Tuesday 2 January 2018

The pubs of Mill Hill and why the pub scene is going wrong

January has arrived, we are in the baby days of the New Year. Over the Christmas and New Year period, I visited a far wider range of pubs than I normally would frequent. I hadn't given this much thought until I put on the radio and listened to Robert Elms on BBC London this morning. He mentioned that he's seen seven of his local pubs in Camden Town disappear. He added that most have become "blocks of flats".

It got me thinking about the subject of the "Great British Pub". My first thought was that if a pub isn''t a viable business in Camden Town, then it really is doomed. But was this born out by my experiences in the various pubs I've visited? Over the course of the month, I've been to a whole range. Locally, I've visited four in Mill Hill. These were The Bridge, The Adam and Eve, The Railway and The Three Hammers. All of these I've been visiting regularly since I was a teenager, apart from The Bridge, which has only been open for around 25 years. Mill Hill Broadway is perhaps unique in that it is a High Street with more pubs now than when I was a teenager. There were none then. This was due to a bylaw prohibiting pubs from opening within one mile of The Broadway. This law expired sometime early in the 1980's. Shortly after, Brooks Wine bar opened, that morphed into the Bridge.

Image result for The Bridge pub Mill Hill
The Bridge Tavern
Of all the pubs in Mill Hill, The Bridge is perhaps the only one that I'd consider a proper pub. Food is not served, bar crisps and nuts. The bar staff are on the ball and will ask you if you want another beer, before your current pint is finished. It is the one pub that does what it says on the  tin. If you don't like the look of the Bridge, you probably won't enjoy having a beer there. Since the arrival of Saracens, it has become a big meeting point for fans. It has a jukebox and people go there to drink beer and have a chat with their mates. Situated right next to Marks and Spencers, it probably has the best spot on the Broadway, but is not a pub that caters for the customers of Marks and Spencers. No Capucinno's or frothy Latte's. I am amazed by just how many Mill Hill residents have never even set foot in the establishment. Rumour has it that there have been numerous bids to take it over, all of which have been rejected, as the owner does rather nicely. My main problem with The Bridge is that I still think of it as the record shop. It doesn't have the feeling of a pub.

The Adam and Eve
Then there is the Adam and Eve. This is a vision of how the Pub industry seems to be going. It has pretensions to be a Gastropub. You probably have to pay a pound or two more for a pint than the Bridge, but you have an ambience far more in tune with the Yummy Mummy culture that is slowly taking over Mill Hill. It has a pleasant garden, a decent selection of wines and generally the food is OK.  The staff are by and large teenagers, friendly but often distracted. I quite like the Adam, it is probably the pub I'd choose to meet more well to do friends for a gastroburger and a pint of Buttcombe. It welcomes dogs, so is popular with people doing the Totteridge Valley walk. If you have a strong aversion to dogs, you may not enjoy it, however for many this is a major positive. It is fair to say that it is a better pub than it was 20 years ago, however it has just changed ownership, so we will have to see what the future prings.

The Railway Tavern
The Railway is on the Borders of Mill Hill and Egdware. Across the road is the Harvester (which is in Edgware!). For many years, the Railway was my pub of choice. That all changed when a former landlord was abusive to my wife, when she had a broken leg. I boycotted it for years, long after the said plonker had departed. I occasionally take the hound there for a swift, mid walkies half of lager and a packet of pork scratchings. Many of my friends in the local Motorcycle club meet there and despite the preconceptions of many about the biker community, they are a decent and friendly bunch. The railway isn't a bad pub. It has a jukebox, a pool table and the beer is OK. Would I ever go there if it wasn't on the walkies route? Probably not. In my youth, it was a very middle class establishment. The landlord of old did not like teenagers and was generally miserable and grumpy. His wife was a large, jovial farmers wife type, who spent her life apologising for his rudeness. The barmaids were proper old school and you never waited for more than 30 seconds to be served. The pub is unrecognisable from those days. It has been enlarged on the inside several times, whilst the garden has been decimated and most of what used to be there is housing association flats.

