Closed pubs are one of just thousands of things that get Half-life’s goat.
‘So close, yet so far,’ he growled, at another boarded-up boozer. ‘Like a gorgeous trannie.’
I could see he was ruminating over Taxi, a Whitney Houston look-a-like he shared a cell with for his 30th birthday.
‘Let’s do the back door,’ he said, worryingly.
‘Every time a pub closes down, God kills a kitten,’ I said, almost changing the subject.
‘That’s wrong, that,’ he replied, suddenly an expert on memes. ‘It’s, ‘Every time you masturbate…’
‘Every time you masturbate, God closes a pub?’ I’m no divinity scholar but that didn’t sound right to me.
If it is right, there’s been a lot of hand to gland combat in South London in recent years, because pubs are dropping like my flies.
As The Dulwich Raider reported in Pubwatch: Herne Hill & Dulwich, pubs are prime targets for developers, probably because they’re beautiful and people like to be inside them. No problem with that, as long as they open the doors, pour us a pint and let us at their nuts.
Greenwich has suffered a few closures, though still has an embarrassment of licensed riches. Charlton, on the other hand, has endured the loss of the Horse & Groom (now a church), the Thames Barrier Arms (vets) and The Valley (flats), The Victoria (empty) and The Woodman (convenience store). None, I think, are that sorely missed, but the potential loss of The White Swan threatens to alter the very character of Charlton Village.
The White Swan, The Village
The Swan has been a fixture of the village since the 18th Century, when Charlton was still rural. In some respects, Charlton Village hasn’t changed much. It’s still announced by its handsome Jacobean mansion and bound by two nice parks. The church still stands at the village entrance, as it has since 1630. It no longer has a butcher, a baker and a musket maker though and the traffic is now out of all proportion, like Stephen Merchant in Warwick Davis’ trousers.
The Village, the road that constitutes the place, is bookended by two pubs. The Bugle Horn is at one end, the White Swan at the other. Take one bookend away and the Village Tandoori is likely to topple over onto the dentist’s, at least according to my rudimentary calculations.
The White Swan’s owners, Punch Taverns, want to flog it to whoever will develop it into ‘a rare opportunity to buy a flat in an historic blah fucking blah’. They are asking for £950,000, a clear indication that they want to sell it to developers, not a pub landlord. Closing the Swan would presumably then make the Bugle Horn, which they also own, more profitable. Selling it to someone who knows how to run a pub, would do the opposite.
But the locals are fighting back. The Charlton Society persuaded Greenwich Council to declare the Swan an Asset of Community Value and have asked to be considered a potential bidder, giving them six months to find a way to keep the boozes flowing, as they have flowed for over 200 years. This week they held a meeting at the pub to find a way to keep the doors open. If only the government bailed out failing pubs rather than banks, I think we’d all look at politicians more kindly. And, possibly, bankers.
The Swan has struggled for years to shake off a dowdy reputation. An attempt by one manager, Vito, to change the culture with nice coffee and croissants faltered as regulars still opted for lager and crisps. But he did smarten the pub up and Vito is still every bit as passionate about revitalising the place, if he can get his old role back. He even talked of opening a roof terrace; a beautiful, mad, doomed idea.
I have a pathological loathing of meetings, and do everything I can to avoid them, including, but not limited to, not having a job. But I had to overcome my fear of: ‘Could you tell the group something about yourself?’ After all, a pub was in danger.
A group of maybe thirty gathered to talk about how they could save the boozer; a varied crowd from Swan regulars to councillors and Charlton Society members, Development Agency reps to local expectant mothers, neighbourhood pop stars to a young woman who declared: ‘I live in Charlton and drink in Greenwich. I just want to be able to drink in Charlton.’ She had me at ‘drink’.
Crucially, the gang also included several people who have been involved in saving community pubs in the past, including Good Pub Guys from CAMRA, the People’s Pub Partnership and The Pelton Arms. The Pelton dude had a bid of half a mill turned down already. If he were to bring the kind of success to the Swan that he brought to the Pelton, the Bugle Horn would suffer, though the people of Charlton would be dancing in the streets of Charlton.
