Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Ghost in the Shell: St Johns Wood

folk like to get together of an evening in one of the many local estate agents

The above image is of an estate agents in St Johns Wood in North London. It’s odd insofar as behind the blue Volkswagen Polo, there is a trapdoor to the agent’s basement chased into the pavement. Whatever for? There’s also the proud mounted sign. There are the celled and smoked windows that allow daylight to enter but inhibit folk from peering in - this would just hinder the advertising of properties, surely? Then there’s the small front yard which, if you notice, won’t allow any cars in but would be perfect as an enclosure for say…. outside tables. They could even be used in the evening as light would be provided by the central courtyard lamp. Bizarre.

Yes I’m being facetious. Up until recently it was a pub called The Star. It was originally a Charrington's pub which was later taken over by Punch Taverns. I only ever went in there once in about 2006. My recollection is of a very dark, booth-like and smoky pub as this was before the smoking ban. It was a typical back street boozer. I seem to recall Flowers bitter on keg but it was before I’d kindled an interest in beer - my staple would’ve been Guinness at the time. The ghost has departed this shell. At the time of writing, this ex-pub still bears the original panes for Charrington's Ales & Stout. It would be hard to imagine these surviving as all estate agents use clear back-lit windows so properties can seen by passers-by.


original panes like this make it difficult so see photos of 2-bed properties

In the 1997 film Men in Black, chameleonic actor Edgar D’Onofrio plays an intergalactic cockroach that inhabits a human’s flesh like an ill-fitting suit. He shambles about the movie with his face stretched across his skull and his arms and legs rigid and stuffed to the cuticles because the alien ‘roach is roughly 6 times the size of the human skin it’s wearing. When I look at Champion Estates, it’s easily as incongruous. 

There’s an architectural term that’s used to describe valued buildings whose fronts have been maintained (and are often listed), but whose rears have been desecrated: an amalgam of facade and sodomy - fasodomy.

A good example of fasodomy can be found in Lancaster Gate off Bayswater; Spire House is a reworked 19th Century church whose derriere has been unsubtly converted into a block of flats complete with intercom system. Dry rot was discovered in what was Christ Church and the cure - demolition - started in 1977. The flats were finished in 1983. The head has been saved, the body sacrificed. There should be an equivalent term for buildings that so obviously used to be pubs.


seamless: see if you can spot where the old church ends and the new flats begin

The Knights of St Johns Tavern on Queens Terrace to the rear of St Johns Wood tube station is the headquarters for an urban regeneration project called The Riding School. Its target is the development of what used to be a military barracks around the block. The website boasts that it will preserve the heritage of the site - by which it means build a swimming pool within the grounds to the rear and erect luxury apartments around it. For this ex-pub, it’s fasodomy of a kind. On the frontage there are twin Toby Ale plaques and high up on the building, a beautiful cartouche to the former Charrington's (and later Wells’) pub’s name. The beauty is a reflection of the craftsmanship, not the fact the stonework depicts Moors being slaughtered by Christians on horseback.

What St Johns Wood has now is a small portfolio of ex-pubs that invoke more interest than the diminishing list of current ones. For a map of pubs and ex-pubs, see

http://www.pubology.co.uk/maps/nw8.html

also see:

http://www.closedpubs.co.uk/london/nw8_stjohnswood.html

St Johns Wood is certainly no destination for beer. Its high street is like a showcase of affluent food & drink chains. There’s Carluccios, The Bread Shop, Starbucks, Gelato Mio, Pret a Manger etc etc. What it also has in abundance, as wealthy areas generally do, is estate agents. The irony is that the greater the sum of agents selling the benefits of the zone 2 tree-lined “village”, the less of that characterful “village” there is as the agents swallow up the community’s shops and bars themselves. For the time being, the manor’s tidy, spacious and acts as a suburb to the north of Regents Park. 


gentle pastel blues and blushing pink make up this tableau of ethnic cleansing 

Confined within the vehicular triangle made by Wellington Road, Avenue Road and Prince Albert Road, there are only three actual pubs left: The Ordnance - A Samuel Smiths pub, The George - a small bar with the token line of European keg beers and The New Inn - a Green King pub/ Thai restaurant. Everything else is a ghost.

