Thursday, 22 March 2018

Never go back? A journey through my past ...

Never go back?

A journey through my past ...

Going back to the places that you grew up, the places you used to drink in, the places that hold a degree of significance to you, no matter how trivial they may appear to others, is as much a journey of discovery as rediscovery.

Time is a strange thing. It plays tricks with your mind, clouds your memory, and can leave you doubting your judgment. 

This is a journey that I've wanted to do for some time, a journey through my past, revisiting those pubs and places that meant something to me growing up. Why it took me so long, well I don't really know. Maybe it's because I was worried that some of these places just wouldn't be there anymore, maybe because some of the places I was going to don't have the greatest reputation now, or maybe because it was so personal to me that I was frightened that it would darken the memories of those places that I've kept with me for over twenty years.

Starting out on a bright but chilly Thursday morning, as I boarded the train at Brentwood I realised that even though I knew where I wanted to go I hadn't actually planned a route to take, however as I got closer to Seven Kings station I felt an urge to visit The Cauliflower. It's a pub that was quite a walk from where I used to live but one that was always worth a visit.

The Cauliflower (553 High Road, Ilford), is an imposing late Victorian Gin Palace built in the Flemish style around the year 1900. It is on the site of a much older pub, as many are, and that was built on the site of an ancient market and cauliflower patch (so I'm told) hence the name. The rear of the property is clearly visible as you pull into Seven Kings station heading out of London, and it is though that the railway was responsible for its location and grandeur. Originally a hotel, something it may well be again if current plans become reality, it was erected on the site of two railway intersections, of which now only one remains, with the owners gambling that Ilford station would be opened there. This wasn't the case although, in the early part of the twentieth century it was indeed a very high class hotel, one which rivalled those of the West End of London for it's opulence and clientele. For those of you who like such stories, it is told that a ghostly apparition of a drowned local girl appeared at the leaving party for Mr and Mrs Hart and their daughter Eva, that was held there prior to their emigration to Canada in 1912, warning them not to take the trip. This disturbed many of the guest but Mr Hart dismissed it as nonsense. Two weeks later Mr Hart lost his life when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, although Mrs Hart and their daughter Eva, who has a Weatherspoon pub named after her in nearby Chadwell Heath, survived.

Later in its life The Cauliflower found fame as an acclaimed music venue, with bands such as the Small Faces, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the Inspiral Carpets having performed there. It was for music that we used to meet there too, and I have fond memories of time spent both inside the pub and drinking outside in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a particularly fine cover band that, in my head at least, always seemed to be playing "Big Area" by Then Jericho.

Sadly, on this particular morning I'm too early and the pub is not yet open. Peering through the window I get a sense that it hasn't changed a great deal, but I what I really wanted was a sense of what The Cauliflower was, and what it was to me. This isn't to be on this occasion, and so I make my way down South Park Drive towards Barking, and in particular Faircross, the place I was born and where I grew up.

The walk is actually shorter than I remember and the road hasn't changed much, although the old Redbridge Health Centre is now closed and derelict, a crumbling monument to NHS health cuts and centralisation. Just beyond that is the back entrance to Barking Park, and as I round the corner I see the familiar tower of The Royal Oak pub, a local landmark and one that brings on a wave of nostalgia.

The Royal Oak (201-203 Longbridge Road, Barking) known locally as the Fly House, possibly due to it's use by day-trippers visiting the nearby park by pony and trap, or flys as they were known, and in my lifetime had a large representation of a fly on its strange mediaeval fairy tale-like tower. It dates from around 1867, although some argue later, and is one of many buildings in the area listed as being of special architectural interest. It was originally a cottage that was not included in the acquisition of land by Barking Council in order to build both the park and the school, a strategic corner spot, and its conversion to a pub and subsequent rebuilding meant that it could take advantage of the passing trade.

This was the nearest pub to me when I grew up although not one that I often frequented when I first started making my tentative forays into that world. This was mainly due to many of my friends living nearer to Romford, making the pubs of either there or Chadwell Heath preferred venues. I do however have some interesting recollections of the place.

I remember visiting there on Christmas day with local friends and family when I was old enough to do so, and on one occasion having so much to drink that I had to excuse myself from Christmas dinner and retired to my room to sleep the rest of the afternoon away. I also remember the toilets, in particular the strange off yellow of the cistern, pitted with brown stains caused by parked cigarettes or other nefarious activities. In later years, after I had moved away from the area, the bank opposite (now closed and empty) was the first branch that I actually managed. I would leave the building at lunchtime, light a cigarette in the porch and walk across the road where my pint of Castlemaine XXXX would be waiting for me on the bar, regular as clockwork. They used to have regular outing to Ascot every year too, and get dressed up in their finery ready to board the coach as I'd be opening up in the morning.

