THE ROCHESTER CASTLE IMBUES THE SPIRIT OF HACKNEY
The Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington is the oldest trading Wetherspoons pub. The location has been a pub since 1702 (well before it became a Wetherspoons pub), when it was known as The Green Dragon. It has several photographs with accompanying text displayed on its walls with details and anecdotes of the neighbourhood’s history.
The Rochester Castle, 145 Stoke Newington High Street, Stoke Newington, London N16 0NY. Phone: 020 7249 6016
“The finest people I’ve ever met in my life are in pubs.” — Oliver Reed
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting my uncle’s bar in Rosario, Argentina with my dad, back in the 1980s. Almost every weekend we would stop by Junior — such is still the name of the place — on our way back from the cinema or the video games arcade. I was fascinated by the the deco that hadn’t changed in almost 30 years, the parade of faces rushing past the big front windows, the ancient men and women hiding behind their papers, clients who were there every time we turned up, so that you didn’t know whether they were clients or human furniture. As soon as I was old enough I was spending most of my time in bars. This is a sport I’m still practicing, even during periods of voluntary or enforced sobriety. For me it isn’t necessarily about drinking but about finding a place where I can plug into the world. Being in London means I should never run out of these haunts, even if here they go by another name: pubs.
What caught my attention the first time I walked into a pub in London was the diversity of the punters. Even in a central London boozer you could see the poor and the rich, the white and the black and the Asian drinking the same beer, every now and then having a conversation, sometimes even enjoying their company. This was over 15 years ago, when pubs smelled of cigarettes and you didn’t have to pay for a pint with one of your kidneys. The pubs where we spend our time today have changed even faster than the city around them, perhaps anticipating the London to come. The gastropub fad, first, evicted many from the places they used to call their second home. The craft beer fad later finished the job. I’m not bemoaning the disappearance of an Old London where everything was nicer and the grass was greener, because I’ve only been here for 15 years. I’m not idealising the local working class, because I’m not working class. It’s just that I’m not interested in places that feel isolated from their surroundings. I’m not interested in the encounters that might take place in them, if any encounter does ever happen. Thankfully, I still have a place to go to. A place that feels about right, that combines the elements I need in order to feel comfortable.
My local, The Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington, is one of almost 1,000 Wetherspoons in the UK. The current building dates back to the late 19th Century, although there has been a pub in this location in one shape or the other at least since 1702. It was taken over by the chain in 1982, making it the oldest ’Spoons still open.
The Rochester Castle isn’t necessarily “pretty”, but it’s ridiculously cheap and has an unassuming atmosphere that captures very well the spirit of the area. Old fedora-clad Jamaicans, posties during their lunch break, hipsters on a night out (or on the morning after), some of the posh neighbours having an undercover fry-up, anyone you might see walking down Stoke Newington High Street can be found drinking here. If The Rochester Castle looks and feels like Hackney it’s because it isn’t trying to run away from Hackney — it’s as simple as this, almost obvious, and yet so many pubs, by accident or design, get it wrong. Pub chains are full of contradictions, and the one in question here isn’t any different. But for all we can say about this company — the Brexiteering of its owner is what bothers me the most — we can’t accuse it of not knowing its clientele or the places where it sets up business. Ironically, it has been left to a chain once hyped to destroy the pub industry, to preserve the authentic atmosphere of many a London pub. This is something that Kit Caless, Wetherspoon aficionado and contributor to The City Story, rightly defines as “the Wetherspoon’s Paradox”.
The Rochester Castle has an interesting musical history. During the punk revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s it was a renowned music venue. Which band played here or not is disputed, but there is some consensus that at least The Jam and XTC played at the venue in 1977. The version that has the Sex Pistols peddling anarchy within its walls, at some point in their early days, seems to be just a myth, sustained perhaps by the fact that Sid Vicious, bass “player” in the band, used to attend a local school as a teen. Stokey legend and librarian Richard Boon — former manager of the Buzzcocks and, for some, the creator of indie music — can be frequently seen drinking in the pub. His is a presence that links the pub’s present with its past. And not the only one, as some of the locals have been drinking in the building for decades.
Visit a place for long enough and soon you’ll start to second-guess its rhythms, perhaps because the place has become a part of you, or you’ve become a part of it. The old man crossing the doors at 9:00 a.m. every Sunday, wearing headphones that he won’t remove all day, not even to order his beer. The middle-aged guy in rollerblades, crossing the floor from one corner to the other, drink in hand — I ignore if the punters and the bar staff have given up on him or they wouldn’t flinch even if Queen Elizabeth II crossed the door wearing platforms. The Indian man who drinks lager standing by the bar every Sunday, in a Man U top, always shouting loudly into his phone while his wife waits patiently next to him, drinking tap water. The elderly couple who sits every day at the same table, drinking wine, studiously ignoring one another, alone together.
Each one of them, of us, with all of our differences, becoming part of the furniture, adding to the history of The Rochester Castle.
Photographs by Fernando Sdrigotti