An excellent example of how mild gentrification of a once-terrifying boozer can work. When it’s done with a modicum of effort and respect for what a pub should be. Described erroneously by search engines as a gastropub, on the surface this place shouldn’t really work. Wood is everywhere, from the walls and the tables to the floor, the bar and the reclaimed condiment vessels. It seems as if half the Great North Wood has found its way in here somehow, but that slightly sylvan feel creates warmth and darkness that suits the building’s brick exterior and serves to offer the drinker the sensation of anonymity. A cricket fan’s foe, bad light is the drinker’s friend and it welcomes with a warm embrace here at the Old Nun’s Head.
There are irritants, as there always are with such modernisations as these. School chairs are as uncomfortable as you remember and deer antler light fittings are despair-inducing reminders that good taste can often be forgotten in the clamour for so-called edginess. See also metal beer casks converted into unwieldy stools. But where it stands apart from other similarly adorned places is that it feels like it’s grown organically rather than being hurled together from an identikit manual. When it first reopened in the early 2000s, it looked too clean; too new. Over the years, it’s bedded in thanks to some judicious additions (including the box-framed perch trophy).
And despite a sometimes relatively lacklustre beer policy – in part down to owners seeking a retail outlet for their fairly moribund produce (though it is improving) – it’s retained much of the charm that marked it out as one to watch from the outset. Take the beer garden, for example. On warmer afternoons an outdoor lounge that traps the sun like a south east London poacher’s snare. At night, a patio-heated bolt-hole for the smokers and, ironically, those seeking fresher air. Some bits covered, other areas exposed to the elements, a mishmash of available seating and a French Kronenbourg pub sign from the early 1980s.
But what’s most remarkable is that this pub is really four or five in one, each area having a marginal but recognisable distinctiveness and character that allows you to embark on a pub crawl without ever having to leave. And that’s testament to the slightly different approaches to décor each custodian has taken. It almost feels by design rather than accident, but I doubt it is. More of a congruous hotch-potch of relatively good ideas with the odd mishap along the way. Such is the resulting charm and interest that you overlook crass grabs at zeitgeist such as the street food and tropical plants. There has, according to the sleevenotes, been an inn on this site for hundreds of years. You’d like to think the multifaceted direction this place has taken will see it stake a claim to lasting a good many more years to come.