Saturday September 6th 2014 was an important day. I was away at Maltstock in The Netherlands (one of the best whisky festivals on the planet), but my mind was frequently on a little back-street pub in Clerkenwell – The Gunmakers. For on that day was the farewell party of Jeff, the landlord, having sold the pub on to new owners.
The first I heard about this was in a tweet on August 27th.
My first visit to the place was the 28th of August 2008: notably, a Sunday, 5 years & 364 days earlier. For some time I’d been following a number of beer blogs, and the first I’d check would be Stonch’s Beer Blog. The author held forth a wide range of opinions (the blog closed in 2010 [EDIT: and reopened in Oct 2014!]), among which were the day to day musings of someone managing a London pub, and given his dedication to quality cask beer it seemed an excellent place to try to find and visit. Not wanting to cross the streams of blog life and real life, he kept the location of the pub under wraps – however a bit of sleuthing and joining the dots and I found myself with a booking for Sunday lunch.
The Gunnies became my “local” from there onward, and it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride. For starters, only briefly have I ever lived “locally” (and there’s quite a lot of pubs between Russell Square and Eyre Street Hill), but Jeff had cultivated something quite special there – a Local Pub right in the centre of London which you’d happily cross town to spend the evening at, with an ever changing but reasonably consistent cast of regulars. There was the daytime crew (including the notorious Peter The Bike, and also the well-dressed Peter The Pint), and then after changeover you’d find Matty Lad, Mothmun, PJ, Rossy, and with luck you’d be treated to an appearance by Whitbread. Loudly declaring his regular customers to be “Arseholes”, it was almost a badge of honour for Jeff to refer to you as a “key arsehole”. Or in Daveyhaste’s case, “a stripey shirted arsehole”. Being from a proper pub background from up north, Jeff seemed driven to make his pub the environment that he’d like to spend time in: almost an extension of his living room (for a time, this was literally the case, too).
I’ve spent a bit of time in such establishments, so I feel qualified to say this: the place really was a masterclass in running a pub. The staff were always an engaging lot, and stuck around for a decent length of time so you didn’t feel like you were having to remember new faces every week. Jeff said that he wanted people who were interested in doing a good job, but not the kind of people who had no ambition beyond working in a pub. In no particular order, there were Holly, Sally, Alex, Neusha, Shalome, Sascha, Leo, Simon, Mulligan (never really figured out if he worked there or was on loan from The Betsey), John, Ferenc, Charlotte, John’O, Eddie, and chefs Quinny, Lara, Sebastien, and Manuela. And it certainly wouldn’t be uncommon to see any of them back drinking at the Gunnies of an evening (or, in the case of the opening party for Jeff’s new pub – The Finborough Arms – co-opted into working for the night).
Curiously, my Sunday roast there – whilst one of the best Sunday roasts I’d had in London – was the last time they did it: being a Clerkenwell backstreet boozer, there wasn’t much about in the way of foot traffic, so it really was a weekday pub. Except for when Jeff announced the return of the Sunday roast. And then its demise 2 weeks later (“I remembered how much I hated opening on weekends”).
Described as a mercurial chap, Jeff wasn’t afraid of making changes to the setup of the pub. Crisps disappeared from the bar, in favour of Proper bar snacks like nuts and pork scratchings. One night upon requesting a bag of scratchings, Daveyhaste was informed by Alex that “We don’t sell those any more – Jeff’s decided that they’re vulgar”. A regular fixture of the menu was the Gunnies Burger, which mysteriously disappeared in favour of more rarefied (and always excellent cuisine). Gone too was the bowl of chips: a decision which we could never figure out if he’d made on economic grounds, taste & decorum, or just because he liked confounding the ever-insistent patrons… or a mix of the three.
Ever a fan of the food there, many was the night I took people in for a bite and a pint. And many was the night there was some reason the kitchen wasn’t working. I’m informed that this was pure bad luck on my part, but there was definitely a string of 4 or 5 consecutive visits that ended this way. One of which was my introduction of my mate Big Pete to the place, and on that night Jeff was heard to be bemoaning the cost of maintaining the massive espresso machine occupying the entire end of the bar – when he sold maybe 4 or 5 coffees a week. We suggested maybe getting rid of it, and after some discussion/argument/musing/diversion, Jeff’s eyes lit up and he said, “Do you know what, Jason? I’m going to sack that thing off! We never use it anyway!”. And that was the end of the coffee machine.
