Regular readers of this column might have heard me mention my new local a couple of times: the Battle of Trafalgar, which lives a third of the way up the steep hill that’s on your right as you leave Brighton station.
When I first lived in these parts – about a year and a half ago – I didn’t go out much, and the pub, as I passed it, didn’t look particularly welcoming. But that was foolish of me (and almost certainly due to the depression that had settled in my bones; I didn’t think anywhere looked inviting). However, a year in rural Scotland certainly changes your notions of what a welcoming pub looks like.
Scottish country pubs are generally not encouraging either on the outside or the inside. I did go to one in Braemar which was in a fine building; inside the place had been redecorated to look like something halfway between a Sealink ferry and a conference centre. I had never seen so many TV screens in one place at the same time; they were all showing some dismal football match, and the staff outnumbered the customers. We drank up quickly and left.
So I didn’t feel I was missing out too badly when I lived three and a half miles from the nearest pub, but the day after I moved to Brighton in May I thought it would be a good idea to check the Trafalgar out.
I found, inside, something that was not quite the pub of my dreams – the pub of my dreams is a bit more higgledy-piggledy, has an inglenook fireplace and an old fart smoking a pipe in the corner – but wasn’t too far off it. A decent choice of beers (but Harvey’s, the local brewery, beats the rest hands down); a nicely unconventional layout that somehow manages to supply a seat even when the place is packed with football fans (who are civil to each other on match days even when supporting rival teams); no television and a large beer garden that gets the sun in those dangerously tempting hours between three and six in the afternoon.
I’ve brought several friends here, treating it as, in effect, my living room; but it’s the kind of place where you don’t feel like a weirdo if you just want to sit with a book. It’s also dog-friendly, which is on the whole great, apart from the time that the excellent Greek journalist Yiannis Baboulias’s dog tried to have sex with me. (But that’s another story for another day.) There is always a gentle hum of conversation between the staff and the regulars at the bar; and the staff themselves are friendly and good at their work. This was a pub that minded its own business and got on with the job. There is, in short, nothing wrong with it.
Well, according to Enterprise Inns (EI), this is where I’m wrong. What’s wrong with the Battle of Trafalgar, according to the company that owns the lease, is that there aren’t nearly enough TV screens in it, and it isn’t a sports bar. It had a team of about a dozen “consultants” down to look at the pub the other day, and as one of the regulars said, “you don’t have a dozen people round to look at the place if you’re just going to give it a lick and a flick.” Someone is planning to do some serious work here, and assurances that there will only be one telly and no changes to the internal layout are being treated with a certain degree of scepticism. The local paper reported the pub will become part of EI’s “Bermondsey Pub Company” (the first word on whose website is “Pubbiness”, and I would dearly love to know who signed off that one).
The whole situation is a bit complex, I’ve now learned: in the world of drinks companies, things are, well, fluid. EI has agreed to be bought by the Stonegate Group, but the whole thing may go to the Competition and Markets Authority, on the grounds that the resulting conglomerate will own more pubs than anyone has ever owned in the history of Great Britain, and it might be all a bit unfair.
I have to say that although 2019 hasn’t sucked hind tit in the ways that 2016, 2017, and half of 2018 did, there have been moments when it could have done better. First Yiannis Baboulias’s randy dog, then Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, and now just when I’ve found a boozer that’s five minutes’ walk away and suits me (and many other people) right down to the ground, up comes the lease for renewal and a bunch of pointy-heads decide that what this world needs more of is pubs showing football matches on nine-foot screens and bouncers outside the door.
There’s an online petition which you can find pretty easily, which has racked up, at time of writing, about 4,000 signatures; a paper one has a thousand more. I’ve checked out what EI/Bermondsey and Stonegate are capable of doing to a pub, and I can tell you that it’s not catering for the likes of me.