its destruction. The haste with which it was destroyed seemed to have been accelerated as the pub had been recommended to be listed. Precisely two days away from the decision, the demolition took place. Local residents tried to intervene, but powerless, they ended up filming the process on their mobile phones. As I was taking photos, passers-by came to me. Some told me about the police protecting the demolition, preventing the locals to intervene. A Canadian couple pushing a pram asked me what had happened. They were intrigued by the story and puzzled when I told them that pubs were closing by numbers. “Is it linked with the Muslim population who does not drink?”, they asked. After the demolition, the Israeli company was asked by the Council to “recreate in facsimile the building as it stood immediately prior to its demolition.”
The statistics are striking. The number of pubs in the country is at its lowest. In february, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) published its latest figures, there were 52 750 pubs in business at the end of last year, the average number of pubs closing per week is around 29. In London, due to gentrification and the rising property prices, the death of pubs is more intense. The worst year was 2009, at its peak, engulfed in the crisis, 52 pubs would close each week. Experts point out regulations, alcohol taxes, rising rents and cultural change.
The pubs’ decline follows a similar scenario, which is somehow becoming an allegory for the vast and unstoppable shift the capital is going through. The Ivy House Pub, in Nunhead, South London, was meant to follow on the doomed list. It scarcely managed to escape and is now the first community-run pub in the capital, and the second in the country.
On a sunny Spring day, I met Hugo, one of the activists who helped saving the Ivy. At midday, the pub was quiet, filled with conversations and various sounds coming from the bar. It is still difficult to imagine that such a pleasant place could have been demolished. The Ivy was built by the Truman Brewery’s architects, and has distinctive features: walls covered in pale warm wood, high ceilings and a red curtain stage in the back room. It spreads in three different rooms running around a circular wooden bar. It has a touch of grandeur and, with the theatre at the back, is rather atmospheric. “ It had been successful in the early 70’s, with bands playing here such as Dr Feelgood, the Stranglers, Ian Dury” recalls Hugo, “but by the time I moved in the area, it was empty and had changed landlords several times.”
In 2011, as the area around, it had changed drastically, “it got a new landlord who managed to turn it around, with good ales, nice guys behind the bar, jazz on sunday lunches.” It coincided with the arrival of Entreprise Inns, a company known for buying failing pubs and selling them for redevelopment. “With the help of social media, we gathered people who wanted to save the pub from closure. Some of us knew people at CAMRA who had asked if it was listed”. The story at that point becomes quite improbable, a romanesque race against time. “On the Wednesday, we met at the pub, we knew it was closing on the following Sunday, and bought by a new landlord on the Monday. As we knew people at English Heritage, we did a few phone calls, and secured the papers being signed in time.”
From then on, the pub was protected from demolition. But not from closure. Hugo adds, “that is when we heard about Asset of Community Value which had just been pushed through legislation. Again, we had 3 days to apply before the pub was auctioned by its new owner.” Eventually, the committee who saved it, found donors and sold shares to keep it in business. Nowadays, nothing distinguishes the Ivy from any other pub, except that it is run by a group of shareholders and volunteers. The staff is paid and it makes profit again.
While walking around London, I became more aware of the lost pubs. A lot of them have been turned into plush flats or in a less fancy mode, into Tescos. A lot are still empty, stuck in a strange zone, as they still carry their aura of boisterous places but are now vast empty and silent spaces. Peering online on the Lost Pubs Projects, the digital archive of the country pubs listing 30 944 closed or disappeared public houses, I realised I was surrounded by lost pubs which throughout time had been converted without my attention. It seems like looking back in time, and clicking to an era when they were still open to the public. For some reasons, it seems far away.
It is difficult to keep track of all the pubs closing. Most of them disappear suddenly, others have more luck as the press picks up on the locals’ resistance. Such is the case of the Kensington Park Hotel in Ladbroke Grove, which is in a legal battle as the developer is suspected of willing to turn it into flats. The pub’s luck is its celebrities connections, with amazing advocates like Paul Simonon from the Clash or Cerys Matthews, it will most probably sustain a real fight.
In Stepney, the George Tavern has managed to survive thanks to the strong support of personalities who backed up the owner Pauline Forster. Standing on Commercial Road, at a cross road, the 600 years old building seems like a citadel. At night, with its flags flapping in the wind, it has an air of loneliness and grandeur, as if keeping stubbornly an impossible fight against time.
One Sunday morning, I arranged to meet Pauline, who lives above the pub, which mansion like, spreads on two massive floors. Inside, the stripped walls, the elegant mixture of bohemian furnitures and paintings offer a comfortable contrast to the downstairs slightly rough pub space. Mentioned by Chaucer and Samuel Pepys, the pub has been a music venue since Pauline bought it in 2002. Adjacent to the pub is a run down nightclub which connects to the pub through a barricaded door. “I have had a visit by some strong guys send to intimidate me” explains Pauline. “This is totally illegal and I reported them, so now I have blocked that door, and installed a security alarm.” The nightclub is now owned by Swan Housing Association, which is backed by Tower HamletsCouncil, is willing to build flats there. In an overcrowded capital like London, where every patch of land’s value is sky rocketing, a long list of pubs have fallen due to the noise nuisance. “Having the flats so near the venue will force us to stop hosting concerts and will stop our late night licence, and therefore our business”, Pauline comments. Last February, after 9 years of court battles and continuous struggle to raise funds to pursue the legal fight, Pauline won a right to appeal against the decision of the local authorities who back the property developers.
The George Tavern seems to have reversed an irreversible script, and it really deserves it. It is a very impressive place, bold and quite wild as its owner Pauline Forster. It tells a survival tale of a one person’s courage to resist gentrification and its continuous hold on the city. One of last winter’s nights, I went there to a gig, the place was packed and lively and fuelled by this so specific urban energy London still possesses.