This, however is another pub that I'm not destined to get inside of today. As I pass I notice a man furtively disappearing into the side entrance, but as I try to follow the door is locked from the inside. Walking round to the front I have no joy there, and although the opening times state 11-11 and it's now half past, I have no choice but to continue my journey.

Walking into town, beyond Barking Park, I'm struck not just by how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same. The shop fronts are different of course, mobile phone stores, vape shops and fried chicken outlets have replaced the toy shops, book shops and record stores of my youth, but the streets are still familiar, and although the people are different they walk the same streets that I once did, know the same routes, the same short cuts and dead ends, and recognise the same landmarks that I now see again with my slightly jaded eyes.

Just before the station are two pubs separated by a narrow road. I'll be going in The Spotted Dog a little later, but not the Barking Dog. It's a Weatherspoons outlet, and despite being Good Beer Guide listed it didn't exist as a pub when I was living in the area so hold no interest for me.

Going past another former branch I worked in, now a large betting shop, I make my way up East Street turning before right before what used to be the The Stag pub, now an open space, and make my way along Axe Street to The Victoria.

Dating from 1871, The Victoria (Axe Street, Barking) was rebuilt in 1961 in order to modernise it for the nearby Gascoigne Estate. It's a Brakspear's pub now, a subsidiary of the Marston's estate, and this two bar local has a very successful darts and quiz team according to its website. My father used to go here on a Thursday evening after bell ringing practice at nearby St Margaret's church, and when I was old enough I would occasionally go there too, although only when my younger brother wasn't with us. I don't remember much about it, only that they used to have a seemingly endless whip, or kitty as they called it, a pouch that was brought out every Thursday with their beer money in it. It therefore wasn't a major part of my formative years, so I take picture and pass by with a nod to those who I used to my fellow campanologists who are no longer with us.

The Barge Aground (15 The Broadway, Barking) is a pub that I did want to visit and just around the corner to The Victoria, but this is now a Romanian restaurant called Tarancuta. The previous Barge Aground used to be situated on the opposite side of the road, on the approach of shops that led up to the Curfew Tower gateway to both St Margaret's church and Barking Abbey (a real abbey this time, from which the school by The Royal Oak gets its name) before being demolished in the 1960s. In his introduction to Barking Pubs Past and Present by Tony Clifford, Billy Bragg, a local lad whose family were in the licensed trade in the area for generations, claims to have proudly sunk a pint or two on its former site. The name itself comes from Barking's heritage as a fishing port, having once boasted an incredible 220 boats, or smacks as they were known, by the 1850s before falling into decline, and Captain James Cook himself was married in St Margaret's, having met a local girl in the area on a visit. His marriage certificate used to be kept in the vestry when I used to go there but I gather it's somewhere far more secure now.

Just along from the Barge Aground and opposite St Margaret's Church of England Primary, my first school, is The Bull (2 North Street, Barking) .

Always an imposing building, I used to watch men stagger out of there on a Friday afternoon while I waited for my bus home, which was also the first time I remember hearing swearing in anger for the first time rather than just naughty words to be shared in the playground. Roger Protz, the eminent beer writer, was also familiar with The Bull, and I recall him mentioning that he used to walk down there with his father from nearby East Ham where he grew up, and it was one of his earliest experiences of beer and drinking.

The Bull though is no longer a pub, and although it retains its familiar exterior it is now a nightclub called The Kings Bull. After a long look, and a quick walk around the churchyard and abbey grounds, I move on.

The town centre is now pedestrianised and hosts a market selling everything from halal meat to hair extensions. It's busy on this Thursday lunchtime but I make my way through, past the station to The Spotted Dog, and for my first beer of the day.

The Spotted Dog Hotel (15 Longbridge Road, Barking), for it was that once, was built in 1870, and modernised throughout the early 20th Century. Legend has it that during some early building work tunnels were found thought to be used by contraband smugglers, and it is another pub that is reputedly haunted. Figures of both a young girl and young boy have been reported by staff after closing time, both fading to nothing after they were approached. It was also popular with signalmenn from Barking station, possibly sneaking a quick pint between shifts.

