All shops, pubs and businesses have had to vacate. Most are chains: the Ibis and Thistle have gone, All Bar One’s got the slash and Oliver Bonas will be relocating.
There is however, one little boozer – which has spent the last 14 years acquiring its reputation and transforming three taps into the 23 it has today – that won’t have such a seamless relocation. “We’ve been looking,” says owner Karen Douglas, “but all of the big boys keep taking over pubs and transforming them into housing.”
“We started off with ideas of grandeur, hoping to get another space like this, but it’s impossible to get your hands on the Bree’s current demographic elsewhere,” adds Karen’s husband and co-owner Craig.They’ve been looking in Archway, Brixton and Putney but nothing is resonating in the same way Bree Louise did all those years ago. “It’s funny,” says Craig, “when we bought this place, all my mates said: ‘are you an idiot?’” They didn’t know why anyone would buy a pub beside a station.”
While considering whether to buy, they paid it another visit. This was twelve weeks after their daughter Bree Louise (twin of their son, George) had tragically passed away. For Karen, the tipping point was when she spotted the stained glass rose above the pub’s door. “We had had pink roses at Bree Louise’s funeral and as far as I was concerned that was it; we decided to get it there and then.”
Living above the pub for well over a decade, they’ve created a remarkably warm and relaxed atmosphere. Craig puts this down to his simple rules: “No loud music, no sky sports, no fruit machines.” And, he adds, “it’s proof that the art of conversation isn’t dead.”
When we popped in on a Tuesday night, the place was teeming, abuzz with laughter and chatter. “Where do you find a pub, near a station where a lady can feel comfortable sitting in on her own?” asks Karen, discreetly looking at one customer. “Single people can come in and feel comfortable. It isn’t a typical station pub; this is a family pub.”As Craig sips on alcohol-free beer – after 40 years of punishing his liver, now’s the time to “give it more love, kindness and attention” – he mentions that they thought they’d have more time.
They first heard about the proposal six years ago, when they received a ‘did you know’ leaflet through the door. They started going to various community meetings from there. “It seemed too distant at that stage,” said Karen. “Then three years ago it got in gear and Craig has been going up to the House of Commons; he even made it into the Lords.”
“I was never trying to stop HS2 from happening,” says Craig, although the pair are understandably disgruntled that their pub is, according to Karen, getting demolished to make way for, not a set of tracks, but a ramp up to a taxi rank.
“At the end of the day, you can never stop progress,” Craig says, “I was in front of the House of Lords select committee simply arguing for fair compensation. You can say “I don’t want it to happen” all you want but it is going to happen.”Craig and Karen were hoping for another couple of years. “We told everyone it would be ages and then it all came very quickly and that scared us,” says Craig. “We nearly jumped at the first alternative pub – with accommodation above it – but that wouldn’t be right.”
They’ve spent the duration of their time here building up the range of ales and ciders they have. “If we take over another pub, you might be able to put six ales on tap, but people are going to come in wondering what happened to the Bree Louise if that’s all we can offer them.”
Time will tell if the publicans manage to snatch up a spot suitable enough to recreate the Bree Louise’s charm. They are well aware that competition for space in the capital is rife; the churning cogs of this city seem to stop for no-one.
On the final weekend of January (Sat 27th), the Bree Louise has its final jamboree. They’ll close off Cobalt Street, have live music and get some of the Drummond Street crew on catering duty. According to Craig, their only objective is to “drink the place dry.” The following Wednesday they give the keys to the HS2. Here’s to the Bree Louise.
Read the full version of this article in our new print edition, out next week on 24th Jan.