On an unremarkable backstreet in the Hackney/Islington borders is an old pub with a story. An all-too-familiar story in the world of the urban boozer: developers submit planning application to demolish and replace with residential units. Most of the time this tale has the same ending, and it’s not a happy one for drinkers. The Wenlock was a tap for the nearby brewery of the same name, and poured its first pint in 1836; it closed with its parent company in the 1960s, then reopened in 1994, whereupon it won awards for the quality of its real ale and plaudits for the toastiness of its real fire.
But in 2010 the threats of redevelopment began, with many ups and downs, false dawns and setbacks. Wenlock regulars were more motivated than most, launching campaigns to defend it, but things looked bleak.
However, last year a sympathetic Hackney Council extended a conservation area to safeguard the pub, and a couple of months ago the owners of the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate stepped in and signed a lease. Sleeves were rolled up for a refurbishment which involved a quality paintjob, some new furniture and even more beer fonts. The Wenlock is once again the quintessence of all that is good about pubs – it’s a taproom with minimal decor, minimal food (salt beef sandwiches, own-made scratchings) and brilliant beer. Plus it’s a free house, meaning it can buy from any brewery it chooses. At the moment the cellar holds barrels from Portobello Brewing, Dark Star, and Clarence & Fredericks. Boxes of real cider sit on the bar and a row of keg taps dispense Budvar Yeast, Camden Hells and, to prove the landlord is anything but snobby, Carlsberg.
The Wenlock Arms has risen while so many others like it have fallen, but the fact is that most of our London pubs deserve to survive. I hope it lasts another 177 years, and keeps the older locals happy as well as the craft-beer-loving youngsters. Visit and remind yourself that in a city full of institutions, the London pub is perhaps the best one we’ve got.
Reviewed by Euan Ferguson