Last orders no more

Clerkenwell boasts some of London’s finest bars and pubs, with a history going back many centuries – but the effects of Covid-19 have had a dramatic and damaging effect on them

By Chris Walkers

From Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden dating back to 1546, to the Fox and Anchor in Smithfield that opens at 7am to serve the meat workers (it used to open from 4am), to Lenin’s favourite The Crown and Anchor, Clerkenwell pubs have always had a good story to tell. The heyday of the Clerkenwell pub was the late 19th century. An 1885 map shows 23 pubs on St John Street alone.

But now many of these institutions face a difficult future. Over the last 20 years, there has been a 35 per cent decrease. And then along comes Covid-19 and this ‘unprecedented’ lockdown.

All may not be lost, however. An unexpected and positive outcome of the pandemic has been a resurgence in localism and a sense of communities coming together. It’s too early to make any firm predictions, but this spirit may offer a glimmer of hope to our local pubs.

The Sutton Arms on Great Sutton Street has found the support of locals reassuring. This gem of a pub has been run by Mike Duignan, and now his son Jack, for 30 years. Jack has introduced some of the best traditional ales and craft beers around and, part-way through lockdown, started selling them through the corner doorway of the pub.

“Most of the office workers have obviously disappeared, but we’ve attracted quite a few new customers who actually live round here, but have never popped in before,” says Mike. “Bizarrely they include quite a few Americans who really know their craft beer.”

Hopefully they’ll keep coming now lockdown is easing, he adds. “What we’d really like is for the office workers to come back into town.” And according to Jack, “A lot of people just want a proper draft pint. And the fact that we’ve been here for our local customers seems to be really appreciated.” When asked about reopening, Jack confessed: “I’m scared, confused but also quite excited.”

If there’s one thing tougher than running a pub while observing social distancing, it’s running a pub famous for live entertainment. The Betsey Trotwood on Farringdon Road is such a place. Run by landlord Richard ‘Raz’ Cobbing since 2006, it has developed a unique place in London gig-goers’ hearts.

The pub has created a strong sense of community among those who use it and a reputation that has seen it booked for many unusual one-off events. The pub itself is a huge draw for music and comedy fans. Wired for sound on all three floors, it attracts acts from around the world.

But indoor live events in a pub hardly lend themselves to social distancing. “My plans at present are to open September 2,” says Raz. “It’s very quiet out there and I can’t see there being much of an office population returning before September. And as we’re unable to put on gigs it leaves us looking very quiet for the next month or two.”

But such is the loyalty and affection held towards the pub that a Betsey tribute show to raise money to support this iconic venue was held in June. Musician Danny Wilson, who has played the pub numerous times with his bands The Champions of the World and Bennett Wilson Poole has joined with Raz and Patrick to pull together a stellar line-up of Betsey ‘regulars’ and fans, including the Magic Numbers, Gospelbeach and comedy stars Henning Wehn and John Hegley for an online festival to support the pub. Hundreds of people watched the live-streamed event.

“With the help of our dedicated community of gig goers and regulars we sincerely hope to be able to continue tradition and see the Betsey fly again. And the Shepherd Neame brewery has been great,” says Raz. “It’s has played a sterling role in supporting The Betsey in recent years and with the rent cancellation for tenants of its pubs during the lockdown.” “What we’d really like is office workers to come back into town”