This is where I came on my 18th birthday with my friends, the landlord congratulating me somewhat ironically as birthday cards appeared on the table as I'd been drinking here for a year or two before. There was sawdust on the floor then, and we came for the Davy's Old Wallop, which was apparently Courage Directors with some added caramel, and served in all Davy's Wine Lodges at the time, or so I'm led to believe. I also meet my wife here after work on a Friday night when I worked locally as it was a great meeting point for teachers in the Borough after a week in the classroom.

The interior hasn't changed much, but there seems to be more space as if it's been opened up a bit, with less tables and no sawdust on the floor anymore. The big barrels of Port which used to be above the bar are gone, but the landlady points out some that remain by the old clock (the original clock I'm told) and I gladly take a few pictures. There's no more Old Wallop either, and the solitary handpump dispenses Doom Bar now, but I plump for a tasty Pilsner Urquell to quench my thirst, the Kozel (my first choice) being off for the moment.

The pub is inhabited uniformly by middle aged white men this lunchtime, either on their own or in pairs, quietly drinking, for the most part, mainly at the bar, discussing recent events in their lives. The piped music I found intrusive, although no-one else seemed to mind it, and big screen televisions constantly advertised upcoming sporting events, but I found it both welcoming and relaxing. Well, maybe not relaxing, the music saw to that, but I was able to enjoy my pint before moving on.

As I was going I had another brief chat with the landlady who asked I remembered the Jolly Fisherman (108 North Street, Barking) on the Harts Lane estate. It wasn't a pub I used to drink in, I do recall going in there once or twice and it did used to be a Good Beer Guide pub back in 1998 (I've checked the listing and it's in there) so I decide to make a quick detour.

When I get there though windows are covered with blackout curtains, never an inviting sign, so on this occasion I decide to give it a miss.

I go back to Barking Station to catch the bus to Ilford via the old Red Lion (38 George Street, Barking) but this appears to be student accommodation now. The sky is darkening and rain threatens as I wait at the bus stop, and as I board I realise that it didn't make it to The Britannia (1 Church Road, Barking). I used to go there for a pint or two of Youngs Bitter, or Ordinary as it was known, and it used to be a popular music venue in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, but I later learn it has closed. A real shame.

The journey along Ilford Lane is long and tortuous, mainly due to the number of cars double parked but I eventually arrive at Ilford station and stop to take in my surroundings.

I used to come here a lot as a boy, my great uncle had a haberdashery and clothing shop in Manor Park and we used to meet here for lunch. I also worked here for a while, but even though there are pubs here that I went to, I don't look back on any of those visits fondly, they were just places to go and have a couple of beers after work. Nothing more than that.

Romford is only four stops on the train, so I decide to catch that as I have a very particular pub in mind to visit, and another a little further on that always felt like a home from home.

Walking along South Street in Romford, you pass all the familiar town centre drinking dens, the 'pack 'em in and get 'em hammered' places that invariably lead to trouble on a Friday and Saturday evening, earning this town a reputation as a place to avoid late at night. That they all seem to be right next to each other, inviting drinkers to move easily between them, can't help either, but this isn't the end of Romford I'm after. The market place is my destination, and more specifically the pub that sits right on its edge.

The Golden Lion (2 High Street, Romford) or more accurately, The Golden Lion Hotel, can be found in listings going back as early as 1440, although the current building dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. It used to be a coaching in, and the site of the stables can still be seen to the rear of the property.There's a connection with The Cauliflower too, as it was run by a Peter Reynolds between 1867 and 1899 while both his father and younger brother ran the Seven Kings pub at different times.

This pub holds a lot of memories for me, all of them good. As most of my school friends lived this way, from the sixth form and beyond it became a regular meeting place where those who had been away to university could return to on a Friday or Saturday evening knowing that there was a fair chance of bumping into someone you know for a pint and a catch up. There were several birthday parties held here, mainly in the upstairs function suite and bar, but it was Christmas Eve that you were guaranteed a big crowd, and a good half of the drinkers would be ex-St Edwards pupils, with a few staff too. It was on one particular Christmas Eve that I asked Sarah, the woman who would become my wife of nearly twenty years, out on a date for the first time, so you can see why it holds a very special place in my heart.