Three Hammers
The Three Hammers
Then we have The Three Hammers. For many years, this was our post five a side football meeting point on a Thursday night. The beer is cheapish, so it is a favoured meet for local teenagers. The service is pretty awful. Disinterested teenagers grunt their way through the evening. Often crisps and nuts are "out of stock".  The menu is full of all the tasty treats you'd expect if you got the pubco accountant to design the menu. The decor has been specifically designed to ensure that there is no atmosphere at all. When closing time comes, the lights are whacked right up, so you feel as unwelcome as possible, to allow the teenagers to trot off to bed. Sadly, I'm old enough to remember when the Hammers was a proper pub, with good bar staff, who you could chat to when it was quiet. They'd know what you drank. The pub had a darts board and a pool table. These additions were doubtless deemed to old school for the design team at Ember Inn's who's idea of a pub customer is someone who wants a bland meal of fish and chips, washed down with weak lager. Yet despite all of this, people still go there. The Hammers should be one of the best pubs in Barnet. It used to host the Mill Hill Jazz club, have a darts team and a constant stream of elderly customers from the Cottage Homes. When Mitchell and Butler took it over and redesigned it, they did everything to make it as bland a venue as possible. It exemplifies everything that is wrong with London pubs. It could be fantastic. It should be a community pub, encouraging local walkers. They should have tasty, simple local fayre on the menu. They should employ bar staff who are on the ball and understand that there is more to the job than grunting and pouring beer (when they feel like it). I understand why accountants feel that teenagers on minimum wage are cost effective, but anyone who has ever frequented a decent boozer knows that there should also be old hands around to show them the ropes. It seems that the modern pubco managers seem to think that customers are to be avoided at all costs and that serving them is far too much of a chore. The old school view was that the managers and landlords should know their customers, network and build communities. This is out of fashion.

Image result for The Rising Sun pub Mill Hill
The Rising Sun
There was one establishment that I didn't mention. The Rising Sun on Highwood Hill. It is a nice enough place, but I no longer consider it to be a pub. It is far more of an Italian restaurant, with an ancillary bar. Better than no pub at all, but not a pub as we know it (ed note: I've been asked to put a little note on this to say that casual drinkers are more than welcome and eating is optional and a fine selection of beers, ciders, wines and spirits are available. It has a pleasant garden and is a nice place for a pint on the Totteridge Valley walk. I do however feel that the primary business is food, hence my comments).

Is there still a market for a proper pub in the suburbs such as Mill Hill. I guess the answer is that no one has really tried. I don't believe that the combination of bored teenagers and faux gastropubs really works. I am sure that pubco accountants everywhere disagree. Personally, I'd like to see switched on bar staff who actually engage with the customers. I'd like to see an end to bland, generic menus and more locally sourced produce. I'd like to see Landlords and managers who talk to customers. And I'd like to see planning laws changed, so greedy developers can't destroy perfectly serviceable pubs, that turn a profit and provide employment, just to turn a quick buck.


Unknown said...

Totally agree here. The Rising Sun, so my Father once imparted to me,was a well known 'pick up' during WW2 for American servicemen who used to frequent it, and was a 'hunting ground' for Noel Coward.
Live Music in the Mill Hill area is practically non-existent, although in the run-up to Christmas two small Music Festivals were held in the Town Square on freezing cold afternoon's.
I was in one of the Band's playing at both these events.
In other Band's I have played at The Railway, The Three Hammers, and The Adam & Eve, but sadly they are now out of the Mill Hill Music scene.

Jevon Ellis said...

Good report Roger..
I think the smoking ban changed pubs... smokers don't like being relegated to second class citizens forced outdoors and this drove many away from pubs - made buying cheaper drinks from the supermarket and staying at home more attractive.. and far fewer non smokers who previously avoided pubs have taken up going to the pub to compensate.. so these days the ones that survive are the ones that make the effort in some other way..whether that is multiscreen sports coverage, restaurant service or things like quizes / karaoke / live music .. open mics are popular with pubs as they bring in punters on an otherwise quiet weekday for less outlay than a whole band.. nothing spectacular but a dripfeed life blood, and when others see a pub looking busy they are more likely to enjoy being there than when its deserted and any of the above helps that. Also like it or lump it there are whole new generations who don't really like alcohol as much as coffee.. and a pub mat well be foolish to not cater for them too - personally i'm teetotal and only visit pubs as a live musician or occasionally to watch another band, but was a smoker when the ban began in 2006, but gave up in 2010. i find drunkards and smokers ugly people i have to endure in order to do what i love!

Zoe said...

Looking back 30 years plus the Production village had three bars. All sold food. One was jazz and was standing room only. In those days the number of pubs were 5 fold that of today.