It’s hard not to like The Gowlett. Hard, that is, unless you’re the clown of a neighbour who moved into the vicinity and promptly started moaning about the noise, a move that threatened the pub’s future. Such entitled cretins need to be summarily issued with a compulsory purchase order and shipped out to Frinton-on-Sea or some other publess atrocity. I mean, pubs are having a hard enough time staying open as it is without some moneyed arriviste trying to fuck things up for the rest of us. As no-brainers go, avoiding streets with pubs on them if you’re after peace and quiet is way up there. That this dimwit didn’t get his way is a triumph for common sense, the pub and its catchment area.
That said, the way this Peckham favourite carries itself – the very epitome of unkempt – you’d be forgiven for feeling disappointed on walking in. It’s pretty scruffy, often utterly deserted in the afternoon and frequently gives you the impression it’s yet to be finished. But that would be to miss the point. For despite (or maybe because of) the ramshackle, slightly dishevelled appearance, this is a pub right out of the top drawer. Sure, as so many places do, it seems to have lost the pool table that’s still advertised via the 8 Pool sticker proudly displayed in the window. And a fair few punters as a result. But it has gained a bar billiards table that confused customers occasionally tussle with, while a judicious rearrangement of the battered old sofas has leant the interior a more conversational, less ‘boothed waiting room’ air.
True, the maroon/crimson hybrid paint job has not fared brilliantly since that hue was once fashionable. But at least this place hasn’t succumbed to the dubious charms of messers Farrow & Ball. Granted, the mildly dank miasma that interrupts the intoxicating pizza aroma (more on this later) clings on resolutely through the new carpet that was clearly meant to mask it. No matter.
Sure, the pumpclip parade that half-heartedly traipses its way round the thin wooden rail around the panelled ‘lounge’ area seems to be a who’s who of the country’s more moribund breweries. But the beer that is served, a relatively lacklustre selection compared to many competing venues, is kept wonderfully. Every nuanced flavour of each standard-issue pint is coaxed out persuasively, in large part down to the previous landlord’s insistence on installing an elaborate, expensive, state-of-the-art cask balancing system in the cellar. The kind of indulgence that 10 years ago seemed to make perfect sense, but now must appear a mite profligate. Joyfully, the result is beer that tastes as close to how the brewer would like as makes no difference. And when you have that, you have the firm foundations of a solid boozer. A genuine pub that’s been through some shite but still comes up smiling despite the knock-backs.
Then there is the pizza. Now I don’t usually remark on a pub’s food output as, for me, it’s way down the pecking order, though sadly an increasingly important yardstick against which pubs are measured. So often food is scrutinised and fawned over by critics who ignore all the important qualities of a pub in favour of it. But for this place, I’ll make an exception. You will need to go a long way from this corner of south east London – perhaps even as far as overseas – to get better pizza. As well as providing much-needed ballast, it adds delicious, crispy grist to the mill of a notion that you could happily while away the best part of a day here.
It wouldn’t take much work to elevate this place to the level of greatness (such as clearing empty boxes behind the bar away from public view, for example, or bringing back the pool table). Though the fact it isn’t the dictionary definition of great perhaps adds to the appeal. Like an untidy house that instantly makes guests feel comfortable, The Gowlett has a lived-in feel that signals its warm welcome in the absence of an audible one. Besides, I’d probably hate it if it brushed up its act and behaved better. A gem.