Wednesday 21 February 2024

Mortlake, Brentford and memories of Watney's

I’ve written elsewhere about the funeral I attended at Mortlake Crematorium last Friday, and I had it in my mind that Mortlake represented a stretch of the River Thames in London that I hadn’t been to before. I’d visited Kew, Richmond, Hammersmith, and Twickenham, but had no recollection of Mortlake - or so I thought. It wasn't until I’d walked the short distance from Mortlake station towards the Thames, that I developed a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Heading off initially, in the wrong direction after leaving the station didn’t help – shades of Macclesfield there, but without a street name or landmark to reference one’s position to, it’s an easy mistake to make. Anyway, upon reaching the large, and rather soulless looking buildings, overlooked by a massive concrete chimney, that I realised this was the now closed, Stag Brewery, that once belonged to CAMRA’s one-time arch enemy, Watney’s.

I’d visited the Stag Brewery back in the early 1980’s, on a works outing, when it was still owned by Watney’s, and was brewing beer for Watney Mann & Truman. A strange place to visit, perhaps, for someone who was passionate about cask beer, but not for someone interested in the science of brewing, as well as its history. Work colleagues, aware of my interest in beer, had cajoled me into putting my name down for the tour, and when the allotted day arrived, I joined them on the coach that would take us to Mortlake and back.

I remember very little about the tour, and even less of which beers I drank, (Holsten Pils, probably),  but years later, and following the fall-out from the UK Government’s ill-conceived Beer Orders, Mortlake suffered the ignominious fate of becoming the main production centre for the brewing of American Budweis, in the UK. Eventually, following further consolidation and mergers within the brewing industry, Mortlake was earmarked for closure, and this was originally scheduled to take place in December 2010.

Various stays of execution then followed, and the brewery continued producing Budweiser, until the end of 2015. After decommissioning, brewery owners Anheuser-Busch InBev, vacated the site a year later and it is now owned by a Singapore-based developer. This large site, overlooking the Thames, has been earmarked for regeneration as a new mixed-use neighbourhood of flats, shops, and offices. Some of the historic buildings will be conserved as part of the package, but in 2024 there are no signs of  any development work taking place.

I discovered this for myself, after giving up on the nearby Jolly Gardeners – a former Young’s pub, as a place for a lunchtime drink, plus a quick bite to eat, choosing instead to follow the narrow Ship Lane along to the banks of the river. The lane divides the two unequal halves of the former Stag Brewery site, with the older, historic buildings to the right, and the newer, more functional section to the left. Emerging onto the road running along the riverbank, I reached the Ship Inn an attractive, 18th Century, riverside pub with a double frontage, and a beer garden, overlooking the finishing line for the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

I only discovered that fact from WhatPub but enthused with a sense of keenness to experience a small part of the excitement of this annual spectacle, I stepped inside the pub, having first perused the lunchtime menu, displayed outside. A toasted sandwich would suit me fine, as would a quick half of beer – I had no desire to interrupt a solemn occasion, like a funeral service, having to squeeze past mourners, whilst finding my way to the Gents.

The Ship had a spacious interior, which was virtually empty. A large, l-shaped bar counter occupied a large part of the left-hand side of the bar, but he thing which struck me most, was the pub was virtually empty. It was certainly far emptier than one would expect for a Friday lunchtime, at a pub occupying a prime location, on the bank of the Thames, just to the left of the graceful stone arches, that make up Chiswick Bridge. The cask offering looked rather empty as well, with just a pump-clip for Greene King IPA tempting discerning drinkers away from the numerous keg offerings available from the “T” bars., but as I soon discovered, that beer too was unavailable.

In the end, I settled for a half of Beavertown Neck Oil – an old standby, but just the right thing to go with my toasted cheese sandwich. There was no real need though, for the rocket and raw onion, and I’m still puzzling over the brown liquid in that small white dish - soy sauce, hoisin sauce? Perhaps dressing simple food up like this is what they teach at chef school, but it isn’t really wanted, and as my good lady wife would say, it just contributes to food waste, whilst bumping up the price.

Sitting at a window table, at the front of the pub, I pretty much had the place to myself, although there were several groups occupying the far rear of the bar. I wondered whether, like myself, they were mourners, heading for the funeral. As I happened, they were, but if it hadn’t been for funeral attendees, the Ship would have been visually empty. I heard the barman explaining to a couple of late arrivals, that the pub was due a change of management, and that he was just looking after the place in the interim.

I imagine things would be different, come Boat Race day, but for a mid- Friday afternoon, the Ship had all the atmosphere of a hospital waiting room. I returned my empty glass to the bar – my plate with its uneaten rocket untouched and made my way towards the crematorium.  It was just a short walk away, along the river bank, and under one of the arches, of the attractive Chiswick Bridge. I retraced my footsteps after the funeral and made my way back to Mortlake station. The post-funeral wake would be taking place at the Griffin, a lovely little, Fuller’s pub, in a quiet residential area, close to the site of the former Brentford FC football ground. Getting there by train was a bit of a balls ache, as the kids would say, as it involved catching a train to Barnes, one stop back towards Waterloo, and then changing platforms, for one that would take me to Brentford. With an approximate 15-minute wait at each station, it was some time before I arrived at the Griffin.

Talking later, to a lady at the wake, I realised it would have been quicker to have walked there, and I’m sure it would have been a pleasant riverside walk between Chiswick and Kew Bridges – but not after dark! Stepping inside the Griffin I was left wondering if I was too late, and the wake had already finished.  I needn’t have worried, as after securing an excellent pint of London Pride at the bar – yes it was drinking well, I was directed along a short corridor to a room at the far right of the pub.

It was standing room only in the function room, but there was still a good spread of food laid out on a couple of tables, along the back wall. I had several interesting conversations with people who had been at the funeral, and who obviously knew Bryan a lot better than I did, including a very engaging gent from Copenhagen, who happened to run a brewery in the Danish capital. I was also able to express my condolences in person to Bryan’s sister Jaqui, and his wife Helma. It was a fitting, and appropriate end to what had been a very emotional day.

Before leaving, I nipped back along the corridor to the bar, and the main part of the pub. The place was heaving, and I couldn’t help thinking what a smashing pub the Griffin is. It certainly has a Tardis-like interior, but in real life has a proper claim to fame, and one that I only discovered following Friday’s visit. Until fairly recently, it was one of the four pubs surrounding Griffin Park, home of Brentford FC, which was known as the only stadium in the whole football league to have a pub on each corner. I later learned that the football club moved to a new ground close to Kew Bridge station, less than a mile away from their old home.

Upon leaving, and handing my empty glass back across the bar, I complemented a drinker sitting on a nearby stool, about how impressed I was with the Griffin. It’s certainly a brilliant pub, he said, and one that I travel a long way to. In my naivety I asked him how far, oh, just across the road was his reply! What a lucky bugger, I thought, as I wished him goodnight!

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