One foot in the past - refurbishing the Jamaica Wine House

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A Victorian style back-bar will be the main attraction at the Jamaica Wine HouseYou wouldn't want to choose between Jeremy Paxman and Stephen Brook...

A Victorian style back-bar will be the main attraction at the Jamaica Wine House

You wouldn't want to choose between Jeremy Paxman and Stephen Brook under interrogation. "What is it strikes you about this place? Come on! Come on!" After a second's hesitation, the boss of Massive threw out his arms in exasperation. "It's beautiful! Beautiful!"

Actually, the Jamaica Wine House (pictured)​ was not looking quite at its best, being in the middle of a major makeover. But you could see the potential all right.

There is probably more mahogany in the Jam Pot, as its regulars in the City of London call it, than there is left in the Amazonian rain forest.

Stephen has long been an admirer of the Victorian drinking house. He used to be a regular there himself before he left his job in the City to set up Massive.

Now he is the leaseholder, having bought the pub, which had closed down, through Christie & Co a few months back. Work on the refurbishment has finally got under way following tortuous negotiations on the plans for the Grade II listed building, which had to be approved by the local authority and English Heritage.

Stephen, of course, has no intention of doing anything that will drastically alter the Jamaica's historic interior.

The wood panels that divide the bar will stay, as will the bar itself. The back-bar, however, is not original and is being ripped out - incidentally, by none other than Paul McGinley, the former joint-owner of Settle Inns who has abandoned the operational side of the pub industry "to work with my hands".

He has been hired by designer and builder Ian Thomas, who is responsible for the Jamaica refurb.

In his 20-odd years designing bars, Ian has read "dozens" of books on the subject and is going back to the roots of Victorian bar design for the new back-bar.

"Basically, we are putting back what should be there," he said. "The Victorians were great at building bars."

There will, of course, be one or two modern refinements.

Back-bars in the 19th century were designed chiefly for spirits. Very little wine was sold in pubs in those days.

Originally, spirits bottles were ranged along a shelf at eye-level and when spirits dispensers came in the shelf was a handy place to fix them. This became known as the "Optic rail" after the dominant Gaskell & Chambers make of dispense equipment.

Ian's new design incorporates more shelves to display the wines which form an important part of Massive's business, plus free-pour spirits in keeping with the latest trend. A number of spirits dispensers clearly defined in groups of four will be included, however, to give the operator an extra option.

Overall, he describes the design as "simple and classical". Stephen's policy is "never to skimp on materials" and it will be made out of mahogany to match the rest of the pub. Ian has imported some environmentally-friendly mahogany from managed forests - where more trees are planted than are chopped down.

Bevelled edge mirrors go behind the shelving and lighting will be angled to reflect back through the bottles.

Another concession to modern times will be fridges, which as far as Ian is concerned is fine - "as long as all you can see is the booze".

The Jamaica's bar is exceptionally long, so it will be zoned so that stocking is repeated three or four times and each member of barstaff has everything they might need within easy reach to improve efficiency.

Some of the wood panels in the dividers will be replaced by glass so staff can spot customers waiting at other zones and so improve service.

One odd thing that Ian has discovered is that the bar counter is "an inch too short". Surprisingly, there is a standard height for bars, set by the Victorians, of 42 inches. He speculates that this may have been at the back of Douglas Adams' mind when he specified in his Hitch Hiker's Guide that the meaning of life, the universe and everything was "42".

Anyway, the Jamaica's bar is only 41 thanks to the build-up of five layers of linoleum on the floor. This will be stripped away to reveal the original wooden floor and restore the counter's correct height.

After more than a month of solid work, the new Jamaica Inn will open on June 10.

For Stephen the excitement will then be over.

"When you have done the best you can you hand the pub over to its customers and the people who will work in it. Then we shall find out wether we've got it right.

"We want it to have a "wow" factor, as we do for all our pubs. No one knows how the Jamaica really was 130 years ago, of course. But we want to say something Victorian, to make it real for people."

The history of the Jamaica Wine House

The Jamaica Wine House stands in an alleyway off Cornhill on the site of the City's first coffee house, established in 1652 and destroyed 14 years later by the Great Fire of London.

It then became home to sea captains and rum and brandy merchants trading with the West Indies before the present pub was built about 1870.

In its latter years it was used by City workers who treated it as a cross between a wine bar and a pub.

One of its great appeals, Stephen Brook remembers, was that it was one of the first to sell Beck's Bier which it frequently sold to groups of customers by the case.

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