The following article was first published in June/July 2006 issue of London Drinker, the magazine of the CAMRA London Branches.
It is reproduced here with their kind permission…
Reopened for a year now, the oldest pub in Putney is firmly back on the map. Built in 1826 on the site of an old coaching house and blacksmith’s forge, it was licensed to sell beer and cider after the Duke of Wellington’s Beer Act. Being so close to the river, the Waterman’s Arms, as it was then known, was frequented mostly by the Thames Freemen and Lightermen. At the end of the 19th century, it became the Bricklayer’s Arms, with the massive amount of construction taking place in the area due to the extension of the railway line. Builders would meet at the pub to be given work and also to be paid. There were three sections, each with separate doors: one for off-sales, one for the bosses and another where the brickies relaxed.
Readers may remember the pub as it was a century later, the long, cluttered room retaining the historic snob screens all round the bar and the gents’ urinal serving as a customary repository for unwanted bronze coins. An Inntrepreneur tenancy, it had seen better days and, despite offering a choice of real ales, it was losing business. In 2000 it had a makeover, parading as the Putney Brick and with Adnams Broadside and Greene King IPA replacing what was left of the previous beer range, but its owners closed it soon afterwards with a view to sale for redevelopment of the site. Souvenir hunters helped themselves to the sign, the decorations and most of the fittings. The pub was no more, or so people thought then.
Becky runs it now. She takes up the story.
In 2002, the pub was bought at auction by my brother-in-law, John, and sister Helen. Auction room catalogues were crammed full of lovely old pubs deliberately run down and being sold off to property developers to convert to flats or demolish completely. Helen and John had lived in the area most of their lives and did not want this to happen. They loved the quirkiness of the building, the creaky feel of its age and the unpretentious atmosphere which starts to rub off on you the moment you walk in through the door. For about six months they reopened the pub with Taylor’s Landlord and sometimes a guest beer, but the familiar features had gone and so, by then, had the regulars. Instead, for a few years it became the most wonderful family home where they raised their two young sons.
Tragically and unexpectedly Helen died in January 2005, leaving us all completely stunned. John and I decided to reopen the pub immediately to generate income to support the boys, then aged six and seven. I laugh when I think back to it now but, having never even worked behind a bar before, I threw open the doors for business at twelve noon on Boat Race Day. It was phenomenal, terrifying, a pure baptism of fire; but it was also a huge success and we decided to make a real go of it. At first we just opened up at weekends while I wound up my own career but by May we were in full swing.
It’s a tough call in Putney. Surrounded by corporate chains, the Bricklayer’s Arms is a small fish in a very big pond and it has been a day-to-day struggle to survive; taking licensing exams, learning the trade on our feet and getting physically used to the long hours of the hardest work I have ever known. Again I laugh now but it was almost by chance that I discovered that the biggest changes in licensing law to happen to this country since the 1960s was about to come into being last year. Not only did I have to transfer the existing licence to my name but I also had six weeks to familiarise myself with the new law, a twenty-two page monster, and also to make the necessary applications and adjustments that other licensees had had two years to think about. I will be eternally grateful to Sergeant Ian McKenna, then head of licensing at Wandsworth Police Station, for talking me down off the ceiling on several occasions when my stress levels were sliding off the map. He sat patiently with me for hours tutoring me and writing ‘to do’ lists with me – pure comedy sketch.
We are immensely proud of what we have achieved so far in the circumstances and, even on the dark days we’ve had, we fully realise how lucky we are to have this opportunity. Being a free house we can sell what we like, and what we like is Timothy Taylor’s real ale! Family connections with this divine brewery at Knowle Spring in Keighley have enabled us to work closely with their wonderful team. I recently visited them all up there and was treated to an extensive tour by Peter Eels, the head brewer. Step by step he took me through their fascinating brewing process. I shall never forget the smell of those huge vats of Landlord, frothing away like giant shepherd’s pies, nor the thorough tasting session in the cellar afterwards.
Our aim here at the Bricklayer’s Arms is simply to create a really good, independent pub, with pub grub as it should be, (there won’t be an olive oil drizzled sun dried tomato in sight, I promise); real, roaring log fire, friendly service, where the chances are you’ll be served by the people actually running the place; and a cosy and a relaxed atmosphere to escape the rat race. We are a genuine family-run pub – a rare breed nowadays.
We still have a long way to go. Old buildings are expensive to maintain and the down side of our independence of course is that we have no corporate financial backing. However, we’re not that bothered about this because we are passionate about what we’re trying to achieve. There are no plans to rip out the old bar to maximise profits, no plans to bombard our customers with advertising at every level, no plans to replace the oldest shove ha’penny board in Putney and the bar skittles with gambling machines; in short there are no plans to be modernised, sterilised or themed.
Wine bars are great but we detect a bit of a backlash in the air, a hankering for a return to the atmosphere of the real locals’ local, providing a community service at a time when pubs seem to receive nothing but bad publicity. Added to this, John and I, being family and having been through so much together, are absolutely united in striving for a common purpose. We actually genuinely get on with one another and don’t suffer the headaches of hierarchical management structures that can, and often do, destroy perfectly good pubs.
Response from the customers so far has been fantastic. The South West London branch of CAMRA recently met here and gave us the thumbs up, (although I’m surprised some of them could even find their thumbs after the amount of Ram Tam they supped that night). Peter Eels also repaid my visit to Yorkshire by coming in to see if we were serving his beer correctly! It was an experience which frightened me nearly half to death but he also gave us the firm nod of approval, which was a wonderful morale booster.
John and I feel tremendously optimistic about the Bricklayer’s Arms. As word gets out, sales are going up consistently and we know we’re on to something good here. To celebrate our first successful year of business we are offering a pint of Timothy Taylor’s for £2.00 to anyone who brings in a copy of this magazine. We are currently serving Landlord, Golden Best, Best Bitter and Ram Tam. We also have Budvar, Leffe and San Miguel on tap, together with a good selection of wines and spirits.
We’d love to hear your memories of the pub. Feel free to leave us a comment below.