Tony Bedwell: Highbury Barn pub manager

19 Feb

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  He doesn’t drink or smoke but from about 7am, often until very late, Highbury Barn’s pub manager Tony Bedwell can be found at the pub – making him the perfect person to ask what’s behind that scaffolding? What’s cooking? And how much has the pub changed?   Interview by Nicola Baird

Tony Bedwell: manager at  the Highbury Barn pub.

Tony Bedwell: manager at the Highbury Barn pub.

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in the Highbury Barn pub at 10am drinking. Not long ago my companions might have had a slight dependency on alcohol… Now the pub’s early morning visitors are more likely to be drinking a specially roasted blend of coffee enjoyed with a chunk of Malteser tiffin (see photo). Overseeing these changes has been Tony Bedwell, who has managed the pub since August 2010 when it was bought with five other pubs from Punch Tavern breweries*.

Flowers for Valentine’s Day – roses decorated with a diamond – are brought over by Mrs Lovell’s Greengrocers’  (aka Michelle's daughters Sarah and Katie).

Flowers for Valentine’s Day – roses decorated with a diamond – are brought over by Mrs Lovell’s Greengrocers’ (aka Michelle’s daughters Sarah and Katie).

Until then Tony was new to Islington. He grew up in Swindon, thought he supported Manchester United and had spent the past decade working overseas. But in a fabulous piece of serendipity his dad, George, was born in nearby Avenell Road.

“It’s like a full circle,” says Tony. “My father moved out of Highbury in the 1960s, to work on the railways in Swindon, but he used to tell me about the times he went to watch Arsenal by climbing over the fence. I reckon if he knew I’d been to every home game this year he’d be looking down chuckling!”

The Highbury Barn pub has a long history of reinventing itself too – for years its pleasure gardens were the place to see and be seen, they are even mentioned in William Thackery’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair*. The pleasure garden years were followed by the seedy period, when many ladies worked from the upstairs rooms in the two-storey building.

A 1903 photo of Highbury Barn pub shows that the pub’s outside seating (opposite the chip shop and Mrs Lovell’s greengrocer) used to be where the buses parked. Apart from the buzzy match days, since the 1980s the pub had seemed to go downhill, greatly suffering from the smoking ban in 2003. So, although the sale to Greenwich Village Inns saw a collective sigh of relief from those who did not want Highbury Barn’s tired pub to be turned into a Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, few knew what to expect.

“When we uncovered the fireplace we found there’s a brick missing but that’s part of the history,” says Highbury Barn pub manager, Tony Bedwell.

So wrong it’s right: “When we uncovered the fireplace we found there’s a brick missing but that’s part of the history,” says Highbury Barn pub manager, Tony Bedwell. An old photo of the pub from 1903 helped the new team replace the Watney Combe writing on the external wall – for years this had been covered with plastic. It’s now been redone in the original colours by a painter who honed her craft on film sets – you can also see her work on the side of House of Wolf on Upper Street.

Character
“The owner is passionate about the area and is an Arsenal fan,” explains Tony as he talks me through the interior changes. “We wanted to bring the Highbury Barn back to what it used to be like – I’ve seen records here dating from 1740, and Heineken bills from 120 years ago,” says Tony who has an office upstairs although there are now also four two-bed apartments. “It’s the little details that you want, it’s what gives the Highbury Barn character.”

The result is a real boon to the Highbury community, which needs a good indoor venue where locals can meet up with a few friends. Footie fans still have their home pub, but also get three chances to eat during match nights – a quickie menu before the game; dining and viewing during the game, or dinner afterwards. Plus around 30 people now have jobs at the Barn, including seven chefs.

Cafe culture. Enjoy a specially roasted coffee blend done by Darlingtons from Vauxhall for the Highbury Barn. Around 500 cups of coffee are sold each week.

Cafe culture. Enjoy a specially roasted coffee blend done by Darlingtons from Vauxhall for the Highbury Barn. Around 500 cups of coffee are sold each week. A three course meal with a drink is about £25 per person.

What Tony Bedwell loves about Islington
Enjoying banter: “I’m a football fan, not an Arsenal fan, but I’ve been to every home game this season.”
Make it an Indian: “My friends like to come to Highbury Barn, so I eat here at least once a week. I also like  to go for Indians – my favourite is Zaffrani, 47 Cross Street off Upper Street, N1.
Relaxing: “I like going for walks around Highbury Fields, then having a cup of tea.”

Years ago the alleyway and dining room is where the pub kept the horses.  Now the Highbury Barn is a freehouse it stocks favourites such as London Pride and Pall Mall, as well as the Highbury, “a beer made for us at a local London brewery,” says pub manager Tony Bedwell.

