The Birth of the Shirker’s

Last year, during the long winter lockdown, I set about photographing pubs within an hour’s walk of my house – one each day, for one hundred days. Partly for the exercise and partly, I think, just to check they were all still there. 

When pubs cry

And there they were, shuttered but defiant, and my heart was filled with love for them. A dangerous but thrilling thought pressed itself into my mind. Is it time to give something back to society and open a pub? Like most of my thoughts, it might have died a quick death on the wing, like a boozed-up butterfly, if I hadn’t happened to mention it to Pompey Dunc.

Pompey is different to many of us. He’s a do-er, an achiever. He may not want to be, but he is. He gets up before nine. He rings people up. He once confided in me that he enjoys filling out forms (which would later come back to haunt him).

Having previously tired of our insane demands when discussing the possibility of a Deserter bar – bring your own booze, free marijuana, that sort of thing – perhaps he discerned something different in me this time. Something approaching determination in my otherwise whimsical gaze. Anyway, the next day he sent me four potential premises for us to view. And almost before I knew it, we were off. 

On forms

My Deserter colleague, Dirty South, took a different view when I asked if he was interested in joining us on this mad and exciting pub project.

‘To be honest, I see myself as more of an “end user”,’ he said. I pressed again. ‘Would it be like work?’ he replied.

‘Yes, it will be a bit of work,’ I said, honestly.

‘For that reason, I’m out.’

As Pompey and I visited locations in Camberwell, Walworth, East Dulwich and Loughborough Junction, we also delved a bit deeper into what it might take to open and run a pub. It didn’t make pretty reading and our limitations were quickly exposed.

‘To sum it up,’ said Pompey, having filled out something called a risk matrix, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing and even if we did, we don’t want to do it.’

Enter the Shark

Some years back, inspired by the first ever Deserter Pubcast podcast, four footballing friends had come within three-eighths of a bee’s bollock of opening a micropub in Camberwell, the Camberwell Shark, before a last minute hitch with the landlord saw them obliged to pull out. Quickly getting over their disappointment, they instead took over the Copper Tap in Peckham for a weekend, inviting friends down and encouraging locals to be more adventurous in the beer choices. I’d gone down with the Dentist after a Dulwich game and we’d both been mightily impressed not just with the beer, but with the vibe – like a cross between a pub and a party. 

‘What about the Shark guys?’ said Pompey. ‘Why don’t you see if they’d be interested?’

‘Great idea,’ I said, and went to the bar to refresh our glasses. By the time I got back, Pompey had contacted them. Within days, they were on board – and we had people who knew what they were doing. Or at least, knew more than us. Which was a relief.

When is a shop not a shop?

We found suitable premises, applied for planning, sought a licence and agreed a lease, filling out all manner of the dullest forms you could imagine along the way (thanks Pompey). We downloaded Slack and Xero and Zettle and Zoom – everything I stand against. We had meetings and action points and workstreams. I thought of Dirty South at home with his feet up. 

‘How’s my pub coming along?’ he asked. ‘I need to know because I get quizzed about it every time I go out.’

‘You’re getting there,’ I told him. 

Workstreamers

More fun was setting out what you might call, for want of a less cheesy phrase, ‘our vision’. For inspiration we looked to the micropubs of Kent, and Thanet in particular: The Fez in Margate, The Pub in Ramsgate, The Magnet in Broadstairs. Smaller places that felt intimate when quiet and in which you couldn’t help but chat to new people when busy. A place to meet, drink, chat, read, listen, laugh and lean. And, of course, to drink great beer. A place, in short, where we’d like to go ourselves. But in South London.

Going green

Along the way there were some compromises, sure. Our requirement for a ‘tremendous vista’ became a view across a busy three-lane gyratory (though as it’s one way, if you squint it looks a little bit like a river). With one eye on the pandemic we were also keen on plenty of outside space. We have ended up with the merest sliver of ‘demised curtilage’ out front which we have dubbed the ‘A20 Lounge’. It’s small, but it delivers the street-drinking dream that surely burns within us all. 

We found ourselves a great General Manager, James. We ordered some beer. Work began on building the bar, creating the cellar, installing the lines and decking out the rooms. Real work, by real people. We called in favours from thirsty mates happy to be paid in beer tokens. Onion Pete, the Masini, Big Al, Pip, Rima, Harrie, Cyclo, Gaird… You’ll no doubt find them at the bar in the coming weeks, drinking their well-earned pints. Gradually the place began to resemble a little pub. When we tapped the casks, we had little option but to open. 

Opening time

One of our first visitors was Dirty South himself. 

‘Welcome to my pub!’ he cried, arms aloft. ‘To be honest, I’m tired of explaining I’m not directly involved. When people ask me how the pub’s going now I just say, “Well, I’ve done my bit. Now it’s over to the boys”.’ All glory, no graft. As ever, he’s played a blinder.

Welcome to your pub

So there it is. We have a pub. And, as a bonus, we’ve made new friends on the way, not least James and the Shark boys: Ben, Stockers, Doddsy and Dave. Our new neighbours welcomed us to the ‘the island’ – a reference to our location in the middle of the New Cross one-way system – and our first customer, Erin, runs the coffee shop down the road. The pub is called The Shirker’s Rest and you can find us at the New Cross end of Lewisham Way, opposite Goldsmith’s. Follow us on Twitter, Insta and Facebook. And do drop in for a pint, if only to stop us all going bankrupt.

I’m proud to say – we’re all proud to say – see you down the Shirker’s. 

Shirkers

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Image credits: Welcome to your pub, by Pompey Dunc; Shirkers by Cyclo Dunc. All other photos by the author.