Tag Archives: Pubs


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.



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I feel like a tourist guide today. Something I hadn’t expected to happen. My French friends, Odile, independent midwife and beautiful intellectual, plus her 15 year old son, the gentle and philosophical Seirigne have come on a flying, unplanned visit to London from Marseille. I admit it, in the past, we (Marlon is with us too) would have gone to Portobello Road with them but now I realise that Harlesden has its own nitty gritty temptations. In a strange way, it is ready for new tourism.

As we walk down Wrottesley Rd, I explain that Harlesden is one of the top ten most deprived areas in the UK. Odile is shocked. “It doesn’t look poor,” she says, “the streets are clean. In Marseille, a poor area is much more run down and dirty. Poverty for me is when there is not a piece of wall free of tags and the public space is destroyed, here I see that it is respected.” Deprived? The translation? Perhaps deprivation in the UK, is more behind closed doors than in France? Not as visible but still as pervasive in terms of lack of education and work opportunities, healthy parenting, balanced diet, work opportunities, facilities for the elderly and mentally ill? How do we define deprivation?

At the end of Park Parade, I point out the Royal Oak pub because it’s (well, the pub but not this building) been here since 1839 according to the Brent archives and from 1855, an omnibus was running from here into London. “On le croyerait pas,” says Odile startled again.  Today, it’s a noisy (in a good way) Irish pub with all manner of live bands that pop over from the home country to entertain the locals.

We look up – like an observational form of yoga, looking up is becoming a practice on these walks. Of course, I’m working on a deeper, more significant relationship with Harlesden – at the Edwardian facades on the High St and a few of them are sprouting buddleia bushes. Known as incredibly effective butterfly attractors in primary school wildlife gardens, this is obviously not what is happening here. “Ah, I can see that here is poor now,” acknowledges Odile.

Meanwhile Seirigne eyes up the Iceland sign with wonderment in his face. Lost in the idea of the country, he doesn’t realise that this is in fact a mundane frozen food-orientated supermarket. Ah, the joys of being innocently French.

Enjoying the notion of this new tourism, I decide to take their photo (with my deliberately non-digital Canon camera) at the Jubilee clock. A few weeks ago, I have to confess that I was shopping down here when I spotted something completely unexpected. Something never seen before by me in Harlesden.  A couple – maybe Eastern European – were taking each other’s photos at this NW10 Victorian landmark. Somehow before this event, it wasn’t possible for me to put tourists and Harlesden in the same sentence. But actually observing this act of tourism, made it possible to imagine it being true. And so, as if to confirm this newly emergent perspective, I record this Marseille/Harlesden (Odile, Seirigne and Marlon) moment on film.

Seirigne wants to see inside a pub. I haven’t quite understood how much Odile wants this to happen. She has been asking if Marlon is going to take Seirigne out, but I didn’t quite get it. I kept saying that Marlon doesn’t really go to pubs. But that wasn’t the point, I’m being a negligent host. “We have nothing like this in France,” she says, “the atmosphere, the decoration, they are so special.”

It’s only 11 30am but I spot someone who looks like an employee standing outside The Shawl, which is at the entrance to the Shopping Plaza. Obviously, Harlesden had pretensions to a future in shopping heaven, when that sign was put up! The Shawl is another Irish pub – there’s a big Guinness sign outside and it’s housed in what looks like an old chapel. The man outside having a cigarette, turns out to be the barman and he kindly invites us in.

Inside – it’s incredible. An ocean of football scarves, flags (Cork is a clue)  and photos everywhere of the customers in full-on party mode. Mad hats, big smiles, lots of booze. And more photos of Ireland – the land that they’ve never left. “You wouldn’t believe how crazy it gets in here,” says the barman. I would. I would. The gaudily patterned carpet reverberates with the thousands of pints of Guinness that it has absorbed. One jolly elderly customer (there is only one) enquires if I would like to pole dance for him. Ah, my first pole dancing request of the day!

We pass one of the many fish shops – I have an unproven theory that Harlesden has the most fresh fish shops within a square mile in the UK – and there are razor fish piled up, still in those barberesque shells. We stare in amazement. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live one before, but I remember the shells from childhood holidays at Lytham St Ann’s in Lancashire. And then, (to continue the holiday sidetrack) as if part of a Blackpool sideshow circa 1962, the male assistant gives them a provocative tickle. They wriggle in a most erotic way. Or as Odile put it afterwards in an email – “A young man mocks us in exciting a razor fish leading to a very suggestive movement.” Quite.

Another rude display of fish stops us in our tracks a little further on. Mackerel, barracuda, spine fish  – smoked and wierd. Fascinating but also uninviting. “It looks like a Soutine painting. The fish are flat and exposed without a trace of decency, their interiors are cut open, ” writes Odile. And spices, spices, so many spices. This fish shop manager is layered in sweatshirts against the bitter fridge cold as well as the chilly weather. He is surprisingly keen to enchant us with his fish. Michael Brown tells us he comes from Kenya, but he’s been here for 40 years. I’ll have to come back and find out more.

We look up again this time at the contrasts in architecture – the crazy 60s ugliness of Library Parade with all its linear shop fronts and falling apartness, set against the soon-to-be-re-opened Edwardian Library with all its old curves. I try to blame le Corbusier for the ugliness. Odile agrees that philosophically he is responsible. We laugh.

I point out – back in my tour leader role – that the RBS is housed the Greek revival (those pillars!) former National Bank. There’s even a plaque on the side declaring it opened on 17th July 1882 (just before the Blackpool Tower –continuing the leitmotif, I’ve just come back). Not to mention, the gargoyle type faces in the upper half. It looks out of place here.  Like a gathering of garden gnomes have landed on the Acropolis.

There are hotels in Craven Park Road called things like The Hollingbury Hotel and Helen’s Hotel. This is tourist information that this tour leader is ignorant of. Until now. It’s another new tourism moment. Who stays at them? Why do they come to Harlesden? Marlon has an answer. “People who are coming to Wembley to see the football,” he says. Stupidly, I’d never thought of that.

We stand and look down Hillside, it’s a dramatically changed landscape. We’re looking onto Stonebridge. The notorious Stonebridge estate. Gun crime – between 1999 and 2002, there were 24 people were shot here, 12 died – crack cocaine, and poverty. This is where the area turned into the Bronx. Gangs of young men, mostly young British black men, out of control. Convinced that the ‘easy’ money from selling drugs was the way to go. The escape from deprivation. The worship of Mammon beamed down from the banks and from Parliament to the estates.

In 2009, 26 year old Shawn Callum was shot outside the Stonebridge Primary School, at a private party one Saturday night in February. He was leaving and was shot in the back at 2am.  His friends say he had no direct connection with the gangs or the drugs. He was a beautiful-looking young man who was also a father. His only ‘crime’ may have been to have a cousin who was connected to the drugs and gang world. On such absurdities, turn life and death here. But is this culture changing with the family-friendly new architecture?

“There used to be six tower blocks here,” says Marlon who has taken over as tour leader, “but now almost all of them have been knocked down and replaced with low-rise housing.” It’s been a £225 million project which has happened over the last decade – the go ahead was given early in the New Labour reign and is now almost complete. The deluded idealism of the 60s has been bulldozed by the knowing pragmatism of the noughties.

“I’m amazed,” says Odile, “this is not happening in France in fact. You are ahead of us. We still have high-rise social housing, which is cut off from the rest of society. It’s very bad, very divisive. I am interested to hear whether this new housing has had an effect on the gun, drugs and gang culture?” Me too.


According to Longman’s Contemporary English Dictionary, deprivation means the lack of something that you need in order to be healthy, comfortable and happy.

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