The vibrant history of The Golden Eagle

Learn about the inspiring history of The Golden Eagle and how it became the pub we enjoy today.

Break out the bunting, because Gina Vernon and her family are celebrating 32 years at the Golden Eagle on Marylebone Lane. The pub has tradition running through it, from the red banquette seating to the gleaming etched bar back mirror, and has little time for the modern distractions of food and Sky Sports. Instead, it offers customers the warmest of welcomes, the finest cask ales and the best piano sing-a-long in town. Here, some of the staff and regulars tell us what makes their traditional family-run pub such a vibrant and tuneful part of the community. 

Interviews: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu

Portraits: Joseph Fox

Gina Vernon
The landlady

We are very lucky to have had 32 years here. It’s mind-blowing, and the years have whizzed by. The Golden Eagle hasn’t really changed much. We just serve ales and play music—and people keep coming.

We are proud to be part of Marylebone Village. A pub is the heart of the community. Some of our regulars have been coming here for more than 30 years and if they haven’t heard from somebody in a while they’ll pop in and ask if we’ve seen them—we usually have. It’s like the old days when you went to the pub to find out what’s going on.

My son Jack was born upstairs—that was a bit of a party night—and he may possibly follow in my footsteps. Jack is learning the ins and outs of the trade, has been on a cellar course and works alongside the bar staff to keep the ales in prime condition. Holly, my daughter, also worked behind the bar during her university days and still helps out on the odd occasion when we allow Jack or Gary time off.

We have a certain crowd who always come in for the sing-a-longs on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. It’s great. People walk by the pub and will hear Tony on the piano. And you can see it on their faces: “What’s going on?” And they just have to come in and then they start joining in as well. It really is a sight to behold.

I just love the Golden Eagle. If I could put my arms around the pub and give it a hug, I would. I love it. It’s our home.

Jack Plows
The landlady’s son

I was born above the pub in 1995. I can vaguely remember coming back from school in my uniform and then as I got older I began working behind the bar part-time during the evenings. I eventually went full-time and just recently became a partner. But I’m still learning the trade.

Being a freehouse gives us an advantage. We aren’t tied at all, and that allows us to be a lot more adventurous with our beers. Looking after the beer takes a lot of work. Once a week we clean all the lines coming up from the cellar and there are lots of different processes to go through before the beer is ready to be sold. There is a lot to pouring a really good pint. Beer is quite delicate and we have to make sure we serve it properly.

I love working behind the bar. Over the years I’ve got to know the regulars more and more and enjoy having a laugh and plenty of banter with them. They are a really good bunch and some have been coming here since before I was even born. Some pubs you walk in and there’s absolutely no atmosphere. But the Golden Eagle has a whole lot more character and is very different from other pubs. We are a dying breed, a proper watering hole, a proper boozer.

Gary Grimes
The barman

I have been working here since 1991, so 32 years. The cellar is the heart of the pub. Gina, Jack and I have donkey’s years of experience and we are known for serving a very good pint. People come back time and again to take a jar or two with us. We keep four cask ales, two of which are permanent—London Pride and Tribute—and two we change every month.

When I started working in cellars you had to put the 18 gallon barrels up on wooden stills—there was a knack to doing that without doing your back in. The barrels needed to be propped up with chocks to minimise waste and keep the flavour consistent, and you had to keep checking if they needed tilting. We have a hydraulic spring auto-tilt system which takes a lot of the work out of it. That’s obviously good for us, but also for the customers, because the beer will always be consistent, and there is very little waste compared to the old days.

There have been so many memorable nights at the Golden Eagle. I particularly enjoyed the evening we had with the boxer Terry Spinks. He sat in the corner signing books and autographs and had a good old chat with everyone. He really seemed to enjoy himself. A lot of people turned up for him. A few years ago the entire cast of Ashes to Ashes walked in dressed in costume after doing their final shoot.

What has the Golden Eagle given me? Headaches, false teeth, glasses, earache—put all that down—but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Tony “Fingers” Pearson
The pianist

I started playing the piano in pubs a very long time ago, but have been at the Golden Eagle for 35 years, so before Gina and her family came. Back then the pub had pianists six nights a week and I was just one of them. Pub sing-a-longs were much more common in Marylebone right up until the late 90s and I played at others including The King’s Head on Westmoreland Street and the William Wallace, as it was then, on Aybrook Street.

