The Lord Nelson pub / via Gawain Towler on Instagram

Remembering Lord Nelson

Gawain Towler fondly recalls his local pub as it closes for the second time due to lockdown

Artillery Row

You could call it “The Moon under Water,” but I will call it “The Lord Nelson”. It is, what you might call, a proper pub, one which sits on Trafalgar Avenue, and is backed by Nile Terrace. I’m not sure if Copenhagen Drive is nearby, but it should be.

“What the hell are they doing?”, “I abide by the law, but are these really laws or just fucking panic?” When did we get so wet?” Fuck me, close down now, screw my business and expect me to be happy with a two-day Christmas truce? They’re ‘aving a laugh”.

It is the last remaining pub on the Old Kent Road, once one of the great drinking thoroughfares of London, within memory there were 39 and, even thirty years ago, a place where the pub crawl would never end, no matter how early you started. Today the other pubs have all gone, “The Dun Cow” is now a surgery, others are mosques, pizza places, African restaurants, and even the classic “Thomas a Beckett,” famed for its Henry Cooper gym, and David Bowie practice studios is now a Vietnamese restaurant.

But somehow “The Lord Nelson” has survived. It’s my local and I popped in on Saturday evening after the new lockdown was announced to talk to some of the regulars.

Pat, the 79-year-old matriarch has run the place for 26 years and is without a doubt what is politely described as an institution

I walked in and glanced around the darkening evening space. The bar is taped off, its listed teak interior disguised by lurid signs and safety notices proclaiming distancing and masking. Bright yellow stickers dot along the floor directing traffic, like miniature high-viz-jacketed policemen, great Perspex screens protect the bar staff, and there is only table service. Pat, the 79-year-old matriarch, patrols the space between the tables and the bar, blue medical mask on. Short, Irish, stocky, a laugh the chills the blood and a look that strips varnish, and in no way frail, she has run the place for 26 years and is without a doubt what is politely described as an institution.

You need to know about this pub. And the people who frequent it. I’ve never been there at any time of day, with it empty. There are always one or two familiar faces. But I have never seen it (barring for the boxing, always busy for the boxing), with more than twenty. On Saturday night, in happier times there was a disco, mirror-ball, and atrocious dad dancing. Teens, parents, grandparents, all drinking jaeger bombs and vile pink concoctions. There is no side, no pretension.

As Pat puts it, “There are many places to drink, but there are none of them round here that are family pubs”. Because that is what it is, the staff, their families, are the regulars. There is John, handyman, there is Martin, the ancient Irish publican. “Mine was in Mile End, a great old place, you know the sort of people who drank there…”, he says, with a twinkle in his eye, with his tweed, deerstalker and bent billiard pipe.

The beer is shocking, but by God, I love this pub

There is the cage fighter, the plumber, the tradesman, the former soldiers, the primary school teacher, the cleaners, the rest. If they are not related, they could be, or will be, but most of them are. Children that have left the area, “I live in Bromley/Thurrock/New York now”, come back for the Saturday night knees-up, and muck-in, enjoying the drinking the sheer vivid ambience of the place. The beer is shocking (no ale at all) and the conversation not something that would grace the parlours of Islington or Notting Hill. But by God, I love it. It is a pub, what more is there to say?

I only live on the Old Kent Road because the day that I came to look at a flat I was early and popped in for a pint. The welcome was so simple and genuine, that I instantly decided this is where I wanted to live. On St George’s Day there are free sausages. On Remembrance Day, veterans get a pass. Millwall fans sometimes drop by after a day at the New Den. This is a pub in the most pro-Remain constituency in the country, but on the night after the European referendum (after a good 25-hour blitz) I staggered through the door, the place erupted in cheers. New London, Remain Southwark, it is not.

Sometimes on a Friday night, you used to see a few students turn up, lost and looking for a drink. They were always welcome, and always utterly out of place.

But last Saturday night the place felt like a morgue. Oh, the regulars were in, of course. But distanced. The vital closeness of their existence spun out, calling coarse ruderies and casual, friendly insults across the bar, as households must not mix. And everybody being entirely aware that this was drinking freedom night minus five.

Despite its intrinsic beauty, this place is nothing without its people

I was convinced that lockdown would kill this remnant of old Bermondsey. But over the spring and summer months, instead Pat and her team completely revamped the place. The interior, with huge Victorian mirrors displaying exotic birds and scenes from the life (and death) of Nelson are now visible once more. But the soul of the place is being ripped out alongside the Saturday mirror ball.

Despite its intrinsic beauty, this place is nothing without its people. Its people are loyal, decent Londoners. For them, it is a refuge from the cultural Wurlitzer that has shaken the Old Kent Road.

But speaking to the locals in the tatty beer garden, this new lockdown has stripped them of spirit. Everybody admires Pat, and the work she has put in. “The Nelson weathered the storm of the first lockdown,” she tells me, “and to be honest, I live here, so what else can I do but batten down the hatches and wait for the tempest to pass?”

Her indomitable character gives hope, but that is all there is.

It’s a Saturday night in the lee of lockdown, and the beer has gone very flat.

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