Farewell to The Gowlett

November 17, 2017

Photo: Ewan Munro on Flickr

Edit: 2/2/18 – The Gowlett has reopened! 

As locals may be aware, Peckham’s much-loved pub The Gowlett, has been forced to close. Many people I know are gutted about this, the loss of a real local’s boozer. There aren’t too many of those in Peckham any more. I feel pretty annoyed about it, to be honest. Owner Jonny Henfrey posted this message on the pubs Facebook page on Monday:

‘It is with a heavy heart that today we have had to take the decision to close The Gowlett. We have been working for some time on a package to allow Jack and the team to continue in place but alas, time has today run out. It is still hoped that this will happen sooner rather than later but that was taken out of my hands this morning.

I can’t even begin to apologise to the staff, customers, DJs, friends, suppliers and everyone else who have been involved in this being such an amazing place to be, enough. I’ve tagged a few of you here, but can’t really think… I am broken.

Understandably, I won’t be responding to stuff over the coming few days, as I have enough to deal with. My first efforts are to ensure the staff are taken care of.

I’ll see you all on the other side of what this all may bring.’ 

The team had been involved in an ongoing battle over noise complaints from local people who didn’t like living on the same road as a pub. I don’t know all the details so won’t comment further but thought you might like to read an article I wrote about Jonny a while back for the local paper.

This article first appeared in The Peckham Peculiar. 

I meet Jonny Henfrey for a drink outside his pub, The Gowlett Arms. If you don’t know it then you must have been living under a rock; many local people either drink here regularly or have at least been inside once. Famed for its reasonably priced beer, freshly baked pizzas and “old school boozer” feel, it’s patronised by a fiercely loyal band of regulars, something Jonny is very proud of.

It hasn’t always been the case for this friendly corner pub though, and Jonny tells me that it wasn’t exactly inviting when he first moved to the area. “It was my local when I bought a house down here in 1999,” he says. “The day we moved in, I brought the guys who had helped me move house into the pub for a pint, and it was very much the kind of boozer that you wouldn’t want to go into. We ordered some beers and gave them some money and then didn’t have the beers, we just left. We ran down the road. I thought, ‘This is my new local – I can’t believe it.’ The next time I came in was four and a half years later when I signed the lease. I’m basically living the Englishman’s dream of not liking my local, so I got it and changed it.”

Photo: Piers Cañadas on Flickr

“It’s always been quite an egocentric thing with altruistic leanings. I knew there were loads of people like me around here who wanted somewhere nice to have a drink and that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do.” Jonny has worked in pubs in one way or another since he was 16, with stints in the music business and time spent as a delivery driver. “I used to manage a pub in Brixton called The Junction – it’s a Tesco Express now. It was one of the breakthrough pub slash clubs and it was very much of a certain time, the mid to late ’90s. Brixton was phenomenal for parties and nigh on lawlessness back then, it was really good fun. My ex-wife was writing for DJ Magazine, so we had this mental, music lifestyle, just going from party to party.”

“I left The Junction because it had been sold and I didn’t like the new ownership. I did a bit of music promotion for an American company, and then I drove a lorry – I used to deliver stuff while I was saving money.” Jonny was putting cash aside for a new bar he was planning, but was screwed over by someone he thought he was in partnership with.“We’d been working on it for 18 months, in a gentleman’s agreement,” he says. “All the while my wife had been going, ‘You need to sort this out.’ Then when it came down to it he said, ‘I don’t want a business partner but I’d love you to come and manage it for me.’ I couldn’t believe it. “I actually walked out of that meeting and bumped into a friend of mine who said, ‘Oh, you should check this website’, and the first pub that was on it was this one. I’d been walking past it for five years going, ‘God that pub could be so amazing.’”

