DD’s 56th Woodford Diary

pubs©Evelyn Rowland

Some South Woodford scribbles from DD, our resident diarist, commentator and observer of all things local

I woke up yesterday morning wondering why I hadn’t got around to celebrating our local pubs in my diary. Today, I took my first steps to remedy this. Some of the personal details may surprise you. Don’t worry: everything has been vetted and approved by Ross, Tommy and Stephen. Huge thanks to them.

“I fell into this, really.” That’s Ross speaking, the manager down at the Railway Bell. “I was a mechanical engineer for nine years. Made redundant. Had to survive! Got a part-time bar job in Leigh-on-Sea. Got on well with the manager. Did the training courses. And here I am! Been here seven years now. Refurbished the whole place. Turned it around. You remember how it was: a bit drab, ‘divey’. But we had the regulars. They were our bread and butter and I insisted that we kept the drinks they were happy with alongside all the new ones. We’ve got over 25 beers on tap now. We’re bedded into the community: we’ve been having regular fundraisers for Macmillan nurses and we are sending surplus food to local care homes and handing out food parcels to struggling families. The Baptist Church is just down the road; Jonathan, the pastor, likes to drop in for a bite to eat with friends. His singers are coming over to perform in our four ‘Beer and Carols’ evenings before Christmas.”

Ross gave me a tour. Everywhere, inside and out: banks of flowers. What used to be a wodge of wasteground at the side has morphed into something of a fairyland for families and small groups wanting to enjoy the general buzzing atmosphere of the pub but with a cluster of alcoves and small tabled areas giving a more intimate feel for a get-together of friends. “You can see we are huge on sport, with screens everywhere.” (Ross was off again.) “People love our menu. It’s a ‘twist’ on pub food. Fish and chips of course, and beef and ale pie, but you can opt for salt and pepper squid or mango and lime chicken tacos. Yes, Covid took its toll. People were building barbecues and bars in their gardens. We expected a long, slow recovery after the inevitable closure, but when we posted an opening date, we were fully booked within two hours. I’ve got a fantastic team of human beings working here. That’s what our customers say!” 

In the evening, I was once more strolling past the Railway Bell. It struck me that anyone outside looking in would certainly wish they, too, were inside. It’s such a ‘happening place’. Perhaps a very few, very old customers fancy they can still hear the old bell ringing out to signal the approach of the next steam train into George Lane station.

“What’s been your career path?” I asked Tommy, the manager at The Cricketers. “Did you dream of running a pub when you were at school?” “It sort of happened. I was working in bars at 18. Loved it. Became a supervisor. Enrolled on the McMullens training programme. When you completed stage five, you were ready to run your own pub. So now, I’m here at The Cricketers! I’ve been here for nine months: so this is my baby!” Tommy is 24. With nose rings and earrings and a rather stunning blond quiff, and the confident upbeat grin of a thoroughly modern young man. Tattoos as well, of course. “This is one I’ve just had done. Yes, it was a bit painful near the wrist.” I mention these details because they were in surprising contrast to his evident appreciation of nostalgia and tradition; his understanding of how pubs used to be; his sensitivity as to the importance of atmosphere and mood ‘down at the local.’ “Pubs are about bringing people together. Checking that they are OK. They’ll go away and come back with a friend. The numbers have increased massively since I arrived. People use pubs for different reasons. Perhaps someone has been bereaved. Lost their other half. Need to talk. I love getting to know people. Sometimes a customer walks in for the first time and does a bit of a double take. What’s this? Carpets everywhere. Light wood panelling on the walls. And a public bar and a lounge bar, just like in the old days.” “I never quite understood about the two bars,” I chipped in. “Were they like the first and second class carriages on the trains?” “Originally, perhaps, and with different prices, but nothing like that now. It’s just part of an old tradition that people enjoy. Customers do tend to eat in the lounge bar. Lots of choice in our new menu. The public bar is a favourite with workers dropping in for a drink on their way home. Yes, cricketers do come in after a game and dog walkers along with their dogs, families enjoying the congenial but peaceful atmosphere. Easy to chat together with no screens or TVs. No live sport. We do have live music at the weekend, tribute acts, singers, different genres. A quiz night on Sunday evenings for the regulars. Open mike on the last Thursday of every month. As for me, no nine to five and close up your laptop and get off home for me! I love it. I want to be here, with my team around me, keeping people happy, bringing in new guests, having a laugh with them. This job becomes your life.”

Stephen made me welcome. He’s the manager at The George. “It’s not the paintings on the wall that make a pub. It’s the staff”. We were well into our conversation by now. Here was someone with experience and long-held convictions. “I’m old-school trained but modern in my way of thinking and open to change.” Stephen (generally known as Steve) has been very familiar with the pub since childhood, growing up in Leytonstone and going to Trinity High in Woodford Green. He’s been at The George for 17 years. “I took a degree in Computer Science working part-time in bars. Well, I had to pay for my degree somehow!” Now he has a large staff, many of them of long-standing: over 20 bar staff beside the cooks the cleaners etc. When he is away fulfilling his recent additional role of supporting newly appointed managers in other Stonegate pubs, his deputies, Martin and Hazel, take over. The Stonegate Group owns the property, but the branding of each pub is independent. Stephen’s daily routine is hugely varied, but must always include checking the temperature of the beers. “Some of our older guests like it warm. Top of our priorities is keeping everyone happy.” Stephen even had to mug up on drainage when overseeing the upgrade of the spacious and now comfortably-furnished forecourt. “What about food?” “Frankly, food is a subsidiary element in a pub. Yes, we offer good pub grub, but you have massive choice in South Woodford with its vast array of restaurants.” “How did you cope with Covid?” “We all missed our daily routines, serving our guests. Our teamwork. By accident almost, we hit on the idea of doing our shopping in Sainsbury’s at the same time each day. Not as good as eating together in the pub and sharing each day’s events, but a helpful stopgap.”(I couldn’t help enjoying the idea of them synchronising their smart phones, and catching up with each other at the correct distance amongst the tins of baked beans and the washing powders.) “The uncertainty of the changing rules left some of our customers confused in their expectations. They were used to sitting wherever they fancied, without Perspex screens and social distancing. Really, the social cycle was disrupted.” “Have you had many unusual or famous clients?” “Ronnie O’Sullivan has appeared from time to time. He likes to sit in some quiet corner for an unhurried drink, enjoying some peaceful, ‘anonymous’ relaxation. A retired barrister from Snaresbrook Crown Court used to come in very regularly, in his full courtroom kit. He sat at this very table and people came to him with problems. He handed out legal advice and general assistance, like a sort of one-man citizens’ advice bureau, usually in exchange for a glass of wine. Every day is different! That’s a pub for you.”

“What about Christmas Day?” I asked all three.  Railway Bell will be open as usual for drinks and there’s a three-course meal with all the trimmings. Numbers for the meal are limited to 50. Booking essential. The Cricketers will be open from 12 noon to 3pm, drinks only. The George will be open from 11am to 5pm, drinks only.

Ross, Tommy and Stephen: I’ll call them my ‘three wise men’. The gifts they’ve given me? Their time, their thoughts and insights.  Strong individuals, different but sharing the same rich enjoyment in their occupation. People persons. Varied CVs, including assorted qualifications bearing no discernible connection with beer! It’s as if they’ve stumbled into these roles unexpectedly and realised this was their niche. Made-to-measure. Serendipitous is the word that springs to mind. I much enjoyed meeting them.