The Half Moon Remembered

While we wait for our pub to reopen, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Robert Harrison, former leaseholder (2006-13) of the Half Moon, as told to Jason Tate, journalist and Herne Hill resident.

JT:  When did you take over the Half Moon?

RH: I took over running the Half Moon in April 2006. I’d had my eye on the pub for a while and it took me over a year to secure the lease mainly due to contractual issues.

JT:  Why did you like the Half Moon?

RH: When I first saw the Half Moon it felt like I was stepping back in time. It had a charm and serenity that lent itself to times past and it was covered in cobwebs. “They don’t make ‘em like this any more’’ was a phrase I often heard when people walked into the Half Moon. The pub had been subject to many internal changes over the years, evident from panels of glass that didn’t match up and markings left in the floorboards where door hinges and wooden panels had been removed, doorways blocked up etc. So it wasn’t the perfect article in terms of historical mapping. However what it lacked in authenticity it made up for with character and characters. It was full of them, all larger than life, straight out of a Dickens novel and celebrated by Alan Moore in an illustration of the pub in his comic book From Hell.

JT:  What was Herne Hill like when you took over the Half Moon pub?

RH: Herne Hill was a jumble of styles and types of businesses. A few places stood out: obviously Brockwell Park, and then a couple of eateries. Pullen’s was where you went for good food if you were looking for a restaurant experience (‘lamb baked in hay’ being one of their standout dishes), and they always did really good oysters with a hot pepper sauce served in a teapot. I also used to spend the odd afternoon in Ganley’s Irish-themed pub (now The Florence). They did a good sirloin steak for under 10 quid which was consistently reliable, and it was always a good spot to watch a game of football or rugby. They loved their sport and they were a good asset to the local area.

JT:  What did you do to change the pub?

RH: Initially we gave it a good clean and tried to make it look a bit more cared for; it had been through a period of neglect and it was looking tired.  I think the first job we tackled was repainting the outside of the pub, out went the old bright red colour. We stripped back old layers of paint, and believe me there were many of them, which revealed the elaborate detail in the decorative plaster mouldings. This was the first time in many years that the outside of the building had been properly stripped back. We decided on neutral colours and so a black and grey combination emerged which was a conservative choice but one which was in keeping with the look of the building and also met with the approval of the landlords. The landlord was Trust Inns, a pub company based in Lancashire and were responsible for the upkeep of the exterior of the building. We asked them to redecorate the ground floor exterior as it was badly in need of repainting and was no longer providing the building with adequate protection. They declined to contribute, so I went ahead and paid for the work to be completed. This was a job I hadn’t budgeted for and the bill came in at £5,000 but it was money well spent as it gave the pub an immediate lift and a new lease of life.

Then we got down to business inside, and boy, was it dirty. I remember in the first few weeks constantly walking round with terrible hay fever and then realised it was a dust allergy I’d developed from cleaning up. The pub resembled something you might see in a Ken Loach film: dark blue patterned carpet, which stuck to your feet with the years of spilt beer, well soaked in. The Saloon bar had several one-armed bandit slot machines and an electronic plastic dart board game, which lit up led lights when the plastic darts were thrown at the board. I was told the previous landlady had removed the old traditional darts board because some of the patrons were using them as weapons to settle their disagreements. This was the kitchen sink drama of all pubs, the last stronghold of the white working class; yes they actually worked back in 2006.

The bar clientele was a broad social mix: a good handful of what you might call ‘old school’ drinkers, always stood at the bar with an opinion on everything, and everyone got to hear their opinion.You had your builders, electricians, decorators and plumbers and other manual workers and, sitting on the banquet benches and hidden behind their Guardians and Telegraphs, weighed down with their homework and laptops we had the ‘Papers-boys’, so named for their sartorial eloquence in choice of cardigans, daily reading matter and of course their carefully strewn man-bags. The Papers-boys were mainly office-based white-collar workers in local government, teachers, metal dealers, a journalist, oh and a psychiatrist, ‘like I needed one’, just to give you the occasional piece of advice on which way the wind was blowing. Basically, a really broad social mix of regular customers - just what you want in your local boozer. The rivalries were so competitive they even had an annual football match in Brockwell Park, the Builders versus the Papers-boys. The builders, it turned out, were much fitter and always walked away with the honours. And then there was the other side of the Half Moon, or the Half Gram, as I heard it referred to on several occasions. Let’s face it, the place was full of guys on one trip or another and they weren’t buying much beer over the bar. It became obvious that things had to change.

