A few months ago I engaged in my first ever stint of community activism. It wasn’t to ban a power plant from being built next to a school. I wasn’t to fight a corrupt city council. No, it was to save my local pub, the Duke of Hamilton. Back in the States I might have been a bit embarrassed that my first brush with activism was alcohol related, but in the UK, where binge drinking is a national pastime, I felt a small sense of pride.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about the Duke that my neighborhood loved so much. It wasn’t a trendy pub, it didn’t have any great claims to fame, and it always looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in over a century. But there was something so endearing about the place that even friends that didn’t live in the neighborhood were frequent visitors.
Upon hearing that the Duke of Hamilton was going to be converted into yet another block of luxury flats, Hampstead residents and friends of the pub joined together in a campaign to save the Duke. Not only did I participate, but I also learned the basic strategies of community activism.
From writing letters to my local counselors and MPs, to promoting the Save the Duke website that spread the word online, to encouraging friends to file petitions with Camden Council, to meeting my neighbors at the pub to discuss strategies and deliver leaflets, I quickly grew well-versed in the tactics of fighting the enemy.
Not only did the campaign make me feel like I was part of my neighborhood, but it also taught me a lot about my community. Never before did I know who my local counselor was, but as soon as the campaign started, I was on first name basis with her.
While I never met my MP, I did get a letter from her thanking me for my concern and assuring me that she was aware of the issue, which was more than I expected. And even though I never heard anything back from my petition to Camden Council, I knew that enough of us filed them that the project went to a review process. That was the first step in getting the planning permission for the destruction of the pub overturned.
Once the planning permission went to review, we had to come up with a reason why the pub couldn’t be destroyed. Emotional attachment wasn’t good enough. Neither was the fact that our neighborhood didn’t need more flats. We had to come up with a legal argument.
Our first thought was to save the building on a historical basis. But despite the fact that the Duke of Hamilton was almost 300 years old, we couldn’t get the building listed—and therefore protected—as a historical landmark.
We came up with several other ideas, but we were ultimately successful in stopping the project via a loophole: the architect that designed the new building failed to take into account that the large tree in front of the property could not be removed from the premises. It was certainly a round-about way to get what we wanted, but I suppose that was the biggest community activism lesson of all.
Once the pub was officially saved, we had another problem on our hands: the old publican retired. We needed to find someone new to take over the management of our local. Thankfully it didn’t take long to find that person.
He shut down the pub for awhile, renovating the interior, the exterior, and the service. The Duke got a much-needed re-carpeting job to replace what could very well have been the original 18th century carpet. Its bathrooms also got a renovation, which might have been the most welcome change of all. (No joke. We used to walk all the way home to use the bathroom when we were there).
The pub also expanded its service to provide food instead of just pints. While we were always a bit proud to have one of the last pubs in London that didn’t serve food, we secretly felt that it was a welcome addition to the Duke’s offerings.
But the most obvious renovation was to the outside of the building, which the new manager painted. The old navy blue color vanished under a coating of dark red, and thus the Duke of Hamilton pub was reborn.
Surprisingly, one thing that I thought would certainly change didn’t. The brocade fabric on the banquette that lined the interior remained in place. It was as old as the carpet, and about as much in need of a cleaning, but for some reason it stayed.
Other things that didn’t change were the great picnic table-filled terrace, the giant wooden bar that was the beloved centerpiece of the pub, and the historic tiles that lined the bar’s exterior. They weren’t just any historic tiles, though. Many of them featured advertisements for businesses, most of which ceased to exist a century ago. They were one of my favorite parts of the pub, and I was glad to see that they were preserved in the renovation.
Another thing that remained the same was the clientele. One of the best things about the Duke was that it was an old man’s pub through and through. When I went back to the pub last week after it re-opened, I was relieved to see that while the building may have gotten new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, the demographic of the patrons hadn’t changed a bit. I brought down the median age by at least 50 years, and I was happy to have it that way.
Sipping my cider at the Duke of Hamilton pub in Hampstead, I felt proud of my neighborhood for saving our eccentric old pub. I learned a lot in the process, and was glad that I could enjoy the fruits of our efforts. Who knows, maybe someday I will use the skills I learned in my first brush with community activism to save something that even the American in me would be proud of. Until then, I will be savoring the sweet taste of cider-and-victory at my local.