Is there a hierarchy to the scale of the tragedy?

The Lyndhurst Club on Allitsen Road used to be a pub called Pitt’s Head. It now has a somewhat sclerotic identity crisis as it has two parallel websites; firstly as the largest Japanese private gentlemens club in London, secondly as a modern Karaoke club that advertises room service. Does it mean table service? Wholesomeness or lack thereof aside, when a pub becomes a club (by which I mean a party/disco venue rather than a working men’s or Labour/Conservative club), there is a sense of it staying in the same clade but being a completely different species. It’s disconnected from the outside world, there’s exclusivity. It’s not somewhere you can just pop in and the older you are, the less likely your custom - although in this particular example, it might make it more likely! Communities do not get together in a club of an evening.

At the corner of the High Street and the Terrace is a white building with what looks to be a sculpture of an eagle at its apex. Look closer - there are flames broiling around the talons. It used to be called The Phoenix and it’s now a pharmacy. The only link is that the community’s older generation can go in there for their regular fix of mind-altering substances but they can’t lean against the till necking them with the other customers - they’re expected to take their drugs home; more like a jug bar.


what was once The Phoenix - it still provides succour to the elderly community

When a pub becomes a local business like Equipe - a hairdresser’s on Charlbert Street, it stays part of the community fabric. It’s a service and it employs. Regulars will go there and, because of the intimate one-to-one nature of salons, it will remain a place where people go to chat with each other too.

When a pub becomes a strip joint of which there are none in St Johns Wood (the jury’s out on The Lyndhurst Club) - it’s probably just a phase it’s going through. This was the case for The Scottish Stores in Kings Cross which re-opened last year as a generous craft watering hole. Three cheers for the art form of burlesque but boo to sleazy G-string joints and the dodgy mulleted people who run them.

Ever since The Eagle in Clerkenwell Green - often cited as the first gastro - pubs and restaurants have merged, occupying the ends of a sliding scale. Right at the pub end you would have a bar with no cooked food, lots of standing space and often pool or darts. At the restaurant end, just wine and bottled lagers. The majority of pubs nowadays reside somewhere in the middle of the scale in order to survive. In St Johns Wood, The Crown, The Sir Isaac Newton and The Portland Arms all became restaurants or diners that retain a bar.


when buildings were built with pride

We should compensate for pubs that become restaurants as they still bear a lifeline to their pub past and could still support local breweries. Beer pubs like The Harp have their reputation and the millions of people that visit the Covent Garden area. We can’t expect this to be the case on each street corner in every town. A resurgence in craft beer can encourage restaurants to develop their bar and strengthen the link. Restaurants will also make full use of the kitchen, improve the toilets and employ more people as well as potentially source more produce locally for ingredients. It could thereby sustain local producers and dealers. This is to counter an oft tilted argument that keeping pubs open protects employment and supports local businesses. In a pub’s case - just the breweries.

There is too the possibility that by one remove it might return to being a pub as the licence to sell booze is still exercised. When a pub becomes a supermarket, on the basis of the local community using it and being employed by it, the value is many times greater than the pub. The change of venue however, is too radical and all-encompassing to ever revert back.

The Portland Arms is now a Carluccio’s, its model is a restaurant that is also a shop. The distinction between coffee shops and supermarkets (Waitrose now incorporates a coffee area) - and restaurants and shops - is becoming blurred. So too is the bar. We have seen a healthy surge in beer shops which also act as tap rooms. A lot of people who frequented pubs that can’t keep up to speed with the latest tastes in beer visit brewery taps instead at the weekends.


