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A Night Out at the Lighterman

An evening at London’s most isolated pub.

‘How on earth did you end up here?’

It was a fair question. On the surface there really was no reason for three lads from Zone 2 to be drinking at The Lighterman, in Barking’s Thames View Estate, on one of the first Fridays of spring. But a pint here, in this majestic 1950s drinking den, had been calling me for some time. I first came across The Lighterman (or ‘The Lightman’, as its Facebook page is erroneously titled) when I visited Thames View to see a pub that no longer exists, The Short Blue. For the past nine months I’ve been documenting the closed or demolished pubs of London on Instagram at @londondeadpubs, a project that has taken me all over the capital: from Edmonton to Eltham, Wembley to Wanstead. And, eventually, to Barking. When I ran through the area a few months back to get a picture of The Short Blue for the account, I went past The Lighterman and was struck by its mid-century form and vaguely threatening aura. I began to wonder what it would be like to drink in the only pub on the estate – an estate already cut off from the rest of London on all sides by the River Roding, an A-road, the Thames and vast swathes of brownfield land. Nightlife on the edges of the city takes on a different vibe to those in the clogged-up inner zones: it’s here where you find the real magic. I drunkenly approximated this to my smoking area interrogator, an amblyopic old boy named Pat, who possessed a voice like football boots on a shingled path.

‘Sure, but how did you really end up here?’

Well, our night began in the Glasshouse Stores in Soho. It’s the archetypal central London boozer – all basement bogs and deep mahogany panelling, but with the draconian trappings of Samuel Smith’s pubs: no phones; no swearing; no alcohol that wasn’t conceived in the villainous depths of the pubco’s Tadcaster headquarters. It was strangely empty for a Friday evening, with just the reliable handful of awkward first-daters, shoppers nipping in on their way home to the suburbs and new media sad lads two pints out from the inevitability of calling it in. But all great journeys have to start somewhere, and not even the mad, shamanic ritual of an Italian backpacker outside furiously beating the ground with a stick and looking us dead in the eyes could quell the good feelings we had about the evening. Three more Taddy Lagers please. And three shots of brandy while you’re at it.

In hindsight, our inability to leave Glasshouse Stores almost scuppered the whole evening. We eventually arrived at Barking station at 10.15pm, late and tipsy, and headed straight to the Spotted Dog to expel a District Line’s worth of piss. The Spotted Dog has been on the corner of Longbridge Road, next to the station, since the 1850s and is the kind of railway-adjacent pub that caters to every type of punter. Karaoke and cheap shots in the evening for the pre-Shoreditch crowd; a quiet lunchtime haven for the Racing Post and Ruddles set. Transient enough that the sight of three half-cut lads walking in late on a Friday night batted no eyelids. Fearing that our standing as Men Who Struggle to Remove Themselves from Pubs might have meant we’d missed the boat, I asked the bar lady what time The Lighterman shut.

‘The where?’

Ah. The Lighterman – it’s a pub just down towards Creekmouth, and you see we’re going for an article and, well, we were wondering what time it shuts and –

‘Oh… really? Andy, The Lighterman? What time do you reckon it shuts?’ she bellowed at an older man who had been staring serenely off into space for the past two minutes. Andy seemed to think midnight, but questioned why on earth we wanted to go:

‘Once you get round that way at night it’s very, very hard to get out.’

Conscious that it was by now 10.30pm, and with Andy’s cautionary words ringing in our ears, we necked a jägerbomb each and got a £10 cab down through Barking towards the Thames. Crossing over the A13, Billy Bragg’s great trunk road out to the sea, there’s a shift away from the cubiform new builds and high street chains that define much of the town centre. Suddenly we were in the land of pebbledashed greasy spoons, crumbling cash-and-carrys and palisade-protected mot garages. Originally marshland, Creekmouth ended up being the home of the city’s necessary eyesores: power stations, chemical factories, industrial estates. But these places need workers and so, after a particularly bad flood in 1953, the Thames View Estate was built, partly to service the industries and partly to ease the post-war housing crisis in Barking. The years weren’t particularly kind to Creekmouth and the estate. Its isolation and industrial heritage meant it became a dusty fly-tippers’ paradise; an interzone where you’d only ever find yourself if you fell asleep on a bus. But this remoteness fostered a sense of togetherness. For all the talk of Sinclairian liminality and edgelands, the area is still ultimately a place to live; a place for people. And people need meeting spaces. The Thames View planners originally built a church, a community centre, The Curzon – no relation to the cinema chain – and two pubs, the Short Blue and The Lighterman.