They formed an action working party to draw up a business plan to raise the £950,000 required to enable them to tell Punch to do one. It’s a heady ambition, but these are serious people. They’re serious about community and serious about pubs. I had to leave the meeting due to Empty Glass, Full Bladder Syndrome. Also, it was a meeting.
That did give me the chance to talk the others in the pub not at the meeting and there was a reminder from one that the community is not just the nice people on the committee; it’s also the fellers shooting pool with a pint of Foster’s that won’t go to meetings. The suggestion was that ‘poshing up’ the place is all very well, but the old crowd have to be a part of its future too.
One of the old crowd said he wouldn’t drink in the village any more if The Swan closed. He’s been a regular for 30 years in a two-pub town and found the Bugle a less tolerant place to newcomers, which he abhorred.
Another told me of the time he got mugged in the village. Well, he called it being mugged. In fact, on the short walk from the pub to his flat, he fell asleep in the church graveyard and when he woke up someone had nicked his curry.
It will take a lot of effort and money to save the pub and even more to turn it round. But the will is there and, with grants, loans and a canny campaign, it can be done, as London’s first cooperatively-owned, The Ivy House can testify. And if they succeed, it will do more than keep a pub going, it could transform Charlton Village to help it realise its potential.
However, after speaking to Paul Russell, the architect involved in the application to demolish it and built flats on it (and a bar) it was ‘never lawfully used as a pub’. That is, it had no permission to be a pub. That is very strange because when I was there it seemed very much like a pub, even down to the serving of an excellent pint from Hop Stuff and a convivial guvnor, Richard.
I was also in it when it was called The Lantern, back when it served the latest pint in Greenwich. Finding the last available pint is a super power of Half-life’s. He can sniff out a late licence like a thirsty truffle hog on a stag night and I was enormously grateful for his twitching liver that night.
Also there has been a pub there on that very site since at least 1843, when it was called, erm, The Old Loyal Britons.
There have been claims of unpaid rent and counter claims that damaging lies had been published to harm the business, the truth of which, I know not. We do know that no decision has been made on whether it can be demolished yet. Our suggestion would be, in order to stop it pretending to be a pub, let it become a real pub, as it was much loved by people who had been lured into it thinking it was one. Then everyone would be happy, apart from those who want to build flats there, who at least could be soothed by a nice pint.
The Thames, Thames Street – closed
Rumours that The Thames might twitch back to life proved to be wildly optimistic, at least in the foreseeable. On the same road as the Britons, in what used to be known as the riverine area, The Thames pub has been closed since the 1990s. It’s occupied by a tenant who is there to protect it from squatters and Half-life. 150 years ago there were ten pubs in this part of Greenwich. Now there are none. We should never let the past win, or take a 10-0 lead.
The Thames is owned by a property company that don’t answer or return calls, but they paid £500k in 2010 for the place, so they’re entitled to do what they like. While it’s still there and looking very pub-like, there’s hope. Could they be waiting for tourist Greenwich to spread sufficiently to reach it, making it viable as a pub again, with rooms upstairs? Or am I just dreaming? About pubs. Again.
Update September 2015: Oh, Merciful Father in Heaven! Or, even Geoff from the Pelton. Thank you, thank you for giving us some good pub news amid a tide of woe. The White Swan has been saved from the ignominy of flatdom and has reopened as a glorious boozer. It even has local wonder brewer, Hop Stuff, providing their house ale. Geoff and his guys really know how to run a pub, taking care of their beer and their customers at the excellent Pelton Arms and Shortlands Tavern. This will do wonders for Charlton Village and we wish them the best of British.
Sadly, we can’t be so optimistic about the Bugle Horn, the other pub in the village. It’s up for sale at £1.25 million (plus VAT) and it also needs a lot of work. So, barring a miracle, this fine old coaching inn is going to the property developers. However, we have just seen one miracle in the village. And with people like Geoff, the Late Knights guys and the Antic Collective around, I’m starting to believe in knights in shining t-shirts.