Sunday, 28 September 2014
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.