Typically a bustling place, the only three times I’ve served beer in London was at The Gunmakers. Once was towards the end of a Christmas season evening, where the staff were all busy so Jeff asked me to pull a pint for the chap waiting and some remarks were made about my natural beer-pouring action and the aesthetic attributes of the pint: right up until I passed the beer across to the gentleman, caught the base of the glass on the top of the swan neck, and doused the bar and the left hand side of the gentleman in beer. Once during one of the sporadic beer festivals I was put in charge of the bar in the back room (much to my bewilderment), but my favourite was one evening whilst I was waiting for Dave to turn up, and Jeff had gone down to the cellar to change over the Guinness keg – leaving Sally to man the bar. The pub phone rang, and she answered, engaged in some confused dialogue, then with an intense gaze pointed at me and said “You – YOU’RE in charge!”, before high-tailing it down the stairs. She emerged some minutes later giggling copiously, where followed the landlord, now wearing a dark blue jumper and soaking from hair to waist – it transpired that after fitting the line clamp he’d hauled the empty cask out and caught it on the line, disengaging it and spraying litres of the black stuff all over the cellar.
The primary reason that a pub tenancy earns an obituary this long though is that it was instrumental in what’s been a pivotal life development for me – whilst participating in a Meet The Brewer session hosted by the former community website Qype (where I had the privilege of meeting the nicest bloke in the brewing industry, Andy Moffatt of Redemption), I got talking with a chap called Andy about my love of whisky. The conversation burgeoned into a plot, and with the blessing of Jeff and the use of his upstairs room (“The VIP suite”), Whisky Squad was formed. Our beloved home til July 2013, it was brilliant to briefly create a blip on the whisky nerds’ radar where people could reliably turn up to the pub on the first Friday of the month and have access to an incredible range of esoteric whisky, following another Whisky Squad session. The redevelopment of the upstairs room from its moody plushness into its lighter minimalist incarnation, and then Jeff’s conversion of the “back room” back into a beer garden meant that it was no longer tenable to hold tastings up there – however Jeff’s support, patronage, and occasional words of wisdom were an invaluable part of the formation of our club. The M.O. of the club’s changed a little, but I’ll never forget the formative sessions – such as making the group stand up and face the back of the room so they couldn’t see what whiskies we’d brought, because we hadn’t thought to wrap the bottles up in paper yet.
First and foremost though, the reason the pub became a Must See on any self-respecting beer nerd’s itinerary was because of the Real Ale. You could safely try any one of The Gunmakers’ regularly rotating cast of casks and be reassured that this would be a beer in prime condition. On trips to other pubs joy would turn to anguish as I’d see a beer on that I’d had at the Gunnies, only to taste it and realise that perhaps their cellarkeeping practices weren’t quite on par with what I was used to. Jeff’s arrangement with his pub company meant that he had a free hand in choosing what beers to stock, which was fantastic for we happy patrons – periodically there’d be regulars and guests, or sometimes it’d be on full rotation. When we started in there Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Theakston’s Old Pecuiler were regular fixtures. Harvey’s Sussex Best featured often, then the Landlord disappeared and we got Purity Mad Goose, or Hopback Summer Lightning. The lager taps had Staropramen and Guinness, then Meantime Helles became house lager (and signalled the beginning of the endless conversations about how “No, we don’t serve Carling”). Then the lager taps went altogether, and then against all probablility a massive white Budvar font appeared in the bar corner… to disappear again some time later. We had plenty of Geordie beers such as Mordue offerings (mmmm… Workie Ticket) and Big Lamp, Double Maxim and Tyne Bank. Periodically we’d be faced with a lineup completely of London breweries such as London Fields, Redemption, Portobello, Sambrook, Windsor & Eton. And other times there’d be a round assortment of all sorts – and always excellent.
Almost no visit by people from foreign parts to London was left unmarked by a trip to the Gunnies. For about 3 years running I managed to convince my office to have our team Christmas dinner there, and 2 of those years we went separately as a group of friends as well. Friends, or partners in the circle, wouldn’t even bother asking “Which pub?” after a while – for us, the Gunmakers was our Winchester. In the event of zombie outbreak it’s where I’d definitely want to be – if only in the hope that Whitbread was there and could instruct us on how best to deal with zombies. Always a convivial joy, whether seated in the Abdomen (the back “room” where you could convince yourself you were in the sun if there wasn’t too much crud on the bit of perspex cover you were under – I never really went out there after the “garden conversion”, TBH), wolfing down a steak in the Thorax (the raised middle section with the comedy 2-step access which caused so many near-concussions on the lintel), or fast & loose conversation and putting the world to rights in the Head (by far the prime seats of the establishment – not least for quickest access to the bar, but also to keep tabs on the assortment of characters coming & going).
There’s so much more I could say, but nobody’s died after all.
So the pub’s still there & we’re keenly waiting to see what the new management will do with the place. Perhaps it’ll be excellent. Anything’s possible. But a chapter has definitely closed.
As to why Jeff’s sold the pub – who knows. Maybe he got tired of it after 5 years? Maybe some heavies finally caught up with him after something that happened during his days back as a lawyer in Prague? Maybe he needed the cash, or maybe he’s selling the pubs to buy a railway station or water works (Monopoly humour). But the good news is the beer excellence and unmistakable vibe will live on for now down at The Finny.
So, in tribute, it simply leaves me to say…. To the Gunmakers: