I Went On a Shoreditch Pub Crawl to Discover 'the Edgy Side of East London'
The author, enjoying herself. All photos: Bekky Lonsdale
Ask me for my idea of personal hell and I would offer: a Friday night pub crawl in Shoreditch.
I close my eyes and see £6 pints of Carling; people born in 2000 who don't know any better throwing up into their falafel; people born in 1987, who really should know better, wearing jeans and polished shoes; men with Love Island high-fades shouting at me as I walk to the bus.
And yet, in the name of internet content, a Friday night pub crawl in Shoreditch is exactly where I find myself, hoping to discover what was billed by organisers as "the edgy side of east London". Because as you'll know if you've stumbled across the £180-a-night Nobu Hotel; or into Ballie Ballerson, the six-year-old's birthday venue masquerading as a bar; or past a street art tour outside any one of its private members' clubs, there's nothing "edgy" about Shoreditch.
So who exactly is this tour for? Who needs help getting pissed in Shoreditch, a commuter belt playground that has basically nothing to offer but hairdressers, vape shops and buildings full of booze?
For some clues, let's consult the pub crawl sales pitch, which I am quoting here in full because it deserves it:
“Our Shoreditch Pub Crawl takes you off the beaten track to the up-and-coming hipster side of London.
Up and coming.
Here the graffiti-filled streets are home to absolutely loads of quirky bars and London Party Pub Crawl will help you discover them as you dance and drown in cocktails!
Shoreditch hasn’t yet made a global name for itself
– but in London, it’s the place to be. Come and check out a more local side of London; drink, dance, & mingle”
To be clear, Shoreditch – the first victim and now a byword for the all-consuming gentrification of east London – is not so much up-and-coming as it is dead and buried. There's a Guardian article from 2003 – TWO THOUSAND AND THREE – asking whether the area has lost its cool. Writing from 2019, it is safe to say: yes! It has!
So, into death I go. I line my stomach, steady my nerves, take some deep breaths and hop on the overground to Shoreditch.
The meeting place and first of five locations is Nikki's Bar off Hoxton Square, formerly Electricity Showrooms, an iconic Shoreditch venue of yore that is now seemingly some sort of faux-exclusive cocktail bar with a Sonic Youth lyric in neon lights winding around the building. Upon arrival, I'm asked by the bouncer if I have a reservation. I laugh, before realising he's being serious. I sheepishly tell him that I'm with the pub crawl and he opens the door for me.
Inside, I find the organisers of the crawl, who give me warm welcome, a wristband and my first free shot token. They ask me to write my e-mail down so they can send me photos of the night out, but I decline because I'm doing undercover gonzo journalism and have my own photographer.
Unfortunately, this makes me seem like some kind of megalomaniac influencer and results in a lot of people staring at me and trying to figure out who I am as I pose for photos alone in front of the made-for-Instagram décor. This does not do much for my approachability levels, and makes everyone else on the pub crawl slightly suspicious of me. I feel powerful. I do my shot.
Soon, it's time to move on to the second venue, and we all congregate outside Nikki's. This is where I first get a look at who exactly is on this crawl, and I'm quickly horrified by the realisation that I am ten years older than pretty much everyone else here.
The average age seems to be 19, most of the attendees have American accents and 90 percent are women. You feel that most of the attendees will be talking about their "study abroad year" for the next decade and will remember this night of regimented fun fondly up until the day of their wedding, which will be in 24 months, to a large pale boy called "Cam" who they met at a Christian university.
We follow the Official Orange Pub Crawl Umbrella to the second venue – Catch, on Kingsland Road, one of a handful of venues in this area that still has the same name as it did ten years ago.
Sadly for my feeling of grounded reality, the name is probably the only thing that's still the same as it was in the late-2000s. I used to come here regularly, mostly for a night called "Yo Mama", and – looking at the weird lioness/cub mural – I have a sudden flashback of my friend causing a part of the ceiling by the DJ booth to collapse because he banged on it too hard when Waka Flocka's "Hard in the Paint" dropped. I also spent my 21st birthday here.
Tonight, at 9PM, it is empty apart from a couple sharing a bottle of red in the window as the bored DJ plays General Bangers™ to an otherwise empty room, mixing a song with a Sean Paul feature into another song with a Sean Paul feature via some scratching effects. As wakes for long-dead London institutions go, it's not particularly lively.