Years ago the alleyway and dining room is where the pub kept the horses. Now the Highbury Barn is a freehouse it stocks favourites such as London Pride and Pall Mall, as well as the Highbury, “a beer made for us at a local London brewery,” says pub manager Tony Bedwell.

Stylish bar
It has taken more than £1 million to transform the Highbury Barn into a pub that welcomes everyone, whatever they are drinking, seven days a week. Now the doors open for coffee at 10am in the winter, and 8am in the summer.

There’s a restaurant serving carefully sourced ingredients, which are then cooked on the premises including homemade pies, condiments and meat from Godfrey’s, the butcher over the road (see islingtonfaces interview with Chris Godfrey here).

In the poshed up saloon the wooden bar now sweeps around the room and the ceilings have been raised to their original height, uncovering a huge fireplace, Corinthian columns and the ceiling architrabe. There are also cameras in the toilets to deter unwanted behaviour.

“We are very food-led now,” adds Tony. “The quality has to be good so everything you eat here is made here, except the burger buns (which have been specially chosen). We’re really proud of our food.”

Of course it’s still an Arsenal pub but the Highbury Barn is now attracting mums, often with pushchairs, for morning coffee; families for Sunday lunches; couples; local interest groups (eg, school PTAs) and many fans of big televised sport events including Auzzie rules, World Cup football and the Olympics. When the TVs are switched off they look like framed pictures. When sport is on there are extra pull-down screens to ensure no one misses the action.  Word is clearly spreading: “We were as busy for the World Cup England games as we were when Spain, Sweden, Norway or South America played. Just the other night some people booked a table to watch Canada v Norway in ice hockey,” says Tony.

Destination
As a bonus a growing number of celebs seem to be dropping by. Tony enjoys recounting a trick played recently by the Arsenal fans on the Scouser comedian (and Liverpool supporter) John Bishop who was dressed up in a suit waiting to watch an Arsenal – Liverpool game when the pub’s 6 foot 9 inches-security guard, Mark, asked him to leave ‘as he wasn’t a home fan’.  “Everyone found that funny,” said Tony, including Bishop who happily took the banter from his Gunner mates.

History boys: Intriguing old letter found in the rooms above the Highbury Barn, now on display in the pub.

History boys: Intriguing old letters and envelopes found in the rooms above the Highbury Barn, now on display in the pub.

Centre of the world
“I’ve run pubs for 20 years,” admits Tony. “It’s a way of life that you have to enjoy – it’s a career but with long hours.” He ran his own place in Swindon until a divorce, then went to Dubai. “I meant to just have six months off in Dubai,” he says laughing, “but then spent six years there. After that I opened a restaurant in Spain – but after 18 months I decided I wanted to be closer to my two grandchildren.”

Islington people remind me of Dubai – they are very cosmopolitan and international,” says Tony who reckons he understands Arabic, Spanish and Russian – indeed he’s waiting for his girlfriend Olga, from Bisert, to join him in London.

Until I read a restaurant review in the Highbury Community Association newsletter, last year (2013) I hadn’t realised how much the Highbury Barn has changed.  Without the pool table and the fruit machines, and with the new emphasis on food the Highbury Barn has become a place many more people in Islington will enjoy. Of course there’s still a crowd drinking Fosters on match day but what an atmosphere they bring. Cheers to all those involved in the revamped Highbury Barn.

Highbury Barn pub is open seven days a week. It is at the centre of Highbury Barn, N5.  www.thehighburybarnpub.co.uk

Also follow it on Facebook or Twitter, www.facebook.com/thehighburybarn @highburybarnpub.
Tel:020 7226 2383. email: highbury.barn@greenwich-village-inns.com

Words*
Highbury Barn’s owner also runs Hot Wok Islington, Drayton Park. Open seven days a week for home delivery/collections from 17.45-22.30. You can also eat in. “myhotwok  Facebook/myhotwok. On line ordering: http://www.myhotwok-orders.com (17.00-22.00)

Vanity Fair – in this famous Victorian novel Highbury Barn was where “the elders of the house” dined with Alderman Balls.

Over to you
If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z list of posts, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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2 Responses to “Tony Bedwell: Highbury Barn pub manager”

  1. nicola baird blogs February 19, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    From email:
    R has sampled the coffee and enjoyed. We have had sunday lunch a couple of times since the re-build – last time with C and S and the veggie option was excellent. They were allowed to have the veggie thing but with all the roast veg and yorkshires and had a separate jug of veggie gravy – so they were very impressed!

    Tony hid R’s shoes (which he had taken off) so there was much mirth trying to find them when we finished!

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  1. Ade Clarke: landlord at The Lamb Beer & Liquor | Islington Faces Blog - May 13, 2015

    […] If you enjoyed this pub interview here’s another from Islington Faces with Tony Bedwell, manager of the Highbury Barn […]

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