My main inspiration was a lady called Annie Berryman, who played piano in the Marylebone and Paddington area in the 80s and 90s. Annie was a brilliant pianist and I loved the music she played. She also had this wonderful rapport with everyone—everybody loved her.

The secret to a good sing-a-long is to make it as varied as possible. The regulars enjoy the standard songs from the 20s and 30s by the likes of Gershwin and Cole Porter right through to The Beatles, Billy Joel and some more modern stuff, and even old time music hall songs. I have no idea how many songs I know—I’ve never counted—but I’m learning new ones all the time, otherwise people would get bored. It’s the regulars who suggest them, and if I like the song I’ll learn it.

We get some extremely good singers here. Sometimes you get professionals, but it’s mainly amateurs who just love to sing. And anyone can have a go—we don’t stop anyone. After all, it’s meant to be a bit of fun. That said, if they are really dreadful we’ll perhaps move on to something they hopefully won’t know, because obviously we don’t want them to empty the pub. Unfortunately, really bad singers usually don’t know they are really bad singers.

Any famous faces? Oh God! Charles Gray, the actor who played Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, but I think that was before Gina’s time. A chap came in last week who I recognised but just couldn’t place. Then one of the regulars reminded me that he goes around Speakers’ Corner with a placard on his back that reads: “It’s only going to get worse.”

Richard Sheridan
The singing regular

I started coming to the Golden Eagle around 20 years ago. A friend had invited me to dinner at a restaurant down the road and afterwards we went looking for a place to have a drink and came across this pub. I could see it looked like a proper boozer and insisted we go inside. To my amazement people were singing songs that I used to listen to with my gran in her 70s—she was a great fan of songs from the 30s and 40s—and I thought, this is marvellous. I kept coming back to listen and eventually began to join in as I got to know more of the songs.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a good singer, but I love music and I love the songs. I think I’m a baritone. My reputation at the Golden Eagle is for being the person who likes to sing mournful songs, the songs that tweak at the heart strings or, as some might say, are just a bit miserable. But they are great songs with wonderful melodies.

I also enjoy the comic songs from the 30s and 40s. The particular song being sung when I first discovered the pub was The Marrow Song, which is full of innuendo about someone growing an enormous marrow. In a way it’s just plain rude, but actually it’s about vegetables.

Tony is incredible. He has been playing here for years and it’s in his genes the way he understands the mood of the pub and just what will get people going. He’s classically trained and has an amazing repertoire. He brings a technical excellence to it, a real beauty and feel, so it’s lovely just to listen to him play.

Singing in public is a pleasure. Singing is a primitive thing, rather like dancing. You sing in the shower when you’re happy, so it’s a natural, pleasurable thing to do. When you sing in public it still has those elements, but there’s also that communication between you and the people around, which makes it a different experience to just singing alone.

This is a very personal place where everyone is welcome to get involved. The idea of singing could be quite intimidating—and when I first came to this pub it was unimaginable to me that I might get up and have a go—but once you’ve broken down that barrier it then breaks down other barriers. It creates a more convivial, communal atmosphere and just makes people leave with a smile on their faces.

Scott Knight
The non-singing regular

I live opposite the Golden Eagle and have been a regular for about 27 years. Back then the pub was very similar to how it is now. I know Gina the landlady talks about there being a dart board here once, but otherwise I don’t think it’s really been touched by too much modernity.

A lot of the big pub companies have gone through a branding process and then a de-branding process, where they’ve taken it all away and tried to make pubs look individual and unique. But they still have that slightly Disney-esque, fake feel. Here, everything from the décor to the grisly barman is real. He’s been grisly for 30 years—he’s not faking it. And everyone is treated the same, from investment bankers to celebrities to ordinary people, and what’s really nice about that is it makes those people drop the airs and pretences. Plus, the singing is a nice leveller, because it doesn’t matter how much you earn if you can’t sing.

I’m not really a beer drinker. I’m a good old-fashioned spirits man, and it’s nice here because you get the proper mixers, the little bottles of Coca-Cola, instead of the gun. I always think that’s what messes you up rather than the alcohol.

It’s very important to have pubs like these. To me, the Golden Eagle is the heart of Marylebone. It’s a place you can go on your own and bump into someone you know or meet new people. And often two people will quickly become 20 people you know. It will be a great crowd and they’re often the best nights—the nights you don’t plan. You only popped in for one and end up getting home slightly bedraggled, yeah, but with a big smile on your face.

Follow The Golden Eagle to keep up to date with their upcoming events and guest ales: @TheGoldenEagleW1