For the first three months we worked at making the pool table earn its keep. We tried to encourage the regulars to form a team and make the table feel like it was theirs, but unfortunately there were too many fights and many of them started around the pool table. As much as I loved to play a game of pool, the pool table had to go; this was the hardest thing for me to change at the pub.

The other dilemma I faced was the sport - mainly the football. Football crowds have changed unrecognisably of late, but believe me when I took the Half Moon the first few months of the Premier League didn’t feel too comfortable. The ‘over-irate fan’, wearing his team’s home colours, was a familiar sight in the pub on match-day, screaming at the referee and waving his fists at the television screen. Roy Keane’s ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade’ swipe at the gentrification of the modern-day football game couldn’t have been further from reality on match-day in the Pub. I’d have given anything for a prawn sandwich in those early days. The sport, and they loved it all: Premier League, rugby, cricket became a good addition for us. We had some crazy nights of football in the Half Moon. Big European football nights often clashed with Open Mic nights in the back room. We seemed to have got the sports fans who liked a bit of live music and indie-kid guitarists that wanted to see the football score in between his sets. We had weekends full of rugby fans watching the Six Nations. They were great, as a publican you could not wish for a better crowd of customers to have in your pub on a Saturday afternoon; they would down pints of Real Ale and Guinness like you’ve never seen and they liked our pizza big-time. It was a truly eclectic mix: one that I have yet to see bettered.

We had many that were barred, names would appear on yellow post it notes until we had so many names floating around we had to create a file on the computer. Mostly these names were male but the odd female got on the list.

Jill's famous barred list

JT: The Half Moon was famed for its pizzas - why pizza? And how did you get it so right?

RH: When I arrived there was a basic kitchen but no food was served. The kitchen was in a dreadful state. It needed a full refit just to bring it up to a workable standard. We did this with new flooring, rewiring and new wall tiles and the result was a respectable, if not small kitchen. I thought long and hard about the menu; I didn’t want to turn the Half Moon into another gastropub just like every other one you see up and down town. There were other pubs in the area which had already gone down this route and were doing it successfully, I didn’t want it to become a pub where ‘Drinkers’ were not valued. The food needed to be quality, unfussy and reasonably priced. Quality ingredients, keep it simple, do it well! This was to become our yardstick and one which would keep us headed in a steady sustainable direction. Pizza was a good option for the kitchen; it was something we could produce using basic fresh ingredients and one where we could keep a tight control over the food costs. The next step was to find a chef, and after many trials and mishaps I finally found an Italian chef who could do the job and turned out to be a really rounded person, Stefano Bortolami.

Stefano, who had been recommended by a friend, was from Padua in Italy and had been working in various restaurants in London since the early 90s. He was an old school professional cook - no airs and graces, a reliable, decent chap who could make good pizza. So we began the process making pizza dough to a traditional Italian recipe all natural and healthy. Our launch for the pizza coincided with an Easter Bank Holiday Monday, when we gave away 100 pizzas. This got everyone in the pub trying them and generally we received a good reception, although there were a few doubters and sceptics as you would expect. However we felt it was the start of a new era, we had introduced food into the pub and this proved to be the most influential change of all. The take-up of food was slow to start, but gradually we built up a crowd of drinkers who began to order pizza on a regular basis and so we added a few other small dishes to the menu, all the time remembering to keep it simple.

We had a couple of breaks with promoting the food, one was a promotional deal we came up with: Monday meal-deal, which was basically two pizzas for 10 quid. This proved to be a big deal for a lot of people who returned religiously every Monday night. It could get very busy on the bar and quite frantic in the kitchen too, but it was always a joy to see a busy Monday night food service in full flow. All the customers would arrive after work between 7.30 and 8.00, and suddenly the pizza rush would start. The chefs would make a fresh batch of dough every day of the week which would make about 50 pizzas. But on a Monday we would need to make a double batch as we often sold over 60 meal-deals which was over 120 pizzas, coming out of a very small kitchen. The small kitchen came to work to our advantage though - you had to keep on top of the cleaning as you cooked, space was at a premium and it demanded a tightly run ship and this was Stefano’s territory. He ran a very tight and tidy kitchen and everyone knew he was Top Man.

