Here’s a simple choice: do you feel a powerful urge to cut half an hour off the journey time from London to Birmingham — or do you want to stop an award-winning, street-corner pub from being knocked down to make way for high-speed rail network HS2?
The pub in question is the Bree Louise on the corner of Cobourg Street and Euston Street, just a two-minute stagger from Euston Station.
Craig and Karen Douglas who run the pub are faced with a compulsory purchase order. If, and when, HS2 is operational then their pub, lovingly nursed back to fame and fortune over 13 years of hard graft, will be razed to the ground.
It’s not a poorly trading pub. I phoned Craig on a Friday evening. There was such a roar of noise — laughter, banter, clinking glasses — he had to go outside to hear me.
When I arrived the next morning, he was turning somersaults in the bar. He’d just been told the Bree Louise had been named the Campaign for Real Ale’s London Pub of the Year for 2016-17. It’s the second time it has won the award. The first was in 2009-10 and was followed by being named CAMRA’s London Cider Pub of the Year for 2014-15.
Craig comes from a strong pub background. He was born in Canterbury, Kent, where his father was a coal miner. When the Kent mines closed, he went into running pubs and Craig joined him both before and after university.
Craig branched out on his own, running pubs in Luton and St Albans before moving to London. When he and Karen took over the Euston pub, it needed a complete makeover. It was called the Jolly Gardeners — “don’t know why, there were no gardeners, jolly or otherwise, in the area” — and neighbouring buildings included a crack house and, in his description, a “whore house”.
The pub regulars could hardly be described as desirable either. The Douglases changed that by introducing a vigorous cask-ale policy with prices to match.
“We didn’t break even for four years,” Douglas says, “but we had to change the clientele.”
The pub’s name was also changed — in memory of the Douglas’s daughter Bree Louise who died just 12 weeks after being born. Today, they live above the pub with their two sons. If the pub is flattened by HS2, they will lose their home as well as their livelihood.
The Bree Louise is a no-frills, traditional pub with one large L-shaped bar, ample seating and a ceiling festooned with beer mats to show the vast range of beers it sells. It’s a shrine to cask beer. The number on offer has grown during the years and Douglas now offers 23 on handpump, by gravity or — a new development — key cask. The range changes daily, sometimes hourly.
“We need a diversity of beer. We need to avoid the mainstream,” Craig says. The beers on offer the day I dropped in prove the point: Dorset Beer Company, Great Western Brewery, Gloucester Brewery, Redemption from Tottenham, Titanic, Tring, Jurassic, Sambrook’s from Battersea and Windsor & Eton to name just a few.
“There will be 14 beers on today,” Douglas tells me, “but they won’t be here next week.” He also offers around a dozen ciders and perries.
Surprisingly, given the choice of beer drawn from small independent producers, the Bree Louise is owned by the national pub company Enterprise Inns.
Craig is free of the tie and that costs him £3,000 a year on top of his annual rent. Fortunately, the pub now turns over £250,000 a year, but making a living is a hard slog in the modern world of giant pubcos with large palms that need to be crossed with silver.
Craig and Karen Douglas cater for all-comers. The wine offer is thoughtfully drawn up and there’s good pub grub, based on a large range of pies along with pasta dishes, burgers, and good old fish & chips and bangers and mash.
It’s everything a great pub should be and it’s too good to lose. HS2 is some way off and could yet run into the sidings. A bill to allow the new line is wending its way through the House of Commons and will then have to pass to the Lords for approval. If that happens, it will return to the Commons to gain Royal Assent.
It will then take five years and £80bn to build the line. But in the finest British tradition of cock-ups, it’s likely to over-run both its deadline and its budget.
If HS2 does go ahead, Craig doesn’t yet know what compensation package he will be offered. “A new pub next to a train station would be good,” he says.
He will create a petition to save the Bree Louise once the plans for HS2 are finalised. In the meantime, it’s a classic case of use it or lose it. When you’re in the vicinity of Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras, head for Cobourg Street and enjoy a rollicking good pint before the bulldozers move in.