As I enter through the low doorway I'm pleased to see that things haven't really changed. The Golden Lion is still almost exactly as I remember it, albeit rather less crowded at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon than when I used to come here. I'm told that it still gets very busy in the evenings though, and particularly at the weekends. It's a Greene King pub now, with a respectable menu, and whilst there has been some modernisation, most noticeably a new bar top, and a partition may have been taken down, as well as a slight widening of an internal doorway, it's still very much as I remember it. The beer range is from Greene King of course, but seeing that they have Theakston's Old Peculiar on cask I settle down by the door with a half of that. Looking around I see that there's a very mixed crowd, usually a sign of a thriving pub, made up of people meeting for an afternoon chat away from the hustle and bustle of the market place and shopping centre, whilst young families are finishing of their lunch. The barman walks past me carrying two plates of curry for a nearby table and asks me how my beer is. "It's nice enough", I tell him, and he smiles and carries on.

There's piped music, but it's not intrusive, and I 'm reminded of the time we put the whole of Flood by They Might Be Giants on the juke box (sadly gone), which didn't go down particularly well that evening. I don't think it lasted more than three songs before being turned off. We protested, of course, but it made little difference and the landlord was unmoved by our tongue in cheek pleas for its restoration or our money back.

I find the gentle buzz of conversation around me rather soothing as I sit and write, but, pleasant as it is, there's nothing really to keep me here for another drink so, after making a pretence of going to the toilets (vastly upgraded from those I remember, but strangely with the wash hand basin in a separate room) to see if the back of the pub is still as I recall (it is), I make my way back and out through that low doorway (mind the step) and out into the sunshine.

Rather than turning left and heading off in the direction of the final pub on my journey, I decide to turn right instead, towards what is left of the old Romford Brewery.

This takes me past The Bitter End (15 High Street, Romford), almost opposite The Golden Lion. Now permanently closed after a fire on Boxing Day 2015, it has been through many incarnations, and at one time it was a pub I preferred to The Golden Lion. This was when the name changed to Clutterbuck's in the late 1990s and the range of cask beer surpassed any found in the area. Beers from the likes of Butterknowle, King and Barnes and Timothy Chudleigh, breweries that have now all closed, could be found on the hand pumps, as well as a host of others. There was a bar billiards table too, and I used to look forward to arriving there, just to see what was on.

After this it became the Ford and Firkin, brewing on the site, although it was never quite the same as Clutterbuck's it was still a destination pub for good beer. This was under the ownership of Allied Domecq, who had acquired the brand in 1991, however after a few years this was sold on, the brewing equipment was sold, the range of beer was replaced by bland national lager and its name reverted back to The Bitter End. I never went there again.

Similarly the Romford Brewery buildings that remain are a sad shadow of their former selves. Formerly The Star Brewery, founded in 1708 on what the then the main road to London, it was bought in 1799 by Edward Ind, becoming part of Ind Coope in 1845. With the coming of the railway along the rear of the site in 1839, it was able to expand considerably, covering 20 acres and employing over 1000 workers.

Brewing on the site stopped in the early 1990s, and the brewery itself was closed and mostly demolished in 1993 with the brewing equipment shipped to China, converting the site to a car park and shopping centre called The Brewery. Two large copper brewing kettles mark the entrance from the road, reminding shoppers of its heritage, and only the offices remain of the buildings where John Bull Bitter and Double Diamond (along with Castlemaine XXXX) were once brewed. Part of this is devoted to the Havering Museum, somewhere I'll visit another day, but I head back to the market place noticing a strange triangle hammered into the kerbstone (graffiti by a Bass lover perhaps), remembering the smell of brewing that used to hang in the air over the town, now just a memory but once smelled never forgotten.

The Lamb (5 Market Place, Romford) originally dates from around 1681, but was burnt down and rebuilt in 1852. Briefly renamed Mulligans in 2013 by its then owner Richard Willis, who also owned the Romford Snooker Club, hoping to capitalise on the large Irish community in the area, it was subsequently bought by Greene King and reverted to its former name. Once hosting a venue for folk music on its first floor, something I remember from my occasional visits, it's not a pub I particularly hold dear to my heart, and the crowd of leisure suit clad smokers in the doorway and weaving mobility scooters give me cause to carry on walking to the top of the market.

On my right is The Bull (74-76 Market Place, Romford), an imposing building and local landmark in the very heart of the market place. rebuilt sometime in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was once a large three storey building with an even more commanding presence that it holds now.

My particular memories of The Bull were as an occasional stop in the market place on my way through, or as a loud music venue on a Friday evening when it had a resident DJ. Neither of which cause me to linger, so I continue through and under the roundabout at the top via the subway, emerging onto Main Road heading to my final destination.