We are each given another free shot token, which I exchange for some kind of sickly-sweet red cordial, which I'm almost certain contains 5 percent alcohol, at a push. The pub crawl promises a drinks deal at each venue, and here it's £3.50 for a house spirit and mixer, or a small beer. It strikes me that this isn't much of a saving, seeing as tickets to the crawl cost £25, but whatever – these kids are here to discover the up-and-coming edginess of east London!
Everyone flocks to the bar to cash in their shot tokens and buy a drink, then head to separate tables in the friend groups they arrived with. The vibe is very school disco, and the DJ is playing tracks while hanging over the side of the booth and vaping, potentially as a replacement for a smoke machine. Two girls are filming themselves singing along to Rihanna’s "Umbrella" in the mirror, presumably for Snapchat or TikTok or whatever the fuck. The TV screen over the bar is showing anime. The threat of anyone doing MDMA with me is astonishingly low.
Finally, due to a combination of the sugar from the shots finally hitting and the DJ's decision to play Beyoncé "Irreplaceable", people begin heading to the dancefloor, singing along and tentatively mingling. I continue sitting in the corner like a prestige quasi-influencer who did NOT come here to make friends. Then something very strange and upsetting happens. The DJ drops Destiny's Child "Bills, Bills, Bills" (1999), and all the kids start singing along word for word. Obviously it's an iconic banger, but I'm surprised this song means so much to Gen Z. To find out why, I lean over and ask an 18-year-old guy how he came to hear of this vintage anthem. "I heard my parents playing it around the house, I guess," he replies.
I'm in a bar I last frequented when he was in primary school. I cannot believe how rapidly I am dying.
At this point, I decide it's time to stop being stush and make an effort to socialise. I re-apply my lipstick, put my hair up into an Ariana-inspired half-pony and got ready to head to the third venue of the night. Walking between the venues feels like a school trip – everyone in their little groups, following the orange umbrella up and down Old Street in pairs.
We arrive at 333, formerly a scuzzy club outside which I spent my A-Level results night sitting on the road, passing around a pre-mixed bottle of whiskey and coke with a band I'd met on Myspace. That area is now cordoned off and houses a machine that scans our IDs as we enter the – again – almost empty club. Inside, there are three TV screens of various sizes, all tuned into… ITV news. In one corner, a group of locals play pool under the watchful eye of Jeremy Corbyn. In the other, a trio of bored-looking Essex girls in colourful two pieces sip watered down "tropical" cocktails.
To be fair to the DJ here, he is knocking out absolute back-to-back bangers: "Lady Marmalade", "Hot in Herre", "Hollaback Girl", Linkin Park and Jay-Z's rendition of "Numb". Unfortunately, though, the combination of the really quite bright lighting and Donald Trump glaring down at us from a giant projector means no one's really feeling like dancing, apart from the group of 18-year-olds on holiday from rural Colorado.
Next up is The Spread Eagle, which is hosting karaoke night and quite frankly seems like a bizarre place to take a bunch of American exchange students. It is, however, the closest Shoreditch comes to being "edgy" at all these days, in the sense that there are some old regulars about. The pub crawl members seem – understandably – slightly bewildered by this heaving pub, where a bunch of geezers are singing along to old punk songs.
At this point, midnight – AKA bedtime – is approaching, and like a millennial Cinderella I give my new 18-year-old friend my free shot token and quietly slip away into the night to catch the last overground home. There's one more venue to go on the crawl – probably another place I used to have fun in, which is now the club equivalent of a gastropub – and I think I've got the gist of how it's going to go: weak shots, maybe bangers, absolutely nobody getting off with each other.
If Shoreditch wasn't already dead, this crawl feels like a nail aimed with laser sight at its coffin.
As I walk back to Shoreditch High Street station, through the "graffiti-filled streets", I watch half-cut finance workers spill out of the "quirky bars" and past a giant painted advert for oat milk. It's sad to return somewhere you had so much fun coming of age and find it sterilised and sapped of everything that made it even a little bit interesting, but that is, I suppose, what the unstoppable wheel of gentrification does.
Anyway, I would rather crawl over broken glass than spend my Friday night crawling bars in Shoreditch ever again.