Monday, 8 August 2016

Oh Little Star of Leyton

The other day I headed down the Leyton's newest boozer, the Leyton Star.

When I first moved to Leyton, pubs were in pretty scant supply. There was the William the Fourth and the Drum at Bakers Arms, the Birkbeck at the other End and, well, not much in between. There still isn't, in fact, and some have closed or been lost since – including the Antelope and the Three Blackbirds on Leyton High Road (demolished and replaced by flats after a mysterious blaze ripped through it at half two in the morning one Bank Holiday Sunday).

Another pub I never got to sample the 'delights' of was the King Harold, a few minutes walk from Leyton tube, though it wasn't open long after I moved here, and didn't seem particularly appealing whenever I went past, all dimly lit with moody-looking net curtains – in fact, I hear it had a chequered rep as the kind of place you could get more than a pint if you know what I mean (I mean drugs).

It shut in 2014 I think, and the iron shutters in front of the right hand entrance became a repository for all kinds of trash drifting up the high road, or stuffed in there by passersby. For a while it was touch and go whether the pub would make it, and it looked like it would be turned into the inevitable one and two bed luxury flats before – miracle of miracles –  the same people who run the Star in Bethnall Green bought it, and reconverted it to a pub, and a very nice one it is at that.

Inside it's been done out simply but well, with a bar in the middle. Apparently (the lovely bar-girl from Leeds told me) this had to be hauled out of the basement as the developers had got as far as dismantling it, before an ACV order was slapped onto the pub, scuppering their plans for a quick buck. They've not gone overboard on the shabby-chic stylings, which makes for a nice contrast to Antic Pubs' (who run the Technical) house style. More 'London boozer brought up to date', with decent furniture and – slightly unusually I thought – a carpet!

The pub has two entrances, one on the corner, and one on the right (with curved glass panels beside it and the aforementioned shutters) and I wonder if the two were doors to separate bars in the past – ie, a snug and saloon?

When I went, the island in the centre of the bar was surmounted by a blonde, fierce-looking furry thing that I took to be an albino badger, but it turns out is a honey badger.

On both days I went it was scorching hot, so I retired to the wonderful beer garden out back, which has palm tree sculptures, and an aesthetically pleasing wooden raised section surrounded by wooden booths, where you can retire if it started to rain (as it did, on the first ocasion, forcing me and my compaion to beat a hasty retreat back indoors).

For drinks they had a good selection of craft ales, and I treated myself to Camden Hells and Pale. For food, they cook burgers out back, and from the looks of it, there are quiz nights, and DJs and the like on the weekend.

Which is all great, but really, I'm just pleased there's a pub here, run by people who *actually* care about pubs, unlike other ones, who are just sitting on a property they bought and trying to sell it for too much money, but who will remain nameless (cough, The Heathcote).

Cause in a world which increasingly looks like EM Forster's The Machine Stops, except the screens are on the buses and with worse music, it's good to have places where local people can come and spend time, and stare at dead stuffed badgers.

In celebration, here's 'Underneath The Plastic Palm Trees' by the Leyton Buzzards. Enjoy (or don't).

Monday, 18 July 2016

I recently read a recent article on the decline of the suburbs, which can be read
here, and which I found interesting insofar as something counter to that seems to be happening in the corner of London where I now live.
I moved to Leyton four years ago, and much has changed in that time. When I first arrived, around August 2012, the High Street had been spruced up a little for the Olympics in pretty pastel colours, but it was still fairly obviously an area that had obviosuly suffered years of neglect: with shopfronts shoddily converted to flats and betting shops and fried chicken joints everywhere, interspersed with nail bars and car wash businesses.

Doing some digging on the internet, I trawled up some
images of Leyton in the 1960s, and I was surprised to see how different it looked. Most obviously, there are much fewer cars on the roads, but in general it has the feel of a well-to-do working class area, with useful looking shops, well maintained streets, and smartly dressed, predominantly white inhabitants, going about their businesses with an air of vim and purpose... which stands in stark contrast to the careworn appearance it presented as little as four years ago, following thirty years of gradual dilapidation.

In 'Postcapitalism', Paul Mason observes a similar degradation in working class areas around England, which he attributes to the desecration of industry (and employment therein) in the UK, and the replacement of wages with easily available credit. Leyton used to have many factories, employing local people, and it seems reasonable that their dissappearance ushered in the decades of decline that followed. The area has an overwhelmingly diverse ethnic mix, and it is sad that recent immigrants are seen as displacers of the now absent white working classes, when the latter arguably moved out to Essex for economic reasons.

