The Old Kent Road is nothing much to look at. In fact it has been like that for at least 200 hundred years, maybe more. Nevertheless, there are one or two ‘little gems’ (speaking in terms of history) that are easy to pass by due to most people keeping their eye firmly on the traffic. One of then is a perfectly normal looking pub that stands on the north side of the road, at 720 Old Kent Road, at the T-junction with Commercial Way. We are talking about the Kentish Drovers Tavern.
We will start with its name. There is only one other pub in London with this name – a modern pub in Peckham, standing on the site of an earlier pub with the same name. The name of both pubs is a reminder of the days when cattle had to be driven on main roads often leading to London. Drovers were a hardy breed of men who took the cattle from farms many miles from London – in this case from Kent – to the cattle markets in London, principally Smithfield Market on the west side of the City of London.
As they neared London, the drovers would rest the live-stock and let them graze for several days, sometimes weeks, to fatten them up after a long slow journey when most of the animals would have lost considerable weight and therefore lost some of their market value. The drovers knew of fields where the animals could rest and be fattened up before being sold at market. A short distance from the pub is a side street known as Drovers Place which originally had been fields, hired out to passing drovers to allow their animals to graze.
Although the old tavern remains standing beside the Old Kent Road, it will be noticed that it is not in very good repair. It has not been a pub under the name of Kentish Drovers since probably the 1980s and is now in use as a Thai restaurant. The pub is under the care of English Heritage who seem to do little to look after the building other than moan publicly on the Internet about the shortcomings of the tenants.
The ‘real gem’ is along the top of the front and side walls which join with a curve, forming one long flat surface. On it was painted a long and no doubt very beautiful mural depicting the Old Kent Road with cattle beside it and men on horseback riding along it. There is a milk-maid and, in the distance, is glimpsed a windmill. The painting is so high up that it is difficult to see all the details, especially as it is continuous across two walls at right-angles to each other. Sadly, the mural has been allowed to deteriorate, with large chunks of paintwork having disappeared. The overall scene, while impressive, is in a very sorry state. As you look at it, you wish you could wave a magic wand and bring the interesting mural back to life once more.
In the same way as the drovers are not likely to make an appearance again, now that meat can be transported by lorry or train to London, so this pub is unlikely to reopen in its former glory. With no real will to restore the mural it will gradually deteriorate until there will come a time when it will be almost impossible to see any of its lovingly created details.
There is a larger image (in pdf format) showing the mural in detail. Because it is almost impossible to photograph the whole mural as one continuous picture, it has been reproduced in two long sections. You can download the file to your computer by clicking on the link below.