"I'm sorry, darling, I've never been in there before." My quest to find old regulars of The Elephant & Castle pub – located, sensibly, in Elephant and Castle, south London – had not started all that well.
The current incarnation of the Elephant & Castle was built in the 1960s, but there's been a pub on the site bearing that same name for the past 250 years. Unfortunately, it looks like that run might be coming to an end. The pub lost its license and closed down in March after a punter was stabbed in the head with a pen, and no other brewery or independent landlord swept in to claim the historical location. Instead, developers put forward plans to build a Foxtons there.
Elephant and Castle is in Southwark, one of the London boroughs being most aggressively "regenerated". Residents of the nearby Aylesbury and Heygate estates were kicked out a couple of years ago after former regeneration boss Fred Manson said the area needed a "better class of person" to fill the luxury flats they're building in place of the social housing.
To make matters worse, Foxtons has become the estate agent most synonymous with the soul-sucking gentrification of the capital. So dumping one in the middle of Southwark – the 41st most deprived borough out of England's 326 local authorities – to sell extortionate two-bed flats to foreign buyers who'll never sleep in them seems like a huge kick in the teeth to an area that's already had both its kneecaps shot out.
Understandably, housing campaigners are outraged. Piers Corbyn, activist and brother of Labour's Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, said: "It's a historic landmark, and turning it into an estate agent is just an expression of the disgraceful events taking place in Southwark. This is a provocation to anybody that is concerned about the heritage of the area."
'But what do the locals think?' I wondered. 'The people who actually went there to drink and laugh and get stabbed in the head with pens – what are their thoughts on the demise of one of London's oldest boozers?'
So I went to have a look for some who might get misty-eyed, but all I found were a bunch of guys who are all too happy to see it go.
VICE: How long have you been living in Elephant and Castle?
Dan: I've lived here for 52 years. People used to come over here to work. They used to stand outside the pub every Monday morning, to get work. You know, 'cause of building their life. There was a police man who was in a wooden box along the road, and he used to direct all the traffic. Just one police man [laughs], and I would give him a cardboard box in case it rained.
How much has the area changed?
You know Elephant and Castle; you know the statue, don't ya? Where the shopping centre is. That used to be on top of a pub, and when they pulled the pub down that's when they put the statue on top of the shopping centre.
The shopping centre – a bomb hit there, so that was just a bomb ruin. You had the picture house, which was ABC [a cinema], which is now The Coronet night club.
What do you think about the closure of the pub?
It wasn't the original Elephant and Castle, anyways. Its time had come.
What was the Elephant and Castle like before?
Bob: When this was a waste ground, about three or four times a week you used to get the gypsies run their horses along here, to sell them. 'Cause when people wanted to buy horses they wanted to see them run and everything. They used to run up and down here.
How do you feel about the pub closing? Were you upset when you heard the news?
No. It was... it was [his friend shouts "progress"] different. The old Elephant and castle pub was like those old fashioned pubs, you know? It had all wood panelling, and The Rockingham Arms used to be on the corner where the Elephant and Castle now is. That was all wooden panelling and, you know, spit and saw dust on the floor.
Any last thoughts on the area?
The Elephant and Castle will always be the Elephant and Castle. They can build all the luxury flats they like right here, you'll still have every idiot in London come here. Look around here – you see it.
What do you think about the Elephant and Castle pub closing down?
Phillip: Well, the pub was never much good through the day, anyways. So bring it on. They're doing everything round here at the minute. It's just like a building site.
Is that a good thing?
Yeah. Yeah, it's good. Because between Tower Bridge and Blackfriars Road, there are cranes everywhere, and well, a lot of the places were old and they needed to be re-done. This is all going to be coming around as well – the shopping centre and all.
What are your thoughts on a Foxtons opening on the site of the pub?
It's for the rich, darling. You know, when you're paying a quarter of a million – maybe half a million – for flats, I don't think I can afford that [laughs].
To see some people who are a little more pissed off about the "social cleansing" of London, watch our film 'Regeneration Game':
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