Monday, January 02, 2012

Crocker's Folly

Crocker's Folly

Poor old Crocker's Folly. This once grand old pub is now boarded up. One hopes not for too much longer as it is already showing signs of decay, with windows broken and weeds growing out of the plasterwork.

There are adverts proclaiming the opening of a new branch of the Maroush Lebanese restaurant chain, but I have a feeling it has been 'coming soon' for a while now. I notice it is listed for sale at £4.25 million, and ominously, the blurb says 'Can Produce 20 S/C Studio Flats'.

It would be a shame to lose such an historic pub. It has a wonderful story behind it, as best described in Ted Bruning's exellent book, Historic Pubs of London...

"...Here is true folly: folly preserved forever in mahogany and marble, folly on a princely scale, folly so tragic that London has been laughing about it for over a century. Originally The Crown Hotel, this grand pub was built in the 1890s in an unassuming Maida Vale side street by a Kilburn publican named Frank Crocker. And what a palace Frank built!

It had - still has - two bars: a public bar of no more than ordinary magnificence, and a grand saloon with marble bar-top and pilasters, marble stringing, marble archways, even a great marble fireplace; with a magnificent Jacobean-style coffered ceiling of the most intricate plasterwork; and acres of gleaming woodwork.

It is mad - the demented dream of an architect who has overdosed on a mixture of hallucinogens and mason's catalogues. The former billiard-room, now a carvery, is scarcely less ornate: but perhaps the bust of Caracalla is a sly demonstration that the pub's designers were quite conscious of the excess to which their client was pushing them: Caracalla was a Roman emperor known for his architectural excesses and his complete insanity.

The whole thing was the biggest gamble in the history of pubs: the railway was approaching from the north, heading straight as an arrow for Maida Vale. Surely, reasoned Crocker, it would stop right were he was building his palatial pub; and the Crown Hotel would become the Railway Hotel, and a goldmine.

Alas for Crocker! The line turned left a few degrees at St John's Wood, to terminate not at his doorway, but about a mile away, where Marylebone Station now stands. The Crown Hotel was a palace in the middle of nowhere; the grandest folie in London.

Crocker, naturally, went bust and then killed himself by jumping out of an upstairs window.

For years the pub mouldered on as an absurdly grand local; a photograph of 1967 shows it much as it was built, even down to a few surviving sticks of the original custom made furniture. Only the gas fittings had been changed, and the tawdry little lights with which they had been replaced speak volumes.

In 1983 the Crown was bought by north eastern brewer Vaux, which formally adopted its nickname and then sold it to Regent Inns, which now runs at a big, bustling profit. They say Crocker's ghost appears each evening at cashing up time, his dead eyes bulging with spectral envy."


IN the gamut of pub closures the length and breadth of the land this pub is slightly unusual but the fundamental problem with pubs that are finished like this; and there are many, many such cases, is NOT that there is no direct and immediate potential for these pubs to be welcoming, busy, vibrant, exciting catering businesses that are absolutely relevant to the demands, expectations and aspirations of contemporary customers; it's that the buildings have lacked sympathetic insightful investment under brewers and pub companies for the last forty years. This chronic underinvestment has left the national pub estate - what I consider to be OUR, the public's, very own bricks and mortar - in a perilously weak state from which in most instances there is no return.

If the right kind of capital were available to buy these freeholds and then develop them sensitively to match the needs of the contemporary audience they would not be suffering threat at all; instead these pubs would be acting as they always could; had they been managed for the right reasons instead of for the short term gain of the interests of private equity investors; they would still be important focuses of community activity, places of congregation, of human sustenance and of conversation by turns intellectual insightful and scurrilous conversation AND they would be generating healthy financial surpluses that could be ploughed back into the communities and the wider economy.

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