The walk up Main Road, much as the walk down South Park Drive, is shorter than I remember, and the sun comes out encouraging me to quicken my pace. Lodge Farm Park come up on my right, with the larger Raphaels Park (pronounced locally as Rayfields) across on the other side of the road. Up the slight hill and round a bend in the road and I'm in Gidea Park, greeted by three pubs; The Archers on my side, whislt opposite that The Unicorn, now known only as the Harvester, and a little further along The Ship. It's the last of these I'm aiming for so I cross the road by the newly opened Gidea Park Micropub (a post for another time) and make my way to The Ship.

From ever since I first went there I fell in love with The Ship (93 Main Road, Romford). It's the kind of pub you immediately feel at ease when you enter and even though it must be at least 15 years since I crossed its threshold, today is no exception.

The pub dates back to 1762, and it's still the original building, little changed in all that time. Once reputed to have its own brewhouse, some structural alterations were carried out in 1950 revealing an additional large brick fireplace and exposing the original structural timbers that can still be seen today. The bay windows at the front had to be removed when dry rot was found in the surrounds, but they were rebuilt in exactly the same fashion in order that their character be preserved.

Once upon a time I'd walk though the doors and Dave the barman would be pouring me a pint of Courage Best, having seen me walk past the leaded windows. This rather impressed my father the first time I brought him here, but that was many years after my first visit when Dereck, the landlord at the time used to hold court in the main bar. I'm told by the current owners, who purchased the pub in 2007, that he still comes in from time to time, but not today sadly.

I met my wife properly in this pub. I'd known her from school, she was a few years below me, but I used to come here, a 40 minute journey on the 87 bus, because it was a proper pub. It felt like home from home, and it still does.

The beer range is better now. The Courage Best and Directors are gone, replaced by 5 cask beers now, including Brentwood Gold from just up the A12, but I opt for a half of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, and it tastes great. It's a Good Beer Guide listed pub now, and has been for the last few years and rightly so, and it's something that the owners are justly proud of. It should have been when I was younger, the beer, though limited, was always impeccably kept, but I didn't care about such things then, it was always for the company and the atmosphere. There was a weekly quiz night on a Thursday, and I'm told there still is, and it was to The Ship I came after coming out of hospital after an operation for bladder stones. Though the pain was unbearable, it didn't stop me having a drink with my friends.

As I sit by the very window that Dave used to spot me through all those years ago I have to wonder why its been so long since I've been back. A dwindling fire adds a smoky smell to proceedings, and even though I can hear music playing in the background it's a local radio station, and only on the edge of my hearing. I suddenly feel that like it's twenty years ago and I know I need to bring Sarah back here very soon. She'd love it.

It is essentially a three room pub, with a portioned snug, a larger but still small bar area, and a larger main room, although this is all relative, The Ship isn't a big pub by any means. Late on a Thursday afternoon it has a mix of what appear to be locals. An elderly man opposite me nurses a bottle of Budweiser while his dry cleaning hangs from one of the large barrels that serves as a table. I can see a middle- aged couple chatting in the snug, both to each other and the bar staff, whilst in the main room I can hear, but not see, agreeable noise and chit chat. A woman pops in to enquire about drinks after a funeral, then another asks about live music, which does happen here she is told. The fire is stoked, a couple leave, and I go back to my Landlord. I'm in a good place and start wishing that I could stay here for the rest of the evening.

This is not the case though, and all too soon it's time to leave.

As I walk up to Gidea Park station and my train home I reflect on my journey, the places I've been and the emotions I've felt. Clouded by nostalgia, especially considering my final port of call, I nonetheless feel a great warmth and fortunate to have had such good friends and good memories to look back on. It's been a voyage of rediscovery rather than that of discovery though, and whilst time moves on it's comforting to know that some places remain the same.

I used various sources for my research into some of the pubs and places mentioned here, most notably Tony Clifford's Barking Pubs Past And Present published in 1995 by Barking and Dagenham Libraries Department, but also the Ilford Recorder, the Romford Recorder,, and occasionally the websites of the pubs themselves, although disappointingly the majority of them don't offer much in the way of assistance. This has been a labour of love for me, and if you've enjoyed it then perhaps you'd like to take a similar journey yourself, or, if you'd prefer to do mine then I'd be more than happy to show you around. Just make sure you have good walking shoes on.

There are many other pubs in other areas I could have visited that also hold some significance for me. Perhaps I'll do those in the not too distant future.