It sits alone.
At once alluring but also brazen like a Bond villain. Under twilight it could be in a Hitchcock movie, dominating the landscape as the Bates Motel does its Californian corner. Although if painted in pastel yellow and pink the façade’s symmetry might be reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, provided Bill Murray was in laconic shot.
The cinematic concept of mis en scene describes the artistic arrangement of the background, props, lighting etc on a film set, and is relevant here. Making a westward crossing of the eponymous bridge there’s no adjacent buildings, and the dusty car park surrounds it like a dry moat. I’m immediately struck by the frontier psychology at play.
Architecturally, the context is that the only pub on the Port River, the Birkenhead Tavern, is itself utterly decontextualized.
It’s a remarkable site (and sight).
In the Riverview bar I’m agog at the water and blue light. The panoramic sweep includes the river, red lighthouse, Dolphin Explorer cruising ferry (unfortunately not captained by Flipper), and idle sheds and docks.
A fierce southerly rushes the river past at a decent clip. Occasionally, king tides flood the pub forcing it to stand amid the lapping waves like a rebellious Atlantis.
On this, my biennial visit, I’m at a table in the racing corner, but looking out. The bar’s busy with burly high-vis chaps and retirees and burly high-vis retiree chaps. It’s Happy Hour and I order a Pale Ale ($5.50).
Suddenly, there’s scattered outbursts as a roughie gets up in the last at Queanbeyan. A wizened, skinny bloke barks, “It’s won at $97!” This spurs further eruptions, but these are only monologues from embittered punters. There’s no conversation, just forlorn observation.
“I can’t bloody believe it,” a bearded fellow accuses his West End Draught stubby.
“You’re joking,” murmurs another to an uncaring, inattentive divinity.
Pubs can be solitary spaces, especially for the fiscally anguished.
In the Port’s narrative this boozer has been a compelling character, since the days when it was a local for workers who caught the ferry across the river after work, and also when the upstairs light was flicked on and off signalling that the constabulary should slip in the darkened door for their nocturnal beer.
Publicans and wallopers have long shared murky relationships, as at least locally, policing the Port and guarding against illegal trading is traditionally thirsty work. Beyond an arresting location and a clutch of exotic punters what does the Birkenhead Tavern offer?
A poster tells me there’s live music with an endless line of Sunday strummers, many of whom, of course, are called Josh. On the front lawns eager anglers can seduce bream and mulloway but there’s no outdoor sink at the pub to gut your catch.
Meanwhile the pub’s website features multiple photos of Port Power footballers but as these are without a caption, I’m unsure if they’re on the menu with chips, coleslaw and complimentary garlic bread, or that you might simply enjoy one with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
Unsurprisingly, the cuisine is described as pub, and I also note steak and ale pie on the special’s (sic) board, reminding me of when our newlywedded friends Brett and Trish were in Dublin, and Steak and Guinness pie was on offer. Ever polite, Brett asked the bar staff, “So, what’s in the Steak and Guinness pie?”
The young Irish fellow gazed at, and perhaps beyond Brett, and tonelessly mumbled, “Steak,” and blinking once, added, “Guinness.”