BOB STEEL AS I KNEW HIM
I met Bob for the first time in 1979 at Wallington Boys’ Grammar School (as it was then) where he taught geography and I taught English. The school’s priorities were academic, but it tried hard to engage the boys’ extra-curricular interests and skills. Bob looked after the chess team (he had represented Southampton University at chess), and helped the school develop hockey, with surprising success, given how little he’d played himself.
He was never happier than when leading groups of boys to walk in places that he loved. (Not that the results were always instantaneous; he recalled one youth, after a brisk turn across the Pennines, standing in front of a mirror and saying ‘Oh shit; I’m still fat.’)
Bob was too energetic to be fat. In due course he became a democratic Head of Department. Various of his underlings became personal friends. He played his part in the life of the Common Room, knocking in goals for the Staff football team. Somehow while teaching a full timetable, he found time to stand as Green Party candidate in, I think, both local and national elections.
But he was always, by his own admission, a man somewhat apart. He could not at once live a teacher’s life and be all the different things he wanted to be, and he sought a way out. In about 1987, I led him, and various other Wallington staff on a beer trip to the West Midlands. In years that followed, he led loads of such trips; to Manchester, Liverpool, Yorkshire, Norwich, Kent, Sussex, the Potteries, Glasgow, Edinburgh, the North-East, Bristol, Hampshire, Amsterdam, Lille, Antwerp and Ghent, all wonderfully researched, and where possible, with beautiful walks. These attracted the interest of CAMRA, and he persuaded them to commission a series of books of beer walks, all very clear, concise and beautifully illustrated with photos he took himself. The choice of pubs and routes was always, as he would have put it, ‘pukka’. My twin and I helped him on some of his research trips. These books were updated as beer geography is constantly changing.
While CAMRA warmly encouraged this project, he was paid little to research, it being hoped he might make some money from book sales. To keep himself solvent he founded AleTrails, a firm which organised beer walks, personally led. This firm attracted steady interest from various parts of Europe, and particularly the United States. The out-of-town trips he led himself, but he often subcontracted the trips in London to my twin or myself. Though they were based as ever on his impeccable research, I have vivid recollections of such trips. We all had so much fun I had to pinch myself so that I could remember I was doing it for a job and being paid for it. And Bob made it possible. It was very sad when it became one more spinning plate than he could keep in the air.
By this time, though, he was writing the definitive historical and geographical guide to the Wandle, with the naturalist Dr Derek Coleman. To keep solvent he was doing short-term teaching contracts at schools like UCS, Fettes and Cheltenham College. He was also helping his father through the latter’s long terminal decline.
He was political to the end, giving active support to Extinction Rebellion. We had little in common in politics, and had many lively differences on the subject, but the purpose of his politics was never personal, always the betterment – as he saw it – of the world. If one asked him to justify his position on an issue, local or general, he would always do this on the basis of convincing current research, as long as the issue was geographical. He never took the step of barring from discussion or friendship those who were off his message; he was too much of a scholar for that. And he had the tact to know when to change the subject to the many things we had in common.
The local was paramount to Bob, sometimes almost claustrophobically so. He chose to centre his life, while I knew him, on the streets of the St Helier estate, where I think he was born. Discussing transport strikes, he sometimes seemed not to see why it was important for people to be able to move from one place to another. For him, bike was always an option. At the heart of his locality was his local, the Hope in Carshalton, and if you drank with him there, you had to share him with everyone else in the pub, always a lot, who had business with him. He volunteered whenever asked, however menial the job.
Though he self-consciously foreswore any trappings of distinction, yet distinguished was what he was. You could not mention the smallest settlement in England or Scotland but he was familiar with it, and knew what its pub was like.
So, a deep drink to Bob, scholar and idealist, who also gave the world the Bob Steel Beer Rip-off Measure, a home-made physical object which enabled him to compute, in a trice, the amount of money of which he was being cheated, when offered short measure. Every pub should have one.
He was good company and a loyal friend. He will be enormously missed.
Geoff Brandwood of CAMRA’s Pub Heritage Group has written the obituary for CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing. This is an extract relating to Bob’s pub heritage activities.
For most of his life Bob was based at Carshalton in south London where was an active member of CAMRA’s Croydon & Sutton Branch. He organized ‘Ale Trail’ weekends for a group to go walk and visit pubs with ideally both real ale and heritage credentials. The group usually met twice a year with Bob selecting the area and making all the arrangements. He oversaw the ordering for the Wallington Beer Festival for four years in the early 2000s and supported the GBBF by guiding Monday night volunteers’ pub walks and manning the heritage pub stand.
Bob was passionate about pub heritage and incensed by what he saw as needless and insensitive change. As a south Londoner, he was particularly angered by the radical changes wrought by Young’s brewery, so much so that he designed and produced a ‘Young’s Tour of Destruction’ t-shirt, modelled on the CAMRA-sanctioned ‘Whitbread Tour of Destruction’ brewery closure campaign of thirty years before. Here Bob paraded thirty pubs where the brewery’s savage activities dismayed him.
Editor’s note: I would endorse Rob’s comments on Bob’s books. Two are still available from the CAMRA bookshop on-line, London Walks (3rd edition) and my favourite, the Peak District (also the 3rd edition). Go here. There is a discount for CAMRA members.