According to Paul Barkshire’s caption, this much-loved pub is situated in Holborn; this might be technically true, but Endell Street is more commonly associated with Covent Garden, and the porters’ barrows outside the pub suggest the vegetable market which once dominated the whole area. The fruit and veg moved to Nine Elms in 1974, and in the year this picture was taken the retail fun park familiar to Londoners today opened on the site of the defunct market. Inigo Jones’ gracious 17th Century Piazza – threatened with wholesale redevelopment as recently as the early 1970s – was retained at the cost of its enshrinement as the heart of a remorselessly consumerist zone, much to the dismay of residents who had campaigned so hard for the area’s preservation.
We should be grateful that the area was not flattened, or London would now be saddled with something like ‘Forum des Halles’ in Paris, a deadening, subterranean 1970s shopping arcade where once flourished Les Halles, ‘the belly of Paris’, the city’s market since the middle ages. Les Halles was unceremoniously eviscerated in 1971, the same year Alfred Hitchcock filmed his lurid – and anachronistic – serial killer thriller Frenzy in Covent Garden. Looking at the film now, so much is wrong and fantastically dated, but the location shooting in the market was for real: despite its flaws, it manages to capture an environment that now seems as distant as the coaching inns of Dickens’ youth. Barry Foster may strangle Barbara Leigh-Hunt with an old school tie, (Foster’s unwanted catchphrase “Lovely! Lovely!” – was chanted at him ever after by drunks of all stripes) but the ambience of the market is as vivid as the muscat grapes he gives to Jon Finch.
The Cross Keys was slightly off my own map when I was a regular drinker in WC2 – the Opera Tavern on Catherine Street and the Coach and Horses on Wellington Street were more convenient. But those pubs have been made over into anonymous, tourist-service outlets that might be anywhere. Luckily, the Cross Keys is largely unchanged since Paul Barkshire photographed it thirty+ years ago (although the foliage is more exuberant these days) and remains a very charming spot to lose an afternoon. I am intrigued by the gent looking out of the window: is he waiting for a delivery? A visitor? Inspiration? And those barrows look a bit like props. Maybe he’s waiting for the shade of Hitchcock to shout ‘Action!’ D.S.
This week’s offering on The London Column consists of Paul Barkshire’s limpid photographs of drinking establishments from the 1980s, accompanied by personal observations on city drinking by myself and – if we’re lucky – a few others.
It seems appropriate to begin the week with this picture, which shows the convergence of three Covent Garden streets, the noble facade of the Garrick Club facing towards us, and – the reason for its appearance here – chefs from the kitchen of an establishment fondly remembered by your correspondent. They are standing in the doorway of what used to be the restaurant L’Estaminet, and its downstairs wine bar Le Tartin.
L’Estaminet was established by the remnants of the team who had started the original Chez Gerard, the steak-frites operation on Charlotte Street. I would eat upstairs occasionally, but it was usually easier to stay in the basement bar. Behind the counter downstairs were Bernard and Gerard: the former bespectacled, austere, and slightly forbidding, Gerard an endearingly hectic shambles. A gamine waitress was on hand to smile at the patrons’ terrible jokes and give the middle-aged regulars dreams of a better life. Le Tartin was an oasis of calm amidst the frantic tourist clamour outside, offering a far more intimate experience than any other London bar or club I can think of. Sat at a booth one could drink and dream one’s life away in the gloom, and they would bring you merguez sausages if your reverie made you hungry.
I was a regular there for about seven years, until that sad evening when my regular visit revealed the dead hand of new management (who went on to rename the venue The Forge). Bewildered, my colleague and I retreated to the nearby Le Beaujolais (another venerable French-run wine bar, although a much more raucous affair) where we were told the sorry tale of the departure of Bernard, Gerard et al. The staff of Le Beaujolais were sympathetic to our distress, because they understood what we had become: exiles. D.S.
… for The London Column.
See also: London Perceived no.1