Photo: Piers Cañadas on Flickr

“The rug was pulled from under me with the bar but it was actually the best thing that ever happened. You know when you’re talking about doing something, and then the chance comes along?” Jonny took over The Gowlett in 2003 and opened it on November 15 or thereabouts. “We always do our birthday party across a weekend because no one’s really sure when it is,” he says. At first though, business was slow. “I can remember one day at the very end of November when I opened at 11, and the first person I saw was at 6.45 in the evening – a girl who was looking for a flat round here. “I had a bit of cabin fever and I scared her off within about five minutes and she never came back. I closed at 11.30 that night and I’d taken £67. That was a bit of a slap in the face.”

Now it’s a very different story, and Jonny tells me about his regulars. “We have a mix of people from 19-year-old art students to stockbrokers to brain surgeons to scaffolders you know, so it’s amazing. “There’s no ‘isms’ allowed, basically. Just don’t give anybody a hard time. The people who get it, really get it, and they protect it – so I don’t have to do anything really.“When we try and change anything we get grief, even changing the pepperoni on the pizza for a much better quality pepperoni. People were going, ‘What the fuck have you done to my pizza?’” Jonny has found a new way to try out his ideas, however, in the form of an old double-decker Routemaster bus that he’s converted into a pizza kitchen.

“The bus is an extension, and it gets me out in the fields. I like being in a field, being a little bit messy. I’m also back in the kitchen now, which I haven’t been for 10 years. I love being in a kitchen. “Like I say, we can’t change anything in the pub, so with the bus we do a very similar pizza base but we use different flour, we use different cheese and it enables me to try some exciting, different varieties of pizzas. “We had a pizza with goat’s cheese and broad beans and peas, and nasturtium flowers, and even things like that pepperoni I was talking about. Stuff I’m not allowed to change in the pub, I do it on the bus, and have a great laugh as well.”

Jonny took his pizzas to Bansky’s temporary bemusement park Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare last year. “That wasn’t with the bus, but we built our own little field kitchen and we did 20,000 pizzas in five weeks. We were knocking them out at 75 to 80 every hour – about five every four minutes. By the end we had 11 people on every shift.”

Soon the conversation turns from pizza to Peckham. “I moved here in 1996, maybe ’97 so I’ve been here 20 years,” he says. “I always say there’s four Peckhams – there’s ‘old old’ Peckham, there’s ‘new old’ Peckham, there’s ‘old new’ Peckham, and there’s ‘new new’ Peckham. I think the jury is still out on the new Peckham really. Look at what happened to Shoreditch. You go there now and you think, ‘Who are these people?’ There’s nobody from there, there’s nobody with a real interest in the community.“You know it’s just full of out-of-towners, and I’ve got some of the same thoughts about Peckham. The danger is that it will become a nighttime economy and just cater for young white hipsters who come, do loads of balloons, drink expensive Campari drinks then puke on the corner and fuck off back to Dalston or wherever. We’ve got a cocktail we make with Hoxton Gin called the Gingerline Tosser.

The Gowlett Pizza

“The latest thing is the people who can probably afford the 2.5 million-pound mortgages in Clapham and Fulham or whatever but actually they choose to come to Peckham because hey, it’s beautiful right? Especially where we are, it’s a lovely part of town. They could get the same house here for a quarter of the money, although it is 900K for one of these now. “Sadly Peckham will go that way – with lots of foreign investment and then only white middle-class people can afford to live here. Kids who’ve grown up here have to move to Bromley because that’s the first place they can get to where they can afford a flat.”

It’s clear that Jonny really cares about the local community and his role as a publican. As we sit chatting lots of people stop to talk to him, to say hello or thank him for something or other. It makes me wish I lived nearer to The Gowlett so it could be my local once more, such is the warmth of Jonny’s personality, and the welcoming space that is his pub. “People have lots of misconceptions of what goes on and what I’m like,” he says. “They’re surprised when I stick to my morals quite as much as I do. They kind of just think I’m a guy who runs a business, who doesn’t really give a shit about what goes on around him, but actually I take my position in the community pretty seriously.“It’s a community centre here, and I always said I was returning a community centre to its new community.”

I think we can all drink to that.

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