Tuesday, 28 September 2010

J'accuse: Wenlock runs out

So Hoxton's Wenlock Arms faces the chop, eh? One co-owner wants to sell and the other cannot buy him out, so it's to the estate agents they go. The dread of redevelopment hangs heavy.

Those unfamiliar with this pub, famous
in London at least, will not be aware of just how polarised the debate is over this establishment. Dirty, mean-spirited and clique-ridden? Or ale palace, characterful and charming?

The truth is it is both, but never at the same time. On a day when there's Chas & Dave-style tinkling of the ivories and singalongs and the locals are in on the fun it's a ding-dong right aaaahld Laaaaahndon boozer, with all welcome to join in. But you'll go in the next day to the silence of the disgusted, with tumbleweed the only distraction between you and contemptful locals who would rather sit in an empty pub without your sort. On that day, the service will run the full gamut between silent, inattentive and outright - and even shockingly - rude.

The hipsters so routinely disdained by the locals and barstaff seem to be running a campaign to keep the place open. I certainly welcome that - even if I regard their patience at the Wenlock's unfathomably mercurial mood swings as saintly in the extreme. The current management have had the place for 16 years and fresh blood could tart the pub up (a deep clean might eradicate the retch-worthy stench of foetid, dried urine emanating from the gents) without blitzing what is, all told, a characterful interior. It would be a real pity to lose a 175 year old pub that stands alone in its street as a living link with times gone by and could, in the right hands, continue to offer a great deal to the area.

And yet I cannot tolerate the notion, expressed here in the Evening Standard, that its loss would disfigure London's pub-going scene for good or eradicate 'London's best pub' - for all that it has an admirable focus on excellent craft cask beer.

The Globe in Morning Lane, Hackney, only has London Pride and Young's Bitter on cask - but both are kept well and the service is unfailingly friendly. After a couple of visits,
they may not know your name but they recognise you and ask after you. The locals - mostly 50+, working class and mixed between men and women and black and white - are not in the least bothered by the minority of middle class 20-somethings that come in, rallying round to offer seats and organise tables when live jazz is playing on a Sunday. The late night regulars cheer on the midnight karaoke come Saturday ('I Get a Kick Out of You - Swing Version' is considered a bracing challenge). There are teas organised for Monday afternoons and special offers that encourage the odd treat (bottle of Prosecco for £11.50) while not promoting crass binges.

I think you see where I'm heading. CAMRA may have afforded the Globe a place in the Good Beer Guide 2010 (I don't know if it's in the 2011 edition yet) but its safe selection of ales would not excite the beer blogging world and - god forbid - were it under threat, I wonder how much support in the wider media it would muster.

London would miss the Wenlock's potential. But the Globe is a vital community resource, with dedicated staff who put in the hours and refresh the offer.

I know where I've spent most money.

Wenlock Arms photo (Creative Commons Licence) courtesy of Glyn Baker.

Globe on Morning Lane photo (Creative Commons Licence) courtesy of Ewan Munro.


Barm said...

The first time I read this I thought you were implying the Wenlock was so dirty that painting it with fresh blood would improve it.

jesusjohn said...

No comment.

Tessa Norton said...

Great piece - I really enjoyed reading this. Oh, it's an odd place alright. I actually agree with quite a lot of what you say - I guess we've just come to different conclusions about whether the Wenlock's many vagaries add up to an enjoyable experience. For me they do, and judging by the level of support our blog's received that's also the case for hundreds of other people. But that's not to say I don't have several friends who groan whenever it's mentioned.

We're not really either saintly or hipsters. I just don't think it's that bad for us young 'uns. I've never felt "disdained" in the Wenlock. Maybe I've got a thick skin. Maybe it's because I'm a girl and people are often nice to girls. But it's honestly fine... no scratch that, it's actively fun! I usually seem to get talking to someone or other, and I wouldn't feel weird about going in on my own.

They do need to sort the men's toilets out though. Our point is not that the owners shouldn't sell - if they want to, they should. Nor is it that the new owner shouldn't give it a bit of a wipe down. It's just that we want it to stay a pub. If it gets bulldozed it's gone forever. If it got taken over by someone with a bottle of Cif and a bit of respect for its ale heritage maybe you'd really like it. Block of steel-clad Nathan Barley flats? Not so much.

Save The Wenlock campaign

"Eddie Rowles" said...

I also can see a lot of what JJ means but I go there for the beer and in that respect the Wenlock has never let me down.

I'm not at all sure I would agree that they have an active dislike of the local middle classes - probably more a dislike to the braying chattering classes that wander in to see the "quaint real ale pub" (similar to some of those who go to the Palm Tree at Mile End).

It would be a shame if every pub had to try and appeal to everybody and in doing so become less characterful.

It would be a loss and is worth effort to ensure it remains a pub.

As a postscript, I have only been to the Globe once - the welcome was indeed friendly but the beer was poor. Hopefully a one-off I'll not be tempted back based purely on the welcome...

jesusjohn said...

See that for me is the real clincher; the welcome is far, far more important than the beer. That decent (not necessarily well curated, not necessarily interestingly chosen, but *decent*) beer is served generally stands as a symbol of everything else. Not always, but often.

'It would be a shame if every pub had to try and appeal to everybody and in doing so become less characterful.'

Agreed! But there is a gaping chasm between a pub aligning its offer to appeal to a targeted demographic (however mixed) and those pubs - of which there are too many, defended by too many - that use 'character' as an excuse for rudeness. I think - on the basis of many visits - that there have, broadly speaking, been as many occasions where I've felt welcome at the Wenlock as unwelcome - and my love of various pubs of differing appeal stands as testament to my agreement that characterful pubs ought not to become jack-of-all-trades-masters-of-none joints.

But politeness, as the cliche goes, costs nothing. Rudeness can cost dear. I'd be very glad if Tessa's campaign is successful - I wish her all the best and hope new owners can be found to make the best of the Wenlock a daily experience.

But I think it's important for me to say at this stage that this pub is overhyped and that there are more socially important pubs that receive scant attention.

"Eddie Rowles" said...

And I'm all for politeness too, JJ, and have never had any issue with this at the Wenlock but have had poor welcomes from some that may look to a younger demographic - one example being the Scolt Head (Islington/Dalston fringes).

I would agree that the situation is over-hyped but that seems to be the way such campaigns have to be these days to get any attention.

As a matter of interest, which pubs do you feel are socially important but which do not get attention?

Tandleman said...

Interesting piece which I've just come across, as I'd more or less given up on you as a blogger!

I'm with you on most of this except beer quality. That's easy enough to put right and there is a tendency that when the beer is right, everything else follows. Maybe the Wenlock is an exception, though I've never found the beer to be that remarkable either.

But it would be a shame to lose it.

jesusjohn said...

Tandie - well, the great unspoken truth is that beer choice was terrific but quality variable, though admittedly, on my experience, skewed to the well-kept. You have to wonder what CAMRA North London are up to, though - awards for this place and (gulp!) the Bree Louise?! Why encourage them!

I do hope the post makes clear my sadness at losing what I truly believe could be a terrific pub - architecturally, it really is an island and the more charming (from the exterior) because of it.

But its potential and charm do not outweigh the negatives. And there are enough of people who've commented on those over the years for it not to be just the rants of a shunned or disgruntled few.

Tandleman said...

Indeed. CAMRA North London work in mysterious ways.