What’s it named after? The Henry Grace à Dieu, launched from Woolwich Dockyard in 1512, was Henry VII’s flagship vessel, and the first to be able to fire guns from two decks. She was present at the Battle of the Solent in 1545, where the Mary Rose sank, but otherwise saw little action. One theory is that she was destroyed by fire in Woolwich (sounds familiar), another is that she was left to rot by the Thames.
What’s the carpet like?
Because there, fuelled by discounted craft beer, we talked about how there were two different versions of Catford in people’s heads.
It’s a similar story with Woolwich. But to extremes. If you’ve been in south-east London for a long time, then you may already have written Woolwich off. It’s been hit hard by industrial and economic decline, and a collapse in civic pride.
But if you’re newer, then what’s so bad? What’s the difference between here and, say, Peckham? Or Lewisham? There are new homes coming up here, riverside and open spaces, and plans to revitalise the town centre. There’s even the Hop Stuff brewery (and taproom) behind the Arsenal walls! Sure, there have been plans to Make Woolwich Great Again since at least 1983, but it’s got to work some time?
The Great Harry was burnt out during the 2011 London riots. Most of the media – even the London media – largely ignored Woolwich’s night of trauma. When locals vented their hopes and fears (“RIP Woolwich”) on the hoardings protecting the shell of the pub, the council swiftly replaced the “wall of hope” with hoardings boasting of regeneration. You can see why things are a bit screwed up here.
JD Wetherspoon took a cooler-headed view and kept faith in Woolwich. The Great Harry was reborn just 11 months later, securing 60 jobs. (The buildings over the road were boarded up before the riots and are still boarded up, creating no jobs, although this may finally change soon.)
Its reward is Woolwich in the raw – for good and bad. On the night we visit, there’s a mix of ethnicities and classes here, if a bit bloke-heavy, and everyone’s rubbing along fine.
It’s a fairly quiet night, with some older chaps at the bar. In front of the bar, there’s a mixed group where one man is intently studying everyone who comes in. Later, one of the bar staff consults with them about someone who’s been causing trouble.
“Have I told you I don’t smoke, only weed,” one woman chides a male chum as they walk downstairs from the toilet. At the foot of the stairs, some eastern European lads lounge around in some startling knitwear.
A group of young women come in – dressed up to the nines, but accompanied by a man in a tracksuit and hoodie with his arse hanging out. He looks a like an overgrown baby. They’re on the Jagerbombs, which is good work for a Monday night.
Split into two rooms, The Great Harry feels spacious – it’s not as cluttered with furniture as other Spoons have been. It takes a little while to adjust to the lighting if you’re not by the bar. It’s bright at the counter, but dimmer by the windows so you can see out, across to the Wimpy and a big screen showing BBC News to an audience of nobody.
The side room’s cosier, with artwork of Squeeze (who played early shows at the Tramshed across the square), the Woolwich Ferry and Woolwich market (as it is now, not some misty-eyed past). There’s also a display describing the Autostacker, an automatic car park opened by Princess Margaret in 1961 that refused to work properly – sadly not the last civic balls-up to disfigure Woolwich.
This isn’t really a place for Blokes On Their Own – there are no snugs to hide in. But there are a couple here, one reading the Daily Star, the other enjoying a Clive Cussler novel with a pint of lager and a bag of crisps.
The Great Harry feels more homely than its closest neighbours – Antic’s Woolwich Equitable, where the atmosphere is yet to match its amazing surroundings (the old HQ of the former building society – “we’re with the Woolwich!“), and the wretched Earl of Chatham. It’s also a damn sight cheaper than either of them – although the prices are a little higher than The Surrey Docks in Rotherhithe, probably its closest equivalent in south-east London’s Spoons. Faith in Woolwich’s economy or an attempt to deter trouble?
We’ve a soft spot for The Great Harry. It’s well-lit, cheap, and feels safe. It provides laughter in a place where smiles can be thin on the ground. And it’s a place everyone can afford – unlike some of the dull venues that have sprung up behind the walls of the Royal Arsenal.
Woolwich needs The Great Harry. And hopefully, it will still be sailing when the town finally reaches calmer waters.
Address: 7-9 Wellington Street SE18 6PQ
Buses: 51, 53, 54, 96, 99, 122, 161, 177, 178, 180, 244, 291, 380, 386, 422, 469, 472
Rail: Woolwich Arsenal (Zone 4 – Southeastern, DLR)
Social media: The Great Harry is on Twitter.