“If the Montague Arms had been a film,” says Andy McKinna, a former regular from New Cross, “it would have been a cult classic.”
Described by The Sun as “one of our strangest, and best, boozers”, the Monty – as it was affectionately nicknamed – won the Rough Pub Guide’s best pub in the country award in 2008 and the Newsshopper Golden Pint award in 2010.
Now, having stood empty for nearly two years after its closure in 2012, the New Cross pub is getting a makeover and is due to reopen in March.
Run by landlord Peter Hoyle and Stan and Bet Pownall since 1967, the pub earned a reputation for idiosyncrasy, not least for its unusual decor and experimental live acts.
Anika Torruella, a writer and former punter from East Dulwich, remembers its eclectic interior: “A 1910 bicycle, model ships, a floral patterned Victorian toilet, a stuffed zebra driving a Georgian coach and three human skeletons. The place was fantastic.”
As well as performances from big names such as Gang of Four and Anna Calvi, the pub hosted a range of oddities including Mr. Blobby’s comeback show and an orchestra so big that “the horn sections had to sit at tables because they didn’t all fit on the stage,” remembers performer Frog Morris.
Notable punters included Paul McCartney, Nick Cave and – according to local folklore – notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins.
But in 2012, following the deaths of Stan and Bet, the iconic pub served its last pint, and its treasures, stuffed zebra and all, were sold at auction.
“There was a lot of mourning for the pub itself and the wonders inside,” says McKinna, “but for me the sadder loss was that, without a focus, the community around it dissipated.”
Today, the pub is more building site than beloved boozer; the long narrow space is littered with discarded furniture and paint tins.
“It’s going to have a sort of steampunk theme, cogs and gauges: the brewery is going to look like it’s powered by steam,” says new owner Noel Gale, who has worked in the Camden pub industry for ten years. “We’re not going to be able to recreate exactly what the previous owners did, but it will definitely have a feeling of what it was before.”
As for continuing the pub’s musical history, Gale has plans for big acts once a month. “The rest of the time we’ll just do the sort of quirky music that they had before,” he says.
And, in a throwback to its previous décor, he adds: “We are going to do a lot of taxidermy.”
“Of course the new incarnation will be different, and so it should be,” McKinna says. “I’m still not sure how I’ll react the first time I walk back through those doors.”
After all, as McKinna himself says, “the rule was generally to expect the unexpected.”
If its past is anything to go by, an evening at the Montague Arms is set to be anything but predictable.