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Not So Sour Grapes

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

BUNNY GIRL SAVES COCKNEY BOOZER sounds like one of those weird headlines in the Daily Sport alongside "Elvis Found On Mars". But this is a true story, of how a former Playboy Club employee rescued a rundown pub in a derelict area of London's East End.

Barbara Haigh has managed the Grapes in Narrow Street, in Limehouse, E14, since 1995 and has seen its fame and fortune grow. She's from Liverpool, where she worked as a part-time barmaid before moving to London to work in the Playboy Club. She was promoted to room director, equivalent to maitre d', where she developed the knowledge and skills of catering.

She then moved into pubs, running the Lock Tavern in Chalk Farm, north London, the Crown & Greyhound in Dulwich and the Heron in London W2. By this time she had added sufficient cellar skills to be able to vent a cask and change a keg, but she was still mainly involved in catering. Barbara Haighpic courtesy The Wharf

Taylor Walker, a branch of Allied Breweries, recruited her for its team of managers who run pubs at short notice. She managed 40 pubs in just two exhausting years and was delighted when she became the regular manager of the Brown Bear in Leman Street in Whitechapel. She built the food side of the pub and also improved her cellar skills with the aid of a course run by the British Institute of Innkeeping.

Then came the big challenge. Taylor Walker's district manager asked Barbara to have a look at the Grapes in Limehouse, with a view to managing it. "I didn't like the look of it at all," she recalls. "It was a desolate area of flattened buildings and Narrow Street was just a rat-run for drivers."

But she agreed to take it on, impressed by the history of an ancient inn that has been standing alongside the Thames for centuries and refreshed a legion of dockers and other river workers. Charles Dickens featured the pub in Our Mutual Friends, renaming it The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. In the novel, which reflected grisly real life, drunks were rowed out to the middle of the Thames and drowned, their bodies sold to dodgy surgeons for dissection.

The Grapes, a long, narrow, wood-panelled tavern that overlooks the Thames, has long had an association with Billingsgate market. Fish-led snacks are served in the bar, full meals in a small restaurant on the first floor with stunning views of the river. Barbara has added a Sunday lunchtime roast.

At first running the Grapes was a struggle. "If you had six people in, you were busy," she says. "Then the City boys got wind of us and would come down for lunch. Evening trade was a disaster, though."

But the old East End was changing out of all recognition. Old warehouses were turned into riverside apartments and new blocks of expensive flats were built. Barbara found she had a new clientele as Limehouse became the smart place to dwell. Lord David Owen lives on one side of the Grapes, Sir Ian McKellen on the other, while Delia Smith has a flat nearby when she's in London and not haranguing hapless Norwich City fans.

"Now we're busy all the time," Barbara says. "We do 80 to 100 covers on Sunday lunchtime and have been Seafood Pub of the Year twice."

Her regulars include many cask beer fans. Barbara now runs the Grapes on a Punch lease and takes her beers from the pub company's list. The likes of Burton Ale and Tetley, which she inherited, have long gone. She invites her customers to vote for beers on the Punch list and her handpumped ales now include Adnams Bitter, Black Sheep Best, Marston's Pedigree and Taylor Landlord. Landlord is a recent addition and was urged on her by many of her customers.

It's now one of her biggest-selling beers and, along with Adnams, is served from 18-gallon casks in the tiny cellar. Taylor's head brewer, Peter Eels, is so delighted with the success of his premium ale that he makes a point of dropping in for a pint in the Grapes when he's in London.

There are many old prints and photos on the walls of the bar, including one of Barbara with the great-grandson of Charles Dickens. Pride of place goes to a 1949 oil painting by Alice West, showing regulars in the pub.

You won't find many caps and mufflers among the clientele today. My father used to work in the docks off Commercial Road but I didn't recognise the area when I got off the Docklands Light Railway at Westferry station and struggled to find Narrow Street.

But the Grapes is worth finding. It remains a no-nonsense old East End pub, it's fortunes revived by a remarkable landlady who gave up the fluffy tail of a Bunny girl to pull great pints of ale.