Thirsty Londoners take note: there’s a real ale oasis where you might least expect. Deptford, that utterly boisterous and wonderfully redolent little enclave just south of the river, is home to the Dog and Bell, a pub so excellent that it has just been voted the city’s best.
But most impressive is the amount of times it has been bestowed with such an honour. The Dog and Bell’s latest award comes from The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, a group of real ale enthusiasts who drink the length and breadth of London every year in search of its finest watering hole. The society has championed the pub four times in the past ten years.
And what’s more, The Dog and Bell has also been named Pub of the Year by the south-east London branch of the Campaign for Real Ale twice within the last decade. Higher praise cannot be given.
So what’s so special? The prize certificates hung proudly in the front window were probably won because of the fine selection of well kept beers, the very reasonable tariff and the welcoming atmosphere within. But most of all, the Dog and Bell is held with such regard because of the respect it pays to tradition.
63-year-old landlord Charlie Gallagher cuts a welcoming figure at the bar. A softly spoken Irishman with a great white beard, he speaks solemnly about his pub’s success: “I think it’s because this is an old fashioned pub.”
His wife, and landlady, Eileen, cuts in: “It’s old fashioned. You have to like real ale! We’ve got all the Belgian beers too. The type of person that just wants a pint of Carlsberg wouldn’t find this place interesting!”
And by ‘old fashioned’ they don’t mean utterly dilapidated or newly restored in an antique style like other establishments in the area. Rather, the Gallagher’s style is based on an honest, homely simplicity.
Charlie explains: “You can always drink for cheaper at home, but people want to get out and have a chat and meet their friends. If you create an atmosphere that welcomes that kind of thing, then you have a good pub.”
The Gallagher’s run the Dog and Bell by themselves, seven days a week. They spend so much time in the pub that they have created an ambience that suits them and their customers. The interior is dressed in warm yellow shades offset by dark green skirting and when turned on, the television is kept to a low volume, so as not to disturb or intrude, allowing conversation tofloat around the bar and back room.
It’s something the Gallaghers have perfected over time. They took over the Dog and Bell in 1988, when their clientele, and Deptford, was a lot different to what it is today, as Charlie points out: “A lot of our trade came from the dock workers, along with locals and real ale drinkers. But there has gradually been less and less workers around here and eventually the dock shut down.”
“Pubs need industry,” he goes on, “when the dockers were working, they were always thirsty! But we survive.”
Well off the beaten path, the Dog and Bell’s reputation precedes it, and keeps it afloat. It is known amongst proud local bloggers, intrepid beer drinkers and roving bohemians as one in a million. A secret, and delicious, wellspring. Which is just as well, because last year an average of 28 pubs closed down every week in the UK, the worst record in 30 years.
Charlie has seen the decline of the Great British boozer first hand: “There was half a dozen pubs within five minutes, really. There are very few now. It’s shocking. Deptford high street has been decimated.”
But the Dog and Bell is supported by enthusiasts who don’t want to see pub culture disappear. People come from all over London to indulge in the fine amber nectar on offer, as Charlie says: “People do travel, there’s no doubt about that. People come here from all over the place. We had a couple come down from Wembley to spend the afternoon drinking Belgian beers.” And, to be quite frank, what better way is there to while away your time?
Dog and Bell, 116 Prince St, Deptford, London SE8 3JD