ANDREW LENG continues his pub crawl around Croydon with a visit to a pub that is on the up, thanks to a inspired landlady
The Oval Tavern sits in a quiet residential road, a short stroll from East Croydon Station. Its main claim to fame was that it was used as a location in the early series of Peep Show. Check out the first episode of series two, where Mark and Jeremy are chilling in the Oval’s bar after a particularly breathless and intense session at “Rainbow Rhythms” – a rather peculiar and, in Mark’s case, manic dance class.
Whereas Peep Show went from strength to strength, the Oval struggled in the intervening years, passing through a succession of landlords. Lack of investment, poor online reviews, and dwindling customer numbers followed.
These are tough times in the pub industry. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, 30 pubs close each week. CAMRA has called for urgent government action to help stem the closures. They also want to end the system of “tied pubs”, under which licensees have to buy their beer from a large company.
The Oval Tavern had operated under that “pubco” system. Given that it was really struggling, it seemed destined to go the same way of so many pubs and looked like executive apartments were beckoning.
But what a transformation it has undergone. Largely unrecognisable, the pub is now establishing a firm reputation for its real ale and good food. It is in the running for the Croydon and Sutton CAMRA Pub of the Year, along with three other pubs, including the Green Dragon.
And therein lies the key to the Oval’s transformation, as since August last year it has been taken over by Esther Sutton, who had previously managed the Green Dragon at the top end of Surrey Street with such success as a real community pub.
Under Sutton, the Oval is starting to make its mark as a live music venue, hosting a number of local bands, together with acts from other parts of the country and overseas.
On a sunny and warm Friday afternoon, The Oval Tavern has a healthy number of customers in the bar. Music from local bands filters through the pub’s PA system, some of which you can buy on CD from behind the bar. Sutton flits in and out, bringing hungry customers their food. I order a pint of Prospect, from the award-winning Hepworth Brewery.
Just over half an hour later, during which time I’ve drunk the Hepworth, a lovely pint of Kings Old Ale and eaten a very tasty Moroccan Spiced Lamb Burger, a smiling Sutton sits at my table to talk enthusiastically about her new pub.
Sutton took over The Oval Tavern after managing a number of pubs on behalf of the Stonegate Pub Company, including the Green Dragon. But she’d grown a bit restless of working for Stonegate, and its corporate culture, and wanted a new challenge and a bit of independence to run things her own way. The Oval Tavern had come up for sale and Sutton took a leap of faith and decided to buy the pub.
When she took over, the pub had a grubby interior, the carpets were stained and worn and the beer and lager was of poor quality. It hadn’t served food for a while as the kitchens had also fallen into disrepair. It would take something special to revive The Oval Tavern.
Sutton was up for the challenge. She had seen something she could work with and so she set about transforming the place with the help of her friends and family. By adopting the approach of serving good beer and food and by providing prompt and friendly service, thereby “putting a smile on the face of our customers”, the pub got the makeover it needed.
The floors were repaired, sanded and painted and the interior spruced up. A small stage for live music. Utilising her experience, expertise and contacts with the Society of Independent Brewers, Sutton overhauled the beer selection, placing an emphasis on beers that are sourced from local breweries, the formula she had used successfully at the Green Dragon, introducing her customers to the delights of Cronx Bitter, brewed at New Addington.
Sutton reopened the kitchens, again using local businesses to source her ingredients. She is very proud of the contacts she has established with local fruit and veg sellers, butchers and fishmongers, among others. The prices are very reasonable, too.
Importantly to the residents of Oval Road and the surrounding neighbourhood, The Oval Tavern is now establishing itself as a community pub, through its hosting of a number of family-themed events. Saturday afternoons are given over to excitable children, who settle down for Story Time with Jenny Lockyer, a weekly event that has turned into a great success.
Sutton is conscious that the good relationships she has established with local residents are really important to the pub’s continuing success and therefore she “doesn’t want to annoy them with loud music”. Beer festivals, a repaired and re-opened patio and garden area and exhibiting art by local artists are among the plans.
The Oval Tavern is now really on the up. Together with her staff, the pub is being driven forward by a friendly and enthusiastic landlady. The feedback from customers has been very positive. The pub is gaining new customers and former regulars are returning.
When I visited, the beer was on great form; the Kings Old Ale being a very good pint. The food was very moreish and there’s a varied menu to choose from, including vegetarian options. The atmosphere was relaxed and laid back, punctuated by the gentle acoustic sounds from the PA.
For lager drinkers there is a wide selection on tap as well as the bottled variety, together with a good selection of wines and spirits. There are also plans to extend the hand-pulled beer pumps from four to six, which is great news for real ale lovers.
The revamped Oval Tavern has come a long way in a short space of time. Sutton is genuinely pleased and humbled by what has so far been achieved. The results are a testament to the hard work that she and her staff have already put into the pub.
At a time when pubs are closing at an alarming rate, it was a massive gamble on Sutton’s part to buy an ailing pub like this. With Esther Sutton’s energy, enthusiasm and experience behind it, you really feel that this pub will now go from strength to strength.
Coming to Croydon
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, Mar 15
- March of the Mods at Oval Tavern for Teenage Cancer Trust, Mar 16
- St Patrick’s Night celebration, Ruskin House, Mar 17
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood Cemetery, Mar 20
- South Norwood Lakes Playground group workshop, Mar 25
- David Lean Cinema: Basically Johnny Moped, Mar 27-28
- Croydon Half-marathon, Mar 30
- David Lean Cinema: 12 Years a Slave, Apr 3
- David Lean Cinema: The Great Beauty, Apr 10
- Norwood Society Talk: Crystal Palace, Apr 17
- David Lean Cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, Apr 17
- Opening of Marlpit Lane bowling and putting greens, Apr 17
- Arts and Crafts Market, Exchange Square, Apr 19
- David Lean Cinema: Short Term, Apr 24
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood – a place of change, May 15
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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