‘We’re an up-and-coming place with a lot of history – free live music, good food, excellent beer selection, good vibe, that’s what we’re all about.’
– Wiktor Szary, The Duke
I have to start with a confession: I’d never heard of the Duke before starting this interview series.
The pub sits on Creek Road, just opposite the top of Creekside, in a kind of no man’s land between Deptford and Greenwich. I walk around that area all the time, but the particular side streets and river paths I usually take to and from Greenwich always steer me slightly away from the Duke, so it’s never become part of my personal Deptford geography.
Wiktor Szary, the pub’s recently appointed manager – who, appropriately enough, has just completed a master’s degree in human geography at UCL – acknowledges that this is a challenge for the pub (‘it’s a well-kept secret’), but is intent on putting the Duke on the map.
I drop into the Duke on a bright Monday lunchtime to chat with Wiktor over a coffee. Originally from Poland, Wiktor has been living around Greenwich and Deptford for about seven years, and first joined the Duke in 2012. When the previous landlord moved on to another job in January, Wiktor took over and immediately poached his mate Alex Sen from pub over the creek in Greenwich. Jim Donaldson makes up the third member of the Duke’s management team.
‘We’re really excited about running this place,’ says Wiktor. ‘Me and Alex have wanted to do something like this for quite a while.’
Alex is also a postgraduate, wrapping up his masters in maritime history at the University of Greenwich – although so far, an old rope fished from the Thames is the pub’s only bit of nautical decoration.
Like several pubs in the area, the Duke is a former ‘old man’s pub’ given a modern makeover. It was bought up in 2008 and refurbished by Innpublic, a small family-owned group of pubs that includes the Dolphin in Sydenham, the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill and the Crown in Greenwich.
The early days were rocky, with the recession biting just after the pub was acquired. The initial strategy of taking the pub rapidly upmarket was out of step with what local people wanted, says Wiktor, and the pub has since sought to provide more affordable food and drink, as well as free entertainment. It’s definitely a very smart, modern-looking pub, but the emphasis is on being an asset to the community rather than a flash consumer ‘experience’.
‘It’s a really big community of people who feel attached to the pub. The place has obviously been evolving a little bit recently, pushing in different directions over the last three months, but we are trying to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind and that everyone’s supported,’ says Wiktor.
‘We still get the old Deptford crew who used to drink here back in the day,’ he adds. ‘We still cater for them, they have their own night every Saturday – blues rock type stuff, a bit grimy!’
These days, the pub also attracts students from the University of Greenwich halls next door and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire down the road, as well as professionals living in the many new-build apartments that have sprouted up around the Deptford/Greenwich borders.
‘I think what we’re trying to do is get the right mix of the Greenwich student population and the Deptford and New Cross community, trying to merge those two together,’ says Alex. ‘I think the identity of the pub is based on its location, rather than actually trying to create an identity in itself.’
The hope, he says, is that the punters themselves will make their mark on the pub and forge its identity: for example, through Trinity Laban students putting on their own nights.
Not that the management are sitting back: the Duke team is working hard at putting on events and fine-tuning the food and drink selection. While Wiktor, Alex and Jim all pull pints, collect glasses and change barrels, each also has a specialized role for building the pub’s profile.
‘Alex is down with the kids, so he’s responsible for the live music and gigs,’ says Wiktor. ‘I’m the man with the stapler, looking after the admin and the business side.’
Jim, meanwhile, looks after the pub’s social media activity, as well as the cellar.
Live music and events are central to the team’s vision for the pub, which like many Deptford boozers has a strong musical heritage.
‘Dire Straits used to rehearse in what is now my kitchen upstairs,’ says Wiktor. ‘We’re still waiting for a blue plaque! It’s a place with a spirit, I think – we definitely want to keep the live music going. We want to do free live music for everyone, at least two or three gigs every week, and never charge for it.’
These events bring new people to the Duke, helping it to extend its reach beyond potential geographical barriers. And it’s a good space for live music: the back of the pub is roomy enough to accommodate the 16-piece big band that comes in once a month. Recent events include electroswing nights, film screenings, roots reggae gigs and blues nights. The Duke also hosts a weekly open mic jam session on Wednesdays, where people can sing or play along with a house drummer, bass player and pianist.
While the team is keen to make the most of the pub’s 2am license, the Duke will still remain at heart a comfortable pub rather than an out-and-out live venue.
‘It’s not going to be a big party every Friday and Saturday night, the idea is more to have the odd events and also have it be a nice pub to go to on the weekend,’ explains Alex.
Thanks to Jim’s social media work, punters can check when events are on with a quick refresh of a Twitter feed. Wiktor created the social media co-ordinator job as soon as he took over, and sees it as vital for spreading the word and building repeat business.
‘It used to be a bit jump-on, jump-off, but now it’s a bit more structured,’ he says. ‘The job is unique to the whole company – we just realised that we really need to push that side of things if people are to know about us.’
Giving customers constant updates via Twitter is particularly useful for attracting people to events, and Jim also lets customers know about guest ales and changes in the menu.
‘It’s never going to be a substitute for just being welcoming, but it’s a good way of keeping people in the loop,’ says Wiktor.
Speaking of ale, the Duke has a solid and contemporary beer selection: Meantime’s pale ale and lager, Czech lager Kozel, Leffe on draught (something of a rarity), Tribute as the house ale and two guest ale pumps. There is also a fridge full of craft beer in bottles. The cheapest pint of lager is Beck’s for £4 (£3.50 on student nights), with ales at around £3.85. House spirits are £3.
‘[The craft beers] sell very well, people clearly want that. They obviously still want a cheap pint every now and then, but they also want a good pint,’ says Wiktor.
The Duke’s food offering, meanwhile, embraces the trend for American diner-influenced ‘dirty food’.
‘We’re obviously trying to tap into the mood of the market – the menu is very modern, quite diner-y, all homemade, all freshly prepared,’ says Wiktor. ‘People like the food, there isn’t anywhere else locally that does that kind of menu. And we make sure to get quality products, we source all our meat locally, it’s not junk food.’
Having survived the worst of the recession, things are now looking up for the Duke.
‘For a good few years, they couldn’t work out if the place would sink or swim,’ says Wiktor. ‘But I feel like recently, especially this year, people either have more money or feel like they have more money, or they’re just tired of the whole recession thing and they just want to go out and have some fun. There’s only so much suffering and austerity you can take!’
I revisit the pub a few nights later as a band sets up for a gig. It is a modern, bright and airy room with almost café-like elements of décor. ‘If Friends was set in England, this would be Central Perk’, says my friend. World music hums over the speakers, and I spy a poster for a ‘pop-up wine making class’.
It doesn’t really tick the ‘pork scratchings / old men reading papers / real ale / darts board’ boxes I have in my head next to ‘community pub’. But I take a closer look around the room.
Towards the back, a family celebration is in full swing around a long table. By the far window, a dad and his young son, both in sports kit, sit having a drink. Some impossibly thin students wander in and stand by the bar, taking a very long time to discuss their order. A group of women share post-work cocktails at the next table – looking around, I realize that at least half of the customers are women. The crowd is also noticeably more multicultural than most other pubs, not just in Deptford but generally.
Everyone here seems very much at ease, very much at home. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I see that Wiktor and team are well on their way to building a decent community boozer. Now if only I can remember how to get there…
The Duke, 125 Creek Road, SE8 3BU. 020 84698260. thedukedeptford.com. @thedukedeptford.
Correction: as per the first comment below, this article was amended on June 1 to remove an erroneous reference regarding the band Squeeze’s historical connection to The Duke.