In a modern-day kitchen environment this could be looked at as being ego driven, in fact it showed itself to me to be a fine way to run a working kitchen. You have to have discipline otherwise it falls apart. Stefano was disciplined but fair, and I have to say he set us on our way to a great reputation for our pizza. Hats off to you sir!

The other pivotal moment in the pubs transition was ‘Snow Day’ as it became known. The snow had started to fall one Sunday evening in February 2008. We woke in Herne Hill on Monday morning to four feet of powdery snow, no public transport and sleigh grid-lock in Brockwell Park. No-one could get to work that morning and so everyone went sledging in the Park and then made their way to the pub to get a beer and a pizza, or three or four. It was our busiest Monday ever, we sold over 200 pizzas in about four hours and we made lots of new local customers, ones that returned time after time. It was a great day for getting to know your neighbours and enjoying your local pub.

JT:  How long did it take?

RH:  The process of change at the Half Moon was a slow one: nothing could be altered or improved without first gaining permission from the landlord and, in some cases, listed building consent, which can take an age to come through. One of the biggest changes we made was opening up an old blocked doorway between the front Public Bar and Saloon Bar. This made a huge difference to the feel of the pub and made it much easier to manage; it did however take about 12 months to get listed building consent before we could start the work.

JT:  Who else was involved in helping you turn the pub around?

RH:  Sian Wernham was my first bar manager at the Half Moon - we had worked together before. Sian lived in the area and had good local knowledge. After the first year Jill O’Neill came to work with me as bar manager. Jill had been recommended by local songsmith Sarah Joyce [Rumer] who had been trying for months to bring us together and eventually succeeded. Jill came to work at the Half Moon in April 2007.

JT: Which local businesses did you work with, in terms of supplies and services?

RH:  We tried, where we could, to use local businesses for supplies and services. There was an enormous repairs schedule when I took over and therefore it was really handy to have an account with a local ironmongers and so the Herne Hill DIY shop was a constant point of call for our maintenance team.

Ye Olde Bakery in the centre of Herne Hill supplied us with our bread which included ciabattas and burger buns. They always delivered, no matter what time of day or size of order. Being able to order in small quantities at short notice is a huge advantage when you are trying to introduce new items to the menu and they facilitated this which enabled our food business to grow at a sustainable rate. Our first summer came upon us rapidly and someone said ‘where are your flowers?’. We realised that in all the chaos of repainting we had forgotten the plants and so we began softening the outside of the pub with some hanging baskets. All our plants were bought locally from Croxted Road Garden Centre.

JT:  What events did you introduce?

RH:  One of the main attractions of the Half Moon for me was the function room at the back of the pub. It had a knackered old sound system installed with huge speaker-boxes hanging from the ceiling, the wallpaper was peeling, and damp walls with that musty old smell you get when a room hasn’t been used for years. The room had no natural light and therefore was at its best when dressed for a gig - creative lighting used to give it some energy.  Live music events, comedy nights, open mic, pub quiz, Rollapaluza cycling, theatre productions working with Pilotlight Theatre.

JT:  Why did you leave?

RH:  I left the Half Moon in March 2013. My lease had expired and the landlord had not offered me a new one. I spent seven years at the Half Moon and during that time I gave my best attention to the upkeep and well-being of the premises. I would have liked the opportunity to continue - there was much more that could have been done - but unfortunately the landlords had other plans for the building. I felt that I left the pub in a much better place than when we first took the lease back in 2006. It was used and cherished by many different people and had become an asset to the local community.
JT:  List some famous people who entertained at the Half Moon over the years (including the home-grown ones).

RH:  Paloma Faith, Mark Lamarr, The Wonderstuff, Turin Brakes, The Handsome Family, The Beat, Comedy - Omid Djlili , Eddie Izzard…

Interviewed by J.Tate

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