Gastropubs Are Killing London Darts Culture
A third of central London pubs have either removed their dartboard or closed altogether—something remaining landlords say is down to the “gastrification” of pubs.
The Queen's Head is a classic East End boozer. Built in the 1830s, it was in this Grade II-listed Limehouse pub that the Queen Mother famously pulled a pint of Young's. A framed commemorative letter from Clarence House is proudly displayed at the bar. Yet, for all the history, its fate is the uncertainty familiar to many of London's pubs.
"You don't have to be struggling. We're not struggling. No matter how successful a pub is, it's worth more as everything else," says landlord Jack Hunter, who has run the pub since 2012. A Scot who relocated from Glasgow 40 years ago, Hunter laments what he neatly terms the "gastrification" of pubs. The fight to save his has been ongoing since it was sold in 2012 by Tower Hamlets Council.
The pub's biggest hope lies in raising the £600,000 needed to buy The Queen's Head in a community ownership scheme. So far, it has secured over £55,000. This would hold the lease for the next 125 years.
If it fails, The Queen's Head's outlook is bleak.
"It's going to be harder if we don't do it this time," says Hunter. "I'm very aware of the fact that in two-and-a-half years' time, if nothing is done, the doors will close. And nothing will stop that."
Home to several darts teams, The Queen's Head is a meeting place for many locals and was listed as an asset of community value earlier this year.
"We've got so many teams here," says Hunter. "They're playing here because they can't play anywhere else."
If the pub goes, then so will the darts teams, leaving one fewer place for the capital's players.
It is a trend repeated across the city. Justin Irwin is a self-confessed "darts freak" who runs Capital Arrows, a guide to pub darts across London. He estimates that in the last five years, a third of the capital's centrally located pubs have either removed their board or closed altogether.
"It's been more than decimated," Irwin says. "People get more money out of food so therefore they just put more tables, simple as that."
Things have certainly changed since Martin Amis created the dastardly darts player Keith Talent in his 1989 novel London Fields. Darts players' collars are now as likely to be white as blue—as the popularity of the swanky darts bar Flight Club shows.
But with a dwindling number of places to play, where are darts fans going?
A good bet is the darting haven that is Nolan's in Vauxhall. The landlord, who has been here since 1985, counts Bobby George among his mates. The number of trophies on display is uncountable. Their teams are legion. Nolan's is a bastion of the game in a city where it is under threat, even attracting players from outside London.
"Some who play here live miles away but where there's a proper darts pub, they travel to it," says Shaun Nolan, who runs the pub with his dad, Gabby. A keen player, Shaun used to compete in the London Youth Games. "Darts is my life! Even though I'm rubbish now."
Tonight Nolan's hosts one of its regular knockout competitions, with a significant cash prize. Players are getting their eyes in from early on. The food is what you'd expect from a staunchly un-gastropub: hot dogs, pizza, chips, onion rings, and chicken nuggets.
Although Nolan's thrives on the darts trade, Shaun depressingly agrees with my suggestion of a terminal decline, and mentions numerous teams and leagues that have folded. Darts aside, at places like Nolan's, community is the bottom line.
"I always believe in looking after people and then they'll look after you," Shaun adds.
There is reason to be hopeful, though. Another pub with a "golden arrow" rating on Irwin's website is the Old China Hand in Finsbury. On its frontage are three words that sum up landlady Rowena Smith's approach: "No ordinary pub".
Hong Kong-raised Smith bought what was an Irish pub (Mulligan's) 11 years ago and soon began changing almost everything about it, from the furniture to the clientele. "Unsavoury" characters were driven away by a responsible alcohol policy that saw spirits removed and the pub's traditional features were replaced by hand-crafted wooden furniture from Thailand.
"I like the concept of a pub. I just never liked the look of an English pub," Smith says. A top Chinese chef was also brought in for dim sum, though it didn't last ("I couldn't make any money").
Smith's other policy of stocking only independent British products led to accusations of being "UKIP-ish" but people have come round. Do they actually enjoy drinking the English wine? Sort of.
"You have to just give it to them. If I told them it was English wine, they'd turn their noses up," Smith says.
Now, Smith wants Old China Hand to be known as a darts pub. She seems to be going the right way about it.
"I come in here and I watch people playing darts and I love it," she says. "Apart from the fact that it's good business, darts people are people I can relate to."
The threat to places like The Queen's Head, Nolan's, and Old China Hand is real, but the plight of pub darts in London is about more than just the game. It's about the pubs themselves: their history, communities, and heritage, as well as the staggering variety of boozers the capital is home to. Let's hope that in years to come, at least a few of them will still have a place for "arras."
All photos by Sarah Campbell.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.