Kat Hanna is research manager at the Centre for London think tank, a valued friend of this site. Her extensive knowledge of the city embraces, in particular, housing, technology and places of innovation. This is her first piece for On London and hopefully not her last.
Last week, an advert appeared on Rightmove, proclaiming a “rare opportunity to acquire a Grade II listed pub”. It boasts that as well as extensive car parking space and adjoining private land, the pub offers “a range of unusual features”.
For those who know the pub in question, The Palm Tree in Mile End, this mention of “unusual features” is a rare instance of estate agent realtalk. The pub is indeed stuffed with quirks: a cash-only bar dominated by a till that looks like something from a vintage Fisher Price range; surprisingly expensive drinks that can be most charitably described as “no frills”; and, of course, live jazz performed at weekends with little ceremony by a band with a collective age of around 300.
To the uninitiated and undaring, The Palm Tree appears to be split into two sections – one at the front, where a line forms any time anyone orders more than two drinks, and one at the back, often empty, but sometimes filled with what you may call “the proper locals”. It was not until after about three years of frequenting the pub that, spurred on by a friend, I discovered the side door into the back room, and that no, the staff didn’t mind you sitting there.
But most surprising is that fact that the establishment still exists. This is true both of the building – why is it surrounded by nothing? – and the charm of the pub itself. The East London scene is dominated by brand, experience, and hybrid activities. I say this as someone who was once taken under duress to an “adult ball pond” – a grown-ups’ equivalent of a children’s play facility – that turned out to be the back room of a cafe filled with a layer of balls about as deep as the thin grey snow that lines London’s streets on a February morning.
In contrast, the Palm Tree is delightfully single-minded and gimmick free. There are no steak nights, no quizzes, no outdoor heaters, no cucumber water, and not a filament bulb in sight. The dim red lighting makes it virtually uninstagrammable. It exudes an authenticity that most property developers would kill for, all without an exposed brick wall in sight. It does not need decor or branding to pay homage to the East End’s cultural heritage or to reference its local roots, quite simply because the pub has barely changed. It’s a time capsule, not a retrofit or a restoration.
As Darren, a Mile End local who’s relatives own The Palm Tree recalls, there used to be around half a dozen pubs within a five minute walk of the pub. All were free houses. “I think it survived so long because it truly is one of the last East End pubs,” he says. “Remember that most pubs looked and felt like that. But over the years, one by one, they have made money as flats.”
There is a sadness, but certainly not a shock, that the pub is now a target for redevelopment. One imagines that estate agents have circled it for decades. Nor should we be shocked that the owners, after some 60 years of running the place, are happy to settle for the pretty decent sum of £4.2m. Mile Enders are pretty spoilt when it comes to pubs (disclaimer – I live above one of them).
It is easy to sneer at the proliferation of daily menus and board games in Mile End pubs, but The Palm Tree is a reminder that they haven’t all undergone the millennial facelift. There are just as many I’d probably not go in unaccompanied as there are I’d take my parents to for a Sunday roast. But there is a unique affection for the Palm Tree that goes beyond nostalgia or irony. Go there on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see why.
So what then, does the future hold? Rightmove cites “potentially pre-approved planning” to expand the flats already above the pub both ways. At the moment, however, no planning applications seem to be have been submitted. The most likely outcome is a commercial development on the ground floor with flats above. (I won’t use the adjective “luxury” until we know what the price per square foot looks like.) Or perhaps it will be something that’s more or less purely residential, which tends to be where the financial value is.
Can all this be opposed? Possibly. There’s been a handful of successes in determining pubs as assets of community value, making comprehensive development much harder. Yet deep down, most of know that without its current owners, The Palm Tree may be finally set for a change. Preserving the building would certainly be a coup. Retaining the same atmosphere feels like an impossible task.
This perhaps, is no bad thing. Younger Mile Enders are under no illusions that cities thrive on change and renewal, and we should not begrudge the building of new homes. But in an area that has been largely unscathed by regeneration, albeit transformed by demographic-led gentrification, this particular redevelopment is going to hit hard.