The Short Blue shut in 2009, and was demolished a few years later to make way for an anodyne block of tan flats. They call the style the New London Vernacular but its look is positively Dutch, and it proliferates the eastern and southern reaches of Creekmouth, known officially as Barking Riverside. This phase of development was started in the late 1990s and when finished will provide 10,000 new homes, a new London Overground station and a small number of commercial and leisure facilities. But, crucially, no pub. Which means The Lighterman will have the sizable task of catering to an influx of new residents and new tastes – the area is eventually expected to have a population of more than 26,000, plus those already on Thames View.

By the time we arrived it was about 11pm and, thankfully, the place was still open. At least, we thought it was. It was quite hard to tell from the inside of the cab given the pub’s curiously spartan façade and lack of windows, but as soon as we stepped out into the east London night we were immediately hit by the chorus of Dancing Queen at a laughably loud volume from the outdoor speakers. As if to hammer home its openness, a woman outside gleefully cried ‘this pub’s for dancing!’ at us while stubbing out a fag and grooving back indoors. We made a brief stop at the cashpoint after noting the handwritten ‘cash only’ sign on the door before following her dutifully inside.

Upon entering The Lighterman you’re struck by two things. Firstly, the huge realist painting of the Rat Pack, the sort of kitschy Dogs Playing Poker-esque artwork that you more often find in provincial barbershops, nestled amongst the pictures of Don Corleone and David Beckham.

The second thing you notice is the breadth of ages on display. In the corner, a couple of late teens gossip with a group of middle-aged women. A gaggle of Boohoomen gesticulate with a sexagenarian about West Ham’s chances in Europe. This wasn’t just a pub for the oldies or for the weekend warriors on their way out to some club in Canning Town. It was a pub, seemingly, for everyone. Surveying his kingdom was barman Al, smiling from behind the bar in his Bell & Spurling sunglasses. Al had worked at The Short Blue when it was open and told of a venue that was always lively but that had unfortunately succumbed to the greedy hand of developers. But The Short Blue’s loss was The Lighterman’s gain and Al runs a tight ship: the beer was excellent and admirably cheap, and the place was spotless.

It was through Al that I got talking to Pat, and once they both realised we weren’t the police, writing an exposé or looking to shut the place down, they introduced us to a few of the regulars. It was clear that almost all of them had an affinity for The Pub as an abstract concept. Conor was an Irish businessman in his thirties and was one of the early adopters of the Riverside boom, having lived in the area for the past ten years. When he found out that we were interested in the history, he gave me a tour of The Lighterman’s two generously sized rooms, pointing out the original mid-century features still in place. He was proud to call the pub his local and seemed to be confident about its future: it was a well-loved establishment that had no need to modernise given the steady flow of trade.

Sandra overheard Conor chatting and came over. She exuded chic – an Estuary Elizabeth Taylor – and began by stating that her parents used to run The Paper Moon in Southwark, which is now the site of the One Blackfriars megatower. Her childhood was formed in that pub, back when it was called The Rising Sun and they used to crowd around a piano on Saturday nights for a south London singalong. The Lighterman, with its discos and karaoke nights, reminded her of those days, albeit with less blokes in suits and Matt Monro haircuts.

Everyone we spoke to had a story about the positive impact of boozers, not just The Lighterman, on their lives. We drank well past 1am and really we could have carried on there all night. Some of the locals probably did. But I realised that we ought to be setting off if we were to get back home at any semblance of a godly hour and so we said our goodbyes and stumbled into a cab westwards.

What makes a good pub? We ended up in an anonymous late bar in London Bridge that night. You got the impression it was nobody’s local, but it was rammed with a disparate cast of European hostelers, junior News UK staffers and south London hornymen looking for one last £8 bottle of continental lager and the vague promise of a forgettable shag. No one knew anyone else’s name, and if they did it was forgotten by the time they reached the front of the toilet queue – a world away from the easy conviviality of The Lighterman. It may be located in one of the most isolated parts of London but inside you can find everything that a pub should have: warmth, friendliness and a place to, ultimately, spend a few hours away from the stresses of the real world. A place to spark conversation; a place to celebrate; a place to commiserate. The Lighterman’s Facebook page is full of photos of life. Kids’ birthday parties. Hen nights. Wedding receptions. In the face of unprecedented levels of development in the capital, and in a city that can often feel woefully disconnected, it’s vital that these community strongholds – these places where lives unfold – are allowed to remain as they are. Even if they don’t take cards.

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