The First Serpie Pub

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A number of pubs have played host to our members over the past thirty-five years. Kim Boursnell returns to the very first Serpie pub.

“Will someone lead me to a pub?” So asks Thomas Burke, expounding the virtues of the traditional English boozer in his 1936 love letter to London’s best watering holes. Burke describes the pub as an ‘…open club, with no rules or formalities of entry save those of decent behaviour and mutual respect.’ It occurs to me that we might add ‘and a desire to run’ to then adopt this as a Serpie tag line. Which brings me to the point of this piece; that all running routes lead to the pub. Right?

I first experienced a Serpie post-run pub gathering in 2011. It was a chilly November Wednesday evening in the Lord Wargrave and the place was awash with runners engaged in post-parks banter – tables pushed together, people stood gabbing in the spaces between or queuing at the bar. My Serpie chaperone spotted a friend who’d recently completed a marathon and we went over to ask about her race. Folks were variously clad – many still in their running gear, others changed back into civvies – and everyone was eating and drinking and greeting each other, or so it seemed to me. This was a Serpie pub – one of a historic line up of local establishments chosen by our club members as a fitting post-run meeting place and the continuation of a tradition that is as old as the club itself.

London is a goldmine of old pubs, many with a history stretching back centuries – their stories and those of their patrons woven together across the years. Over the past thirty-five years a number of pubs have played host to our members; borne witness to training plans, post-race celebrations, friendships forged and romances ignited. What do we know of these places? I thought I’d do some digging and, as with all the best stories, start at the beginning…

And so to the history behind our first club watering-hole – The Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street, some distance from our latter-day stomping ground in the vicinity of the Seymour Centre. In the early 80’s a group of founding members frequented The Churchill Arms of a Saturday, for post-run lunch and drinks. Ros Young recalls how the Saturday morning runners would wend their way over and spend many hours talking – to the occasional exasperation of the pub management, who perhaps felt their customer turn-around was compromised by this table of stalwarts! Good relations were maintained however, and Ros tells me that she and Hillary Walker still meet there for lunch and that Gerry, the pub landlord, recently bought her a pint.

The Churchill Arms bore witness to a defining moment in Serpentine Running Club history – the first meeting with Tom Hogshead, namesake for our handicap trophy. Tom’s story is well told by Hazel Paterson and you can read it here. For the purpose of this piece, suffice to note that running enthusiasts might be found in the unlikeliest places and you never know where some idle pub chit-chat might end up.

Today, the Churchill Arms sits at the corner of Kensington Church and Campden Streets in the heart of Notting Hill. The original pub on this site was built as part of a development of rural North Kensington and named The Bedford Arms. It was leased from October 1823, before being renamed as The Churchill Arms in 1826. The reason for this remains unclear, but one theory suggests it is a contraction of ‘Church Hill’, in reference to the local geography. The pub’s website suggests otherwise; that Winston Churchill’s paternal grandparents – John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, and his wife, Lady Frances Vane – used to drink there in the 1800s which led to the establishment being renamed for the great Statesman, after World War II. This, alongside the rather more tongue-in-cheek claim that Churchill made his war time broadcasts from the site (Fullers has come clean on that front) are aptly illustrated by the array of Churchill and London-themed memorabilia decorating the pub’s interior. This collection includes photos and paintings of the wartime leader, a violin made from Winston’s old Havana cigar boxes, a model London bus and a cardboard cut-out of the Queen. Alongside this distinctly British theme sits a vast hoard of other curiosities; a collection of what appear to be chamber pots hang from the ceiling, alongside lanterns, fire buckets and baskets. A row of rugby balls is suspended behind the bar – a reference to the establishment’s other great passion. Photos and framed press-clippings line the windows and walls so the place is in perpetual twilight, even on a sunny midday.

Much of the existing interior dates from a refit c.1930. Partitions from that era, originally separating the bar area into rooms, have since been removed however the CAMRA Pub Heritage Group lists the Churchill Arms as a regionally important historic interior. One peculiarity is a Victorian snob screen – most likely introduced during a later refit. These rare survivals from Victorian pubs were designed to separate customers from bar staff by means of small glass panels that were rotated open or closed.

Over the past 30 years, it has been the pub’s distinctive exterior that has attracted the most attention. ‘The pub with all the flowers?’ was a common response from most people I spoke to, in reference to the 42 hanging baskets, 48 window boxes and 100 foliage-stuffed tubs that festoon the walls. This impressive display is maintained at an annual cost of £25,000 and has won the pub accolades, including Boozers in Bloom and a Chelsea Flower show award. It doesn’t end there. Each December, Gerry the Landlord decks the walls with fairy lights and Christmas trees – 21,000 lights and 90 trees at last count in 2016 – earning it the unofficial title of Britain’s most festive pub.

The floral theme continues inside with a plant-strewn conservatory and restaurant. Trailing greenery obscures the skylight and a framed collection of 1,500 pinned butterflies covers the walls alongside a life-size photo of Alan Titchmarsh. The restaurant has been serving Thai food for at least 20 years and claims to be the first London pub to have done so.

One final feature of the Churchill Arms deserves mention and that is Gerry O’Brien, pub landlord since July 1985. Gerry is credited with the pub’s near celebrity status, and Fullers estimates that he has pulled around two million pints of London Pride during the past thirty-two years.

I enjoyed my visit to the Churchill Arms – it is almost a model of conviviality – but there was something missing. The West London lunch-crowd banter and sweet fragrance of flowers, mingled with a waft of Thai cuisine fade as I pass through the bar, my mind substituting the animated chatter of training plans, the scent of used running kit – and invoking a ghost of this pub as our first Serpie home.

Kim Boursnell is, to paraphrase Churchill, a modest runner (with good reason) and has been a Serpie for two and a half years. Aside from running she has a passion for history, especially all things medieval.