Here we are, then. Leytonstone’s newest pub. It’s called the Crown, reborn of a full refit from the ashes of the rough and unready Sheepwalk. Very far from being My Sort Of Pub, The Sheepwalk had a sort of perverse cult following among locals, not all of whom were known to the Metropolitan Police. I found myself in there more than once, usually after a long evening at the North Star round the corner. Half-lost nightmares of karaoke hosted by a very short man dressed as Austin Powers. Sweaty lager all over the place and my oddball French neighbour sat in the corner alone, reading a book on copyright law.
All different now. The interior of the Sheepwalk looked as if bits had been stolen over the years, leaving the husk of a once-grand pub. The new owners have made the most of the remaining original features, though the rest of the interior is from the Big Book Of Innoffensive Inns. It’s dark mahogany and comfy patterned cushions and stripped wooden floors. Walking in on this saturday lunchtime it still smells new. MTV looks down from large screens, sound off. Four blokes at the bar laughing themselves inside out about someone ‘falling in the shitter’. Battalions of chrome lager and cider taps, three proper handpumps, one unclipped. Doom Bore and London Pride. Nothing to scare the horses. When did I last have a Pride? Can’t remember. The middle-aged barman heaves on the pump, squeezing out a sparkled pint. It’s got a haze. Unbidden, he lifts it to the light and squints. ‘Hmm. Not happy with that. Just a moment’. He nips down the cellar, comes back and pours again. We watch the new pint settle. ’Much better.’ he says quietly. I like this man.
‘Brown’ beers don’t come much browner than London Pride. But who wants a hop bomb in every pint? Not me. It’s a beer for its own sake. Easy drinking. Rounded hops and malt. As balanced as Philippe Petit. Unthreatening as Alan Titchmarsh. Food’s the thing here, really. Menu and wine list on the table, next to a little goldfish bowl with a Chrysanthemum floating in it. £6.95 for a roast. You’d bring your auntie here. You wouldn’t have taken her to the Sheepwalk.
50 yards away at the Walnut Tree a pint of Pride is nearly a quid cheaper. I go for East London Brewery’s Foundation, brewed up the road on the Hackney/Leyton frontier. Dry and tangy. I went to a talk by ELB’s Stuart Lacelles last year. He was a one-man operation, clearly tired but in love with his work. It shows in his beer. I’m in here because I want to see if the place has improved since my last visit about three years ago. On that occasion it was full of large vomity drunks in stained white vests shouting about dogs. Today’s drinkers are better behaved and my feet don’t seem to be sticking to the carpet. Pensioners and groups of friends sipping quietly, empty tables cluttered with dead glasses. Things look better than before, but as with most Wetherspoons I don’t feel the need to take my coat off. Horse racing is on the TV, lending the ambience of a betting shop that serves alcohol. Some of these punters must be refugees from the Sheepwalk, which was the last local redoubt of the type of drinker who spends his day nursing a lukewarm pint over a copy of the Racing Post. If the Crown is now the saloon, the Walnut Tree is its public bar.
I’m down the road in the Red Lion. This place needs to get some sort of civic award for how it’s revitalised the area. It’s the clubhouse for E11 diehards and young gentrifiers. Busiest pub I’ve been in today and easy to see why. Relaxed and welcoming with a could-be-in-Blankenberge whiff coming from the pots of mussels being carried out from the kitchen. Marble Draft is a big faceful of hops. Only 3.9% but feels a lot heavier. I could stay here all day. The Red Lion will soon have a cocktail bar. A cocktail bar. In Leytonstone. Ten years ago this was a place where you struggled to get a decent coffee and Tesco’s bananas were in the exotic fruit aisle.