‘I see what I love dying and I want to record it’: The London Pub Explorer on the importance of preserving the vanishing history of East London pubs and celebrating the guv’nors at their helm.
Since 2005, Ali Von Lion, aka the London Pub Explorer, has been treading the streets of the East End, sometimes rising at six o’clock to catch a glimpse of our neighbourhood’s best backstreet boozers while their punters are still asleep.
Pounding the pavements from Whitechapel to Poplar, and Limehouse to Globe Town, Von Lion, 43, who now lives in Leyton, was infected by the East End. He soon began taking Fridays off work to feed his fascination with the forgotten histories and rich architecture of East London’s many public houses.
Smells of old wood, stale beer and cigarette smoke still take Von Lion back to his childhood when his fascination with pubs was born, sitting outside the Timberley in Birmingham while his Grandad enjoyed a pint in the grown-up wood-panelled world within.
He started recording the stories of London pubs about two decades ago, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Von Lion started sharing what he found on social media, setting up the now widely-known Instagram account: The London Pub Explorer.
Seven years and 35,000 followers later, Von Lion has teamed up with fellow pub enthusiast, graphic designer and photographer, Tim George, creating their first book: East End Pubs: A Celebration of East London’s Most Iconic Boozers.
Published by Hoxton Mini Press on Thursday 26 October, East End Pubs comprises 65 of Tower Hamlets’ most characterful boozers, excluding Hackney Wick.
The book reports on the natural habitats of publicans and patrons on the highstreets and backstreets of East London, providing a visually compelling and in-depth look at the social history, architectural significance and folklore of our finest East End institutions.
I meet George and Von Lion in the Young Prince pub on Roman Road, one of the East End’s most quintessential watering holes which Von Lion describes as ‘bordering on perfection.’
The landlord, Barry Holloway, or ‘Uncle Barry,’ lives above the pub and has been managing it for forty years. The wooden-panelled, narrow bar is an extension of Holloway’s living room, decorated with framed photographs, football plaques and of course, fruit machines and a fish tank.
For Von Lion, choosing the geographical boundary for his first book was a no-brainer: ‘It’s one word: it’s Identity. And no other part of London has an identity like the East End,’ he says.
‘Not just because of its folklore, or its history or people rubbing shoulders with criminality. For me it’s intoxicating, it’s mysterious. It’s romantic at times, it’s macabre at times, it’s got everything.’
George and Von Lion were strict about their definition of ‘East End,’ only featuring pubs within the borough of Tower Hamlets. The only exception is the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton, a cherry-red traditional alehouse where you sometimes catch live music played on the Old Joanna.
But what made this 1787 protected pub irresistible to George and Von Lion is the guv’nor at its helm, Marcus Grant, who Von Lion describes as a ‘charismatic magnetic individual: an absolute chap.’
East End Pubs includes roughly 25 portraits and written profiles of pub landlords and landladies reigning across East London, which, for George, is the most important part of the book.
From ‘Lady Tarbard’ of the Florist Arms, to Spitalfields celebrity, Sandra Esquilant of the Golden Heart, capturing the guv’nors in their natural habitats epitomises the spirit of our East End pub culture.
As George jokes: ‘If you tried to get a book full of interesting pub portraits in West London it would be full of general managers who’ve been there for 18 minutes.’
Contrary to Fullers’ and Youngs’ hold on West London’s watering holes, a much larger proportion of pubs have remained independent in the East End.
This is partly due to the closure of East London’s four main historic breweries, Taylor Walker, Manns, Charrington and Truman’s at the end of the 20th century which led to many East End pubs becoming independent.
The book includes a handful of well-disguised pub chains such as the Green Goose and the Morgan Arms in Bow that have managed to preserve an air of community about them. It champions wet-led boozers that don’t serve food, a dying breed in the East End as pubs diversify their offerings to survive.
As Von Lion says: ‘I’m open to change. If you stand still, you die in this industry. But you can make changes slowly. When pub chains go in and change the whole culture and the whole pub experience, they marginalise locals by putting the price of a pint up by £1.50.’
In September, it was reported by the BBC that two pubs a day had disappeared in England and Wales in the first half of 2023, with London losing 46 pubs in six months.
While many people in the industry cite the financial burden of staffing, running costs and taxation, for Von Lion, the longer-term threat comes from behavioural change.
‘A lot of Gen Z nowadays binge drink at a bottomless brunch on Saturday and don’t drink again for the rest of the week,’ says Von Lion: ‘I think people are healthier and spend more time going to the gym too.
‘When I was 21, I went to the pub almost every night. I didn’t smash it, I had two or three pints, but before everyone had mobile phones that’s how you caught up with your friends.’
In his 17th-century diary, Samuel Pepys described the pub as ‘the heart of England,’ a defining part of British culture which remains an important community hub for many people today.
As George says: ‘It’s very hard to pin down. People characterise the British as being very stuck up and stiff upper lip, but we’re at ease in the pub.
‘In good pubs, you don’t feel like you’re being hounded for money. You can go in and just be there. In a restaurant or a coffee shop, it’s completely different. It’s transactional.’
Von Lioin adds: ‘Pubs are a lubricant to conversation. If you sit and start a conversation with someone in Starbucks they would think you just got out of an asylum. But if you start a conversation with someone in the pub, that’s normal behaviour.’
Rather than trawling through historical archives or relying on the internet, Von Lion did most of his research for the book propping up the bars of the East End.
Flicking through its freshly printed pages, you’ll notice that almost all of the pubs featured have bar stools, which provide a welcoming seat for solo customers, enabling you to chat with the bar staff.
‘I’ve always thought that John Smith is much more exciting than the lords and ladies and famous people, you don’t learn anything from them,’ says Von Lion. He hopes the book will preserve the stories and social histories of seasoned pub veterans that would otherwise die with them.
And while you’re more likely to find George and Von Lion in a backstreet boozer rather than a recently renovated Youngs pub, they recognise that change can sometimes be a good thing.
Globe Town’s reigning guv’nor, Emma Tarbard of the Florist Arms, is committed to making women feel comfortable in what is traditionally a male-dominated environment.
Furthermore, as Von Lion points out: ‘the genetic makeup of the pub is 99% white, and in areas like East London you have to be more attractive to minorities whether that’s by changing the cuisine or doing more mocktails.’
He’s even seen pubs opening up for morning Zumba or yoga classes and is hopeful that such initiatives will widen their reach in the community.
But when it comes down to it, where would you find George and Von Lion unwinding on a Friday evening (or Tuesday morning)?
For George, it’s the Golden Heart in Spitalfields, helped in large part by longstanding landlady Sandra Esquilant’s stories from behind the bar.
And for Von Lion?: ‘This might sound childish or silly, but asking me to choose is like asking someone who their favourite child is,’ he laughs: ‘These are beautiful places and the beauty of it, for now, is the variety.’
And though it’s not a guidebook, East End Pubs is bound to whet your appetite for a crisp pint and leave you spoilt for choice. Wherever you choose, take a moment to talk to the guv’nor behind the bar. You never know the stories you might hear.
For more pubs to visit, find our round-up of the must-visit public houses in Bow.
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