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How Clerkenwell and Islington’s pubs are changing with the times

PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 May 2017

The Highbury Barn in 1775. Picture: Johnny Homer

The Highbury Barn in 1775. Picture: Johnny Homer

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Think you’re an expert on Islington’s boozers? Well, pub fanatic Johnny Homer knows more. He’s written a book about the history of our most interesting watering holes.

Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs, by Johnny Homer. Picture: Amberley PublishingClerkenwell and Islington Pubs, by Johnny Homer. Picture: Amberley Publishing

Johnny Homer did 34 years of research for his new book.

He had been “working” towards the book, entitled Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs, ever since he was legally able to drink.

Johnny, 52, has spent the majority of his life in the borough, having grown up in Bunhill Row, off Old Street, and Spencer Street, Finsbury.

A pub culture obsessive, his book details the history of 48 boozers across the borough – after visiting and photographing each one over the course of writing it.

He recalls: “My first pub visit as a paying customer was the George and Dragon in St John Street. It was a lovely old Victorian building. It’s now known as The Peasant, a kind of gastropub.

The Peasant in St John Street, where Johnny's love affair with pubs started. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Peasant in St John Street, where Johnny's love affair with pubs started. Picture: Johnny Homer

“The George was part of London’s pub-building boom in the late 1800s. There was lots of investment in lavish structures, but some have been completely erased from the landscape.”

Regular readers of the Gazette’s history section will only be too aware of Islington’s taste for radical politics. And unsurprisingly, that intertwines with aspects of its pub heritage.

Johnny explains: “One of my favourites was the Crown and Woolpack, also in St John Street. It was a meeting point for Vladmir Lenin [communist revolutionary who briefly lived and worked in Finsbury and Clerkenwell].

“One time, in 1905, he met with exiled members of the Russian Democratic Party, and it’s said a Met policeman hid in a cupboard to eavesdrop on proceedings. It’s a hair salon now, sadly.”

Like anywhere else in the UK, Islington’s traditional pub trade has struggled in recent years.

The Exmouth Arms in Exmouth Market is an example of how pubs in Islington are adapting, Johnny says. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Exmouth Arms in Exmouth Market is an example of how pubs in Islington are adapting, Johnny says. Picture: Johnny Homer

“But as a result of that,” Johnny explains, “a lot of pubs are adapting and reinventing themselves. That’s what I wanted to get across in the book.

“The Exmouth Arms, in Exmouth Market, is a classic example. My mum and dad used to go there, as they worked in the Mount Pleasant sorting office across the road. It was an old street market pub, basically for market traders and posties.

“Now it has been turned into a craft beer bar. Lots of the original features remain, but the clientele is totally different.”

Is this a good or bad thing?

“It depends on your point of view. Personally, I would always rather see a Clerkenwell or Islington pub stay open than close.

The Old Fountain in Baldwin Street: retaining its backstreet charm. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Old Fountain in Baldwin Street: retaining its backstreet charm. Picture: Johnny Homer

“But you see the ‘hipsterisation’ of certain parts of London and sometimes it feels like the indigenous population is being driven out. Exmouth Market as a street is actually the perfect example of that. It used to be shops like Woolworths and Wimpy but those days are long gone.

“I think the Old Fountain [in Baldwin Street, off City Road] shows how a boozer can adapt while retaining its traditional customers.

“It was always fairly run-of-the-mill, but it’s been reinvented with excellent food and beer – while still remaining a normal backstreet pub. It’s as equally for locals from the St Luke’s Estate to Silicon Roundabout-ers.”

Johnny, who now lives in Whitsable, Kent, lists the Jerusalem Tavern, in Britton Street, and the Highbury Barn as Islington’s pubs with the richest heritage.

“I’m always drawn to the Jerusalem Tavern, even though it it’s only been in those premises since 1996. But there has been a Jerusalem Tavern, in one form or another, since the 1600s.

The Jerusalem Tavern. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Jerusalem Tavern. Picture: Johnny Homer

“The earliest version of the pub was where today’s Aylesbury Street and Jerusalem Passage meet, and has moved several times.

“I also love the heritage of the Highbury Barn. People take it for granted these days as somewhere for Arsenal fans to have a couple of matchday pints, but it goes back to the 1700s.

“There was a pleasure garden boom in 18th century London, where people from the crowded City would come for fresh air in what was then rural Islington. There has been an ‘alehouse’ at the Highbury Barn site since 1762.”

But at which of the 48 featured pubs did he spend most of his time?

“My regular for many, many years was the Old Red Lion in St John Street. It’s absolutely unique, always lively and buzzing. It always had a wonderful balance between local workers and local people. It’s also famous for star clientele. Half the cast of EastEnders used to drink there, as did Ray Winstone.

The Old Red Lion in St John Street: Islington's oldest boozer. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Old Red Lion in St John Street: Islington's oldest boozer. Picture: Johnny Homer

“And one of my happiest memories as a Gooner was watching Arsenal win the FA Cup final in 2002 on TV. They beat Chelsea and Suggs, a Chelsea fan, was there.”

Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs is out for £14.99. See amberley-books.com

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