Carluccios and a man dragging a terrier by the throat

The rate of pub closure in the area was made clear to me when, in summer last year in the nearby Church Street Estate, I happened to see the contents of what used to be a pub called The Perseverance (I know - the irony) being sold on the street outside. I bought a boxful of metal & plastic pump shields for £5. Around the same time, a pub just around the corner called The Globe closed but re-opened as a fully qualified modern craft beer bar. It seems that either the business adapts quickly or disappears. The greatest tragedy is when the building is transformed into something it was never meant to be like the estate agents. You know that as a place where people dwell and drink together, it’s gone forever.

In my home town of Saint Albans there have recently been pub closures. There was a campaign to get a threatened pub in an area where there are no other pubs ACV status. The pub was a McMullens tied house called The Camp. The status was given but the building was bought and developed for housing. South Herts CAMRA - of which I’m a member - started a petition but I didn’t sign it as I couldn’t reconcile the ex-pub with a salvageable business. I had visited only twice. Both me and my dog were given a friendly welcome but there were signs of fatigue; only several locals providing custom on both visits, loads of empty space. 

Two other pubs looked likely to close but were resuscitated. Both The Crown and The Great Northern looked likely to become houses but had money spent on them and were completely turned around. No matter how remote the possibility, I regret not signing the Camp’s petition as a window of possibility - no matter how narrow - might’ve put the running into the hands of someone who could turn it into a place the greater public actually wanted to go.


etching detail from Megan's Diner - it was The Sir Isaac Newton

The Crown and The Great Northern both completely changed their business models; they became places of light, employed chefs, made the premises family friendly, set up Wi-Fi and employed website designers. A good pub needn’t have these things but a business determined to attract as many people as possible and be viewable online does. Pubs that are failing can’t expect to just open up as they were before even if the small group of locals that patronised it for years would want it that way.

Finally, coming back to St Johns Wood and its ex-pubs, when a pub becomes Tibet House - the headquarters of a Tibetan charity that was opened by the Dalai Lama who is its patron, and  simultaneously the Kailash Centre of Oriental Medicine, to be honest it’s such a curve ball I haven’t a clue. It was once called The British Flag. It was a Watney Combe Reid house on Newcourt Street.

At the centre of St Johns Wood is the Townsend Estate. It has well-maintained, well built and smartly laid out blocks of council and ex-authority housing. This lives cheek by jowl with the affluent wide stuccoed streets like the High Street, St Johns Wood Terrace, St Anns Terrace and Ordnance Hill. There’s also another cadre that characterises the area - a large American population. There has long been an American school in St Johns Wood. Don’t all these people need a local?


once a common fixture on buildings in London

I frequent one of the chains I’ve already mentioned - Starbucks and it draws the builders & decorators that also find custom in the area along with tourists (often preparing for a photo opportunity on the nearby Beatles-related Abbey Road pedestrian crossing), French ex-pats, the wealthy middle class and the Americans. When I’m sipping a coffee, I recognise a lot of the regulars who bring their pooches in and I can’t help but reflect that this experience might have supplanted the community’s pubs. At this corner, coffee is the new beer and it’s served in pints. Smart phones have replaced conversation. I’m as guilty as everyone else.

The most exciting thing happening in St Johns Wood in terms of beer might actually be that its branch of Spirited Wines on the High Street is selling bottles by the Wild Beer Co in Somerset. Could it be that with more focus on craft beer and less on wine, it ends up becoming a tap room and beer shop? Might I walk past and see The George boarded up only to re-emerge as a Craft Beer Co pub emulating the namesake of what was The Phoenix right opposite? Probably not, but things are changing with regards to drinking habits and the venues they’re habituated in.

The ex-pubs in St Johns Wood still feature the cartouches, date plaques, etched window panes, sculpture, and saloon doors of their previous incarnations. Researching the ex-pubs, I’m also intrigued to find that all but one (The Knights of St Johns Tavern) occupy street corners rather than being terraced. Even if the beer experience is weak here, it’s worth a walk around just to see the architectural shells that remain. Think of it as a ghost tour.