Some years ago, I was in the Aprilia Centre on Commercial Road when I heard a loud bang. I glanced through the window just in time to see a motorcycle, a motorcylist and the 1980 Vespa P200 I’d left parked outside all in the air together, like a film still of a ballet. The biker had overtaken a lorry at speed, lost control and smacked into my scooter, writing it, his bike and his kneecap off in the process. A day later I was showing my documents at Leytonstone police station. The desk sergeant clocked my CAMRA membership card.
“Like a pint, do you son?”
“Take my advice. Stay away from every pub on the High Road. All of ’em. Except the Bell. The Bell’s alright.”.
That was nearly ten years ago, and the rough pubs that kept the local coppers busy are almost all gone. They’ve been converted to flats or mini-supermarkets or demolished altogether. Some have even been gentrified. You wouldn’t think twice about visiting the remaining pubs. And the sergeant was correct about the Bell – It was alright. A big, friendly 30s roadhouse bookended by the red brick former Police station and the Cuthbert-Dibble-and-Grub Fire Station. There’s been an Inn on the site since at least 1718.
Packed on a friday when the Karaoke was on, likewise on sundays with Billy Stevens’ Famous Quiz with its prizes for losers, the Bell wouldn’t be on many beer nerd’s tick list. Unless you liked Greene King, that is – two meagre pumps of decently kept Abbot and IPA – but as a beer nerd, sometimes you need a night off the Mikkeller and the Magic Rock just to swig Carling prem to the click of pool balls and the fruit machine. Punters were an affable mash of firemen, regulars from neighbouring streets and a smattering of contractors from the Olympic park. Lots of different accents, ages, modes of dress and skin tones. East London in microcosm. It had a large, L-shaped bar and smaller back room. Decor cues were from an episode of Changing Rooms, circa 1995 – but none the worse for that. Nosh was famously cheap and popular with blokes in hi-viz with betting shop pencils tucked behind an ear.
You can see the demise of some pubs coming a mile off, but often it comes as a shock. When the guv’nor of another local told me of the Bell’s demise, I thought he was joking. It seemed so unlikely for a pub reputedly making a decent profit to close so suddenly, but the Bell sold its last pint in the wee hours of New Years Day.
Exactly why it closed is a bit of mystery. Some say the landlady has retired, others say the pubco has flogged the building for housing. Whatever the reason, it’s proof positive that if you don’t keep an eye on your pubs, they can vanish.