There are a couple of asides to this tale. Firstly, a minor miracle that happened to me last week. I was in a rush. I went to the Santander cash machine, performed the usual card thing, and crossed Manor Park Road to go home. Three minutes later, it dawned on me that I’d left the cash behind. YES! LEFT THE CASH LYING THERE READY TO BE PICKED UP BY ALL AND SUNDRY. I didn’t even have time to panic. I turned back and there was a woman with a huge smile approaching me with £40 in her hands. Gasps all round. Of thanks and incredulity. A singular act of doing the right thing. In Harlesden. I glowed for the rest of the day.
The second aside is more apposite to the story. I invited Malcolm Barres-Baker, a rather grand, booming gentleman from Brent Archives to look at pubs with me. He’s rather charmingly of another era. When manners and politesse were uppermost in the ‘English’ way of being. Anyway, Malcolm – this is typical, I’m sure – sent me a tract from the nineteenth century author, Arthur Machen’s supernatural short story, The Inmost Light, written in 1894, to read beforehand. Because it mentions Harlesden. Oh, what an arcane delight this is.
Of course, at the time, Harlesden was in fact a prosperous middle-class suburb, so it’s slightly shocking to read Machen as he points out its less salubrious side. “A place of no character,” he writes caustically, “it’s too new to have any character as yet. There are rows of red houses and rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you’re going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away.”
Dear me! He goes on to describe Harlesden as “like a city of the dead”. Even at midday. The polar opposite is true now, of course. It’s hard to think of anywhere more animated. And I forgot, Machen goes on to set the scene for a certain Dr Black who was suspected of murdering his wife. “I dare say that you have never heard of the Harlesden case?” No, I hadn’t either.
Malcolm Barres-Baker and I had arranged to meet inside the Royal Oak. I’ve only been inside once before. Searching for an alcoholic boyfriend who had escaped from my alcohol-free home to pursue his own vision of how life should be. It was 5pm and this charismatic drunk was on a bender. His focus on beer was unwavering. I couldn’t persuade him to leave.
Today, Malcolm is already ensconced with his half pint, and his archive photos.There’s a great, quite well-known (it adorns the cover of Traditional Pubs of Brent by Cliff Wadsworth) photo of The Royal Oak Tavern and Railway Hotel (as it was known then) circa 1880 (but there was a building here before as long ago as 1757) when it was a two storey building with Venetian blinds and a huge, classy gaslight outside, there’s a horse and cart delivery in mid-action. The pub looks distinctly posh. Today’s building is a 1892 re-build. “The irony is,” says Malcolm, “the older pub looks more modern.” Now with its baroque-style – in other words, its got lots of fiddly architectural bits – 4 storeys, and red brick, there are always Irish bands playing there, but at 2pm today, it’s a little bit sad in here. Drinkers who’ve seen better days. Health-wise.
Just how upscale Harlesden was in 1900, Malcolm illustrates with a photo of a garden party in Roundwood Park showing the women in flouncy long dresses and the men in top hats and tails.
He also mentions the ‘original’ (ie 1892) tiles in the hallway, so we venture out there to admire the scene – a Parliamentarian trooper hunting for King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles hid in an oak tree, hence the name Royal Oark (see first picture) enshrined in these colourfully painted ceramics. “They’re excellent quality,” intones Malcolm in his own unmistakable way. Posh too.
On the subject of ‘poshness’, Malcolm remarks that there are oodles of old photos and photo postcards of Harlesden in existence. Many more than Willesden. I’m surprised. I’d always assumed that Willesden was richer than Harlesden because there is so much printed coverage of Willesden. “Harlesden was actually posher than Willesden,” says Malcolm getting into the vernacular.
Ah ha, I really didn’t know that.
And these picture postcards, why are there so many of them? Because the ladies and gents of the area would send them as a way of thanking their recent hosts for tea. “Remember in those days,” says Malcolm, “you could send a card in the morning and it would arrive in the afternoon, there were two post deliveries a day.” Postcards, letters – they were the texts ‘de leurs jours’. Instantly, I want to re-create the sending of postcards and letters in this way. The romance of the postal delivery. And, of course, there were no phones.
Before stepping out on to the High Street – which is rather a daylight shock for Malcolm who is used to being hidden away in bookish archives – we discuss the contemporary( this being entirely the wrong word for the Royal Oak style) open plan bar. “In many ways, it’s not helping pub trade,” says Malcolm, “because before with a public bar and a lounge one, at least pubs could attract different sorts of drinkers. These days, it’s all-in-one and much more limited.”
We stare up at the sign outside. “What’s wrong with that?” says Malcolm who has a degree in history, and a post-degree in Greek classical archeology. I haven’t a clue. “Well, they’ve put an image of Charles I in the middle of the oak tree, when the king who is remembered for hiding in an oak tree is Charles II.”
We appreciate the mosaic of an oak tree on the side of the building. All gold and green – it is artfully constructed and also from 1892. Looking up is a vital constituent of urban anthropology. “Gladstone said always travel upstairs on a bus if you really want to see London,” says Malcolm helpfully.
This block of buildings including this version of the Green Man – the first one was built before 1778 and was a useful stopping place for stage coaches on their way from Harrow to the City of London – was constructed in 1907. And is pseudo-Dutch. Which I’ve never noticed before. The Green Man has curved gables and even a turret at the side. Malcolm is keen on the architecture and distinctly excited at the turret which he didn’t notice on the plans.
But why Dutch? “It’s in a style called Anglo-Dutch, or sometimes ‘Pont Street Dutch’,” he explains. “Starting in the 1870s, some young British architects wanted to break free from the competing Classical and Gothic styles. They began imitating late seventeenth and early eighteenth century domestic architecture, which in some cases was strongly influenced by the Low Countries, partly because King William III was Dutch. This Anglo-Dutch and pseudo-Queen Anne style was very popular around the time the pub was built. It also turns up in Australia, where it’s called Federation Anglo-Dutch because it was popular around 1901, when Australia became a single Commonwealth.”
Now, the Green Man has become the Portuguese Bi-cafe. Another take over. Or rather a flow from English pubdom to Portuguese eating and drinking location. In the incessant wave of building-use changes.
He stares across the road and declares that the various Somali shops over there had once been a pub too. The Elm Tree. I’m astonished. Again, I hadn’t realised there had ever been a pub there. Afterwards, I find a photo of it, and the building looks Edwardian.
We walk back along the High Street and Malcolm points out a blue sign on the buildings opposite Iceland, it says You May Telephone Here. Not any longer, of course.
We arrive at the newly refurbished Way 2 Save (so much better and cheaper than Tesco’s) and focus our attention on the other side of the road. “A pub called the Anchor & Cable used to be there,” says Malcolm forever flummoxing me with new information, “which existed in 1670 and it was rebuilt in 1888 and called The Crown.” This building has flounces and flourishes, it almost thinks it’s in a gothic horror story. The more I look at it, the more I see. Additions. Balustrades, terracotta rosettes, grotesque heads, mock tudor black stripes. There’s quite a lot going on. Earlier during archive picture time, Malcolm has shown me a photo of the trade token used at the original pub. “There wasn’t enough small change in 17th century England so tokens helped,” he explained. “On the back you can see the initials of the husband and wife who ran it.”
The last word has to go to the incisive words of Cliff Wadsworth – local history supremo – he writes –’ in the 1990s, the Crown suffered on of the worst examples of re-naming: someone felt it would do better under the title The Rat And Carrot’. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.