Now again – as in so much of London – the demographic seems to be shifting once more, with a younger set of professionals migrating across the Lea Valley, from whence they were presumably priced out of Hackney. Eateries and coffee shops have started to pop up, and the phrase 'gentrification' is not far from everyone's lips. It seems churlish to not feel a little for those who might now get pushed even further out, but it is hard not to feel a little happy that some people are once again establishing businesses here, and expending a little love on the place (even if the chi-chi moniker 'Leyton Village' seems a little far fetched).

If the likes of Leyton can be revitalised or regenerated (it being an area that was until fairly recently still part of Essex) you have to wonder how much of the city there is to left gentrify, before the poor run out of (or are run out of) London.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Death of a Pub

Just before the bridge at Leyton Midland Road stands (or probably stood by the time you read this) a pub called The Three Blackbirds. As long as I've lived here, it's stood empty, careworn and unloved, grubby PVC windows staring vacantly out at the buses grinding past, and the tatty row of shops opposite.

Time and tenants hadn't been kind to it. It's most recent incarnation was as 'The Numa Conference Centre', and as part of a failed bid to convert it into a mosque. it looks to have been denuded of all breweriana – the old windows ripped out and replaced with cheap double glazing and roller shutters, and the once handsome red brick painted – at no small effort I'd guess – a bizarre 50/50 blue and white split that looks like the Man City football kit, upside down.

 For all that, it was a handsome building. On a weary looking parade punctuated by hair salons, empty shops and the ubiquitous, sub-KFC fried chicken shacks dispensing deep-fried beak to the culinarily indifferent, it still stood out as a distinctive building that hadn't quite submitted to destitution.

It had a long history too, with a pub having been on that site for over three hundred years. Rebuilt in 1877 it was (according to the Leyton Historical Society Website) apparently named for the three Jacobite kings. In happier days it entertained players from the cricket club down the road, and was the home of Leyton Football Club as well as the 'Pride of Leyton Pigeon Club'. At one point it also had a large ornamental garden (nearly 3/4 of an acre) with electrical lighting – which in 1932 was probably quite a sight.

All of which is hard to square with its eventual, lonely fate, for in 2014 its luck ran out, and having survived two world wars, and doubtless any amounts of bar fights, pub-rock gigs and dodgy discos (plus a fire in a shish cafe, naturally) property developers stepped in to do the job the Luftwaffe couldn't – demolishing it to make way for the inevitable, monolithic block, of one, two and three bed flats.

I'm a bit saddened by this for a few reasons:

One – The loss of building of note. When it comes to large buildings, Leyton doesn't exactly suffer from an embarrassment of riches, so why rub out the bits you have? I confess I don't know the exact stream of bureaucratic logic that saw it's oblivion rubber-stamped, but its casual demolition is bothersome nonetheless. The building that replaces it (viewable here) is fine, I guess, and sure as hell replaces some worn out crap, such as the empty car lot on the corner of Hainult Road, but this feels a little like chucking out the baby with the bathwater.

Two – The disappearance of history. True, it wasn't where the Magna Carta was drawn up, and I don't think Mary Queen of Scots ever slept there, but if you hunt about there are some fascinating facts related to its past (e.g.: it used to function as a coaching house, and in the early 19th century coaches would depart from there every two hours for London). With the absence of the location to anchor that in people's memory, it will just disappear like beers – OK, tears – in the rain.

Three – With the recent closure of the Antelope a mile or so away, there are now no pubs in central Leyton. Zip. Zero. All gone, closed (or converted into flats). Hands up, I will confess I was hoping for a boozer near where I live, and that was the best bet. No chance now. There's simply not a building of that scale that could accommodate a sizeable bar in the area (and let's face it, the last time anyone built a pub was probably in the 70s).

These are tough times for pubs, but – for those that appreciate them – they can still give an area a sense of community and place – a common space where you can go and whittle away time, hopefully enjoyably (and without getting glassed). True, London as a whole is crying out for housing stock, but Leyton specifically needs more in the way of infrastructure and amenities, such as shops, restaurants and – hey – pubs.

Because the irony is, I guess, that the arrival of the new development (Bellway Homes 'The Exchange') and ultimately, residents, might have generated enough trade to make it worth someone's while opening a pub there, which can obviously never happen now. In other parts of East London, long shut pubs have reopened as craft alehouses to success, and who knows, maybe the same could have worked here? I guess we'll never know. And sadly, in the here and now, no-one really cared anyway.

I suppose I should deal with it, anyway. Cities change all the time, in matters beyond our control or in ways we don't like. Especially so in London.

Still, next time you're walking past the four-storey modernist lego brick that has replaced it, perhaps imagine the clink of glasses on a Summers evening, and imagine what might have been, again.