What keeps locals returning to the great Nag’s Head?
If you ever find yourself walking down Peckham Rye lane, maybe walking past some new pubs and restaurants, you might be finding yourself at the end of the road and outside the small but mighty Nag’s Head.
Being one of Peckham’s long-standing establishments, the Nag’s holds a dear place to the heart of many who live or have lived in Peckham and surrounding areas.
Having lived in Peckham and still being a South East London resident, I would be lying if I were to say I haven’t spent endless hours in The Nag’s.
With its fairly-priced drinks, late opening hours and the lively and close knit community that fills the pub, it’s hard to not claim it as a special place to not only to myself but to Peckham.
I had a chance to sit with the man of the pub, manager and owner James Dawkins, along with members of the Nag’s families and bartenders Tate and Amy, for a closer look into the heart of the mixed community that resides in Peckham.
Along with others who have grown up in the UK, I have had my spots when it comes to pubs, but I soon realised The Nags Head isn’t your regular old boozer.
Originally called the Morning Star, the building has been standing since the 1800s, being one of the oldest on Rye Lane.
Like many spaces in Peckham, it has undergone a lot of change due to the rapid pace of change occurring in the area due to socio-economic factors not to mention the massive gentrification.
But when paying a visit to this great but small boozer, you can see certain things have not changed; same great prices, great people and a great mixture of characters.
James Dawkins started managing the establishment in May 2021, with a friend who later stopped running the pub alongside him.
He discussed the various events of the pub and the atmosphere that keeps everyone from all walks of life coming back to their favourite South East local.
James saw The Nag’s Head as an opportunity for something both traditional and different: “We saw the potential of having a place that was very competitively priced, a cheap place to go and drink in Peckham.”
This is one aspect of Nag’s that makes it the hub it is, it is an affordable establishment for folks of all walks of life. With the rise of pricey cocktail bars, the Nag’s brings great quality service at an affordable price, accommodating the working class and the student communities.
When at the Nag’s, you can expect a different atmosphere to most places in Peckham. James detailed the want for a change of atmosphere after taking over the pub.
”We wanted a place we could also play decent music and have a bit of an atmosphere along with having the great staff that all now have, all coming with a good price.” This is only one of the attributes that keeps a whole community coming back to an establishment they recognise as home.
The Nag’s Head is an establishment that comes with grand history. When in conversation with James, he details its more recent back-story: “From what I hear, it was really busy, going back to the seventies and eighties when Peckham was in full swing before it dipped off a little bit.”
He continued to discuss some of the individuals who have drank at Nag’s for decades: “There was a whole group of guys who came to Peckham in the 50s after Windrush and have been patrons of the pub ever since,” he said.
“We got guys here who are in their early 90s, one of them had their 25th birthday here and that’s amazing.” What impresses me is that the pub has kept its authenticity to the point where regulars from seventy years ago are still regular today.
Even with its older crowd of regulars who have been drinking at Nag’s for decades, the pub is most definitely inclusive and open. The pub doesn’t shy away from welcoming young people, newcomers and students. It is one of the pubs I have visited where I see beautiful interactions from people from very different generations.
James vividly recalls these interactions and what they mean to the pub and its community: “The best nights you will see a seventy five year old geezer sitting in the corner next to some 20 year-old Goldsmiths student and he’s got his skateboard on the table asking what Peckham was like in the seventies and eighties and he’s asking the student what you are doing in university, why did you come to South London?”
This interaction was most likely set in the corner of the dimly lit pub, with these two sitting on traditional English bar stools right next to the small bar.
This is another aspect to what makes The Nag’s head so familiar and homely to its regulars and pub lovers.
He further elaborated on how the space of the pub enables these extraordinary interactions between individuals who may not have met if it wasn’t for The Nag’s Head.
“Because we are so small, people end up sharing tables. So that is another thing, everyone is kind of cramped together; there’s not really an opportunity to segregate or separate. It feels like a mad house party, everyone knows each other.”
The mix of characters and age demographics is certainly a reason I love spending time at this place. Along with the community and the tight space that lets everyone integrate, the relationship with pub goers and the staff is something you will not find everywhere.
From what I have seen while at the pub, the staff and regulars, of all ages, seem to have a bond where they truly look out for each other. James observed “It’s also the way regulars interact with the staff, the staff here are amazing. There is a sense of family with everyone who works here.”
He further went on to describe the length regulars go to to truly thank the staff that serve them drinks “One of the girls who studies illustration was gifted a pair canvases by one of the old boys. It’s another thing I think used to happen in pubs, people used to look out for each other.”
I truly believe a big part of Nag’s is the community. In a city where loneliness and isolation feels almost normal, going to your local pub and feeling at home can change everything, especially if you are far from home. I had conversed with two employees and members of the community for a deeper look into their experience and the chaotic beauty of the establishment.
When I had asked musician and bartender Tate how he would describe the pub he said “Well, £3.85 for a pint of Guinness says it all really, best pub in the world!”
Another member of the team, bartender and art director Amy described the pub as “social, tight-knit, friendly, laidback and authentic”. As someone who visits the pub often, I couldn’t agree more.
Amy cherishes the memories of the pleasantly noisy pub event and football games: “I love whenever there is a big football game on, one of my absolute favourite memories was when Newcastle (my team) beat PSG 4-1 in the Champions League, ended up getting mortally drunk after my shift.”
Tate also commented on the diversity of patrons in the pub and what that has meant to him during his time working at Nag’s.
“There are so many locals and regulars, young and old, born and raised in the area or moved here for university or work. I have made some good friends, some for life and got the chance at this pub to meet people whom I would have never met otherwise.”
Tate continues to relish his interaction with the community that the pub has created “You can almost guarantee you’ll bump into at least one person you know if you just rock up on any given day, and if you’re friendly with the staff then there’s literally always a homie there.”
It’s impossible to say The Nag’s Head isn’t a special place in Peckham. Even through the changes to the area, the pub seems to keep a quality that many fear might be lost due to gentrification.
With its affordable drinks, the old boys, the new kids, spectacular team and its house party like atmosphere, you simply cannot go wrong with this classic boozer.
If you find yourself rather thirsty in Rye Lane, be sure to stop for a drink and a good chat.
Featured image by Lena Teshome