‘I think it’s a friendly pub for people who like to chat. You won’t be in long before you get invited into a conversation. You’ll always get a decent pint of beer. And you’ll be made to feel welcome, I think. That’s as much as I can say and it’s up to yourself after that!’ Charlie Gallagher, Dog and Bell.
The best way to approach the Dog and Bell is to start at the southern foot of Deptford High Street and work your way up.
This way, you start with sensory assault: the raw smells of fresh fish and meat, bold and gaudy shop fronts, the calling of traders and the cackling debates of betting shop street drinkers. As you pass underneath the railway bridge, this lively bustle recedes into a hum of alfresco coffee drinkers, grocery shoppers and the muted rattle of prams. The northernmost point feels more like a remote outpost, bracketed by the boarded-up Noah’s Ark and the boarded-up Harp of Erin, all quiet except for the rush of traffic, the stench of exhaust fumes. Continue on, over Creek Road, and walk up Watergate Street, enveloped in leafy silence. Rounding a corner onto Prince Street, deep in residential stillness, you will find the Dog and Bell, a classic back-street local.
Stillness permeates the pub. Wandering in on a Thursday afternoon, I find the front bar bathed in soft, contented quiet. There are two other customers: one sits at the end of the bar reading the paper, the other sits in the adjoining room near the lit fire with a pint and a novel. The pub is immaculately kept, well lit and warm, with a carpeted floor, wooden bar and light yellow walls. It feels like someone’s front room.
The quiet might unnerve the first-time visitor, depending on their disposition. There is no piped music, jukebox or fruit machine, just an unobtrusive, terrestrial-only television sitting above the door. Sit long enough at the bar, however, and you realise that this stillness actually makes for a more relaxed and sociable atmosphere. Drinkers drift casually in and out of conversation, old and new faces alike, playing along with TV quiz shows or sharing local gossip. Or not, if they don’t feel like it: it’s also the perfect place to steal some peace and quiet with a decent pint and the papers, suspended in a very English nirvana.
All told, there is something deeply civilised about the Dog and Bell, personified in the figures of landlords Charlie and Eileen Gallagher.
Charlie, who took over the pub in 1988, is a soft-spoken, modest man who apologises in advance of our interview for ‘not being very good at this sort of thing’ and is visibly relieved when the tape recorder is eventually switched off.
‘This was basically a dockers’ pub,’ he explains. ‘As Convoys Wharf closed down and left the area, more and more of the pubs around here have simply folded.’
The Dog and Bell has survived, however, thanks to friendly service and Charlie’s reverence for proper beer. The pub serves five or six real ales from the pumps at any given time, always in prime condition and at incredibly low prices; usually between £3 and £3.30 a pint (with similar prices for lager and cider). As a result, it has become something of a destination pub for real ale drinkers.
‘We have a decent reputation for real ales and there are enough real ale drinkers to keep us solvent, with the help of a few students and some newer people moving into the area,’ says Charlie. ‘There are still local people who come in, but most people travel here from any distance really, a lot from Greenwich, other parts of Deptford, New Cross, Brockley, as far afield as Lewisham. Also a lot of students have got into the real ale scene recently, and there is a big local student population.’
Listed for decades in the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, the pub’s walls are heaving with certificates of commendation from both CAMRA and the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, whose members regularly meet and drink here. The latter group is particularly keen, having crowned the Dog and Bell as its “London Pub of the Year” three times in the past ten years.
As the independent owner of a free house (that is, a pub not tied to a single brewery or corporate owner), Charlie can stock whichever beers he likes, although this is less of a competitive advantage now that smarter pub chains such as Antic are now also offering greater choice. Still, this flexibility allows the Dog and Bell to mix old favourites with newer styles and trends: as well as traditional real ale, the Dog and Bell stocks around 20 Belgian and American beers in bottles.
‘I’m prepared to experiment. I quite like them myself actually!’ says Charlie. ‘I’m not anti-change. You have to move with the times, insofar as you can do it.’
Indeed, the pub’s pumps regularly feature innovative ales from upstart local brewers such as Brockley Ales and London Fields Brewery, alongside established brewers producing more traditional styles. Charlie draws the line, however, at craft beer dispensed from kegs rather than pulled from casks; while he acknowledges their quality, they are more expensive and he prefers to stick to his strengths.
Aside from excellent beer, the Dog and Bell offers an affordable lunchtime and evening menu of ‘traditional pub food’, including a Sunday roast. The pub is typically busiest on the weekends, with the beer garden proving a strong draw in the summer. The Sunday night pub quiz is also something of an institution:
‘The pub quiz has been going for 25 years, that attracts a jolly crowd. It’s set by customers who volunteer to do it, so they take the flak if it’s a bit too tough, and get the plaudits if it’s enjoyable. It works very well.’
The highlight of the year, however, is the annual pickles contest held at the end of November, which has been running for over 15 years.
‘It’s a wonderful thing,’ he says, chuckling. ‘It started off through a simple idea: what do allotment holders do with their vegetables at the end of the year? Most of them pickle them. One of our customers who had an allotment came up with the idea of a pickle competition to see who makes the best homemade pickles. Surprisingly, a lot of people like to do that sort of thing! It’s a hugely popular event, people come from far and wide with cakes and pickles, and jams and breads.’
And if this were not typically English enough for you, the Blackheath Morris Men sometimes meet here, practicing and performing outside the pub on occasion (‘they’re always looking for new recruits if anyone’s interested!’). There’s also a bar billiards table kept in pristine condition, although with so few of these tables around it’s difficult to organise any inter-pub competition.
I linger for a few pints after the tape recorder is switched off. With the “formal” interview over, Charlie now chats freely with me and the other patrons about beer, breweries, pubs and changing Deptford. As the evening draws in, a steady trickle of customers fill up the bar and the adjoining room, giving rise to a gentle conversational hum.
After pouring me a third pint of Trilby, a lovely 4% beer from Herne Hill nanobrewery A Head in a Hat, Charlie disappears to his office and returns with a sheaf of historical documents. It’s a treasure trove: a list of all of the pub’s previous landlords stretching back to the 1700s, a copy of a sea shanty – ‘Homeward Bound‘ – that immortalises the pub in verse, an auction notice from 1859 advertising the pub as offering ‘to a clever man of business an opportunity of realizing a speedy fortune’, as well as several accounts of court proceedings that hark back to Deptford’s rough and tumble past. Of these, my favourite is an account of the 1895 mugging of John Cox, set upon outside the now-closed Navy Arms. His assailants were arrested shortly afterwards, having fled no further than the Dog and Bell, a few doors down.
I can only assume the beer was as irresistible then as it is now. By the time I make my way back home, Deptford High Street is quiet and still.
Dog and Bell, 116 Prince Street, London SE8 3JD. 020 8692 5664. Cash only. Not suitable for children.