Some of the most historic pubs in the country co-exist with new types of venue in one of the liveliest, most diverse places to go for a drink in the UK. Noella Pio Kivlehan samples some of the best pints Southwark has to offer
In the morning, Paul Graham is in the 1600s. Surrounding him is a zoo of dead creatures forever preserved by the taxidermist’s skill. Their glass eyes twinkle in sun streaming through multi-coloured stained glass windows.
In the corner, an open fire crackles. On old wooden tables, candles clasped by brass candlesticks wait for the sun to go down and the match to strike their wicks.
At sundown, Graham is in 2019. Here, he is surrounded by neon signs, modern art on the walls and dazzling lights, all within an industrial, minimal interior setting.
Graham is the ultimate pub time traveller. But, this is no Back to the Future DeLorean car trip trick. It is a simple tale of two pubs.
Under the umbrella of his Rotherhithe Pub company, Graham is the owner of The Mayflower (originally The Spread Eagle, built in 1555), on Rotherhithe Street, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World to establish America’s first permanent colony.
Just a short walk away, is Leadbelly’s. The bar and restaurant by Canada Water underground station was opened in 2016 in a new build residential development.
The two pubs show the diversity of Southwark’s pub scene. “I’m glad The Mayflower and Leadbelly’s are so different, because they complement each other by offering different food, drinks, and atmosphere,” says Graham.
Southwark has changed greatly in the last 20 years, with thousands of new homes and a burgeoning and increasingly diverse population. And with those changes, pub culture has transformed too.
While some venues have closed, been demolished, or turned into flats, there has been a dramatic increase in restaurants, popup eateries, events and music venues such as Printworks and Dock X, while the trend for microbreweries with a taproom on-site has exploded (see panel, page 35).
In the south of the borough, one of Dulwich’s biggest pubs is the 1890-built Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village. Closed in 2014, its owner, Mitchells & Butlers, put in significant changes, installing a 20-bedroom hotel, before re-opening in July last year.
Manager Clare Hudson says there is now a big focus on craft beer, and Sundays – with tasty roasts on the menu – are becoming ever more popular, particularly with families.
But it is perhaps Peckham where nightlife has evolved most in the last five years. Frank’s Café, John the Unicorn, the Four Quarters and Brick Brewery have joined such established names as The Montpelier, resulting in a changing demographic – younger and hipper – for new businesses and residents who choose to call Peckham home.
Russell Porter, who runs the White Horse, sister pub to The Montpelier and part of Parched Pubs, credits this in part to the opening of the London Overground train service into the area.
“Before the Overground, customers were locals,” he says. “Today, those customers are not only local, and not only Londoners, but they come from across the UK. This means more potential for people starting up businesses in little places along Rye Lane.”
Microbreweries have come to Peckham too. Sally Stewart, brand director at the sixyear- old Brick Brewery, says being in a place like Peckham is important for business: “It’s such a creative and cultural community and people embrace and support independent businesses with passion.
“Our location under the arches at Peckham Rye station is ideal – not only for local residents, but for those travelling from afar to come and experience all Peckham has to offer.”
Steadfast among Southwark’s new premises and trends, are the golden oldies: The Mayflower; the George Inn, dating to Medieval times on Borough High Street, a former haunt of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, Charles Dickens, and today owned by the National Trust – and The Anchor, Bankside, where a tavern has stood for over 800 years.
In some places, there are closures. In previous times, buildings around pubs got knocked down, but the pubs stayed in place. But in the last couple of decades, developers have increasingly seen potential residential conversion opportunities.
Change is needed to accommodate a growing borough and housing is paramount, but pubs remain a part of the fabric of life, not just in Southwark, but in the country as a whole.
Local campaign groups work to save pubs as part of their communities. The Walworth Society is one such organisation. Walworth covers the area around the Elephant and Castle shopping centre across to Burgess Park. To date, the society has helped protect five pubs by campaigning to get them listed under the Localism Act of 2011, which states a building can be saved if it’s considered an asset of community value.
These include The Elephant and Castle pub, now owned by local pub chain Antic, which was saved from being turned into a branch of estate agent Foxtons; the Huntsman and Hounds in Elsted Street; The Beehive in West Walworth; the Thomas A Beckett on the Old Kent Road and The Tankard on Walworth Road.
Records show that an Elephant and Castle pub has existed in some form for 250 years in the heart of Southwark and it is believed the area is actually named after the pub.
With the threat of closure and Foxtons conversion, the community and council worked quickly, placing an asset of community value order on the building, and introducing the owners to Antic, which has other venues across south-east London.
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